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The Lois Lane Factor—Gender As A Media Reform Issue

lmarshalls Icon Posted by Lucinda Marshall

June 4th, 2008

I have always thought that the creators of Superman missed a bet. Had they been a tad more gender sensitive, they would have realized that as a girl reporter, Lois Lane possessed the power of invisibility, a special power unfortunately still possessed by women in the media today. Despite many gains for women in many areas, the media remains firmly in the grip of men and the ratios of bylines and commentary written by women are shockingly low.

To be sure, during the last few years, stories like Don Imus’ racial and misogynist spew about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, and the Clinton and Obama campaigns have brought something of an influx of women (and men of color) to the forefront. Their increased participation in the media however is primarily limited to those and other stories that focus on gender and race. A recent study by the watchdog group Media Matters found that once the Imus story died down, the visibility of women and people of color in the news went back to where it was before the story broke.

The number of stories about women reported across the media spectrum is also disproportionately low and the stories covered more often than not are either about women being victimized or about the latest shocking behavior of a starlet. Rarely are women portrayed as empowering voices. Female members of Congress, for instance get less press mentions than their male counterparts and this year’s Time Magazine list of 100 influential leaders only included 25 women. Female voices in the literary world are also similarly shut out. Last year’s National Book Awards all went to men.

According to a set of statistics compiled by Sheila Gibbons for Media Report to Women, a study conducted between November, 2004 – July, 2005 found that women make up just 14% of the guests on Sunday morning talk shows. The women were less likely to be the lead guest or to be asked back for a repeat appearance. And a study by the National Urban League found that between January, 2004 – June, 2005, only 3 black women appeared on those shows (Gwen Ifill, Condoleezza Rice and Donna Brazile in case you are wondering).

According to Gibbons, a 2004 study found that women only made up 25% of the correspondents at ABC, NBC and CBS. As for print media, the male to female byline ratio in a study of eleven magazines found that the numbers ranged from 13-1 at the National Review to 2-1 at the Columbia Journalism Review. A 2006 study found that the ratio at the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair was 3:1.

And it isn’t just mainstream media. If you look at the guest lists on The Colbert Report or The Daily Show, women make up approximately 25% of the guests. On websites such as Counterpunch and ZNet, male writers are heavily favored on a regular basis.

This week’s National Conference for Media Reform offers only two panels that focus specifically on gender issues. That is unfortunate for the simple reason that women make up half the population of this planet and our stories and our voices should be equally reflected in the media whose job, after all is to report the news, all of the news.

As Jane Fonda pointed out in a speech at last year’s National Conference for Media Reform, the media didn’t create gender biases, but they do reinforce and perpetuate them. She also pointed out that gender inequality is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we almost consider it a fact of life. But it isn’t, and the media has a responsibility to be cognizant of that reality.

Cross-posted from the Feminist Peace Network blog.

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