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Women in Media — And Media in Crisis

posted by Nell Minow

As Katie Couric leaves her pioneering role as the first women anchor of a nightly network news broadcast, it appears that she arrived just as what was once the flagship of end-of-the-day journalism was shrinking to not much more than a rowboat, and a sinking one at that. Where once Walter Cronkite united audiences and was seen as the most trusted man in the country, most people under age 30 cannot even name the network anchors — they get their news from “The Daily Show.” Is it a coincidence that John Stewart’s show has been sharply criticized for its overwhelmingly male staff? Or that Couric now reportedly will leave news for a talk show?

Perhaps I am especially concerned with these issues because of my recent participation in the International Women’s Media Foundation conference at George Washington University. The event opened with a Kalb Report interview of Diane Sawyer, who spoke about the impact of budget cuts and new media on the nightly news broadcast.

Women from all over the world shared their stories about the way women were treated as reporters, editors, and managers and as sources and subjects of news stories as well. Domestic violence stories at one paper were characterized as “a family tragedy,” until women in the newsroom insisted that they be described like any other homicide: murder.  A paper in Norway made a commitment to have at least one photo of a woman on the front page every day — and not an actress.   A German newspaper requires that one-half of its staff be female and makes an effort at parity in sources and stories as well.

The IWMF released a major new report, the first comprehensive global study of women in media, covering not just the roles and ranks of women working in the media but the way stories are selected and covered.  Conducted over a two-year period, the report is based on data gathered by more than 150 researchers through interviews with executives at more than500 companies in 59 countries based on a 12-page questionnaire.  The report found:

In the Asia and Oceana region, women are barely 13 percent of those in senior management, but in some individual nations women exceed men at that level, e.g., in South Africa women are 79.5 percent of those in senior management. In Lithuania women dominate the reporting ranks of junior and senior professional levels (78.5 percent and 70.6 percent, respectively), and their representation is nearing parity in the middle and top management ranks.

The global study identified glass ceilings for women in 20 of 59 nations studied. Most commonly these invisible barriers were found in middle and senior management levels. Slightly more than half of the companies surveyed have an established company-wide policy on gender equity. These ranged from 16 percent of companies surveyed in Eastern Europe to 69 percent in Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Only a little more than half of the news organizations have adopted a policy on gender discrimination.

Conference attendees used the report as a baseline to develop goals and strategies for improvement to take back to their publications.  Panel members from around the world talked about the importance of a public commitment to specific benchmarks — without imposing counterproductive quotas — that will cover not just reporters, columnists, editors, and managers but choices of sources and stories.

As with all debates on gender issues, there was a conflict between arguments that women are the same as men and arguments that they are different. A discussion on putting journalists in danger included the “genderized” treatment of the attack on Lara Logan.  Participants complained that Logan’s injuries led to sweeping statements that women should not be sent to cover the Middle East, while attacks on male journalists are seen on a case-by-case basis.

But there were also many discussions of the different perspective that women bring to sources and stories, the importance of making women’s points of view available to both male and female readers, and the impact of women as visible, credible role models for the next generation of journalists.

The limited data available from earlier studies show some progress for women in media, more as reporters than as managers.  This report, while incomplete due to the refusal by some news organizations to cooperate, especially on issues relating to compensation, provides the first meaningful baseline for measuring future progress.

But the measure of success is a moving target.  The conference presentations made it clear that the challenges of strengthening the presence of women in journalism are small in comparison to the transformational changes affecting the industry as a whole. U.S.-based print newspapers, which have relied in the past on advertising and classified ads for the majority of their revenue and are now losing readers to the web, are at a disadvantage over newspapers in other countries with less internet access (so far) and more subscription-based business models.

In a luncheon speech, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, President Obama’s appointee for Global Women’s Issues, spoke about the mobile phone as one of the most powerful factors in providing access to the crucial information that helps women achieve equality. The conference participants recognized that the greatest obstacle to keeping well-researched information available is not sexism but the Gresham’s law-impact of avalanches of free online content.



  • http://www.mediamom.com joy rose

    Really great article and insights. Thanks so much for this thoughtful and articulate report! ~ Joy Rose, Media Mom™

    • Nell Minow

      Thank you, Joy Rose!

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