OTI Online
Spring 1991

Geez, Are We Really That Bad? Women in the Media, Nearly Invisible
by Junior Bridge


Clearly, Max Frankel was not happy. Neither was Ben Bradlee. Frankel and Bradlee are the executive editors of two of the nation's most prestigious general- interest newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively. When asked to comment on the results of a national media survey about news coverage of and by women, both men sent short, testy replies.

The New York Times, for the second year in a row, had come out low (the lowest in the 1989 study) in a 1990 media survey which tabulated the number of times female bylines appeared, female proper names were used in stories, and females appeared in photographs on the front pages of 10 major, general-interest newspapers around the country. This is the newspaper that claims boldly on its masthead that it prints "all the news that's fit to print."

The Washington Post fared better. In the first study, the paper's percentages in the aforementioned three categories fell approximately in the middle of the papers surveyed. In the 1990 study, it came out the highest of the papers examined in female appearances in photos, and about the middle range for the remaining categories.

The idea for the survey initially was to make a point: Women have still not arrived on an equal footing with men in this country; women still have much work to do to acquire gender equality. A social indicator was needed that was easily understood and widely accessible. The print media was an obvious choice. The point was made — starkly.

Results from the 1989 survey showed that on average, female bylines appeared on the front pages about 27 percent of the time; females were represented in only 24 percent of the front-page pictures; and references to females were abysmally low: 11 percent.

This despite the fact that females comprise over half the U.S. population, about half of newspaper readership, 45 percent of the total labor force, 60 percent of the new investors in New York Stock Exchange companies, and more than half of all college students.

The newspapers examined were the Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, New York Times, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Seattle Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post. Consideration in the selection of papers was primarily given to geographic location. An effort was also made to include papers from states considered to be bellweather areas for social change.

There were days during the study period when there were no female bylines, photographs, or references to females on the front pages of these major generalinterest newspapers. Imagine a front page without a male byline, photo, or reference!

In many of the March 1989 news stories that included a female source, the female name was not repeated. Instead, pronouns were used ("she said," rather than "Whitmore said") whereas the names of male sources were repeated frequently.

Another finding was that female reporters don't appear to go to female sources any more often than male writers. Even stories on topics of specific and great concern to women, such as abortion, often contained more quotes from men, and few or no quotes from women.

Most often, females were portrayed as victims of brutal acts, or in terms of their familial relationships, i.e., Mary, the daughter of; his wife, Barbara; or, Joyce, mother of four. It was noted, too, that females were more frequently referred to by their first names; men by their last names.

USA Today averaged higher percentages of female bylines (41 percent), photos (41 percent), and female references (21 percent) than the other papers examined. The New York Times averaged the lowest percentages of female bylines (16 percent) and references (five percent).

The month-long 1990 study was expanded to include 10 additional newspapers with circulations ranging from about 20,000 to 50,000. This was done to see if there is any difference in news coverage of and by women in smaller, non-majormedia centers.

Commissioned by the University of Southern California's Media Watch: Women and Men Project, the latest study was released at the Spring 1990 annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. It showed a gain in coverage of females in photos from the 1989 survey. Little improvement was found, however, in the references to female names in stories or to the number of female bylines on front pages.

Females appeared in front-page photos 32 percent of the time, compared to 24 percent in the first study. Female bylines averaged 28 percent, up one point since 1989. Female names were found in stories 14 percent of the time as opposed to 11 percent a year earlier. The increase appears due to the inclusion of the smallermarket papers which, on average, printed more stories by females and that referenced females.

The additional newspapers included in the second study were the Albuquerque Tribune/ Journal (NM), The BeaconNews (Aurora, ID, The Courier (Findley, OH), Daily Camera (Boulder, CO), Enid News and Eagle (Enid, OK), The Joplin Globe (MO), The News-Times (Danbury, CT), Pine Bluff Commercial (AK), SunJournal (Lewiston, ME), and The Tuskaloosa News (AL).

The Albuquerque Tribune averaged the highest number of female names used in front-page stories, 22 percent, and the highest number of female bylines, 51 percent, beating USA Today's lead in the 1989 study, 21 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

The lowest average, six percent, for female references was found again in the New York Times (five percent in 1989). And the Findlay, OH Courier had no female bylines during the month-long study period.

The Washington Post had the highest average photo coverage of females, 42 percent, one percent more than USA Today's leading average in 1989. The lowest average photo coverage of females was found in the Lewiston, Maine, SunJournal, 19 percent.

The initial study was conducted in conjunction with Women, Men and Media — a conference held in April 1989 in Washington, D.C. The conference was sponsored by the University of Southern California and the Gannett Foundation. Co-chair Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women and a prominent writer/lecturer, formed the Media Watch: Women and Men Project as a result of that conference.

Results of the 1990 front-page study were sent to top editors of the 20 newspapers surveyed, with an invitation to comment. Of the 20, only seven responded.

Ben Bradlee wrote: "I am damned if I can see what conclusions should be drawn from your findings. The wisdom of the ages appears to cry out for silence." The Washington Post is facing a sex discrimination suit which Bradlee has publically referred to as simply an attempt by organized labor to harass management. Max Frankel was even snippier in his response. Said he:

"...As soon as Mr. Gorbachev lets Mrs. Gorbachev do his deciding, or even speaking, we will be quoting or photographing more women on Page One. Or even Chancellor Kohl, or President Bush and their wives..."

When these comments and further snide remarks ("If and when more tea parties were covered by the Times more female names would appear on the front pages") by Frankel were reported in a Washington Post article (by a female reporter who did not report on her own editor's comments), the women at the Times were outraged.

The next day, many of them appeared at work wearing teabags pinned to their lapels. Then buttons started appearing. They were circular with the bright red international symbol for NO (a circle with a diagonal slash through it) superimposed over a black teapot. It is rumored that Frankel apologized to his staff.

In general, the remaining five responses were constructive and instructive.

Tom Kelsch, executive editor of the SunJournal, said his initial reaction was, "Geez, are we really that bad?" Upon reflection and a closer scrutiny of copies of his paper during the reporting period, he concluded that the study had made him stop and think. He said, "First indications show there is a problem; more study would seem to be called for." His thoughtful commentary included many suggestions about how to further examine the issue.

The Miami Herald's executive editor, Janet Chusmir, also offered insightful commentary. "As a woman in charge of one of the major metropolitan papers, I have an intense desire to see all newspapers, especially my own, do a better job of representing women in the news pages. No, we don't do nearly the job we should, as the survey shows. We must do better," she admitted.

She then goes on to discuss the goals the Herald and its parent company, KnightRidder Inc., have set to attend to this problem. Knight-Ridder has "established change and progress in pluralism as top priorities" for all of its newspapers. The main suggestion she made about future studies on news coverage of and by women is that they include an examination of the relative differences in story play and content on women and women's issues.

It is clear that these and other media studies on the same subject have touched a nerve, both among the media and among women. The question is: Will they stimulate change?

 


Both studies were designed and conducted by Junior Bridge, president of Unabridged Communications, a consulting firm in Alexandria, VA


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