Biased Newsrooms Risk Losing Female Staff, Readers

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Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–The newspaper industry’s lackluster commitment to gender diversity in newsroom leadership is likely to be harming its efforts to build readership. Readers indicate they want more balanced news coverage and like broader definitions of what constitutes news–and as it turns out, that is the type of news women in newsrooms are more likely to produce.

Readers weary of the “if it bleeds, it leads” news formula would be interested to know thatnewspapers with a high percentage of women in managerial positions tend to report more positive news and those with a low percentage of women editorial managers tend to report more negative news, according to new study, by Stephanie Craft and Wayne Wanta of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

However, the number of women in top editor positions at major U. S. newspapers (those with circulations greater than 85,000) has declined over the last two years, to 20 percent in 2002 from 25 percent in 2000, according to Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. Many women appear more pessimistic than ever about their advancement into top jobs in newsrooms.

This could spell big trouble for newspapers. It’s likely that if women’s representation in key newsroom positions stalls or declines, so will reader satisfaction.

A survey from 2001 made public by the Media Management Center’s Readership Institute showed that certain types of content have a greater potential to make readers read more. At the top of the list is “intensely local, people-centered news, which includes stories about ordinary people,” and lifestyle news–the positive material surveys find is associated with the presence of women newsroom managers.

Women Managers More Likely to Give Bias-Free Assignments to Reporters

Furthermore, Craft and Wanta’s analysis of nearly 1,400 articles from 30 daily newspapers found that male and female reporters covered a similar agenda of issues if they worked for a newspaper with a large number of women in managerial positions. However, if they worked for a paper with a low number of women newsroom managers, there was likely to be a skewed pattern in assignments, with males more often covering politics and females more likely to cover education and human-interest features. “Male-dominated newsrooms, thus, rewarded male reporters with important hard-news beats while female reporters covered softer, more featurized stories,” Craft and Wanta said.

This isn’t just a “who’s-on-first” competition for journalists. It’s a question of what serves the reader best, and differences in opportunity in assignments for reporters (and the editors they report to) directly affects what readers take away from their newspaper reading.

Cory Armstrong of the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed 900 articles from 18 daily newspapers and found that the gender of a reporter was a good predictor of the gender of the sources who get attention and emphasis within a story. For example, male reporters would rely more on male sources and place them higher in the story than female sources. This, and Armstrong’s finding that the overall incidence of male newspaper mentions was nearly three times that of females, led her to conclude that “men are given a higher public status by newspapers than women . . . “

“Stories featuring males–stories in which males are identified within the story in the headline or first paragraph–were more likely to appear on the front page and on the top of the lifestyle page,” Armstrong noted. “Women were generally identified later in the story than men when the stories appeared on the front page or the lifestyle page.” The representation of females, she added, “is dependent on the absence of males within the story.” The author of the study does not say this, but it seems quite possible, that women readers might like news articles that feature other women–their views in quotes, up high in the story.

This impact of women executives in the newsroom–women and men reporters sharing similar assignments–will be lost if senior newswomen leave the newspaper industry in the numbers they expect to.

More bad news, for newspapers though. Just 1 in 5 of the nation’s top female editors say they definitely want to move up in the newspaper industry, according to a study released this fall by the American Press Institute and The Pew Center for Civic Journalism. In contrast, almost 1 out of 2 said they expected to leave their company or the news business entirely, far more than the 1 in 3 men who say they want to move up or change careers. According to the study, which covered 40 percent of the newsroom leaders at U. S. daily newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or more, 64 percent of all women who consider their opportunity blocked identify management’s preference for men as standing in their way.

Newspaper readership is declining among both women and men, but is lower among women, who have dwindled to less than half–48.6 percent–of newspaper readers. It’s time to confront what is keeping newspapers from retaining their readers–and their women editors.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly newsletter of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism (Second Edition), published this summer by Strata Publishing, Inc.

For more information:

Newspaper Association of America–
Daily Newspaper Readership Trends:
http://www.naa.org/marketscope/databank/tdnpr1988.htm

American Press Institute–
“Survey: Many Women in Newsroom Mgmt.
Looking to Change Jobs or Leave Industry”:
http://www.americanpressinstitute.org/news.cfm?id=745

Media Management Center:
http://www.mediamanagementcenter.org/

Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication–
“Commission on the Status of Women 2002
Miami Beach Convention Paper Abstracts”:
http://www.aejmc.org/convention/2002convabs/women02.html


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