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.