By the numbers: Women visibly absent from contraception stories

Since the issue began blowing up, The Gender Report has kept track of a small slice of the news stories about the birth control ruling from the Obama administration. We separated our data from stories about the original ruling (starting Jan. 20), as well as stories after his announced compromise with Catholic leaders (after Feb. 10). We looked at news stories on the issue from the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, POLITICO, and USA Today. We did our best to avoid stories that came from other services (such as wires) on these sites or stories posted to the sites’ blogs or special feature services. Keep in mind that this is just a small sample of stories coming from dominant news sources. Here are our results of women in these stories:

Before the compromise: 37 stories, published Jan 20 – Feb. 10

  • Bylines: 48.4 percent women (15 female bylines, 16 male bylines); 6 shared bylines between men and women
  • Sources: 30.9 percent women directly quoted (60 of 134 sources), 29.1 percent of all persons named or mentioned (88 of 302 mentions)
  • Author gender and sources: Women were 38.1 percent of sources in articles by female authors; they were 29.7 percent of sources in articles by males.

After the compromise: 16 stories, published Feb. 11 – Feb. 17

  • Bylines: 38.5 percent women (5 female bylines, 8 male bylines); 3 shared bylines between men and women
  • Sources: 24.7 percent (14 of 43 sources), 24.2 percent of mentioned sources (22 of 91 mentions)
  • Author gender and sources: Women were 26.7 percent of sources in articles by female authors; they were 22.2 percent of sources in articles by males.

Overall: 53 stories, published Jan 20 – Feb. 10

  • Bylines: 45.5 percent women (20 female bylines, 24 male bylines); 9 shared bylines between men and women
  • Sources: 29.5 percent (74 of 251 sources), 28 percent of mentioned sources (110 of 393 mentions)
  • Author gender and sources: Women were 35.9 percent of sources in articles by female authors; they were 28 percent of sources in articles by males.
  • News sites: The New York Times had the highest percentage of female sources with 46.8 percent (33 male vs. 29 female sources in 12 articles). Politico had the lowest percentage at 17.6 percent (56 male vs. 12 female in 17 articles).

Other groups have also found similar trends in data. ThinkProgress, a division of the Center for American Progress, found that out of a total of 146 guests who discussed contraception on cable news shows, 91 men were invited compared to 55 women as commentators. In other words, males comprised 62 percent of the total guests who commented on contraception. (The study looked at shows on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN.) In a more balanced finding, in a self-conducted survey, NPR discovered that of those interviewed and quoted between January 13 and February 13, 26 were women, ranging from Catholic students to lawyers to professors. This compares to 18 men who were quoted by name.

This image from Think Progress of a witness panel of all men testifying in the Congressional hearing on contraception Thursday went viral. (Photo via @ThinkProgress)

It’s important to take a closer look at some of the potential causes, and subsequent pitfalls, behind these numbers. First, much of the debate has involved leaders of the Catholic Church; these voices are, by church rule, male. Some groups interviewed included female leaders in the Catholic church, but even when Methodist or Lutheran pastors were included in the sources, these were male pastors or church leaders. The second group taking the spotlight in much of the coverage, especially in stories from the past week, looked at the responses of the candidates for the republican presidential nomination. Again, all these candidates are male. The third group is Congress, which we’ve stated before is currently only 17 percent female; if you’re interviewing a senator or representative, you’re most likely going to end up with a male voice due to basic probability.

However, despite these caveats, we still are asking the question: Where are the women? While the percentage of women represented in birth control coverage is slightly higher than the representation of women in the news overall (see our Findings & Statistics section for details), the lack of women’s voices in these particular stories is especially glaring considering it is an issue related to women’s health.

The individuals quoted in these stories (with the exception of a few features such as those about experiences with and opinions about birth control at Catholic campuses by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times) were often the same people repeatedly across media outlets. For women, Sister Jane Marie Klein (chairwoman of the board of a system of 13 Catholic hospitals) was most often quoted, followed by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebeliu and then Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Both Klein and Richards were named among the three people (the other being Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan) that President Obama is said to have called to alert to the change in the policy.

In our research, only a small handful of non-expert female sources were quoted in the 53 stories. This included the woman whose testimony was canceled in this week’s congressional hearings on the ruling. In any policy story, we would expect to see the perspective of not just the policy makers, but the people whom the policy impacts the most: users of birth control. In the case of contraception, this almost exclusively means women, since male forms of contraception such as condoms do not require a prescription and thus are not a main focus of insurance policy.

A photo (above) from the Congressional hearing quickly went viral this week, as it highlighted the all-male panel in Thursday’s debates. NPR’s ombudsman also pointed out this lack of female representation, writing: “Airing diverse voices and views that reflect the country is critical.” We will continue to follow this story, and provide updated statistics and findings as the debate continues.

Looking for more opinion? Check out these stories and opinion posts on the contraception debates:


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