Are women underrepresented in news coverage?
News leaders regularly discuss and scrutinize their news agencies’ work to gauge how well it reflects the diversity of the communities they cover. Journalists often are encouraged to seek an array of perspectives and interview sources representing a variety of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. A number of journalism-related organizations offer workshops and guidance aimed at helping reporters engage diverse communities and better represent these communities via multimedia platforms that include photos and video.
But is the same attention given to news agencies’ coverage of women — a group that often is underrepresented in media accounts despite the fact that women make up slightly more than half of the U.S. population? From a global perspective, there is evidence of significant gender gaps in news content. The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), a grassroots monitoring, research and advocacy project, has released several reports highlighting a worldwide disparity. Data from the GMMP show that in 2010, women made up only 24 percent of the people heard, read about or seen in the news. A report the organization released in 2015 indicates that the number remains unchanged. Academic research offers additional insight. Multiple studies, including a 2013 study published in Communication & Sport, have focused on differences in the media’s coverage of women’s sports. A 2011 study by a political sociologist at Purdue University looks at patterns of “gendered reporting” and how these patterns played out in the reporting of Sarah Palin’s 2008 bid for vice president of the United States.
Some media scholars, leaders and observers think part of the problem is a shortage of women in newsroom leadership positions. That means decisions about news content are made primarily by male editors. In 2015, women made up 35.3 percent of newspaper supervisors, according to the American Society of News Editors. Disparities persist in other areas of newsroom staffing, including editorial board representation. A 2014 report from the Women’s Media Center found that “64 percent of bylines and on-camera appearances went to men at the nation’s top 20 TV networks, newspapers, online news sites and news.”
Scholars from McGill University and Stony Brook University took an in-depth look at the reasons women receive less media coverage than men. The authors say their research, published in October 2015 in the American Sociological Review, is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the factors that explain this imbalance. They also state that they are the first to test whether the gender of news professionals has a significant impact on how men and women are treated in news reports. For the study, “A Paper Ceiling: Explaining the Persistent Underrepresentation of Women in Printed News,” the five authors performed a computerized analysis of the coverage rates of millions of female and male names in 13 major newspapers in the U.S. between 1983 and 2008, and in about 2,000 English-language newspapers and online news websites between 2004 and 2009. They matched that data with information collected about the gender of editors and top executives at some of the news agencies that were involved in the study.
Key findings include:
- An analysis of content in 13 major U.S. newspapers between 1983 and 2008 found that about 40 percent of all coverage went to 1 percent of the names. People who received thousands of mentions were almost only male.
- Male names received at least four times as much exposure as female names in the 13 major U.S. newspapers that were analyzed.
- When looking at data collected from the approximately 2,000 English-language newspapers and online news websites, the ratio is nearly 5:1.
- Inequities in media coverage are due largely to social realities and everyday societal inequalities. One of the primary reasons women are underrepresented in news articles is that they are underrepresented in key power positions in areas such as politics, business, entertainment and sports.
- Media coverage patterns also play a key role in the disparity. News agencies give the most attention to a small number of people who dominate the top of occupational and social hierarchies.
- The gender of news professionals does not appear to make much difference in how often women appear in news articles. When the study’s authors compared the content of news sections that were overseen by male and female editors, they found “very small” differences.
- Simply having a female publisher or a female executive editor at a newspaper was not enough to noticeably increase its coverage of women.
- Liberal and conservative newspapers and male and female editors are all significantly more likely to cover male names.
The study suggests that as long as the individuals who hold the most powerful positions remain overwhelmingly male, journalists have a limited ability to make substantial changes in how often women appear in news reports. The authors also note that while this study analyzed the representation of female names from a quantitative standpoint, it did not look into the ways women are portrayed or the roles they play in news articles. Previous research has suggested that women are often mentioned as wives or mothers of well-known figures instead of the main sources of news. “Considering this tendency, the ratios of newspaper articles that actually focus on women and their independent actions and ideas may in fact be even lower than the ratios found in the present study,” the authors state.
Related research: A 2011 study published in Media, Culture & Society, “Women and News: A Long and Winding Road,” explores women’s representation as news actors, sources and journalists in the news media. A 2012 study by a communications scholar at the University of Washington, “Is She ‘Man Enough’? Women Candidates, Executive Political Offices, and News Coverage,” examines news coverage of four female political candidates — Elizabeth Dole, Claire McCaskill, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin — and their male competitors in elections between 1999 and 2008.
Keywords: gender bias, gender gap, women in news, newsroom culture, media monitoring, news content, gender norms, gender identity, mixed-gender, gender congruence, gendered news coverage, inequality
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Read the Nieman Reports article titled "Where Are the Women?”
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled "A Paper Ceiling: Explaining the Persistent Underrepresentation of Women in Printed News.”
- What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?