The Numbers Don’t Lie: White Men Still Dominate the Media

From the Women's Media Center's report to the annual VIDA Count, recent number-crunching shows that we still live in a white male media ecosystem.

From the WMC report to the VIDA count, number-crunching shows that we still live in a white male media ecosystem. Man television via Shutterstock

When media consumers read an op-ed shaming rape victims, when fans follow fictional narratives that exaggerate the risks of abortion, when viewers encounter no women of color on TV screens or elided depictions of queer sexuality in films, when articles about and interviews with transgender individuals treat their lives as salacious rather than sensitive material, when readers flip through the pages of glossy magazines and see only tiny, thin, white bodies—in all these instances, they are consuming the choices of media makers.

So much of this damaging media content comes from creators who are not women. Women are more absent than they should be in positions of power for nearly every form of media imaginable, from sports reporting to op-ed pages to Hollywood meeting rooms. The annual VIDA Count came out Monday, revealing a male-dominated “byline count” in major “thought leader” publications that, with the exception of a few places, has barely budged. Meanwhile, last week, the Women’s Media Center released its annual report, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2014, and despite some prominent gains, the numbers are downright dismal in category after category.

As a writer with one foot in the media world and another in the activism world, I sometimes wonder if I overhype the sexism in the former, or have too critical an eye. But the numbers don’t lie. When feminists raise havoc and draw attention to these kinds of omissions, we are confronting a male-dominated industry that favors its own status quo.

All of us who love creating and consuming media, from TV shows to podcasts to newspapers, have a stake in solving this problem. Diversity shouldn’t just be encouraged for equality’s sake, but also for the sake of quality: The whiter and more male the reporters, staff, and executives are, the more likely audiences are to encounter stereotypes and cliches, monochrome casts, and stale content.

Often, the numerical imbalance these reports pinpoint reinforces itself. As detailed below, many of the disparities highlighted by the WMC report and VIDA Count, as well as other recent studies, indicate the existence of mini-ecosystems for white male media privilege. If men are writing the most op-eds, for instance, they’re most likely to be on Sunday talk shows. And if more men are directing movies, then more men get speaking roles in movies. The beast of misogyny feeds itself.

Some of the studies the WMC report uses in its compilation delve into race, while some are strictly about gender. But the results across the board are clear: The media has far to go in both categories, as well as in terms of including more diversity across the LGBT and ability spectrum. (It is also clear that the researchers who look into these statistics need to find a model to better examine all those intersections.)

Read on for a detailed look at some of these findings.

Opinions Are Dominated by DudesEven on Women’s Issues

Opinions: We all have them. Yet men—white men, in particular—are more likely to get theirs broadcasted, whether as a quote in an op-ed or as a “talking head” on news shows. The WMC report cites a Gawker reckoning of bigshot editorial page columnists: There were only 38 women out of the 143 columnists at the largest newspapers and syndicators in the country. And the same holds when opinions from “sources” are sought in front page news stories. “Men were quoted 3.4 times more often than women in Page 1 stories published in The New York Times during January and February 2013,” the report notes.

OK, this is all rather dispiriting, but what about opinions on women’s issues? Surely women must be ahead on this! Unfortunately, another report by watchdog group the 4th Estate found:

Among 35 major national publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, men had 81 percent of the quotes in stories about abortion…

In stories about birth control, men scored 75 percent of the quotes, with women getting 19 percent and organizations getting 6 percent…

Women fared a bit better in stories about women’s rights, getting 31 percent of the quotes compared with 52 percent for men and 17 percent for organizations.

This particular finding demonstrates that the disparity is not just about who’s available and qualified to talk, but a real systemic bias in favor of male voices. It should be noted that numbers for Sunday talk shows, another huge opportunity for opinions to be aired, are even worse—with the saving grace of Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC show.

I find it particularly egregious that opinion journalism, which is by its very nature subjective, would be so lopsided—one would think that the basic rules of fairness would dictate that reporters and editors get responses from people with different backgrounds and “takes” on any given issues.

What Happens Offscreen Affects What We See On It

Opinions about world events are rivaled in gender unevenness by film criticism, which is after all just opinion writing about popular culture. The VIDA Count revealed that in book criticism, a number of behemoths won’t budge from their 75 percent male byline count:

Drumroll for the 75%ers: The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books (actually holding steady at 80% men for four years) and New Yorker. We get it: you’re mighty, unmovable giants.

Similarly, a count of film review bylines during two consecutive months last year took a look at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the site filmgoers hit when they want to determine whether a film has “critical buzz.” In that sample time period, counters determined that men had written 82 percent of the reviews, and of the “top critics” at high circulation publications, the number was 78 percent.

But what are they writing about? The report notes that back in the mid-1990s, women were making more top movies than they are today. (As if we needed more grist for the mill of 90s nostalgia.) In 2013’s top-grossing movies, women accounted for only 16 percent of important positions behind the scenes, including directors, writers, executive producers, producers, cinematographers, and editors. Likewise, in one television category, forward movement has been so incremental as to be nearly immeasurable: “the number of episodes directed by white men fell from 73 percent to 72 percent.” Progress? Only a percentile.

Unsurprisingly, this bad news behind the scenes has had an effect on what appeared onscreen. Female actors in the top 2013 films garnered barely more than a quarter of the speaking roles and narration opportunities. On the other hand, in those films where women did have roles, actresses received “more roles with speaking parts and fewer gigs zeroing in on their sexuality.”

The fact that critics, filmmakers, and speaking roles are all imbalanced, gender-wise, creates a closed and self-reinforcing circle inside of whose borders male experience is centered, reinforced, and overvalued. And when women do attract praise and attention, as this infographic of Oscar winners shows, it’s often for roles that are defined by male relationships, whether as wives, mistresses, or maids.

Sports Coverage: A Man’s Man’s Man’s World

With all the disappointing results highlighted in the WMC report, the worst by far were in the arena of sports journalism, from talk radio to the Web to the paper. Only two sports talk radio hosts in the top 100 were women, while the number of female sports columnists actually dropped from 9.9 percent to 9.7 percent. But if ESPN staff were removed, “the percentage of female columnists would slip from 12.8 percent to 4.8 percent of all columnists. It’s enough to make film criticism look positively egalitarian!

That said, the sports journalism world has seen steady improvement too. Between 2010 and 2013:

  • the number of female sports editors increased to 9.6 percent from 6.3 percent,
  • the number of female assistant sports editors rose to 17.2 percent from 10.5 percent,
  • the number of female copy editors/designers increased to 19.6 percent from 16.4 percent, and
  • the number of women and people of color sports editors increased 7.4 percent, rising to 16.8 percent from 9.4 percent.

When there’s a long way to go, gains can look dramatic—doubling the representation of women, and going a long way toward making an environment more hospitable for women and minorities in sports newsrooms.

So What Are We To Do?

Obviously, all editors and reporters need to be conscious of their own biases, and the existence of closed circles when it comes to covering, hiring, and quoting people who are like them. It should be noted that VIDA has been counting for several years running, and several magazines like Tin House and the Paris Review have actually shifted their “counts” dramatically, while the New York Times Book Review hiring a female editor has made a huge cultural difference in that publication’s pages.

But when VIDA surveyed smaller magazines, the group found less lopsided numbers. This feeds into my growing belief that women and other underrepresented groups need to make their own media pipelines, build their own companies and enterprises, and create their own stars who will then be hired by the mainstream—and also make the big enterprises compete for female and minority audiences. It’s a classic example of a situation where pressure from both within and without “the system” should be leveraged to effect change.