News - What's gender got to do with it?

in Opinion, Long Read , Tagged Australia, Gender, News, media.
  • Virginia Haussegger

    Virginia Haussegger

    Chief Editor, BroadAgenda

    Virginia Haussegger AM is an Adj Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA), University of Canberra, and Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. She is a veteran television presenter and journalist who has reported around the globe for Australia's leading current affairs programs across the ABC, Channel 7 and 9 Network.

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Opinion:

Do men and women consume News differently? And if so - how? These were some of the questions BroadAgenda hoped to answer when we joined our colleagues at UC's News and Media Research Centre to dissect the annual Digital News survey. The result is the Digital News Report: Australia 2017, released on Thursday 22nd June. The Report is part of a global survey encompassing 36 territories, up from 26 in 2016. It is produced by the University of Canberra in collaboration with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. This is the first time any of the global partners has produced a chapter specifically focused on 'gender'. BroadAgenda is proud to be part of this major project and thrilled to lead the way by throwing a gender lens on a subject we all take for granted - the news. 

Here, in Part 2 of our 4 part series, Virginia Haussegger asks 'what's gender got to do with it?'


As an ABC TV News presenter for some 15 years I developed a somewhat unhealthy fascination with what people do in the privacy of their homes. Initially it was their lounge-rooms, then it morphed into bedrooms, and by the time I signed off with my final “Enjoy your evening, goodnight” late last year, my fascination with private space had extended to people’s bathrooms.

As an ABC TV News presenter for some 15 years I developed a somewhat unhealthy fascination with what people do in the privacy of their homes.

Now, thanks to the results of this year’s Digital News Report: Australia I find myself contemplating their toilets as well! That’s because how and where people consume news is increasingly of critical importance to those who produce it. And for good reason.

Way back in those unthinkably dark days prior to the miracle of ‘the internet’ and well before smartphones, the collective focus of any newsroom was first and foremost on the day’s news stories. Informing that focus were somewhat vague assumptions around the news audience: who they were and what they wanted. Little thought was given to how our audience actually engaged with the news. Then along came the digital revolution and all that changed.

By early this decade the newsroom obsession with digital technology and delivery platforms made audience engagement the new primary focus for anyone who produces or disseminates news content. My former ABC boss, Mark Scott, wasn’t kidding when he thrust his phone in the air and bellowed, “Mobile is eating the world. And it’s eating news!” Right about then we all got busy studying click graphs.

My former ABC boss, Mark Scott, wasn’t kidding when he thrust his phone in the air and bellowed, “Mobile is eating the world. And it’s eating news!”

However some of us news junkies had not given serious thought – until this year’s survey – to how the rapid cycle of continuous news and the portability of digital devices not only changes where and when people consume news, but also how these advances might in fact play out differently for women and men. Most importantly, my team had a hunch that the increasing portability of news might possibly be giving women a news ‘advantage’. And it turns out we were right.

Women access news in communal spaces in the home more than any other place.

Back in the mid-1980s when I began my television journalism career there was a comfortable certainty about ‘the news’. It went to air at 7pm every night on the ABC or 6pm on a commercial station. It wasn’t repeated and no-one was in the habit of recording it. If you missed it, you missed it. Which was a jolly shame because then – as now – the TV bulletin was the most popular and influential source of news for most Australians, providing a window to the wider world. And yet it was broadcast right at a time of night when many women were usually preoccupied with household matters and family dinners.

So what advantages do the 24/7 news cycle, the proliferation of news platforms and modes of news sharing offer to women? The answer is very simply – freedom. The freedom to choose how, when and where one consumes news gives women an inherent advantage that previous methods of news delivery were unable to do. Interestingly our data show clearly gendered spaces of news consumption: that is, men and women are consuming news in different places.

... The freedom to choose how, when and where one consumes news gives women an inherent advantage that previous methods of news delivery were unable to do.

Two key things stand out here. First, women access news in communal spaces in the home – such as the family or lounge room – more than any other place. Second, more men access news on their smartphone or tablet in the bathroom and toilet than women use mobile devices to access news at work. If you think that might be a little odd, here’s another finding our team didn’t want to contemplate too deeply: a portion of men consuming news in the bathroom or loo are not just using phones or tablets, but a number are also using their laptops. In fact more men use laptops in the toilet or bathroom to access news than they do on public transport.

... more men access news on their smartphone or tablet in the bathroom and toilet than women use mobile devices to access news at work. 

This is the first year that the Digital News Report has focused specifically on the gendered nature of news consumption, so without annual comparisons we can only paint a ‘first glimpse’ picture. But what appears to emerge through our study of gendered spaces of news consumption is a picture of a female news consumer who is somewhat nomadic, accessing news as she moves about the house; usually in shared spaces of the home in which she is no doubt being interrupted or possibly even multi-tasking.

However, despite the communal nature of her space, her access device – either a smartphone, tablet or computer – means she enjoys a greater freedom of personal choice over what news items she can tap into it, with less need to shield children from inappropriate content. And whilst consuming news, she is more inclined than her male counterpart to share and comment via social media: a finding that is perhaps not surprising given women under 40 are the most frequent users of social networking sites in Australia.

The male news consumer, on the other hand, would appear to be retreating to his private space where he can access news alone and uninterrupted. Although he is less inclined to share news on social media, he is a more active blogger about news issues and events. Interestingly both men and women consume news in bed more than at work, with women just slightly more interested in bed-time news than men.

There is a demonstrable nomadic sociability to female news consumption.

So while our survey data paint a gender difference in where and how people access news, what about those pesky assumptions that suggest women are less frequent news consumers; greater new ‘avoiders’; and prefer ‘soft’ over ‘hard’ news? As a long-time newsreader I am disappointed to learn that women are more inclined to avoid news than men. However I suspect there is something deeper at play here than simply emotion; more to do with women disengaging from news that doesn’t reflect their lives or realities. And often it just doesn’t represent women well at all: a recent 12-month analysis of 13,000 news articles across 18 Australian newspapers found the ratio of ‘he’ to ‘she’ was 3.4 to 1. This study found the top 20 names most commonly featured in news stories over a year were all male, with a female name ranking 21st on the ladder of the most-mentioned names [1].

... 13,000 news articles across 18 Australian newspapers found the ratio of ‘he’ to ‘she’ was 3.4 to 1.

As news consumers we need to rely on ‘the news’ to help make sense of the world around us, but when the world – as framed through the daily news – doesn’t reflect women as equal players and participants... we’re not just battling ‘post-truth’, but rather ‘men’s-truth’. Although there is yet to be a comprehensive, national study that fully examines the representation of women in news media, it is clear that women are relegated to the sidelines of news importance, and news organisations are key culprits for perpetuating gender stereotypes. While this remains the case, women’s engagement with news will remain somewhat tenuous. Which is a problem for news brands.

... when the world – as framed through the daily news – doesn’t reflect women as equal players and participants... we’re not just battling ‘post-truth’, but rather ‘men’s-truth’.

Notes

[1] Black, A., Henty, P. and Sutton, K. (2017). Women in humanitarian leadership. Centre for Humanitarian Leadership of Deakin University.

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