Journalism and women: much more to be said and done

My last post, on women’s progress in newsrooms (far below the proportion of women in journalism programs, thinnest at the top, especially at newspapers), left me unsatisfied. I wanted to say so much more. I wanted to talk about the sometimes outrageous treatment of women journalists and women news sources by some male journalists and the lack of outrage this treatment receives. (Compare this with the outrage over expressions of racial stereotyping. Both are wrong, of course. But when was the last time society called out Chris Matthews for his piggishness? Check out the video linked above for some primo examples of lascivious oink.) I wanted to learn more about, and discuss, organizations that push for more accurate and comprehensive portrayals of women in news stories. And I wanted to continue the conversation about how journalism professors can help prepare students for the obstacles they, or people they care about, may face in the industry.

The Women’s Media Center video linked above and here does a fine job of illustrating the lingering obsession with looks and charm among male talking heads (seemingly everywhere) and female talking heads (largely on Fox, at least as portrayed in the video). Accomplished women, young and old, sources and journalists alike, are reduced to a tone of voice, a bit of cleavage, a hairstyle. It’s infuriating. What to do? Write letters, send emails or let the Women’s Media Center do the job for you by filling out this form when you see, hear or read reductive portrayals of women that disregard their full humanity – like this absurdity from New York City’s WCBS-TV, which I found on the media center’s terrific website.

Here are some of the other organizations that deal with sexism in the media, the advancement of women in the news industry, coverage of women overall and related issues:

  • Women’s E-News is an online news service that features original national and international reporting on women and on issues of particular concern to women.
  • is a branch of the World Association of Churches, a London-based group that defines its mission as working “to implement communication programmes and to support projects that lead to the empowerment of people, especially the dispossessed and marginalised, indigenous peoples, refugees, migrants, women, children and people with disabilities.” Beginning in 1995, through its Global Media Monitoring Project, Who Makes The News? has published a report every five years examining how the world’s media portray women. The 2010 report found that “only 24 percent of the people heard, read about or seen in the news are female, an increase of 7 percentage points from the first survey 15 years earlier.” Among the report’s fascinating highlights:

As persons interviewed or heard in the news, women remain lodged in the ‘ordinary’ people categories, in contrast to men who continue to predominate in the ‘expert’ categories.
Eighteen percent of female news subjects are portrayed as victims in comparison to 8 percent of male subjects. In contrast, women are now twice as likely to be portrayed as survivors than men.
Stories by female reporters contain more female news subjects than stories by male reporters.
Stories by female reporters are visibly more likely to challenge stereotypes than those filed by male reporters and are also less likely to reinforce stereotypes than those reported by men.

  • The International Women’s Media Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., is a 4,000-strong network that works to strengthen women’s presence in the news media. It offers awards and fellowships, supports specialized reporting projects on HIV/AIDS and on women in Africa, and links to several blogs.
  • Brooklyn-based Women in Media and News offers analysis, training and advocacy to promote the advancement of women journalists and “to increase women’s presence in the public debate.”

My favorite discovery is the Journalism and Women Symposium, which adds humor to the mix. JAWS (I dig the shark logo), which I’ve just joined, seems to be mostly about its annual fall camp, a retreat usually held somewhere beautiful in the West, where women journalists can “exercise the tongue instead of biting it.” This video about JAWS Camp is irresistible. Shopping and hiking and talking about journalism with a great group of women? Sign me up!

If you know of other worthy organizations that are fighting the good fight for women in journalism, please post their URLs in the comments to this post.

One thing that spurred my return to the topic of women in journalism was something a male colleague said. This is the same colleague who prompted my last post, on talking to our students about a (slightly hyped) study on the continued slow progress of women in newsrooms. He asked: “What would be the discussion? We should tell women jstudents that they face ‘a crisis’?”

I respect this man in many ways, yet I disagree with him more than I do with any of my other colleagues. After he read my last post, he argued against what he calls “identity politics” in journalism.

“I think special-interest groups in journalism raise vexing questions,” he wrote to me in an email. “As reporters, I think we should approach this identity business with great caution.  Objectivity is a tough enough trick to pull off as it is.”

There’s much to chew on in that comment, but this post is long enough. What are your thoughts, readers?

