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Multi-Media Tune-Out: Ignoring Female Expertise

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

We all know by now that women get overlooked and ignored as sources for news. What we didn't realize until this week's study, says Sheila Gibbons, is how consistent the problem is across all news media.

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We all know by now that women get overlooked and ignored as sources for news. What we didn't realize until this week's study, says Sheila Gibbons, is how consistent the problem is across all news media.
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Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)--Women continue to be underrepresented as news sources.

No news there.

But a study released Monday tells us what we couldn't really be sure of before this: That when it comes to including women, there are no good guys. Whether in newspapers, on Web or TV, women as people with authoritative views on the world are neither seen nor heard.

The failure to include women's perspectives holds across all news media, according to "The Gender Gap: Women Are Still Missing as Sources for Journalists," released May 23 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

There are some circumstances under which women stand a better chance of being treated as though they have brains to be picked.

Women are most likely to be included as sources if the story being reported is a "lifestyle" piece, as opposed to hard news, business or sports, or if the reporter is female.

In newspapers, female sources are more likely if an article is longer than 1,000 words (increasingly rare given most newsrooms' strained resources) and if the newspaper is a large-circulation daily.

In television, female sources are more likely if it's a morning interview program devoted to light features and entertainment.

Treated as Non-Entities

Then there are the circumstances under which women are pretty much treated as non-entities.

A woman is least likely to be cited as a source if the news program is on a cable network or PBS' "NewsHour" or if the story is about sports.

Women are also least likely to be quoted in stories about foreign affairs, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

Given that foreign policy and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dominated news coverage in the last several years, it's easy to see that failing to include women as sources in that coverage would dramatically reduce their presence in the news, and block our perception of them as people with ideas and expertise.

The study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, examined 16 newspapers from a range of circulation categories, four nightly newscasts (commercial networks and PBS), three network morning news shows, nine different cable programs, and nine Web sites at four different times during the day for nine months. Three quarters (76 percent of all stories studied contained at least one male source. Just a third (33 percent) contained a female source.

The sourcing gender gap worsens as the number of sources in a story goes up. Reporters were more than three times as likely to cite two or more males within a news story as to cite at least two females (55 percent vs. 15 percent).

"This suggests that the orientation towards males goes beyond the primary source in a story," the report said. "Finding a male as the best first source does not apparently lead a journalist to look for a female as the second or third source."

Yikes. Not even an also-ran.

Trend Lines Going Down

The trend lines in this study seem to be heading down.

Cable networks, which favor men as sources, are drawing off viewers from the commercial networks, which use female source somewhat more often.

Foreign affairs news, where women are nearly invisible as sources, is likely to remain important for years to come. And the number of female journalists, who are more likely to quote women as sources, is not increasing. Nor are female journalists staying in the profession as long as men.

What is disheartening, even outrageous, is how long this problem has persisted.

The warning signs of involving women and men differently in news coverage have been well documented for years.

Beginning in 1989, Women, Men and Media, headed by Betty Friedan and the late Gannett and Freedom Forum executive, Nancy Woodhull, initiated a series of studies that looked at a media coverage involving women. They consistently found women to be fewer than a fourth of mentions on the front pages of newspapers, and often of a lower socioeconomic status than male sources. In a 2000 study of news coverage of the military, Women, Men and Media found that civilian experts and politicians commenting on military stories almost never were women.

In 1989, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles looked at television coverage of women in sports and found that men's sports received 92 percent of airtime, with female spectators often the target of male newscasters' jokes.

Studies by The White House Project, which has compared coverage of men and women running for political office, found that women's authority as leaders is often undermined by gender disparities in coverage of women, including the low numbers of women interviewed on political talk shows.

These and many others, along with task forces inside news organizations themselves, have audited sourcing of women and all have found it wanting.

Later this year, the Global Media Monitoring Project will release the results of its third worldwide survey conducted Feb. 16, in which volunteers from more than 70 countries took a "snapshot" of news media to study the representation of women and men. It would be a miracle if that report looks much different from the one just released this week.

Dozens of Discussions

Over the years I've sat in on dozens of discussions on why this is a problem. Often, the discussants are preaching to the choir. It has always been difficult to get the senior, male managers into the room and around the table to hear the context of the discussion.

Instead, they generally dispatch a "diversity" expert from their organizations, who usually is already well versed on the problem and, essentially, joins the ranks of the already convinced.

And then there are those who just don't believe this is a problem.

They insist that sources are chosen for their expertise and prominence, and that reporters will go for the most prestigious, authoritative source possible, regardless of that person's gender.

If that is always true, I would argue that even more women should be sourced than actually are being sourced.

Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a case in point. I don't see her quoted as often as many of the junior windbags with whom she works and not nearly as often as one would expect, given her senior leadership position.

Consider the density of journalism produced in the discussion of reproductive rights and abortion. Even though men aren't the ones to get pregnant, chances are that most of the stories that you read on this issue quote guys as primary sources. Now that reproductive rights are a political football, politicians, the majority of whom are male, are grabbing at it and trying to control how it gets handled.

Or take a gender-neutral subject, such as health or science or space exploration. There are many female senior scientists working in these areas. Why don't we see them more often or hear from them more often?

It can't be just that men are more prominent and authoritative on all subjects outside of home and Hollywood.

It can't be that all the newsroom coaching on diversity has fallen on deaf ears. It has to be something else.

It could be that to the people in charge of newsrooms, the majority of them men, it just doesn't matter.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal 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," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

 

 

For more information:

Project for Excellence in Journalism--
The Gender Gap: Women Are Still Missing As Sources for Journalists
May 23, 2005:
http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/gender/default.asp

Global Media Monitoring Project 2005:
http://www.globalmediamonitoring.org

The White House Project--
Research Overview:
http://www.thewhitehouseproject.org/research/index.html