Commentary: Six lessons from The Gender Report

Editor’s note: Six months ago, we set out to look at how women are represented in online news both as sources and as authors. To mark our progress, this week we’re reviewing our findings as well as unveiling new statistics based on what we’ve uncovered thus far in a series of posts. View other six-month coverage here.


When we started this venture six months ago, the idea sprouted from a general curiosity: What did online journalism mean for women in the media? We’d both worked in various print media, and seen the struggle women faced in newsroom representation, visual images, biased coverage and with other obstacles. We also saw print media as a whole quickly becoming a dwindling force in the overall media market and influence. So we combined these two ideas, asking what would happen to women as the conversations shifted from the front page to the home screen.

Yesterday, we published a roundup of all of our statistical findings up to this point, but we also wanted to look at our work in a different way. Here are six observations we’ve made so far:

1. Niche markets have more influence in the mainstream: In the past, a “women’s issues” publication had little hope of breaking into the mainstream conversation. Now, through the help of social media and constant re-reporting of news, a story first covered by one of these publications can easily shape or make its way into the mainstream coverage. We saw this just this week when a World Pulse story on breast ironing inspired CNN to follow suit and it became CNN’s No. 1 story that evening.

2. The next six months can be a turning point: We’ve already included two Week in Review posts about the presidential primaries’ coverage of female candidates and the role women will play in this election. Presidential elections are the Christmas of the media in terms of commentary and dueling opinions. We can hope that it will not involve repeating some of the same mistakes as the 2008 race.

3. Stereotypes are not what they used to be: When we asked friends and followers what region they thought would have the least representation of women, almost everyone quickly answered “well the South of course.” In fact, this proved to be the opposite, with the sites we monitor in the Northeast posting the fewest female bylines and sources (at least thus far).

4. Stereotypes are still exactly what they used to be: Whether it was coverage of sexual assault cases, abortion, women in politics or health care, the fair portrayal of women has not seemed to improve with the shift to online journalism. And while coverage of certain topics, like female athletes or some fresh faces to politics has brought some balance, we still see rape victims’ clothing described, feminism deemed a dirty word, or health care for women portrayed in any way but healthy.

5. The media still reflects cultural realities: In the majority of our Weeks in Review, it was not necessarily the media’s coverage of topics that was newsworthy, it was the comments made about the topics themselves that gave them top billing in the news cycle. While it was true in some cases the media’s interpretation of newsworthiness or the angle of a story gave us pause, in far more cases we were interested in the nature of the story itself. This is especially true in our look at the disappointingly minimal number of female sources used.

We don’t think journalists are looking at a list of potential sources and intentionally and consciously excluding women; in some cases, women have to hold positions of authority to make this list in the first place (This issue of women as expert sources as well as non-expert sources will be one we’ll be looking at more in the future). We need more female politicians, and lawyers, and stock brokers, and government watchdogs, and business executives, if we expect them to ever be represented equally as sources for these top stories.

6. Slowly but surely, progress is ahead: Despite the still dominant male bylines that have transferred over to online outlets, stories by online-only news sites did include a slightly higher percentage of women as sources. And as more bloggers and grassroots sites take hold, we can expect (we hope) to see more women contributing to the narrative, and hopefully both men and women shifting the type of coverage stories involving women receive.

We follow several national and international groups that are working tirelessly on behalf of women and girls, including on media representation, and the power of the Internet is giving them more of a voice than they could have accessed in just traditional print media. Groups like the Girl Effect, The Women’s Media Project, the OpEd Project, the Women’s Media Center and countless others have similar missions to ours, and are doing marvelous work. (We featured one such group, Global Girl Media, during our first six months and hope to do the same with others in the future.)

We’ve also seen online petitions and campaigns promoted by these organizations and/or started by individual women draw attention and make a difference in challenging advertising approaches and media coverage of subjects like rape. And now with a women at the helm of our newspaper of record, we can only expect both traditional newsrooms and online platforms to follow suit and include more women in their staffs.

Let’s keep the momentum going.

Coming soon: Next week we’ll be starting a discussion on what issues you’d like to see us tackle in the future as well as what you solutions you think there are to women’s representation in the news media. Watch for it and speak up to share your thoughts and opinions.


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