WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Keely Savoie

Keely Savoie is a full-time freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. After a brief stint in the nine-to-five world trying to put her dual Master's degrees in biology and journalism to good use as a science writer for a prominent research institute, she left the saccharine world of PR in favor of the dicey and ill-paid world of writing what matters...

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Keely Savoie's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... Science Science—you slap that label on something and in most circles it instantly attains a level of credibility that almost nothing else can equal. But what trickles into the popular media as science news is far from infallible, following a circuitous process riddled with bias, judgment, and ideology.

In blogging about women, media, and science, I plan to focus on what cultural and social stereotypes science stories often serve to reinforce and, to be fair, in some cases challenge; how the reporting of these stories illuminates underlying cultural assumptions, ideas, and biases about women; how the media conflates “women’s health” with “women’s fertility, pregnancy and child-rearing”; how the media colludes with poorly designed scientific studies to pathologize the state of being female; and how scientific reporting often becomes the touchstone of political and/or religious movements to diminish or disempower women.

A Tough Pill to Take: Reporting on Women’s Health

A study from the University of Missouri found that men outnumber women by four-to-one—at least in terms of being mentioned in the pages of two mid-sized Midwestern newspapers. Not surprisingly, the press release generated zero interest: “What I can tell you right now is that the release hasn’t received any press coverage that I’ve been able to find, which is definitely much less than other journalism-related releases I’ve sent out in the past,” stated Jeff Neu, a senior information specialist at UM.

I know it isn’t shocking, and it’s one of the missions of WIMN to combat such paltry representation. It was a finding a little deeper in the study caught my attention: the study’s authors found that women were more likely to be found in “soft news”-- the entertainment or lifestyle sections-- and that the staffs of the newspapers believed overall that their paper did a poor job of covering women in all sections except entertainment and travel.

That’s one of the biggest beefs I have with media coverage of science and women: it’s simply not there—what’s worse is that the media are apparently aware of this shortcoming, but not moved to do anything about it. Oh yes, it’s a big deal when Harvard President Larry Summers shoots his mouth off about women lacking the innate ability to excel in science, and everyone gets up in arms about it for fifteen minutes, but when that is followed by rah-rah articles in the mainstream media and the feminist press alike about how the National Academy of Sciences elected a whopping 19 female members— 24% of newly elected members—the chapter is closed; Summers is excused—see? Women are in the sciences. “There, there,” they seem to be saying, “all that fuss for nothing.”

When women are covered in the science section, it generally has to do with women’s health—health, that is, as narrowly understood by most media: reproductive biology, as if the only difference between women and men were the ability to breed. It seems for the purposes of most media, “Women’s health” has become code for “fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, breast cancer and menopause.”

On a typical day in August, 2005, MSNBC’s “Women’s Health” page showcased the following headlines:

  • C-section most common hospital procedure
  • Women should keep ovaries with hysterectomy
  • Hormone pills added to list of carcinogens
  • Female circumcision could lead to infertility
  • Breast milk study finds pesticide
  • Brain-dead mom's fetus past critical stage
  • Frozen eggs may alter family planning
  • Gene may help explain some infertility
  • FDA warns of infection risk with RU-485 [sic]
  • More foreign births change delivery rooms

    Exactly one non-pregnancy-birth-fertility related headline.

    For the most part, women’s health issues are not even found in the science pages, but relegated to their own “special sections,” rarely making much news at all. There are exceptions—and this should be good news. But look where the exceptions occur, and almost always they are instances involving eggs or embryos. The hullabaloo over two recent RU-486-linked deaths illustrates this point:

  • “Two More Women Die After Abortion Pills” (NYTimes, July 20, 2005)
  • “Abortion pill deaths baffle docs” (CBS, July 25, 2005)
  • “FDA warns again of abortion pill risk” (Contra Costa Times [California], July 21, 2005)

    Now, just for kicks, compare this to some headlines about Viagra. Though the impotence pill has been on the market since 1998 – and killed up to 123 men in its first three months on the market alone, according to the FDA, and up to 616 in its first three years, according to the German Health Ministry—but it has never generated that kind of alarmist attention:

