While reading bylines is commonplace for those who work in media, if you ask a typical newspaper reader whether the writer is male or female—the answer is probably “I don’t know.”
In the United States, women represent a little over half the population. Yet according to a recent study by the Women’s Media Center, a national nonprofit that works to raise the visibility and viability of women in media, “male journalists continue to report most news, especially for wires and TV prime-time evening broadcasts.”
“Inequality defines our media,” says Julie Burton, president of the WMC, in a statement. “Media tells us our roles in society—it tells who we are and what we can be.” Barton says in 40 years of studying gender issues in journalism, researchers have consistently found the same result: overall, male journalists report and produce the majority of U.S. news.
Burton says the study clearly shows the media is in a state of great disruption. Still despite all the change, one thing remains the same: fewer women report the news than men. “Of particular concern is the gender gap at the wires, whose stories are picked up by news outlets across the country. Media tells us what is important and who matters, and when the wires assign 69 percent of the stories to men, the message is clear where women stand.”
Spokane’s daily newspaper
A 9-month survey (March 2018 – Nov. 2018) of Spokesman Review writer’s bylines on A1, by gender, revealed that in March 2018 bylines by female writers were 28 percent, April – 30 percent, May – 27 percent, June – 24 percent, July – 35 percent, Aug. – 16 percent, Sept. – 32 percent, Oct. – 29 percent, and Nov. 2018 – 30 percent.
Addy Hatch-Hanley, outreach and communications director for Washington State University’s College of nursing, spent nearly 30 years in journalism in Spokane after moving here in 1995. Hatch-Hanley worked for both the Spokane Journal of Business, as well as the Spokesman Review, where she was managing editor until she left in 2017.
Although not surprised by the statistics in the WMC study, Hatch-Hanley says having different perspectives (via both sexes) in the newsroom is a good thing.
“Having many perspectives creates the strongest news. Diversity of all kinds is going to reflect what a news organization is supposed to do—reflect the lives and realities of its readers or viewers. We can’t do that unless people reporting the news are reflecting the community at large,” she says.
Hatch-Hanley says journalism particularly hasn’t been good for women with families—“It’s a job that in the old traditional newspaper or TV grind you couldn’t depend on a schedule. You wouldn’t know if your plans were safe from breaking news. It hasn’t been conducive to people who are trying to take care of a family outside of work, which seems to fall disproportionally to women to do,” she says.
Feminist news researchers have long argued that in the culture of most newsrooms, journalists’ daily decisions about what is newsworthy remain firmly based on masculine news values according to a study by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
“As such, issues and topics traditionally seen to be particularly relevant to women tend to be pushed to the margins of the news where the implicit assumption is that they are less important than those which interest men. In so doing, men’s views and voices are privileged over women’s, thereby contributing to the ongoing secondary status of women’s participation as citizens,” the study states.
Elizabeth Kissling, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Eastern Washington University, says an old adage is still germane—“Media doesn’t tell us what to think; media tells us what to think about,” she says, adding that sexism today is much subtler than it has been in the past.
“In a post-feminism sensibility, where women are more visible in so many places, we see women in local news broadcasts as anchors, we see women in all the positions … writing headlines, doing sports and weather … we even see two women together as anchors. So it’s very easy to think that sexism is over because there are all these women doing all these jobs,” she says.
“There is a perspective now that things have already changed, even though there really are unspeakable inequalities,” she adds.
When Pia Hallenberg, a longtime Spokane journalist who has worked for the Pacific NW Inlander and the Spokesman Review over 19 years, began her career in media, it was much more male dominated, she says. That changed over the course of her career as she saw several transitions that brought more women into the newsroom.
“Suddenly there was an influx of women managers, reporters and editors, and everyone said it was good to see all these women,” Hallenberg says. “I did not see this as a good sign. Ideally it should be 50/50. It’s not a popular thing to say.”
Hallenberg says she’s had both male and female editors who were exceptional. “There are many more women editors today than there was and there is also a much smaller newsroom staff,” she says. “If you work in a daily newsroom there may be a tendency to steer women to softer experiences but some of the most kick-ass reporters are women. It is really competitive and if you don’t have the drive—it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, you don’t have a chance.”
Challenges for women journalists
Journalists are used to having to defend their work in the traditional sense, but the online harassment and trolling of reporters is now a professional hazard that has become something of a norm. The advent of social media has meant that the dissemination of hate has become as easy as a simple click, and the language is getting increasingly ugly and violent.
Many journalists, both men and women, face online harassment and trolling. Experts say women are three times more likely to receive online harassment than their male colleagues—something Hallenberg says she endured during the last few years of her job at the Spokesman.
