Media Coverage of Women and Women's Issues

Women professionals and athletes continue to be under-represented in news coverage, and are often stereotypically portrayed when they are included.

Women, News and Politics

Although there has been a steady increase in the number of women professionals over the past 20 years, most mainstream press coverage continues to rely on men as experts in the fields of business, politics and economics. Women in the news are more likely to be featured in stories about accidents, natural disasters, or domestic violence than in stories about their professional abilities or expertise.

Women in politics are similarly sidelined. Canadian journalist Jenn Goddu studied newspaper and magazine coverage of three women’s lobby groups over a 15-year period. She discovered that journalists tend to focus on the domestic aspects of the politically active woman’s life (such as “details about the high heels stashed in her bag, her habit of napping in the early evening, and her lack of concern about whether or not she is considered ladylike”) rather than her position on the issues. [1]

Quebec political analyst Denis Monière uncovered similar patterns. In 1998, Monière analysed 83 late evening newscasts on three national networks—the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio-Canada (the French-language public broadcaster) and TVA. He observed that women’s views were solicited mainly in the framework of “average citizens” and rarely as experts, and that political or economic success stories were overwhelmingly masculine.

Monière also noted that the number of female politicians interviewed was disproportionate to their number in Parliament or in the Quebec National Assembly; nor, he noted, was this deficiency in any way compensated for by the depth and quality of coverage. [2]

Inadequate women’s coverage seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. In 2006 the Association of Women Journalists (Association des femmes journalistes – AFJ) studied news coverage of women and women’s issues in 70 countries. It reported that only 17 per cent of stories quote women; one in 14 women was presented as a victim (compared to one in 21 men) and one in five women was shown in the context of her family (compared to one in 16 men). [3]

Professor Caryl Rivers notes that politically active women are often disparaged and stereotyped by the media. When Hillary Clinton was still first lady, she was referred to as a “witch” or “witchlike” at least 50 times in the press. Rivers writes, “male political figures may be called mean and nasty names, but those words don’t usually reflect superstition and dread. Did the press ever call Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, or Clinton warlocks?” [4]

Women and Sports

Women athletes are also given short shrift in the media. Margaret Carlisle Duncan and Michael Messner studied sports coverage on three network affiliates in Los Angeles. They report that only nine per cent of airtime was devoted to women’s sports, in contrast to the 88 per cent devoted to male athletes. Female athletes fared even worse on ESPN’s national sports show Sports Center, where they occupied just over two per cent of airtime. [5]

Duncan notes that commentators (97 per cent of whom are men) use different language when they talk about female athletes. Where men are described as “big,” “strong,” “brilliant,” “gutsy” and “aggressive,” women are more often referred to as “weary,” “fatigued,” “frustrated,” “panicked,” “vulnerable” and “choking.” Commentators are also twice as likely to call men by their last names only, and three times as likely to call women by their first names only. Duncan argues that this “reduces female athletes to the role of children, while giving adult status to white male athletes.”

The Prix Déméritas (Brickbat Prize) for sexist reporting was awarded by Quebec’s Gazette des femmes to the journalists who covered the 2000 International Women’s Tennis Cup. The Gazette des femmes noted in particular the journalists’ keen interest in any of the athletes’ poses that could be seen as suggestive, as well as the excessive attention accorded Anna Kournikova—for her beauty rather than her game.

Media images of women in sports are also very different from the familiar pictures of male athletes in action. Female athletes are increasingly photographed in what Professor Pat Griffin calls “hyper-sexualized poses.” Griffin notes, “When it was once enough to feminize women athletes, now it is necessary to sexualize them for men. Instead of hearing, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ we are hearing ‘I am hetero-sexy, watch me strip.’” [6]

Beauty Before Brains

When well-respected news-show host Greta Van Susteren moved from CNN to Fox in early 2002, she not only had a makeover; she surgically altered her face to appear younger and more “beautiful.” When her new show, On the Record, premiered, her hair was perfectly coiffed and she sat behind a table so viewers could see her short skirt and legs.

Robin Gerber notes that, “Before her surgery, Van Susteren had been an increasingly visible beacon projecting the hope that women had made progress. You believed that she had made it in television because she was so darn smart, clearly the best legal analyst on the air.” However, her surgery symbolizes what many analysts have argued for decades: that the way a woman looks is far more important than what she has to say.

Gerber concludes that Van Susteren “has become a painful reminder of women’s inequality… Being smart, smarter, smartest isn’t enough. By trying to become just another pretty face, Van Susteren instead became another cultural casualty.” [7]

 


 

[i] Goddu, Jenn. “Powerless, Public-Spirited Women,” “Angry Feminists,” and “The Muffin Lobby”: Newspaper and Magazine Coverage of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and REAL Women of Canada. Canadian Journal of Communication, (24) 1, 1999.
[ii] Moniere, Denis. Votez Pour Moi: Une histoire politique du Quebec moderne a travers la publicite electorale. Fides, 1998.
[iii] La place des femmes dans les medias. Association des Femmes-Journalists, 2006. Retrieved from < http://www.femmes-journalistes.asso.fr/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=2>
[iv] Rivers, Carl. Pro-Feminist Media Bias? Show Me the Women! Boston Globe, February 20 2002.
[v] Duncan, Margaret Carlisle and Michael A. Mesner. Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2004. Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, July 2005.
[vi] Holste, Glenda Crank. Women Athletes Often Debased by Media Images.  Women’s eNews, October 17 2000.
[vii] Gerber, Robin. Why turn brilliant lawyer into Barbie with brains? USA Today, February 10 2002.