Jan 1 2000

Women Have Not Taken Over the News

TV Guide should look at the numbers before they cheer journalistic gender parity

TV Guide‘s cover story on “How Women Took Over the News” (10/9/99) painted a pretty then-vs.-now picture of gender equity in the newsroom, in which “women are on every beat, in every aspect of news, as fixtures in jobs traditionally held by men.”

Way back when, TV Guide reminisces, women were “second-class citizens in TV news,” subjected to age and gender discrimination, and Diane Sawyer “got into journalism…the old-fashioned way”–by wearing “pointy bras” and lots of hair spray. Not so anymore, TV Guide asserts, now that Sawyer shares the news media spotlight with Katie Couric, Christine Amanpour, Claire Shipman and other visible female journalists who are “setting the news agenda for America.” TV Guide attributes their success to a journalistic “revolution” that reached “critical mass in the last decade.”

As evidence of this female victory, TV Guide tells us that ABC nearly doubled its number of women correspondents from 1991 to 1998. The raw numbers–not given in the story–are slightly less rosy: According to a 16-year study by Joe Foote, a communications professor at Southern Illinois University, ABC employed only 14 female correspondents (19 percent of the total) in 1991. By 1998, that number rose to 26 (39 percent of a smaller news roster).

And in the broadcast news landscape as a whole, female reporters made up only one-third of the correspondent corps and covered only 28 percent of stories in 1998. Sure, female journalists fare better now then they did in the days of legally sanctioned gender discrimination–but they are still outnumbered two-to-one by their male counterparts.

A summary of Foote’s findings opens with the happy, and correct, announcement that “After years of slogging in the trenches, women and minority reporters enjoyed unparalleled visibility on 1998’s major network evening newscasts.” Foote is right, of course: Women and people of color now command a more identifiable presence as journalists than they ever have before. However, it’s not very hard to maintain a greater presence in news than during the days when news outlets had to be threatened with (or lose) lawsuits before they’d stop discriminating against female and minority journalists in hiring and promotion. Slow, steady, incremental gains indicate that equity is an attainable goal–but there is no question that it is still elusive. (Even incremental gains are elusive for some ethnic groups: According to Foote’s date, just 2 percent of on-air assignments were covered by Latinos, and a scant 1 percent by Asian-Americans.)

Ironically, it is the perception of visibility on the part of editors and news managers, rather than overwhelming advancement of female or minority journalists, that leads to overly enthusiastic stories about women eradicating the journalistic glass ceiling. A recent International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) survey of women journalists of color and their managers (“Women Journalists of Color: Present Without Power,” 9/99) found that 53 percent of news managers claim their newsrooms reflects the diversity of the market, yet only 22 percent of the journalists surveyed said theirs did. This perceptional disparity extends to content: Just 25 percent of the journalists surveyed said that their outlet’s news reflects the diversity of their community, while 69 percent of managers said it does.

Media reports equating women’s “progress” with “equity” (as in the TV Guide piece) are dangerous and disingenuous, as they reinforce the misperception that barriers to professional advancement no longer exist. In effect, this type of story asks the reader why we would ever need to work for further inclusiveness and diversity in the workplace, since women and people of color have already “arrived.” But the IWMF’s report illustrates that there is much work to be done before women and people of color are fully integrated into positions of authority in media. Summarizing their findings, the IWMF’s Cynthia Tucker (Atlanta Constitution) and Maureen Bunyan (WJLA-TV) explain:

There are now more women of color working in the U.S. news media than ever before…. The unfortunate reality, however, is that in all but a few rare cases, women journalists of color are not positioned to make decisions about what becomes news. In effect, women of color have established a presence in the news gathering process, but they have very little influence over news content or product. As a whole, these women are present, yet they are without power and without a voice.

If many women are present without power as reporters and broadcast journalists, news women are sidelined even more thoroughly behind the camera. A 1998 Radio Television News Directors Association/Ball State University survey found that only 20 percent of local television news directors were women. Worse still is the issue of news ownership–a 1998 Broadcasting & Cable survey (8/3/99) found no women heading the Top 25 media or television groups, broadcast networks or major cable programming companies. So much for women “setting the news agenda for America” by taking over “every aspect of news.”

TV Guide‘s upbeat conclusion is that, no longer held back by institutional sexism, female journalists have come “a long way, baby.” But when women in the news corps still trail their male counterparts in large numbers, and when they are excluded from many of the most powerful aspects of the news business, there’s clearly still a long way to go. The more women and people of color succeed in the newsroom, the greater their perspectives can be felt in the ways the news is written and reported–which is why we need more stories about the necessity of increased access to every aspect of journalism, not cheerleading pieces indicating that the battle for journalistic parity has already been won.

Jennifer L. Pozner is head of the Women’s Desk at FAIR.