What’s the issue? The past and present of misogyny in the media

What’s the problem anyway? What is the research telling us? What’s been done already? What needs to be done?


What’s the problem anyway?

Over the years, progressive movements have succeeded in altering some of the components of inequality in society at large, resulting in changes in the social world and the media industry as a whole.

But progress has been too slow, uneven and incomplete.

“The inequality that women still face in society as a whole is clearly reflected in the unequal treatment women receive in the media,” write Croteau & Hoynes (2013).

From language used in print and digital publications to the demographic makeup of newsrooms across the country, journalism is still seemingly a boys’ club.

Women have made major strides in the name of equality, but there is still much to do. /  UCLA

Women have made major strides in the name of equality, but there is still much to do. / UCLA

When I think back to when I started, I was really caught off guard with how marginalized women were in the newsroom.
— Shane Fitzgerald, executive editor of the Bucks County Courier Times, The Intelligencer and Burlington County Times; worked in journalism industry since August 1986

The Numbers

While many news organizations “can point proudly to diversity goals displayed on corporate websites, and the injection of influential female voices into content and conference programs,” one thing is clear:

“Women in the media continue to be under-represented in bylines, behind editors’ desks, and in board rooms. They’re also often paid less than their male counterparts.” (Nieman Lab, 2018)

Women’s Media Center president Julie Burton says, “Media tells us our roles in society—it tells us who we are and what we can be. This new report shows us who matters and what is important to media—and clearly, as of right now, it is not women.”

In 2017, for example, at 20 of the nation’s top news outlets, men produced 62.3 percent of news reports, while women produced only 37.7 percent, according to a report from the Women’s Media Center.

For better or worse, it seems that a large portion of the articles we read, podcasts we listen to and television we watch can be traced back as a creation of the male mind.

These numbers grow only more dismal rising up newsrooms’ chains of command. According to Poynter, “women run three of the top 25 newspaper titles in the U.S. and only one of the top 25 titles in the world. That number has decreased in the past 10 years.”

About the profession in general, Ann Fiore, editor of The Janesville Gazette says, “It’s not an easy job. There’s a lot of long hours, and the pay is not super. And women have to sink or swim with everybody else. But we need the chance to prove that. “

Reprinted with permission from the  Women’s Media Center .

Reprinted with permission from the Women’s Media Center.

And, not surprisingly, male and female journalists are not always getting it right when it comes to media coverage of women. Reporters and editors too often fall into stereotypical or overly critical tones when presenting or analyzing news involving women, usually as early as the headline, subhedder or featured image of the article.

“You’ll find women … will use a lot of the same language that is sexist or misogynistic because it’s in the ether; it’s a metaphor, a trope or a stereotype people use,“ says Amy Kovac-Ashley, director of newsroom learning at the American Press Institute. “They’re not even thinking about the language, where that came from and what it actually means because it’s been used so often.”

Part of the reason why this problem plagues the journalism industry in particular is because it’s an industry with some patriarchal baggage.

“Traditionally, we have been kind of a rough group,” says Fiore. “And I wish I didn’t have to say ‘we,’ but I’m part of it.

“Journalists regularly were heavy drinkers, heavy smokers; there was often a lot of swearing in the newsroom, misogynistic comments and just general rudeness. And that’s the way I’ve grown up in the media. Because people are on deadline and there’s a fair amount of stress, some of these newsrooms are just not places that are very PC.

“As we’ve seen from examples like Les Moonves and Matt Lauer, some journalists may preach a good thing to the rest of the world, but it doesn’t always hit home. It’s going to be a challenge getting reporters and editors and page designers to adhere a set of guidelines, but it’s certainly worth an effort.”

Why does this matter?

The way women are discussed in public influences both the way women perceive themselves and the way they feel they are perceived by others--affecting female body image, ideas of self-worth and projections of confidence. This cycle is self-perpetuating.

