(Not so) breaking news, there’s a problem with gender representation in news platforms. And the issue can be seen as a crosshatch between the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women both as newscasters and as the subjects of media coverage.
For one, women’s representation in the media remains drastically low compared to that of their men counterparts. Women are the focus of only 10% of news stories and comprise just 20% of experts or spokespersons interviewed. Studies show that men are more likely to be quoted than women in the media, and more likely to cover “serious” topics. In fact, even when they are represented, women are more likely to be presented through pictures and photographs rather than words in digital news, hinting toward the pervasive usage of women’s appearance as a tool for mere visual pleasure. In this vein, the women who do get to make it to the “big paper” often tend to fit feminine standards and be of lighter skin. Men are also far more associated with business and politics whereas women are confined to the realms of fashion and entertainment.
So even when women are featured in news outlets, they are often objectified or portrayed in limited and stereotypical roles such as caregivers, models or victims. Women are more likely to be linked to superficial characteristics such as their appearance, clothing, age, and relationship status to men such as “mother of,” “daughter of,” “wife of,” and “single.” On the flip side, men’s stories and backgrounds tend to be associated with their ideas, experiences, or professions. Referencing women through their relationships or as a form of entertainment to men, obscures the agency of women in performing actions, whether it is a criminal deed or a monumental achievement.
These trends actually may be said to push back women to the private sphere, that of the family household. Since they are understood through their connections to other (family) members or their actions are partially attributed to the family they come from rather than through their expertise or own agency. These discursive productions are often combined with rhetorics on race, class, gender expression, sexual identities, disability, or age ultimately typecasting women and other minoritised groups into a host of stereotypical representations.
One way to observe these typecasts is with the help of the Finkbeiner test. It tries to pick up on tropes in news reporting where women are categorised into personalities based on their relation to men’s lives. This can be a fun exercise to try on the next piece of news you read.
To pass the Finkbeiner test the story is required to not mention:
- The fact that the subject is a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her childcare arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”
There is therefore an enormous potential for news media to reflect a wider variety of roles and behaviours of men and women, thereby encouraging people to aspire to different, more gender-equal futures. News media forms an important part of the general knowledge that a person accumulates through their daily life and can thus make significant contributions to fighting biases and prejudices that are detrimental to the lives of many. The underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women in the news have been said to undermine core liberal principles, such as gender equality or freedom of speech, thus putting in jeopardy democracy itself.
The presence of women on the radio, television and in print is more likely to provide positive role models for women and girls, to gain the confidence of women as sources and interviewees, to attract and involve other audiences in world issues and to reflect a general sentiment that women’s opinions and actions are consequential.