Gender and COVID-19

Some stories pitched with good intentions can reinforce gender stereotypes. In these cases, context is the key to fair coverage.

By Martin G. Reynolds

Take a look at the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you will find the bulk of coverage across the Gender Fault Line as being stereotypical and cisgendered.

The stories capture what’s happening for households with parents of the opposite sex, but does little to illustrate the stories of people across the gender spectrum.

Although the coverage does well to highlight the disproportionate and adverse societal impacts of the pandemic, particularly on women and women of color, it also reinforces biases that lead to inaccurate and damaging portrayals.

This week and beyond, the institute team is unpacking a Fault Line (or fissure) each day and assessing how it is being framed by news outlets across the nation as they cover the coronavirus crisis.

Robert C. Maynard, one of our founders, pioneered the Fault Lines framework. We all see the world based on how we align across Race, Class, Gender, Generation, Geography, Generation, and Sexual Orientation, as well as fissures such as politics and religion.

Who gets covered and how?

This week, there were many stories about how men in New York City were dying at a higher rate from COVID-19 than women. This New York Times story talked about how similar rates of death were found for men in Italy and China.

A bunch of stories about this disparity could be found across multiple platforms. I wonder, however, if more women were dying than men, would their deaths receive the same amount of coverage? To take this one step further, if more women of color than men were dying, what kind of coverage might they receive?

News 4 in Jacksonville, FL, a Graham Media Group station, aired a story on the coronavirus, prostitution and sex trafficking. The story revealed how sex workers are still on the streets, with one woman saying she had no place to go and that a $68 hotel room was also a means for sheltering-in-place.

The story, however, maintained a stereotypical approach, framing men as seekers of sex and women as the providers of sex. The story didn’t consider sex trafficking or prostitution involving people who were gay, transgender or nonbinary. Leaving these folks out is a form of erasure that further marginalizes them.

Who is impacted?

This Kaiser Family Foundation report illustrated how more women than men worry about getting sick and losing income as a result of the virus.

This story by Reuters found that women were taking social distancing measures more seriously than U.S. men. Journalists would do well to report on these distinctions.

This story by Vox showed that members of the trans and nonbinary community will suffer disproportionate economic fallout from the pandemic. According to the story, “Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate was at near-historic lows, but trans people were still three times more likely than their cisgender peers to be unemployed, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey.”

Impacts of this pandemic are being felt differently across gender lines.

The load at home

A staggering 95 percent of the nation is under some kind of shelter-in-place restrictions. Schools are closed and in most states many school districts have begun distance learning.

How is the distribution of work being played out across gender now that kids are stuck at home? This Forbes article talks about how women are taking on more of the load at home, even in two-spouse households.

And according to polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation, women report they are more likely to have their lives disrupted by COVID-19 than men. The polling reveals that “a larger share of women (40 percent) compared to men (31 percent) worry that they will not be able to afford testing or treatment for coronavirus if they need it.”

It must be noted this polling only accounts for heterosexual households. How is this playing out in homes where both adults are of the same gender, or are gender non-conforming? While stories about a “traditional” heterosexual family are perfectly fine, journalists need to go deeper and include folks from across the gender spectrum.

In an article in The Atlantic, Helen Lewis talked about how “Across the world, women’s independence will be a silent victim of the pandemic.”

That is a powerful indictment and speaks to the need for journalists to look beyond today’s headlines and think intentionally about how coverage of women will need to evolve in the coming weeks and months.

This commentary in U.S. News and World Report asserts that the coronavirus pandemic may set women back decades on achieving equality and that “the coronavirus pandemic needs to bring reforms to upend the systems that hold girls and women back.”

Over the airwaves

Coverage by CNN’s OutFront with Erin Burrnet had problematic framing of women of color. On April 2, toward the end of her show, Burnett brought on ShuJana Anthony, who lost her job as a waitress at a Los Angeles restaurant. The station had interviewed Anthony the day before and right there, live on television, did a reality-show reveal and told her that a viewer had seen her story and offered to pay her rent.

A noble gesture, to be sure.

At first blush, this might appear to be a heartwarming story. And getting your rent paid after losing your job is a huge relief.

However, such depictions reinforce women of color as a burden to the system, when in fact, the reason so many black women in particular are struggling, is due to deep-seeded race and gender discrimination, according to a piece written by Nina Banks for the Economic Policy Institute. Banks is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University.

What made the story about Anthony all the more striking was what ran before it. In the segment before Anthony appeared, Burnett interviewed Britney Ruby Miller, a white woman who is president of the family-owned Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, a restaurant group of seven steakhouses across three states that employs 700 people, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In this piece, Miller talked about how the group sadly had to lay off 600 employees but is still paying their healthcare.

The story on Miller is perfectly legitimate.

What’s problematic in the context of the coverage was the on-air rent reveal and the framing of Anthony juxtaposed to Miller.

One of the women, who is white, is shown in a position of influence and benevolence, providing benefits to employees, while the other, who is African American, is shown in need and receives charity from a viewer.

It’s not the generous show of support from the viewer that’s the problem. It’s how Burnett and her producers decided to present it. The show could have simply arranged for Anthony to receive the money and not have her appear on live television to capture and make gratuitous use of her grateful response and promoted it on social media.

MAYNARD INSTITUTE FAULT LINES COVID-19 COVERAGE EXERCISE

Now that you have been introduced to this Fault Line, how might you rethink the coverage of COVID-19 in a way that reaches across the Gender Fault Line?

Thoughts to consider as you reflect:

  • Do you know the gender demographics of your community?
  • Think beyond cisgendered norms for this Fault Line.
  • Do you have a mix of genders and gender identities helping make coverage decisions?
  • Do you have the staff necessary to reach across the gender spectrum?
  • If you don’t, who should you collaborate with to help you connect with people across this Fault Line?
  • Are there organizations in your community that can help connect you to people of different genders and gender identities?
  • Are you trusted by people who identify across this Gender Fault Line? If not, how will you build trust?

Martin G. Reynolds and co-executive director of the Maynard Institute and one of the organization’s lead trainers. For information on remote Fault Lines training, contact him at mreynolds@mije.org.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

Fighting for newsrooms that represent America since 1977.