But while women’s opinions were better represented in digital media, they were more than twice as likely to focus on “pink topics”—the “four F’s” (family, food, furniture, fashion), plus women’s and gender issues—than in the traditional media, where about 14 percent of women’s op-eds were “pink.” These statistics suggest a silo effect online, with writers speaking more frequently to like-minded (or like-bodied) individuals—a concern that has been much lamented within the political media landscape, but less so with regards to gender, race, and class. This development would seem to hark back to the days of the “ladies pages”; while there is nothing wrong with women writing on “pink topics,” it’s the relative lack of women’s voices on non-pink topics like the economy and politics online that is problematic.
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Other studies have produced similarly mixed results. A byline tally by GOOD released in the wake of the VIDA count found women had higher contribution rates in publications “for the next generation,” or those which Good described as “magazines and websites Millennials write and read”.
Conventional wisdom has it that social media, the ever more heralded tool for journalists of the next generation, will, because it’s social, actually skew feminine. Blogs are more likely to be written by women, and Facebook and Twitter users are more likely to be female. But while women dominate these platforms in numbers, they are less likely to drive conversation with them.
Take for example findings from The Gender Report, an organization that monitors gender in online media: a year-long study found that women had bylines on 19.6 percent of the most-linked and discussed stories. Women were also less likely to be sources in these most discussed stories: only 19 percent of sources were female, and 35 percent of stories had no female sources at all (perhaps more troublingly, 30.4 percent of the stories had no sources at all.)
Twitter, the platform that is all about putting one’s voice and opinions out there, also appears to suffer a gender gap. A Harvard Business School study published in 2009 found women on Twitter have 15 percent fewer followers than men. Men were twice as likely to follow a man than a woman, and even women were 25 percent more likely to follow a man.
The Rise of Opinion
These statistics from the media frontier are interesting, but a pair of sociologists suggest the incremental growth in the women’s commentariat in traditional media is far more significant. Their argument: Despite the rise of new media, traditional media remains most influential in shaping public opinion and setting the national and broader news agendas.
Eleanor Townsley with her co-author Ronald Jacobs make this point in their book, The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere, arguing that because of the trickle-down nature of the new news landscape—mainstream conversation becomes fodder for new media conversation— television commentaries and the op-ed pages of elite newspapers are “increasingly central to the large and densely networked public sphere.”
In other words, opinion in the legacy media is more amplified and influential than ever.
At the same time, as media budgets and reporting staffs have shrunk, opinion is more abundant than ever across the media landscape. Look no further than television, where lower-cost punditry has largely replaced reported video pieces or to the news wires—Bloomberg and Reuters both recently expanded into opinion. The New York Times has also bulked up its opinion offerings online and in the Sunday paper.
“Opinion has become much more important,” Townsley told me. She and Jacobs argue that though this shift has arisen in part on the back of journalism’s troubled business model and the decline in investigative journalism, the media’s (much maligned) expansion into opinion, is not necessarily a bad thing, but in fact, a very American thing—the means to a more varied and vibrant public sphere.