And these effects are well-documented. For example, “the higher the level of media sexism, the lower the share of women candidates,” a 2018 worldwide study shows.

Additionally, gender-biased media coverage hurts female politicians and candidates. Name It, Change It conducted studies showing the negative impact on how voters view women when news media members comment on the physical appearance of women or use sexist language.

“Female candidates may be perceived as less likeable, empathetic, trustworthy, effective, qualified,” writes Virginia García Beaudoux, Professor of Politics at Universidad de Buenos Aires. “Candidates’ favourability ratings drop; people become less inclined to vote for them. … And once in power, sexist coverage can undermine women’s ability to govern.”

The 2017 Women’s March in D.C. /  CNN

The 2017 Women’s March in D.C. / CNN

Our Social Landscape

Moreover, culturally, socially and politically, this is an important time for women. Many have begun to question the broader social and political forces at play, and, both in the media and in many citizens’ personal lives, there have been many rich conversations about consent, hostile environments and power. This makes reporting on this topic both incredibly important and incredibly nuanced.

The good news — Between four editors, one employee at the American Press Institute, and a local reporter, everyone I’ve talked to agrees: There is more awareness about this topic than ever before.

“It’s much better than it used to be,” says Addy Hatch, former managing editor at The Spokesman-Review. “Most newsrooms have at least one person who has this at the front of their mind and can evaluate a photo or a story or a tweet based on that. 25 or 30 years ago, no one was paying attention at all.”

The bad news — Present leadership is making this fight harder.

“It hasn’t helped with Trump in office,” says Fiore. “There’s more of a permission structure, so that people who may be misogynistic or racist feel validated in expressing those sentiments, probably in the newsroom culture but also perhaps in the way they write headlines in print.”

With no example of civility to turn to, society is suffering from a lowering of expectations.

Common media “gender traps”

An October 2018 Bloomberg headline reads: “The ‘Female Obama’ Tries to Be Just Familiar Enough.” /  Bloomberg

An October 2018 Bloomberg headline reads: “The ‘Female Obama’ Tries to Be Just Familiar Enough.” / Bloomberg

Scholars who study this topic, like Professor Virginia García Beaudoux, typically group these media offenses. Some of the most common and easiest “gender traps” into which reporters fall are:

  1. focusing on a woman’s domestic or familial life rather than her professional merit

  2. qualifying a woman’s achievement by associating her with powerful or familiar men

  3. dwelling or speculating on female emotions and equating them with weakness

  4. spending a disproportionate amount of time discussing a woman’s outward appearance, or even her voice as was the case when, on-air in 2016 MSNBC interrupted Hillary Clinton’s speech on gender equality to complain she was “yelling,” when the same coverage would not be expected for a man in a similar role.  

Current Safeguards (and why they’re simply not enough)

As it stands, there is currently no formal safeguard in place to ensure misogyny isn’t making its way into news language: No chapter in the AP Style Guide, no specific website or booklet to which all journalists can turn, no one governing body to oversee this issue or train journalists on how to avoid it, no one particular person in the newsroom who can carry this burden.

(The AP Stylebook, the equivalent to the bible for reporters, includes the following vague blurb on the topic of “women”: “Treatment of the sexes should be evenhanded and free of assumptions and stereotypes.”  

In the section of “news values and principles,” the Stylebook reads: “We abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions.” Yet, there are no guidelines or best practices listed in the Stylebook explicitly on the topic of gender equality.)

So, after interviewing four editors, one socially-conscious reporter and an API employee, I realized that, while misogyny is a macro-level media problem, it comes down to individuals: one person’s word choice, an individual decision, conversations and debates happening between one reporter and one editor, one person’s inkling dissatisfaction about a story topic.

Yet, with journalist and editor positions being combined and eliminated industry-wide, the likelihood of this one person even being in the newsroom, let alone empowered or available enough, to keep an eye on the overall language and to question that of her peers is becoming less and less likely.

