The “Women For Media: Take The Next Steps report” explores the role of female voices in Australian news, those quoted in news stories, and those who wrote the stories.
The 2021 report combines quantitative and qualitative analysis of more than 60,000 articles across the month of May 2021, plus in-depth interviews with leading figures in the media landscape.
I put some questions about this huge and important piece of work to project leads, Dr Jenna Price with Dr Blair Williams.
Before we get to what’s in the report, why is it important to get a picture of women in the media – both as expert sources and as creators of journalism? What does it tell us?
News media has historically either excluded or trivialised women. Our lives, voices and issues traditionally weren’t considered ‘newsworthy’ and were often relegated to the ‘women’s section’ of newspapers or women’s magazines. Men’s voices dominated both in stories and in the newsroom, which meant that the news was presented through a male lens.
More women have since entered news organisations, particularly in recent years, so it’s important to understand whether we’re still marginalised as both journalists and expert sources and if men’s voices continue to dominate. It’s crucial that the news reflects the diversity of our society, rather than the voices of a privileged few.
This is a complex and in-depth and sometimes alarming piece of work that folks should take the time to read. However, what are your key takeaways here?
The biggest takeaway is that, despite more women in journalism and in senior positions in the newsroom, men’s voices predominate.
69 percent of quotes were attributable to men, they accounted for 65 percent of first bylines of all stories and wrote 65 percent of opinion pieces.
Certain topics are gendered. Men wrote the vast majority of sports, politics, business and science stories while women wrote more health and arts and entertainment stories.
Despite some fantastic women COVID-19 experts and economists, women provided only a quarter of quotes for stories covering COVID-19 or the 2021 Federal Budget.
One of the interesting findings is that what women (and men) write about is gendered. Can you tell me about this?
There’s quite a bit of academic research that identifies how certain topics have been placed into a binary of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ categories. ‘Hard’ categories consist of serious factual presentations of newsworthy topics, like politics, economics, major events, and public interest matters, and is regarded as important journalistic work that men do.
‘Soft’ categories are traditionally considered less important as they centre on human-interest stories, lifestyle, trends and personalities, and is considered more ‘feminine’. Our report confirms what other international studies have found – that despite the increasing number of women in journalism, the ‘hard’/’soft’ binary continues.
Women are also quoted far less in the media. Unpick this for me. (I note a quote from editor Julie Lewis in your report saying women need to pitch – putting the onus on them. But to me this is problematic because it’s assuming there’s an equal playing field. Whereas as mentioned in my recent podcast there’s evidence showing women are seen as less expert, even if they do put themselves forward.)
You’re right – women are quoted less in the media, and I think it’s due to two reasons. First, women are more hesitant to be interviewed by journalists than their male counterparts and research by Kathryn Shine has identified that this is due to a few key reasons: lack of confidence, time constraints, reluctance to appear on camera and a lack of understanding as to the operation of news media. Yet the onus shouldn’t be on women experts to change, but on journalists to provide more support and encouragement.
Second, and more importantly, women are still seen as ‘less expert’. This is because men have, for so long, shaped what expertise ‘looks like’. When men make up the vast majority of expert sources in news articles, as well as the majority of senior academic positions (the leaky pipeline in academia is disastrous for gender equality in any level above a C), then I think it influences the perceptions of both journalists, the public and even the academic themselves. When they think of an expert, they see a white man in a tweed jacket or an old white man in a lab coat with wispy grey hair. We need to change these norms and journalists could start by doing a lot more to branch out and find expert sources who don’t fit the pale stale male mould.
What did you personally learn during this investigation? What surprised you?
Blair says: I think I was more shocked by the findings of the 2019 report that Jenna wrote, which found that women wrote only 16 percent of political op-eds. As a woman political scientist, I was shocked but also sadly not that surprised?
The 2019 report definitely primed my expectations when it came time to examine the data for the current report. However, we were quite surprised by the lack of women journalists and sources in some progressive publications, like Crikey or The Saturday Paper, and that some conservative publications, like The Daily Telegraph and The Courier-Mail, had the most women bylines.
Who has the most bylines in Australia’s media?
In terms of who had the most bylines attributed to women? That would be the print version of The Daily Telegraph (61 percent) followed by the print version of The Courier-Mail (59 percent) and the online Sydney Morning Herald (58 percent).
It’s easy to get depressed about the lack of equality in the media. But what hopeful signs of change did you find?
Yes, there continues to be a lack of gender equality in the media which is particularly depressing when you think of how many women have entered journalism and senior newsroom positions. However, our report found that women’s representation is slightly increasing – the first report in 2012 found that women only accounted for 20 percent of all comments whereas our 2021 report found they now provide 31 percent of quotes. There have also been marginal improvements in the number of women in different categories, like politics or business.
We felt a bit more hope after reading the editor interviews as they were actually acknowledging the problem with some, like Lisa Davies, former editor of the The Sydney Morning Herald, discussing how they’ve actively tried to implement change at multiple levels. This is indicative of the change we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since the March 4 Justice rallies we saw around Australia at the start of 2021, which has normalised discussion around gender inequality. It gives us hope that things will continue to change for the better.
- Please note: Feature image is a stock photo.
Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.