‘How Not To Be Sexist,’ An Analysis of and Antidote for Misogynistic Language in News Media

Many aspects of progressive movements have succeeded in making changes to the social world and the media industry as a whole. But the continued existence of overcritical and misogynistic headlines proves the ongoing need for official journalistic guidelines to help newsrooms better represent women and avoid sexist coverage … so I made some. Check them out at How Not To Be Sexist: The Guidelines.

An Associated Press headline circulated in August that read “Ariana Grande belts Aretha Franklin standard in tiny dress.”

And it was the New York Post that accused Serena Williams of having “the mother of all meltdowns” after her highly-contested loss at the U.S. Open.

The New York Times just this week characterized the new Democratic female politicians of color as a “management headache.”

From language used in print and digital publications to the demographic makeup of newsrooms across the country, journalism is still seemingly a boys’ club.

How Not To Be Sexist, a new website I created after researching misogynistic language in media, offers guidelines for journalists who might not even recognize the problem and serves as a watchdog to call out transgressors. Think of it as an AP Stylebook for wiping out sexism in media.

How Not To Be Sexist hosts journalistic guidelines and a misogyny in the media watchlist.

The cause for the continued existence of misogyny even in the era of #MeToo is multifaceted. Admittedly, many news organizations “can point proudly to diversity goals displayed on corporate websites, and the injection of influential female voices into content and conference programs,” writes Nieman Lab.

However, one thing is clear: Working women in media are still under-represented in bylines, behind editors’ desks and in board rooms. And they’re often paid less than their male counterparts.

“Media tells us our roles in society — it tells us who we are and what we can be. [These numbers] show us who matters and what is important to media — and clearly, as of right now, it is not women,” writes Julie Burton, Women’s Media Center president.

Statistics grow only more dismal when rising up in newsrooms’ chains of command. According to Poynter, “women run three of the top 25 newspaper titles in the U.S. and only one of the top 25 titles in the world. That number has decreased in the past 10 years.”

“It’s not an easy job. There’s a lot of long hours, and the pay is not super. And women have to sink or swim with everybody else. But we need the chance to prove that,” says Ann Fiore, editor of The Janesville Gazette, about the profession in general.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, language coming out of newsrooms still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to gender parity.

Scholars who study this topic, like Professor Virginia García Beaudoux, typically group these media offenses into buckets she calls “gender traps.”

The first she identifies is focusing on a woman’s domestic or familial life rather than her professional merit. The Atlantic’s October article “How Unions Help Moms Take Maternity Leave” could fall into this category. (Excuse me but isn’t the term ‘parental leave’?)

Another common trap is qualifying a woman’s achievement(s) by associating her with powerful or familiar men, like when Bloomberg referred to Senator Kamala Harris as “the female Obama.”

Dwelling or speculating on female emotions and equating them with weakness is another route the media is tempted to take, like when The Guardian commented that “Kirstie Allsopp’s iPad rage sets a bad example.”

Last, news media often spends a disproportionate amount of time discussing how a woman looks. In fact, even the way a woman sounds is subject to criticism, as was the case when on-air in 2016 MSNBC interrupted Hillary Clinton’s speech on gender equality to complain she was yelling.”

As it stands, there is currently no formal safeguard in place to ensure misogyny isn’t making its way into news language: No chapter in the AP Style Guide, no specific website or booklet to which all journalists can turn, no one governing body to oversee this issue or train journalists on how to avoid it, no one particular person in the newsroom who can carry this burden.

(The AP Stylebook includes the following vague blurb on the topic of “women”: “Treatment of the sexes should be evenhanded and free of assumptions and stereotypes.” In the section of “news values and principles,” the Stylebook reads: “We abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions.” Yet, there are no guidelines or best practices listed in the Stylebook explicitly on the topic of gender equality.)

After interviewing four editors, one socially-conscious reporter and an API employee, I realized that, while misogyny is a macro-level media problem, it comes down to individuals: one person’s word choice, an individual decision, conversations and debates happening between one reporter and one editor, one person’s inkling dissatisfaction about a story topic.

