Can You Hear That? It’s the Distant Echo of Women’s Voices in Mainstream Media

In mainstream media stories about women’s issues, men are quoted much more than women or even relevant organizations.

The past year has been a politically turbulent one for women’s issues with restrictive legislation over women’s health being proposed and passed in many states. The presidential election is heating up and print and online media is filled with news about all of these changes. With all of the debate, it would seem important to get women’s perspective on issues related to abortion, birth control and Planned Parenthood, yet a recent study shows that men are dominating the conversation in the mainstream media, with very little input from women or even the impacted organizations.

The 4th Estate studied the 2012 election coverage from November 1, 2011 to May 1, 2012, for a total of 2,750 print articles and TV segments that contained 50,754 quotes. And the numbers show that women’s voices are very, very faint, if they’re heard at all. The study reviewed 35 major national publications, including USA Today and the New York Times, and when talking about abortion, men owned 81 percent of the quotes, with women at 12 percent and organizations at 7 percent.

The numbers are only slightly better for stories about birth control (men 75, women 19, orgs 6), Planned Parenthood (men 67, women 26, orgs 7) and women’s rights (men 52, women 31, orgs 17), but overall women are extremely underrepresented in national media on issues about women. From this, it’s easy to see how so many of these measures are being not only proposed, but pushed through.

In Michigan, where some of the most restrictive birth control/abortion legislation is making its way through the legislative process, many women and organizations that came to the legislative session to ask questions and participate were not allowed to speak or ask anything. Two female Democrat Representatives were banned from speaking after they protested the bill and Rep. Lisa Brown said, ““I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

Although women are all but missing from those venues, there have been a few victories. In February, during the time the 4th Estate was studying election coverage, women did manage to make themselves heard when the Susan G. Komen Foundation tried to quietly sever ties with Planned Parenthood. The resulting uproar caused the charity to quickly reverse itself. While an overwhelming number of new legislative measures impacting women have passed in many states, some have been defeated.

Since men clearly control the conversation about women’s issues in the media, it’s no surprise that they control the conversation about other election topics, as well, including the economy and foreign policy. On general topics, men had 76 percent of the quotes in USA Today, 67 percent in the Washington Post and 65 percent in the New York Times. Major media has similar ratios and top TV news shows snubbed women even more with Hardball listening to men talk 81 percent of the time and Fox News, 77 percent.

Another study, The OpEd Project, found that out of 7,000 columns it reviewed from September 15, 2011 to December 7, 2011, women penned 33 percent of online opinion columns, 20 percent of print columns and 38 percent of college publication columns. The good news is that female authors are gaining ground. The study reports, “Overall we have seen approximately a 6 percentage point increase in some of the nation’s top commentary outlets in traditional media. This represents a 40 percent increase for women compared to women’s representation six years ago.”

If women aren’t represented in national media and our female lawmakers are punished like schoolchildren, what chance do women have? Brands understand that social media is a formidable tool for expressing opinions, and have learned to listen to consumers (which include women). Maybe politicians (especially those who use new media tools) will learn to listen, too. When the government ground to a halt over Planned Parenthood funding, women took to Twitter. And, while they don’t have a traditional national media platform, independent female bloggers/writers, especially mothers, are a huge presence on the internet.

In this election year, with so much at stake, women must be heard not only on women’s issues, but all issues to present all sides. Women make the majority of household purchasing decisions, we are more than half of college graduates and are half the workforce. We’ve shown that we do have an opinion (Komen), but now we need to work harder than ever to be heard through smaller channels, social media, and any other method at our disposal. Only then can the conversation include everyone, and decisions be made with the input of all citizens.

 The 4th Estate

Image: UMWomen, SMirk, Leader Nancy Pelosi

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.