Women in Journalism: An Uphill Battle

Groundbreaking female journalist and author, Gwen Ifill, was a giant of her field. Since her recent death, she has been hailed “as one of the greatest journalists of her generation” by the New York Times. Through Ifill’s extensive career in both print and broadcast journalism, she paved the way for women reporters. In a profession still dominated by men, President of Simmons College Helen Drinan says Ifill “was encouraging to young women journalists.”

According to “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2015,” a study done by Women’s Media Center, men dominate the news coverage within the United States. Men generated on average 62.1 percent of news in 2014. That percentage depends on the outlet, network and topic of the news. Men cover 68 percent of evening broadcasts, with the remaining 32 percent held by women. However, PBS, where Ifill co-hosted and co-managed “NewsHour,” had a woman in the anchor’s chair 97 percent of the time. In other major networks like CBS, NBC and ABC, most news is still predominantly anchored by men. Additionally other news outlets have less of a gender gap: 62 percent of content for print and wires are produced by males, while 58 percent of online news content is written by men. Still some companies are more balanced than others: 68 percent of bylines in The New York Times are male and 32 percent female, while in the Chicago Sun Times, 55 percent of bylines are women with the remaining 45 percent held by men. The gender gap also differs depending on the topic of news covered. Sports, with the largest gender gap, is covered 90 percent by male reporters while 10 percent of the reporters are females. Education, though, is reported on by females 55 percent of the time with men covering the remaining 45 percent. In general, hard news topics like politics, criminal justice, sports, technology and science are dominated by men while women are more likely to write or report on education, health, lifestyle and religion.

Although women make up over half of the population and outnumber men in journalism schools, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, they still are outnumbered in the field. Female journalism students are more likely to go into PR and online journalism than their male counterparts. Sheila Coronel, director of Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism said, “Having more women journalists means women’s perspectives on policy and other issues are represented more fully and women’s concerns are reflected on the front pages, not relegated to the ‘lighter’ sections of the newspaper.” She goes on to say that the face of watchdog journalism is male, and to combat the gender disparity in the field, journalism schools should highlight work done by female journalists and have more women faculty. She stresses the important role that women in the field played in her career saying, “I benefitted immensely from the support, encouragement and mentorship provided by women colleagues and editors.”

Coronel also acknowledges added dangers for women in journalism, especially “in countries where the rule of law is weak and the state is unable or unwilling to provide protection to journalists.” Investigative journalist and sex columnist, Violet Blue, wrote in her book “Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy” that women web journalists are especially vulnerable to surveillance, personal stalking and impersonation likening the phrase “online while female” to “driving while black.” She recommends that journalists, especially women set up a proxy email, phone number and P.O. box for contacting sources. This eliminates some risks associated with being publicly accessible and ensures that sources don’t have sensitive information like your home address or personal phone number. In some cases, sexual assault, and the threat of sexual assault, is used to keep women journalists from doing their jobs, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The Committee to Protect Journalists in 2011 reported, “Journalists from all over the world said they largely kept assaults to themselves because of broad cultural stigmas and a lack of faith that authorities would act upon their complaints,” and as a result, little documentation on the subject exists. The pressure to be seen as “one of the guys” also contributes to the silence around sexual assault of women journalists, New York Times reporter Kim Barker said:

“You didn’t talk about it. You didn’t talk about being groped. You didn’t talk about what happened late at night when a fixer would come to your door and want to come inside or share a room with you. You didn’t talk about what happened in certain circumstances because you had to seem like you were just one of the guys. You didn’t want to raise this with your bosses ... Then they would send somebody else.”

The CPJ published its annual publication, “Attacks on the Press,” in April of this year. This edition focuses on gender and media freedom worldwide, with several essays highlighting the challenges faced by female journalists. In one such essay is Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was raped 16 years ago by men who sought to punish her for her reporting. Bendoya talks about why she continued reporting, saying, “I still do not know where I found the strength to return to the newsroom, to my notes and to my tape recorder. What I do see clearly is what motivated me. I understand now that my love for this profession and for my work as a reporter was greater than the pain of my body and my soul.”

Two former paramilitary men were convicted this year in her attack. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, says in the introduction to “Attacks on the Press” that “talking openly is an important first step,” and that “We hope this book makes a contribution to that difficult process.” In her recently published memoir, Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, has helped bring attention to a culture where she had to be concerned if speaking out against unwanted advances by male superiors would affect her career.

There are many challenges and dangers facing women in journalism, from the gender gap to the risk of sexual assault. While there is much room for improvement, the role of women in journalism is undeniable. The female perspective in reporting crime, politics and sports is just as important as the female perspective on fashion, health and education. As Tom Stoppard said, “I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon.” Why shouldn’t women share in that power?