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.

And this growing sphere of opinion has become more varied and vibrant in some respects: Townsley’s research shows that as there has been an enormous proliferation of opinion formats, there has also been an increasing diversity of the speakers opining in them—in terms of profession. In the past professional writers and journalists used produce a far greater share of opinion content; now op-eds and punditry come increasingly from experts in particular fields like government, science and economics.

Yet, these changes have failed to translate to demographic diversity at the top in the nation’s most influential opinion space; instead they have ushered in the gender gaps that exist in other elite segments of society: among the tenured faculty, politicians, business executives, and think tank types who write opinion pieces. In other words, more than becoming less white or less male in recent decades, the pundit class has become more diverse only in the sense of being less journalist.

What kind of diversity really matters?

This picture of the pundit’s new prominence in American media raises broader questions than about the rate at which women’s thoughts appear on the LA Times op-ed page. It’s a matter of which ideas and whose voices are driving debate and shaping public opinion.

“The OpEd section should make you think, challenge your assumptions, be well written, well argued, but beyond that it should make the reader feel that their opinions are represented there,” says Richard Prince, Diversity Committee chair of the Association of Opinion
Journalists, who also writes a diversity column for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “All those reasons are reasons for diversity.”

Every editor I talked with told me diversity matters, the question of how to achieve diversity and what that really means on op-ed pages remains an open question.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.