“Towards the end of my career, I took my measure of name calling and bullying posted on social media. I think there was perhaps an upswing in that kind of thing after the last election. It was absolutely horrific,” she says. “And there wasn’t much I could do except keep track of what people were posting and document it. I had to be so careful and so neutral. But what I experienced was nothing compared to what women who work in television have to put up with.”
Today, after leaving the Spokesman in 2017, Hallenberg is development director at the Spokane Humane Society where salaries are higher, and she doesn’t worry about trolls following her on her Facebook page.
Yakima reporter weighs in
Ellen Gordon, a broadcast major at Washington State University, worked at a Yakima television station after graduation where she says of five reporters she worked with, only one was male.
“I like working in that type of environment with lots of other women,” Gordon says. “But the further up you went on the career ladder, there were all men. There was a male news director, male weather guy, the general manger … but that’s typical of most workplaces where the boss is a man.”
Gordon recently took a position with KATU in Portland as a news writer and fill-in producer. “People may not realize on television the news comes from a woman writer but broadcast, people are less likely to digest the news if it’s from a woman,” she adds. “Whether it’s implicit I think people may be skeptical if it’s coming from a woman rather than a man.”
She says she sometimes wonders whether people are really listening to the words they’re hearing.
“We get lots of comments about people on air, and most comments are about people’s hair, their dress … telling some woman to comb their hair on television.”
Stephanie Vigil, a veteran television news anchor for KHQ in Spokane, experienced some social media harassment when she started her career over her dress, hair, weight … “maybe when I was a little bit newer to the market. Someone wouldn’t say that to a man when they would say it to a woman—it’s based on appearance. We all have experiences when we’re a little more vulnerable and they come in full force. While the words might sting, they don’t have value over who you believe you are,” she says.
Vigil believes the culture is shifting and one of the things she appreciates is connecting with other women on a deeper level.
“Seeing how far we’ve come, we’ve changed as a society so it’s harder to hide behind something. It’s not so easy now if you’re racist or sexist. Women support each other now as allies; before, they were competing against each other for the same thing. I think the numbers are going to shift,” she says.
Perceptions of women shaped by media
Stereotypes are prevalent in today’s media, and women are often portrayed solely as homemakers and family caregivers, dependent on men, or as objects of male attention. Stories by female reporters are more likely to challenge stereotypes than those filed by male reporters according to industry experts in study after study.
Which points to a link between the participation of women in the media and improvements in the representation of women.
The Global Media Monitoring Project states that women are more likely than men to be featured as victims in news stories and to be identified according to family status. Women are also far less likely than men to be featured in the world’s news headlines, and to be relied upon as “spokespeople” or as “experts.” Certain categories of women, such as the poor, older women, or those belonging to ethnic minorities, are even less visible.
Lucinda Kay, former KXLY news anchor, has worked in both television and radio in Spokane. A year ago, she joined the news staff of KXL in Portland’s radio world.
“I got into the news business to tell stories, and provide a voice for others in this bright, beautiful, diverse world. I started shadowing in a news room when I was just 15, and I knew then, journalism would be my path. I’m a storyteller.”
Still, she says, in her early years, she didn’t use her voice so wisely, and it was a challenge working in a male-dominated career. “I would bring it home with me. And there are still times when, in certain situations, when I realize … I work with a team of men now,” she says with a laugh.
As part of a two-person team that anchors afternoon news-talk radio, Kay works with Cooper Banks, a male reporter/anchor/producer. She says her work with Banks is, above all, very intentional.
Although she said she’s had her share of challenges in journalism, what’s different today is that she treats her team like an “intentional relationship” she says.
“All the lessons I’ve learned in life I’m applying right now. I’ve never had the skills I have now. I had lots of bullies for partners, so I had to learn … that’s where I honed my skills and it takes a lot of work,” says Kay.
“I’m really digging it here. We have more men than women, but we have some very assertive women with very big voices,” she says.
“That’s the problem in our industry. The challenge in journalism is that people hustle their way in and as people move on they are appointed into positions instead of nurtured into the role. Such fear-based management makes people afraid they’re going to be fired. We can’t operate from fear. We’re good at what we do.”
Kay says journalists are voices for the masses but it’s like working the graveyard shift.
“It’s all deadline driven; nobody sleeps, eats, sees family … and you’re called to do these jobs. None of us make any money. I know how to negotiate, but women are still paid less than men. I don’t know why. It sucks that we experience that. It’s embarrassing,” she says.
Kay says in her current position both she and her work partner take responsibility for being intentional in the relationship—which she says takes work, time and commitment to the value of equality.
Julie Burton, WMC’s president, contends that “a cultural, systemic shift is necessary if U.S media is to achieve gender parity—and move toward a world where stories fully represent the voices and perspectives of women.”
Judith Spitzer is an independent journalist working in the Pacific Northwest.