  • “6 Viagra Users Die, But Officials Can’t Link Cause to Impotence Drug” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 23, 1998)
  • FDA: Deaths likely not linked to Viagra (CNN, May 22, 1998)
  • “Death By Viagra? Drug Reactions Can Cause Complications, But Don’t Worry Unless Other Health Problems Exist” (Idaho Falls Post Register, June 25, 1998)
  • “Is Your Heart Ready for Love? ; Viagra Patients With Histories of Cardiac Trouble Need to Exercise Care When Renewing Sexual Intercourse” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 23, 1998)
  • “Viagra 'safe' despite 39 deaths in US” (Associated Press, June 24, 1998)

    To me, Viagra is on par with Botox as far as being a medical necessity. No one ever died from lack of sex, (no matter what the would-be lotharios of high school days may have said during their backseat bumblings). RU-486, on the other hand, has a much lower rate of death than pregnancies carried to term—although you won’t find that statistic in the news.

    The take-home message in these headlines to me is clear: it’s okay to sacrifice a few dozen old geezers if it’s in the name of a drug that helps men have sex, but if it’s a pill for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies, no amount of risk is acceptable: women’s bodies are made to breed.

    Flat Earth Society Gains Ground

    Of course, no discussion of science reporting and women would be complete without mention of the ways that conservative ideology colors what readers and news viewers are told is simply scientific truth. The amount of religious moral-values-laden language that has crept into reporting especially as it relates to science is a huge step back for women.

    For example, consider how many major news organizations have decided that the non-medical term “unborn baby” is acceptable, often preferable, to the more accurate “fetus” in reporting stories ranging from violence against women—who could forget the endless stories detailing the demise of Laci Peterson “and her unborn son, Conner”? What was once a strictly politicized phrase used only by militant anti-abortion groups has slipped into common parlance, much like its twin “partial-birth abortion,” which is not a medical term at all.

    The infiltration of the phrase “unborn child” into the media reached fever pitch recently when the plight of Susan Torres—the brain-dead woman who was kept alive only as long as necessary to incubate her fetus to viability—reminded us all that women are often portrayed as vessels for birthing. (Oddly, Jeb Bush kept his silence when Ms. Torres was unhooked from life support after she “gave birth” via C-section, as did most reporters for prominent media outlets, who engaged in little, if any, critical discussion about the ethics of the macabre scenario.) [See ABC News, Washington Post, and Newsweek via MSNBC for typical coverage.]

    But I digress. I was talking about unborn babies, not their vessels. While I can see why “unborn baby” is a bigger headline-grabber than the rather clinical “fetus,” the seepage of vaguely religious terms into the accepted media lexicon should be a big red flag for feminists, especially when it the media has so clearly borrowed the phrase from the anti-abortion movement and made it the everyday vocabulary of the nation.

    I have similar concerns about the recent coverage of George W. Bush’s statement of support of “Intelligent Design”:

  • “Bush Remarks On 'Intelligent Design' Theory Fuel Debate” (Washington Post, August 3, 2005)
  • “Bush’s Comments On Intelligent Design Said To ‘Invigorate Proponents’” (The Frontrunner, August 3, 2005)
  • “Bush Remarks Roil Debate Over Teaching of Evolution” (New York Times, August 3, 2005)

    On one hand, the media have been appropriately skeptical of the phrase “Intelligent Design”—it is rarely mentioned without an explanatory digression that labels it what it is—Creationism Anonymous. (Its proponents merely say somebody had to have designed the universe, but they don’t flat-out say “God.”) But rather than address the scientific facts that underlie the sine qua non acceptance of evolution by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, media reports tend to focus on the controversy of teaching creationism in the classroom, the public analysis becomes an issue of political controversy more than scientific fact, pitting “proponents of evolution” against “Intelligent Design theorists,” as in the Kansas City Star story “Intelligent design theory argues for a designer behind life” (May 4, 2005).