This issue becomes even harder to fight with poor governmental leadership, yet it would be hard to characterize Trump’s White House as anything but.

“The reason this language continues to be perpetuated is poor leadership. Not poor leadership, in fact, just poor leaders,” says Shane Fitzgerald, executive editor of the Bucks County Courier Times. “President Trump stokes these emotions and passions, and he really compartmentalizes people into stereotypes. That kind of thing just sets an example that it’s okay. Our leadership has to be better at understanding that.”

What about the #MeToo Movement?

Has this social movement influenced the language used in the newsroom? Depends on the newsroom.

“[The #MeToo Movement] has really ramped up awareness for these issues,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s almost like it was bursting at the seams to come out like that. Those reporters at the New York Times who first released the Weinstein story set off a spark that has really raised awareness throughout our country. And I couldn’t be more proud that it was a daily newspaper journalist … who heightened the conversation."

“This is our generation’s social rights movement,” he adds.

Hatch takes a more measured approach. She explains that #MeToo is still so new, and for the most part, reporters are still covering the movement as an “active news story” rather than something that may carry any weight in the reporters’ individual newsrooms.

Ann Fiore puts the most faith in her young reporters.

“We have a number of millennial reporters, a pretty young newsroom overall,” says Fiore. “Hiring young people has helped, because the older folks tended to be a little more old-fashioned, like ‘father knows best.’ A lot of those people are gone now.”

Now what? What needs to be done?

As Nieman Lab wrote this year in an open letter: “It’s time to stop talking about the need for equality and start actively reforming the industry.”

"What you need is people calling out the media,” says Veronica Chao, editor of The Boston Globe Magazine. “When it's happening, you need people responding like, 'Hey, that's not acceptable, and I noticed you did that. I'm going to spread the word about it and it will possibly affect your audience.'"

Luckily, that’s exactly what this website, specifically the watchlist, aims to do.

But how can we start targeting this problem at the root?

“It takes thoughtfulness,” “discussion” and “some soul-searching,” says Chao.

Personally, I feel frustrated. I feel that any progress we make towards taking a feminist stance in the media is one step forward two steps back. Every positive thing being done in the media is offset by negative. I also personally feel that its mostly WOMEN trying to make these strides instead of men helping to lead the charge.
— Claire Fritz, Teacher, Austin, TX
I feel sad, belittled, attacked.
— Adrian Edmonds, Dean of Instruction, Austin, TX


Beaudoux, Virginia García. (2017). Five ways the media hurts female politicians — and how journalists everywhere can do better.

Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2013). Media/society: Industries, images, and audiences. (p. 44). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Pine Forge Press.

Gresko, Jessica. (2015). Report: Women produce about a third of US news content.

Haraldsson, Amanda & Wängnerud, Lena. (2018). The effect of media sexism on women’s political ambition: evidence from a worldwide study, Feminist Media Studies, DOI.

How to end misogyny in the news industry: An open letter to the international journalism community. (2018).

Lake, Celinda; Snell, Alysia; Gormley, Cate; & Lethbridge-Cejku, Flora. (2013). Name It. Change It. Women’s Media Center | She Should Run | An Examination of the Impact of Media Coverage of Women Candidates' Appearance & Simulation of the Impact of Sexism in Campaigns.

Owen, Lauren Hazard. (2017). The share of women in newsrooms has increased barely 1 percentage point since 2001, ASNE data shows.

Ruddick, Graham. (2018). Trust is broken at BBC over equal pay, Carrie Gracie tells MPs.

The Status of Women in the U.S. Media. (2017).

Satlin, Alana Horowitz. (2016). MSNBC Interrupts Hillary Clinton’s Speech To Complain About Her Voice.

York, Catherine. (2017). Women dominate journalism schools, but newsrooms are still a different story.

Zraick, Karen. (2012). Breaking into the boys’ club of journalism.