Don’t posit ‘what women think’ without quoting any

Coverage of Ann Romney's RNC speech said she connected with women, but no female voices in the stories verified the claim

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Immediately after Ann Romney’s speech to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, some major media outlets reported the GOP plan had worked: Ann Romney connected with women.

Why did they think that was the case? A male Republican strategist told them so.

Reuters, discussing Romney’s success with this connection, first quoted a male delegate and then quoted Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, who said, “This is a real woman who convincingly talked about their ‘real marriage’ in a way that was unquestionably appealing to women everywhere.”

It is not until three paragraphs from the end of a 26-paragraph piece that the article quoted a woman, Anita McBride. She’s the former chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush and currently an executive-in-residence at American University, where she specializes in the role of US first ladies. But McBride didn’t say whether or not Romney connected with women, at least in the quote; instead, she noted that Romney was “forced to expose a little more because people are trying to connect [to her].”

The Los Angeles Times fell into the same trap. In its article about whether Ann Romney’s speech connected with women voters, the first quote is also from a male, in this case Republican strategist Mark McKinnon:

I can’t think of a thing she could have done any better. Her job was to humanize her husband, and it was hard to watch that speech and not come away with a better impression of Mitt Romney. She gave him dimension and compassion. And made him real. She connected. Big time.

But the woman quoted next, Rutgers political scientist Susan Carroll, said she wasn’t sure that Ann Romney’s warmth was enough, and doesn’t comment on whether she connected with female voters. “She comes across as very likable, very real. But the challenge for the campaign is that her husband doesn’t,” Carroll said.

Both stories are missing a critical piece: an interview with a female delegate on the floor, or heck, any ordinary Republican/independent/on-the-fence female voter. If the story reporters want to tell is that Ann Romney succeeded in connecting with women voters, then we need to hear from a woman voter who felt that connection.

In fact, though both articles quote women, neither quotes them saying that women gained that Romney connection. Only men seem to believe that women felt that way. This is ridiculous. In fact, why are men quoted at all in this article about women? Are there no female Republican strategists? In the entire country?

This absence of women’s voices from media is a pervasive problem, as the June report from the 4th Estate Project made clear. In analyzing six months worth of news stories from November 2011 to May 2012, the project discovered that women “are significantly underrepresented in 2012 election coverage in major media outlets… . men are more likely to be quoted on their subjective insight in newspapers and on television.”

How much more likely? A 4th Estate update in July noted that the numbers of women quoted in the media had gone up since the original study—to 15 percent (from a dismal 13 percent over the previous six months). Men were quoted 74 percent of the time. That is still an enormous gap.

Two outlets show us how this story could have been done better. On The New York Times’s Caucus blog, one post simply gave a descriptive explanation of Ann Romney’s speech and observed the crowd’s response. There are no reaction quotes, no spin, no story about what the speech may or may not have achieved. The story tells us all we need to know without imposing a questionable narrative.

And NBC news, in a quick throw to the floor on Tuesday night, also discussed the crowd’s response, making it clear that correspondent Luke Russert had actually talked with female delegates and gotten their reaction (“poetic,” one told him). That NBC story was the first inkling I had that the “women felt connected to Ann Romney after her speech” narrative might actually be true.

That’s all that stories about Ann Romney’s speech—and similar stories—need: a response from the actual people the story is talking about. If we’re going to shape a narrative about the way one group of people feels about something, we need to get a quote from at least one person in that group saying that he or she indeed feels that way.

When we’re talking about Latinos, we need to quote Latinos. Not just white, talking-head experts discussing what they think Latinos might be feeling. When we’re talking about African Americans, we need to quote African Americans.

And when we’re talking about women voters, we need to quote women voters. Not “experts on women voters,” but actual women voters. They shouldn’t be that hard to find. After all, they’re over half of the electorate.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , , ,