Commentary: Women in the News
Newsworthy should be as gender-neutral a term as the word reporter. Sadly, although women have flooded the field of journalism, the folks who decide who and what should be covered are still working out of a testosterone-soaked playbook.
A report released Monday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism tells a tale most everyone in journalism knows and few do anything about: "The Gender Gap: Women Are Still Missing as Sources for Journalists" documents once again how rarely women -- ordinary women as well as those who are in leadership positions -- make it into the news.
The study found that more than three-quarters of all news stories contain male sources, while only one-third of stories contain even a single female source. The researchers examined over 16,800 news stories across 45 different media outlets during 20 randomly selected days over nine months, and the disparity held true across newspapers, network news and the online world.
Here are just some of the report's findings.
- The only place where women were a source in more than half the news stories was in the lifestyle section.
- The subject women were least likely to be cited on was foreign affairs.
- Only 14 percent of the stories on the front page of the sports section cited a woman, versus 86 percent that contained at least one male source.
- On network television, the morning news programs, which often cover lighter fare, relied more on female sources than the evening programs.
- On the most in-depth nightly news show -- "The NewsHour" on PBS -- stories were three and a half times as likely to rely on a male source as a female source.
These findings support the views expressed by many female journalists: news organizations rely on a recipe for news and those stories rarely use women as sources, except in the most retro-stereotypical manner.
Moreover, the report's release comes on the heels of March's intense, industry-wide conversation about the percentage of women featured on op-ed pages: The Los Angeles Times had 20 percent; The New York Times had 17 percent (before Maureen Dowd went on book leave as was replaced with a guy) and The Washington Post a mere 10 percent, as reported by Michele Weldon in Women's eNews.
The study is new -- in that it is industry-wide -- but its findings are similar to other research that has asked the gender question.
However and whenever the data has been gathered, the facts remain basically the same, even though women have been the majority in journalism schools since 1977 and have filled a majority of entry-level journalism jobs for decades now.
Many believe that the industry's failure to include ample women in the news and on the op-ed pages is linked to its failure to promote women to management: Only about one-third or fewer of the top managers throughout the news industry are female. Moreover, when female middle managers are asked about their future, two-thirds say they will leave the newsroom because they saw no chance for advancement because they believed their gender would hold them back.
How could news organizations do better? Most news organizations send reporters where the guys are: the police, fire, military, city councils, state legislatures, governor mansions, Congress and the White House.
To include women, media need to expand their vision of news.
One example: In March, Allison Stevens, a Women's eNews reporter, sat in a Supreme Court hearing on a case that had enormous significance to U. S. women. At issue was whether police could be sued if they absolutely refuse to enforce a restraining order against a violent spouse. The woman who brought the case is a mother of three murdered children -- killed by her ex-husband during the hours she had made repeated calls to her local police department begging them to intervene.
If you read Stevens' report you know that Justice Antonin Scalia was openly sarcastic and even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was publicly doubtful about the validity of the mother's arguments.
If you relied on other news media, you would have known nothing about what happened that day at the High Court; There was total silence about an issue that profoundly affects whether hundreds of thousands of women and children in the United States will live in jeopardy or peace.
If other media covered the advocates seeking to reduce domestic violence as well as they do law enforcement agencies, they would have been in court that day too, had a hell of a story, served their readers and bumped their "women cited as source" statistics up a bit.
Rita Henley Jensen is a prize-winning investigative reporter and founder of the independent news service Women's eNews.