May 23, 2005

The Gender Gap

Despite rising numbers of women in the workforce and in journalism schools, the news of the day still largely comes from a male perspective, according to a new study of press coverage.

A broad look across the American news media over the course of nine months reveals that men are relied on as sources in the news more than twice as often as women, a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism has found.

More than three quarters of all stories contain male sources, while only a third of stories contain even a single female source, according to the study, which was drawn from an examination of 16,800 news stories across 45 different news outlets during 20 randomly selected days over nine months.

The disparity, moreover, holds true across newspapers, cable, network news and the online world.

The findings may strike some observers as ironic given the efforts of many news outlets to increase their audience by reaching out to women—and particularly to younger women, a group that generally is under represented as news consumers.

Among the findings:

  • In every topic category, the majority of stories cited at least one male source.
  • In contrast, the only topic category where women crossed the 50% threshold was lifestyle stories.
  • The subject women were least likely to be cited on was foreign affairs.
  • Newspapers were the most likely of the media studied to cite at least one female source in a story (41% of stories). Cable news, despite all the time it has to fill, was the least likely medium to cite a female source (19% of stories), and this held true across all three major cable channels.
  • On network TV, the morning news programs, which often cover lighter fare, relied more on female sources. The evening newscasts were somewhat less likely, but still did so more than cable.
  • The sports section of the newspaper stood out in particular as a male bastion. A mere 14% of stories on the front page of the sports section cited a woman, versus 86% that contained at least one male source.

The study by the Project, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, examined 16 newspapers from a range of circulation categories, four nightly newscasts (commercial networks and PBS), three network morning news shows, nine different cable programs, and nine Web sites studied at four different times during the day. The study counted all sources whose gender could be determined by their appearance, a typically female name, self-identification, or some other form of positive identification. A source is defined as anyone providing information to the report, be it through a direct quotation, indirect quotation, or as the person to whom data or other information is attributed.

The numbers suggest that the representation of women as sources in the news has a significant distance to go towards reflecting their role in American society generally. Women account for 52% of the country’s population and roughly 47% of the employed civilian workforce, according to 2000 data from the U.S. Census. What’s more, their presence in management positions is not far behind—42% of those working in management, business and financial operations are women.

Their representation in politics is relatively strong as well. For instance, a full 44% of press secretaries in the U.S. House of Representatives, the staffers to whom reporters often speak, are women, and they account for 51% of House staffers overall.(1) On the other hand, when it comes to elected officials women are still behind. They hold only four of 21 presidential cabinet seats and only 69 seats in the House of Representatives out of 440.

In the news, however, the numbers come closer to reflecting those of elected officials than the American workforce. Looking across all media, three-quarters (76%) of the stories studied contained at least one male source. Just a third (33%) contained a female source.

The gap between the genders grows even larger if we raise the bar to two or more sources. Reporters were more than three times as likely to cite two or more males within a news story as to cite at least two females (55% versus 14%). This suggests that the orientation toward males goes beyond the primary source in a story. Finding a male as the best first source does not apparently lead a journalist to look for a female as the second or third source.

Male and Female Sources in the News
Percent of all Stories
Males
Females
0
24%
67%
1
21
20
2+
55
14

There is no suggestion here that journalists should seek gender balance in every story. Certainly in some stories the most appropriate sources might be male just as in others they might be female. Instead, the study was designed to look across a wide spectrum of news coverage and media to get a basic idea of gender representation in the news.

The dominance of male sources over female exists in all media, though in some more heavily than in others.

Female Versus Male Sources, Percent of all Stories
Newspapers
Online
Network Evening
PBS NewsHour
Network Morning
Cable
Female 1+
41%
36%
27%
17%
34%
19%
Male 1+
88%
89%
63%
59%
55%
53%

 

(1) “2004 House Staff Employment Study,” U.S. House Committee on House Administration, 2004, http://housenet.gov.