I leave you with some final goodies. This link to Mother Jones, on a study of women and bylines (MJ picked up on this study, actually), makes my blood boil. This thoughtful piece from Tom Watson at on the social-network response to “the spiteful media enterprise that is Rush Limbaugh” led me to the best line I’ve ever read on rape and the charge that “she asked for it”:

This hypothesis is rooted in the inaccurate stereotype that rape is an uncontrollable frenzy of lust that women provoke in men. That’s like imagining all theft as an uncontrolled frenzy of consumerism. Nobody doubts that thieves want what they steal, but we don’t assume that the sheer desirability of an unguarded car stereo pushes them over the edge. (emphasis added)

  1. It isn’t just in journalism, it’s everywhere. I rarely see a woman in a corporate board room. Recently my wife (who is also my business partner) went on an equipment buying spree at NAB. The requirements to attend NAB seem to be white, male and overweight. In any event, at meeting after meeting the sales reps continued to address me and ignore her completely, except for one who referred to her as ‘my secretary’. Shocking, really, but no different from what I encounter every day in almost every business.

  2. This is a great post, Prof. Selvin. I don’t have much to add to it except that I think “identity politics” IS a tricky line to walk, but it’s something everyone has to do and face. I’m about to go a little off-topic, but the more the demographics of the US change (including the number of women in the workforce and higher education and in positions of power), the ways journalists cover people also have to change. I know some Americans call it political correctness gone mad, but it’s honestly not HARD to cover difficult topics in sensitive ways after you do a bit of research.

    The thing that comes to mind for me is how major gaffes like ESPN’s “chink in the armor” incidents re: Jeremy Lin could’ve been avoided– there’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase until you use it in the context of an Asian-American, so is it really so difficult to use a different phrase in that context?

    I think a lot of people who say that identity politics should be kept out of journalism are people for whom identity has never been a “problem” or an “issue” and they’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable or out of place about what they are or how they identify. They rarely have to stop before heading into a situation to think about whether being a woman or being a minority will affect the way people respond to them or if being a woman will hurt their chances at an opportunity. Did that count as a run-on? Uh, regardless, I hope it made sense! I liked this post a lot, it covers a topic that I don’t think gets enough attention and that I have a lot of opinions about, ahah.

    One last thing: I think a lot of men (and women, disappointingly enough) who say women “had it coming” if they’ve been raped should remember that sexism hurts men, too. So unless they WANT men to be seen as bundles of impulses who can’t control themselves and should never be trusted, that’s a perception that really needs to crawl somewhere and die. … and one last link! I get a huge kick out of reading so I think you might too.

    • Carol Rescigno
    • April 21st, 2012

    The examples on the video you’ve shared are appalling and it’s very discouraging to see how vintage — and yet topical — the quotes are (Abzug, Anthony etc.). Identity politics aside, journalists should commit themselves to being sensitive to their sources, subjects and colleagues and such sensitivity should be stressed in every course taught at Stony Brook.

  3. Professor Selvin: excellent post. What WOULD be the discussion? Perhaps how we, as educators, can put pressure on the people to whom we funnel the next generation of reporters. Those at the helm of news organizations – both men and women – must work on changing the culture that has frustratingly remained the status quo. Among other things, it comes down to leadership: editors must make it a priority to provide opportunities for and encourage a wide range of voices, not just those in the club room.

  4. Great post. Marc Rudov is an idiot, I believe.

  5. Terrific and much-needed post.

    Women who write fiction face a similar crisis. They are still asked to package their books in pink/stiletto fashion. Also, last time I looked the Thurber Prize for American Humor had yet to pick a woman as a winner. Women are apparently not funny either? (Full disclosure: I entered twice with two satiric novels). I have worked as a journalist, nonfiction writer and novelist. So I guess this means I have the “luck” of seeing what is happening from all angles.

    • Denise
    • May 29th, 2012

    I worked as a reporter at a major daily newspaper for more than 20 years and witnessed and experienced some of that outrageous treatment you write about. I can tell you it’s no better north of the border. Back in 1992 I co-founded the first national Women in the Media conference which was a huge success and continued for many years. Things seemed to be changing but alas, now they seem to be going backwards. There are still very few women at the top and women are still underrepresented in news stories. Unfortunately the old style way of doing things still exists and women, especially once they have children, are really left out of things because of the long work hours.

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