AFTER THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES approved a revised American Health Care Act, several stories scrutinized the legislation and the gender of those officials who developed it.
Fortune noted that the health law “hurts moms, rape survivors, and poor women.” At Vox, in a piece headlined “The AHCA punishes women,” senior health correspondent Julia Belluz noted that female elected officials “tend to prioritize health in their legislation and elevate women’s health issues.” News sites posted a photo taken at a gathering of Republican representatives, held in the Rose Garden after the AHCA passed the House, and CNN pointed out that the only figures clearly visible in the photo are white men. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell added West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito to a committee convened to further advance the AHCA legislation, but only after a few news outlets noted the 13-person committee consisted exclusively of white men.
Those observations, however, come from an industry struggling with gender inequality.
Men are overrepresented in topics most significant to women.
In March, the Women’s Media Center released “The Status of Women in US Media 2017,” its annual report to assess “how a diversity of females fare across all media platforms.” The study found that men outnumber women both in bylines and as sources in stories.
Men don’t just shape legislation that impacts women’s health, according to Julie Burton, WMC president. They also shape much of the coverage of issues that directly affect women: Male authors represent “over 52 percent of bylined articles and opinion pieces about reproductive rights in the 12 most widely circulated newspapers and wire services,” Burton tells CJR via email. Roughly 37 percent are attributable to female authors, and the remainder appear without bylines.
“Men are overrepresented in topics most significant to women,” writes Burton. She adds that men still dominate the media, and remain resistant to sharing power and creating opportunity for women.
Journalism’s gender problem, however, looks a bit different outside male-dominated print and TV news. Online-only news outlets have come much closer to achieving gender balance, and a few journalism fellowships have made strides to better support female journalists.
FOR ITS REPORT, THE WOMEN’S MEDIA CENTER analyzed bylines, on-camera anchor and correspondent appearances, and TV producer credits during a three-month period last fall. News operations assessed by the center include broadcast news from the three major networks and PBS, major online news sites including CNN, Fox News, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, and 10 of the most widely circulated news dailies—among them, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today.
Men report 78 percent of broadcast news, according to the report. There are few exceptions. (PBS NewsHour’s newsroom employs 59 women to 55 men; female anchors at Cheddar, a live and on-demand video news network, outnumber males four to three.)
Neither male nor female reporters sought out or interviewed female sources in proportion to the general population.
Women fared better in print news, according to the report, but not by much: men produced 62 percent of content. By beat, the greatest gender disparity was in sports journalism, where only 11 percent of reporters were female. While health, education, and lifestyle stories were more likely to be covered by female reporters, just 34 percent of domestic political coverage was attributable to women. Thus far, much of the national health care debate has been covered by political reporters; statistics from the Women’s Media Center would suggest that most coverage of the AHCA and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act is written by men.
The WMC assessment is not unique. Every five years since 1995, Global Media Monitoring Project, which is run by a Toronto-based NGO, has collected data about gender in the news. Its most recent study, from 2015, showed that gender disparity in news had barely budged from five years earlier, when just 37 percent of print, television and radio news stories were reported by women.
The same study found a “statistically significant gender difference” between sources cultivated by female and male reporters. In stories reported by female journalists, 29 percent of the sources were women; male reporters interviewed women sources 26 percent of the time. Neither male nor female reporters sought out or interviewed female sources in proportion to the general population.
AS THE NUMBERS OF JOURNALISTS EMPLOYED in and out of newsrooms have declined—and are projected to decline further—some news outlets have supplemented their staffs with freelancers. One might hope that an influx of new contributors could help combat gender disparity in newsrooms. But that comes with a caveat.
“Media outlets are cutting our rates,” says Hazel Becker, chair of the SPJ Freelance Community. Becker is concerned about the economic viability of freelancing as a career choice. Freelance journalists aren’t going to be able to survive, she says, if media companies turn to them for cheap labor because the industry is shrinking.
Linda Steiner, a professor at the Philip Merrill School of Journalism at the University of Maryland, studies the relationships between gender, journalism and newsrooms. For some women, Steiner says, freelance work “fits with home and family responsibilities.”
Women comprise nearly 50 percent of online-only news organization employees, compared to just 38 percent of daily newspaper staffs.
If the demographics of freelance journalists skew female, however, there is little more than anecdotal evidence to support that point. Staff for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a New York-based association of nonfiction freelance writers and journalists, estimate that 65 percent of the organization’s approximately 1,200 members are female. Meanwhile, the Society of Professional Journalists has roughly 7,000 members, but does not collect data about gender. The most recent survey from the American Society of News Editors did not account for freelancers or other independent journalists.
However, the ASNE survey also included a promising statistic: women comprise nearly 50 percent of online-only news organization employees, compared to just 38 percent of daily newspaper staffs.
“There is speculation that those [online-only] organizations do a better job recruiting and retaining women,” says Teri Hayt, the executive director of the American Society of News Editors, via email. “But that is all we have on that right now—speculation, no hard data.”
A few online-only news outlets focused on women have attracted funding and support from legacy media companies. The Skimm—a daily weekday news digest with five million active subscribers and funding from 21st Century Fox and The New York Times—was founded in 2012 by Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, both of whom previously worked for NBC. There’s also Mic.com, which receives support from venture capital firms as well as Time Warner Investments. Mic hosts a channel called Slay, which publishes “news, views and ammunition for”—and almost entirely by—“strong women.” Allison Goldberg, group managing director and senior vice president for Time Warner Investments, will reportedly join Mic’s board of directors. Time Warner Investments also funds Bustle, a well-known digital destination for millenial women.
THERE IS ALSO ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE to suggest progress at some of the country’s top journalism fellowships. In recent years, several such efforts—the John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford University, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship Program at the University of Michigan—have tapped women to lead them. This past academic year, the University of Michigan fellowship class counted 12 men and nine women, while the Stanford fellows included seven men and 11 women. Harvard University’s fellowship program was perhaps the most balanced, with 11 men and 12 women.
Sara Catania, Editorial Director of Zocalo Public Square, has written about gender inequality in news. She is also on the program committee that selects journalists for the Stanford University fellowships. Catania sees such leadership changes as “ways to push journalism forward…to affect how journalism is run.”
Perhaps they will. The Stanford fellowship has recently changed “from a mid-career sabbatical model to a format focused on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership in journalism,” according to its site. One beneficiary of the refocused Stanford University program, Tracie Powell, founded All Digitocracy, a website that tracks how the changing media landscape impacts communities of color. Powell says she founded All Digitocracy “to write stories on issues I didn’t see anywhere else.”
Steiner, the University of Maryland professor, remains concerned that disparities in status, pay and audience size may persist for female journalists. Such disparities, says Steiner, may linger because of a perception that “women are good at certain things, and women things are not as important as men things.”
CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.