News coverage of systemic gender gaps is virtually nonexistent. We can change that.

Feb 14, 2023 in Diversity and Inclusion
Women at work

This is the first part in a three-part series covering key findings from "From Outrage to Opportunity: How to Include the Missing Perspectives of Women of All Colors in News Leadership and Coverage."

There is nothing more to discuss about gender equality because we have gone far enough. 

I am tired of being told that we journalists are getting yet another thing wrong: diversity and gender reporting. This is relentless.

The news agenda is so darn busy with existential stories, I don’t have time to look at differences between men and women. They won’t be significant anyway.

As a journalist, do any of these beliefs resonate with you? If so, you are not alone. Regardless of gender, many journalists and editors across the globe agree with at least one of them. 

Prevalent as these beliefs are, they may be costing you a portion of your potential news audience: women, who no longer see themselves reflected in the news. Many women are abandoning news providers altogether, often favoring stories shared by family or friends on social media feeds instead. The SimilarWeb analysis of news consumption we conducted at the international audience strategy consultancy I co-founded together with Richard Addy, AKAS, reveals an enormous 20 percentage point gender gap between men’s and women’s consumption of online news globally. In India, Nigeria, the U.S., U.K., Kenya and South Africa, men’s consumption of online news outstrips women’s by 29, 25, 22, 21, 18 and 7 percentage points respectively.

What is it that online news is not doing enough of to serve its female audiences? One of the news industry’s main blind spots is failing to recognize or report on the longstanding systemic gaps between men and women that grant men unfair advantages over women. The latest AKAS GDELT analysis of 1 billion online news stories since 2017 unearthed that globally, less than 0.08% of these articles contained the terms “gender” or “gender gap(s).” 

In “From Outrage to Opportunity,” which was launched in November 2022, I analyzed underutilized story angles for seven substantive structural gaps between men and women: gaps in pay, power, confidence, authority, safety, health and age. The AKAS GDELT data analysis found that only 0.02% of global news coverage since 2017 has referenced any of these seven gaps. Any structural lens is, as a result, largely absent.

This omission by editors and journalists is often not deliberate. When I asked senior news editors their views on why the proportion of gender equality stories or angles in news coverage was so low, three reasons emerged. 

First, two in three emphasized a lack of awareness or skills to look for the gender angle/story. 

One female senior news editor from the Global South clarified the issue: “What is missing is that sensitization of journalists to actually look at the gender angles of the stories that they cover. If a journalist was trained to look for a gender angle in [a current health news story in my country], then they would look at the proposed [policy] changes — how are they going to affect men and women differently?” 

The second reason for the dearth of reporting on gender gaps can be attributed to the narrow understanding within the news industry of what constitutes a gender story lens. For example, instead of seeing the longstanding systemic gaps between men and women as permeating all stories, regardless of beat, half of the interviewed editors assessed gender stories as “soft news,” routinely evaluating them as less important within an incredibly competitive news agenda. 

The third reason emerged when this narrow definition of a gender story was taken even further, whereby one third of the interviewed senior editors admitted to being skeptical of the need to apply a gender lens to stories. This attitude was summed up by a female news leader from the Global North: “Well, we’ve only got so much capacity to cover certain stories, and we’re going to cover these because we know that this and that will fly.”

Well, news coverage is not flying with as many female audiences as previously assumed by news organizations. This, however, can change if news providers’ thinking evolves, becoming more attuned to women along the whole news value chain, including in news leadership, newsgathering and news outputs. 

Perhaps the most significant intervention for change lies in raising organizational awareness of the persistent male bias in the selection of stories and reporting angles, the contributors chosen to convey them, and the audiences who consume them.  In the words of the esteemed Mary Ann Sieghart, whom I interviewed for “From Outrage to Opportunity,” the persistence of male bias is “like an elastic band: as soon as you stop pulling, it just snaps back to the default of having many more men than women.” 

Which “gender gap” stories should newsrooms focus on covering? A majority of the news editors interviewed (64%) selected the pay gap as the most important to expose in news coverage, in part because it is easier to measure and track and therefore more straightforward to report. The next most urgent gap to prioritize in coverage, selected by 45%, was the power gap. 

More broadly, news organizations (and journalism schools) that are exploring the substantive opportunity that equitable journalism presents for their bottom line, should train journalists and editors to look for gender differences in news stories and consumption across beats, such as politics, business, social policy, the economy and education. The differences are always there, as are the gender-diverse sources reporters choose to highlight them. 

This challenge will take time, however, as one male senior newsmaker from the Global North warns: “We have new reporters who have come through educational systems that are trying to emphasize more equitable approaches to reporting. But often reporters - new and veteran - are habituated in particular ways of reporting, so it does take a long time to change old habits.” 

But change them, we can. Step by step.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash.