On the political spectrum, abortion may be categorized as a women’s issue. But in U.S. newspapers and wire services, men weigh in more often than women about reproductive rights, according to a new report commissioned by the Women’s Media Center and conducted by the research firm Novetta. An analysis of 1,385 pieces, including news stories, opinion columns and editorials, that appeared in 12 publications found that men wrote 52 percent of those pieces that had a byline attached, while women wrote just 37 percent of them.
The New York Daily News was the only news organization included in the study where coverage of abortion and similar issues was evenly split between men and women: Of the stories on that subject that carried a byline, 48 percent of them were by men and 48 percent were by women. The greatest gender disparity in coverage of the subject was at the Associated Press, where 64 percent of the articles published on reproductive rights, whether opinion or news, were written by men.
One of the arguments for a more representative media corps is the idea that, for example, women will be more likely to quote women. Overall, that’s true: Across the board, in the stories by women, 42 percent of the people they quoted were women while 36 percent of their sources were men. By contrast, 48 percent of the people quoted in articles by male journalists were men; 27 percent of their quotes came from women.
Having mostly men on a beat didn’t always prevent women’s voices from being excluded from coverage. At the San Jose Mercury News, for example, just 28 percent of pieces about abortion were written by women, but 46 percent of the sources quoted by name in the paper’s coverage were women, and 28 percent were men. And though men and women wrote equal numbers of stories at the New York Daily News, 38 percent of the sources quoted by name in the paper’s coverage were women.
(At The Washington Post, 44 percent of pieces on these issues were written by men, 40 percent by women, and 17 percent appeared without a byline. Thirty-seven percent of the sources quoted by name were women.)
Novetta’s analysis of 940 news articles and opinion pieces published between 2014 and 2015 found even sharper gender disparities in coverage of high school and college campus sexual assault. Overall, women wrote 31 percent of articles on the subject, men wrote 55 percent, and 14 percent of those pieces carried no byline. Forty-eight percent of the sources quoted in those stories were men; 32 percent of the named sources were women.
There were disparities in coverage, too. Women were more likely than men to write about institutions such as fraternities and sororities and overall campus culture when they wrote about sexual assault. Men were much more likely to focus on the culture of sports teams.
The coverage of sexual assault stories in sports sections also highlights the huge gender gap in those sections. Men wrote 64 percent of the stories about campus sexual assault that appeared in publications’ sports sections, while women wrote just 7 percent of those pieces. And sports section stories about sexual assault generally ignored the way those alleged assaults affected the victims; that subject received just 2 percent of sports section coverage of these cases.
Assigning only women to cover reproductive rights and sexual assault isn’t actually a solution.
Men outnumber women at most major news organizations: Of the organizations the Women’s Media Center examined, the San Jose Mercury News got closest to byline parity with 55.7 percent of pieces written by men and 44.3 percent written by women (The Washington Post was in second place with a 57.5-42.5 split). Taking an already limited number of women and confining them to these beats would deny women the opportunity to cover other subjects and would mean that readers don’t get the benefit of the insights women bring to fields that have been traditionally dominated by men.
And shifting more women to these beats would also absolve male reporters of the responsibility of widening their base of sources. Hiring more women can only change the culture of a newsroom so much if the men who work there are allowed to stay in narrow lanes and rely on the same narrow pool of sources.
News organizations need more women. But no matter who’s covering a subject, reporters and their editors need to examine who they’re calling and what assumptions they’re bringing to their stories.