    Further, the media persist in endowing “Intelligent Design” with the weight of a scientific concept by continuously linking it to the word “theory.” ID does not even attain the status of a theory; in order to be valid, scientific theories must do two things—first, explain observable phenomena; second (and here’s where ID fails miserably) make testable predictions. Calling evolution a theory, on the other hand, does not do it justice. James Watson, of Watson-and-Crick-discovered-the-structure-of-DNA fame, made an excellent appeal in August in the LA Times Book Review to stop using the word “theory” when speaking of evolution (it is, in fact, a law). Using the word “theory” to describe both ID and evolution creates a false and dangerous equivalence of the two radically different concepts, and allows for religious slippage into territory that has been firmly claimed by science.

    I use the word “dangerous” intentionally. Although there is nothing inherently dangerous about religion, this particular brand of highly politicized “religion” embraced by neo-conservatives to court the hearts of well-meaning “middle Americans” is the furthest thing from earnest faith and religious belief. It is a calculated and cynical attempt to impose a unilateral vision of “morality” on an increasingly diverse population, further marginalizing those who do not embrace the same Billy Graham ideology: feminists, gays and lesbians, and pretty much anyone else from a non-white-middle-class-and-Christian background. This kind of “religion” has been used for millennia to keep women hopping from the bedroom to the kitchen, and when scientific theories are undermined because they are odds with a literal reading of the bible, I worry that the fig leaf called “Intelligent Design” will eventually come off, revealing Genesis as the next textbook in biology. The media’s willingness to accept the idea that evolution and ID should be taught “side-by-side” because each “theory” is of equal standing to science should raise the feminist alert level to red across the country.

    I Could Go On…

    But I’ll write about the study that purported to discover the anti-depressant properties of semen later. Or the one about rape being a natural outgrowth of evolution. Or the dozens about men being genetically programmed to cheat.

    Unfortunately, as illustrated above, science—or, I should say, scientists—are often willing co-conspirators with the media in promoting misogyny in the guise of “facts”. Evolutionary psychology is famously vulnerable to (or complicit in) such abuses, as it purports to explain contemporary social behaviors by imposing evolutionary justifications: ye old “men hunt, women gather” ideology. Often these studies get inordinate amounts of attention, given the frequently thin academic credentials of the main researchers and their lack of relevance to anything other than affirming culture stereotypes. When these types of flawed, sexism-inspired studies come out—and they will—I will be taking them apart down to their component assumptions and examining how they are reported.

    For now, the most important thing for me to get across is that science—and the media’s coverage of it—is a feminist issue. My goal in this endeavor is to reveal the hidden assumptions, the veiled sexism, and the misogyny behind the treatment of science in the media. Whether it be in the tacit assertion that women’s bodies are for breeding, the insidious ideology at work behind pseudoscientific phrases, or the focus on political controversy at the expense of the scientific facts, it has the same result: silencing women’s voices, trivializing their concerns, and reinforcing gender stereotypes that disempower women. Examining the media’s coverage of scientific issues as they pertain to women can expose these assumptions and unspoken prejudices, robbing them of their power.

    One of my challenges will be uncovering instances of self-censorship—where the media ignores or downplays stories that run counter to the prevailing ideas of what women are. Ferreting out these stories will be difficult, but one of the beauties of blogging is that it allows interaction with readers. I hope that anyone who finds instances of stories that should have been, studies that never were, or headlines that didn’t run will take the time to point them out to me.

    At the end of the day, I believe that science is gender-neutral, and that its practitioners have it within their power to change the world, and our understanding of it, for the better if given half a chance.

    Keely Savoie's Biography

    Keely Savoie is a full-time freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. After a brief stint in the nine-to-five world trying to put her dual Master's degrees in biology and journalism to good use as a science writer for a prominent research institute, she left the saccharine world of PR in favor of the dicey and ill-paid world of writing what matters. She writes regularly for Choice!, Planned Parenthood's online magazine; Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Magazine; and InTheFray. She has also been published in Today's Chemist at Work, and co-authored a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She comes to WIMN with a passion for both science and feminism and a dogged interest in the places where they intersect. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.

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