We Need Women’s Voices in Media—Beyond Their Stories About Powerful Men

Our media landscape is currently flooded with women’s stories.

Harvey Weinstein’s flagrant history of sexual assault and harassment, ironically, temporarily allowed women representation in key commentary forums. A snowball effect in the wake of his own downfall has led to a landmark moment in the fight against sexual abuse—one in which survivors appear to finally be gaining ground and garnering victories and offenders are, at long last, facing consequences for their own bad behavior.

This temporary amplification of women’s experiences is crucial; their voices are helping to end the culture of silence surrounding sexual violence. But will the #MeToo-shrouded media frenzy finally grant women credence—with men and within the systems they control?

Women have been reporting on and talking interpersonally about the trauma caused by sexual harassment and assault for decades. There is nothing unique about Weinstein’s behavior or his peers’ acceptance of it; indeed, his case has even led us back to the testimonies levied against Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, among others. Of course, cases involving high-profile men and high-profile victims sell more papers—but journalism purports to have a higher moral purpose than selling advertising and earning a profit.

According to the American Press Institute, the purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments”—yet media institutions have, by and large, provided us with the same white male voices on repeat since their establishment. That means that citizens and decision-makers alike aren’t getting well-rounded perspectives on the issues, and it means that information about issues that affect people’s lives and communities is disconnected from those lives and communities from its inception.

The press is currently allowing women to narrate a tiny sliver of the world—the lovely “sexist men of Hollywood” beat—but even in this way, women’s voices are being defined in relation to powerful men. Women have much more to say, not only about powerful men and their shameful behavior but about their own experiences and issues.

Despite the increase in women submitting and publishing opinion pieces, the Women’s Media Center regular research shows that the men are still by far the reporters and arbiters of most of our news. One study, which tracked the number of political analysts on the three major networks between March 1, 2016 and November 11, 2016, found that only 28 percent of analysts on morning and primetime television were women, and only 4 percent were women of color. On a “Heavy Hundred” list of news and opinion radio hosts classified as “talkers,” only 13 of frequent talkers were women. The highest one ranked was coming in 20th place.

Although we’ve seen an all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights in recent years, men are writing the stories about reproductive health 52 percent of the time—and they are also the majority of voices quoted. Ninety-one percent of reported rapes and sexual assault victims in the U.S., and specifically on campuses, are women, yet men are more likely to cover these cases—and they are also more likely to include quotes from men and highlight the impact of these cases on the alleged rapists rather than the victim.

The only topics that women have parity or slight majorities in reporting on within the major media are lifestyle, health and education. The Op-Ed Project, founded in 2008, aims to change the world’s conversation by increasing women’s participation at “front door” commentary forums, like op-ed pages—which are heavily dominated by men, by margins of up to 80 percent, at every major news outlet. These forums are critical predictors of ideas, and the individuals that publish within them become influential. A 2008 Rutgers University study found that 97 percent of op-eds by academics in the Wall Street Journal were written by men; over the next five years, a study revealed an increase of women thought leaders in key commentary forums from only 15 to 21 percent.

It is important who reports the news. The lack of women skews the content of the news, gives the impression that women don’t count and makes it difficult for women to gain credibility with men. If we don’t have credibility, it doesn’t matter who we tell about sexual harassment and assault.

Women are not allowed to shape media narratives—and their voices, therefore, don’t count because they simply aren’t there to be counted and heard when they should matter most. While the media alone isn’t responsible for rape culture, its institutions have allowed men to ignore women’s stories, opinions and expertise on myriad topics for too long. Those institutions didn’t create silence, but they also haven’t taken enough steps toward shattering it.

Let’s be clear: Women cannot change the unequal systems and power dynamics that create these criminals like Harvey Weinstein. Women cannot prevent sexual harassment and violence. Women have been telling men for decades how damaging and traumatic sexual aggression of any kind is to their lives and their careers. What have men been doing in that time to show that our voices, stories and experiences matter to them?

