Sexism and News Judgment

“In all honesty, I don’t see this breaking through for us in this busy week.”

This was the response from a male news director at a major network to an invitation to hear about a comprehensive study on public opinion toward gender equality.

It was the Tuesday before more than four million women around the nation gathered to march in cities across the globe, concerned about a host of issues, including but not limited to access health care and abortion, racism, police shootings in minority communities, and the election of a president who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

Of course, the news director was right that it was indeed a busy news week, with a presidential inauguration looming that Friday, ongoing Trump tweetstorms, and controversial cabinet nominees. But not everyone was as surprised as some journalists apparently were that the Saturday march would exceed estimates and that gender equality would do more than just “break through,” inspiring women (as well as men!) of many different ages, races, and localities to participate, many for the first time, in civic action.

My friend Tresa Undem is a founding partner at PerryUndem research and polling firm; we went to school together at the Annenberg School at Penn. She has 16 years of experience in public opinion research, and much of her work centers around issues relevant to women’s health. And one of her biggest recent findings from a recent large-scale national survey is that there is a tremendous gap in how men and women perceive sexism, with a significant majority of women reporting that sexism remains a significant problem in our society, while far fewer men recognize this issue — especially Republican men.

This gap, unsurprisingly, also influences the news judgment of many male news editors.

PerryUndem invited numerous reporters from national news outlets to a webinar to discuss the survey results on January 17, including journalists from the New York Times, USA Today, LA Times, Washington Post, Salon, FiveThirtyEight, Vox, and TIME.

Afterward, they saw the list of the attendees. Every journalist who attended — every single one — was female.

Then they looked looked at journalists who declined. Many were men.

Houston, we have a problem.

PerryUndem’s study did get wide coverage in a number of major national news outlets. But the gender disparity in interest in their work should still give us pause.

I’ve been working in, studying and/or teaching journalism for nearly 20 years. I’ve had excellent, supportive male bosses and mentors like Bill Kovach, Gregory Favre, Tom Rosenstiel, and Jeff Jarvis. In my ethnographic newsroom research and my work managing training programs for the Committee of Concerned journalists, I’ve met many intelligent, thoughtful male journalists that understand the importance of diversity; I even married one. But the fact remains that one of the most consistent areas where one can see bias in the news remains in story selection and news judgement by editors that are still far too likely to be white and male.

Of course, gender is just the tip of a much bigger diversity iceberg, but if we are going to do more than just shout smug platitudes, we need to stop spending so much time worrying about being accused of political bias and think a lot harder about the other, often unexamined biases we have.

Decisions on what merits news coverage are often delivered, in my experience, with a great deal of confidence, as though the answers are somehow journalistically ordained rather than governed by a million forms of subtle bias. “Yes, that’s a story; this isn’t a story,” editors pronounce. Of course, news judgment is just the beginning, as a million other decisions about who to interview, what information to include and what to leave out are still to be made. But story selection is the front line of unconscious bias and one that gets far less scrutiny and pushback than deserved.

Hearken CEO Jennifer Brandel put it best when she said in an interview that the reason journalists and media companies obsess over being a gatekeeper boils down to one simple if unpopular answer: The patriarchy. She said:

“So many of society’s longstanding institutions have been designed by and long-run by men (government, universities, health care, journalism, etc.). While gender equity in leadership is happening to some degree in various industries, all of these systems and their processes were conceived of, optimised for and primarily run by men. Culturally speaking, men are not often encouraged or rewarded for collaboration, or for ceding authority and admitting they don’t know something (which are some of the principles Hearken is built on).”

For my part, I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry in my journalism career as I was when front pages around the country greeted Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination with pictures of her husband, and many journalists defended this by arguing that because she was not physically present on stage at the convention, they had no photo op — as though news organizations all over the world don’t devote substantial amounts of their scarce resources to often repetitive and stale horse-race coverage of presidential elections. I’m sorry, sirs, but you could have figured it out. I SEETHED about this in a way I never have before or since, and I know many other women that did as well — it was emblematic of every time a man had either stolen or denied our achievements and then brushed it off as a simple matter of inconvenience or logistics.

Every panel and event I’ve been to of late is full of journalists writing their hands over their loss of trust and questioning how they can possibly regain the esteem of the ~25 percent of the country that voted for Trump. I’d suggest taking the lens much wider to see who else feels underrepresented in our coverage, many of whom didn’t vote at all.

I asked Tresa how she would boil down the story of her study, and she said: “the public is saying now is a time to reignite the conversation on gender equality, rights, and sexism. That conversation might also include how gender may or may not play a role in reporting events.”

Let’s do better.

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