Yet, with journalist and editor positions being combined and eliminated industry-wide, the likelihood of this one person even being in the newsroom, let alone empowered or available enough, to keep an eye on the overall language and to question that of her peers is becoming less and less likely.

This issue becomes even harder to fight with poor governmental leadership, yet it would be hard to characterize Trump’s White House as anything but.

“The reason this language continues to be perpetuated is poor leadership. Not poor leadership, in fact, just poor leaders,” says Shane Fitzgerald, executive editor of the Bucks County Courier Times. “President Trump stokes these emotions and passions, and he really compartmentalizes people into stereotypes. That kind of thing just sets an example that it’s okay. Our leadership has to be better at understanding that.”

So, now what? What needs to be done?

As Nieman Lab wrote this year in an open letter: “It’s time to stop talking about the need for equality and start actively reforming the industry.”

“What you need is people calling out the media,” says Veronica Chao, editor of The Boston Globe Magazine. “When it’s happening, you need people responding like, ‘Hey, that’s not acceptable, and I noticed you did that. I’m going to spread the word about it and it will possibly affect your audience.’”

Luckily, that’s exactly what HOW NOT TO BE SEXIST, specifically the public watchlist, aims to do.

But how can we start targeting this problem at the root?

“It takes thoughtfulness,” “discussion” and “some soul-searching,” says Chao.

The guidelines I created for newsrooms aim to standardize the thoughtfulness and conversation that so many editors, reporters and journalist trainers call for. The guidelines come in the form of questions reporters can ask themselves before submitting an article or even a story pitch and range from, “Is the focus of this story fair and in good taste? Is it going to be important several years from now?” to “If I’m asking a question of a woman, would I ask this same question of a man?” and “How could this topic or my language be perceived? Am I writing with empathy?”

The full list of these questions can be found at the bottom of this article. Sub-descriptions and examples of each question can be found at How Not To Be Sexist: The Guidelines.

This checklist, though, is only the micro-level approach to a more macro-level problem. Journalists must also begin to examine and question the demographics of their individual newsrooms.

Sue Bullard, professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shares a personal experience that rings true for many.

“More women need to be represented in newsrooms and particularly in the top ranks of newsrooms,” she says. “When I became the editor of a small newspaper in Michigan in the early 1980s, I was the first female to do so. But things haven’t changed all that much since. Even though the majority of journalism students are women, that’s not reflected in newsrooms.”

Journalists must also understand the demographics of their communities and work to ensure that the voices in a given story are representative of their community.

Last, it helps to think about this stuff before a bad example happens.

“I don’t need a bad example to happen to make it important,” says Fitzgerald. “I don’t wait for something bad to happen. … It really starts from the day you walk in the door, whatever group you’re leading.”

After all, as Ashley McCallum, local reporter at the Janesville Gazette, warns, “It’s harder to be retroactive than it is to be proactive.”

Sub-descriptions and examples of each question can be found at How Not To Be Sexist: The Guidelines.

HOW NOT TO BE SEXIST: A Checklist

  • Have I fallen susceptible to a common gender trap, like an overfocus on family life, qualifying achievements by associating her with men, equating emotion with weakness, or a disproportionate focus on the way she looks or sounds?
  • Is the focus of this story fair and in good taste? Is it going to be important several years from now?
  • How could this topic or my language be perceived? Am I writing with empathy?
  • Are the voices in my story balanced? If not, is there a particular reason why?
  • If I’m asking a question of a woman, would I ask this same question of a man?
  • Intersectionality: If I’m asking this question of a woman, would I ask it of all women, including those of a different race or sexual preference?
  • Have I given thought to stereotypical portrayals?
  • Have I used any gendered language? Can I find a way to add more gender-neutral language?

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Roxy Szal is a grad student and freelance copywriter living in Orange County, California. She loves to use her oral and written language skills and community engagement background to be useful to neighbors in Orange and LA Counties.

Check her out on Twitter or her writing portfolio.