Weinstein’s victims told people about their experiences long before the New York Times aired their stories on the front page. People listened. People knew. And people didn’t act—not only because Weinstein is powerful, but because he is also seen as more credible than his victims by virtue of his sex and the power it has afforded him. Members of the media need to examine their role in perpetuating the systemic undermining of women’s credibility that allowed men like Weinstein to abuse women and simultaneously control their stories.

Journalists have a responsibility to ensure that credible women and men narrate the world—even when their stories fly in the face of our antiquated power structures.

Colleen Hennessy is a social policy researcher and writer. She also helps non-profits and public agencies  write about their impact.  She is an alum of The OpEd Project’s Write to Change the World Seminar. You can read more at colleenhennessy.com or tweet her @colleenhenness4.

ms. blog digest banner


Comments

  1. Stephanie cervinek says:

    This article brings great awareness and attention to the lack of women in the media. It shows us that men dominate the media industry by a landslide, and the stories being broadcasted – even if it should be coming from a females perspective – are written and produced by mostly white men. With the Harvey Weinstein incident that is taking place, it has made society realize that the more women speak out, the more we can come together as one and fight for what is right together. Although these sorts of conversations have been going on for decades, due to the lack of women in media, there is not enough attention being brought to the topics. Most men cannot possibly shape such stories to the extent that women can, given that they have not been put in such situations. The media is skewed, and we are being blinded by what is truly going on.

  2. Sarah Wiley says:

    This was great. As much as the MeToo campaign is useful, it’s super important to consider what is next. I hadn’t really thought about how few women are in mainstream media and how those who are in the mainstream media are considered less creditable than their male counterparts, but this article really made me think about it more. I often think about just the STEM fields being dominated by men, but it is really in all fields that men are considered more creditable and competent. Media is such a powerful tool that shapes our society, so I agree that we should aim to have better representation of women in the media outside of male dominated or male focused discussions. I think this really shone a spotlight on the issues involved and pointed out where the ideal is, giving a good direction for continued change.

  3. Regan Katerenchuk says:

    Right after reading the title of this article, I had preconceived notions of its content. Maybe this is because I believe women already have voices in the media. I read articles written by women on a daily basis. I believe the women who are choosing to use their voices as a powerful tool to expose abusive men and inequality, is necessary. I mean, who else is expected to do it?

    Some people have responded to the recent allegations in the media by saying, “Why didn’t she talk about this sooner? Why wait until now?” Yet, now that women are speaking up, there are articles such as this one, which are contradicting those statements by questioning the purpose of speaking about these topics now.

    I understand- it can seem as though the only big stories taking precedence from women in the media are connected to a sexual abuse allegation. But, who’s to say that’s a bad thing? It took years for these stories to be exposed. Why would we be in any rush to push the pause button on this landmark moment?

    The purpose of the “times up” movement, wasn’t just to say “times up” to silence- it’s also saying that the time is UP for any person to believe that they can abuse any human being without suffering the well-deserved consequences. I don’t want to call this movement a “temporary amplification”, as the power of women is not temporary, it is eternal.

    I want to make myself clear: I appreciate the author stating the facts and statistics about women’s employment in the media industry. Inequality within the workplace is extreme, and the media field isn’t an exception. Yes, we do need more women talking about more diverse issues, such as politics and finance. We need fewer men dominating news outlets.

    While saying that, I don’t think it means women should end the discussion on harassment, abuse, or inequality. If anything, it is these voices which will shift the sexist stigma in the workforce and open society’s eyes to the lack of credibility given to women.

    The author states, “Weinstein is powerful, but because he is also seen as more credible than his victims by virtue of his sex and the power it has afforded him,” right after telling her readers, “Let’s be clear: Women cannot change the unequal systems and power dynamics that create these criminals like Harvey Weinstein. Women cannot prevent sexual harassment and violence.” Let ME be clear: Yes, women can.

    Women NEED to work their asses off to fight inequality and to prove their power because truly, nobody else is going to do it for us.

Speak Your Mind

*

Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!