Each year, Project Censored releases a list of news stories that went underreported in for-profit news. Too many are about violence against women. So, what can we do to promote gender equity in the news media?
It often seems as though women only capture the corporate news media’s attention when they dress up in costume.
- Photos in the New York Times featured women in seas of pink beanies at Women’s Marches in 2017 after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
- A 2018 ABC News article included a dystopian still of 15 women cloaked in Handmaid’s Tale garb in the Senate office building during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
- The German women’s gymnastics team made headlines at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by donning full-body leotards to protest the sexualization of athletes in their sport.
These images are sensational and striking, yet they underscore how news coverage of women by the nation’s most prominent news outlets is consistently skin deep and fleeting.
Each year, Project Censored—a 45-year-old media-monitoring organization to which we both contribute—releases a list of 25 significant news stories that have gone underreported in the commercial, for-profit news. Featuring stories published by independent and alternative news outlets, Project Censored’s annual story lists often highlight stories about gendered injustices affecting women around the world—particularly women in racially minoritized and economically marginal communities.
Missing Stories About Gendered Violence and Abuse
A number of the stories included on recent Project Censored Top 25 Lists deal with epidemic levels of abuse and violence against women, especially impoverished or racially minoritized women.
For instance, the 10th story on the Project’s list for 2020-21 was about work being done by Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab to document forced sterilizations of disabled women and women who are incarcerated. As reported in articles that appeared last year in The Conversation, Ms. and YES! Magazine, at least 30,000 Americans in the 20th century were sterilized without their consent, and this barbaric practice has continued inside some of America’s prisons and immigration detention centers. Activist groups including Latinas for Reproductive Justice have been leading grassroots efforts to win justice for the women affected. Yet, with the exception of reports from July 2021 by CNN, the Washington Post and some local TV stations, few corporate news outlets have paid any attention to an initiative in California to compensate victims of forced sterilization.
The high rate at which Black women and girls go missing in the United States was flagged by Project Censored as one of the most important stories overlooked by the corporate media in 2019-2020.
The 16th story on Project Censored’s 2020-2021 list was equally shocking: Research by U.K.-based nonprofit Femicide Census and by the U.S.-based Woman Count USA shows that fatal violence against women around the globe is on the rise and that the majority of murdered women and girls are killed by intimate partners. As Yvonne Roberts explained in a Nov. 22, 2020 article about the findings of the Femicide Census published in The Guardian, in the U.K., one woman is killed by a man every three days—but authorities have failed to address the trend because they insist on treating each death as an isolated incident.
The lack of official data and popular outrage over the epidemic of murdered women is also a problem in the United States and spurred Woman Count’s Dawn Wilcox to create her website, which aims to count every woman killed by a man in the country. Although mass protests against the epidemic of fatal violence against women in Mexico and Turkey have attracted some corporate news coverage, few commercial outlets—with notable exceptions like Teen Vogue—have reported on femicide in the United States.
In 2021, the big cable and broadcast news channels were obsessed with Gabby Petito, a young white woman whose disappearance was granted wall-to-wall coverage, a clear case of what journalist Gwen Ifill once called “missing white woman syndrome.” Missing women of color are almost never deemed worthy of this sort of intensive reporting. Indeed, the high rate at which Black women and girls go missing in the United States was flagged by Project Censored as one of the most important stories overlooked by the corporate media in 2019-2020.
The Project’s report highlighted a 2010 study, which found that only 20 percent of news stories covered missing Black children despite Black youth accounting for 33 percent of total missing children cases in the United States. The disparity only grew years later. By 2015, according to research published in the Communication Research Reports, Black children made up 35 percent of all missing children cases, yet were only the sole focus of 7 percent of media reports on missing children.
Project Censored identified a report by ThinkProgress about the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls as its top underreported story for 2019-2020. Cases of missing Native women and girls, including Two-Spirit and other LGBTQIA identities, are not recorded in any single federal database. However, FBI data obtained by The Guardian found that Indigenous people go missing at twice the per capita rate as their white counterparts, and further research by the Department of Justice discovered Indigenous women on tribal lands were killed at a rate more than 10 times the national average.
The establishment press tends to frame misogyny singularly as individual men’s contempt for particular women rather than acknowledging it as a systemic issue that fuels widespread violence against women.
Among the Project’s top stories from 2011-12 was a report by The Electronic Intifada about Palestinian women denied basic medical care, shackled during childbirth and forced to survive under filthy conditions inside Israeli prisons. At the time the story was published, 37 Palestinian women were detained, many of whom belonged to the Palestinian Legislative Council or other organizations thought by Israel to be a threat to national security. Just last year, Israel’s Defense Ministry was widely criticized for designating several advocacy groups as terrorist organizations. On the list at the time was Addameer, an organization that advocates for the rights of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip made it nearly impossible for detainees’ families to visit their loved ones. If they were able to make the trip, visits were capped at half an hour through thick, stifling glass. Palestinian women often faced dire medical neglect, especially before, during and after giving birth.
What Explains These Persistent Gaps?
It is not surprising that issues of violence against women remain largely invisible in the corporate news media today, even in the era of #MeToo. After all, despite some progress since the 1960s, the ownership and upper-management of the commercial news media still skews heavily male. True, the CEO of the New York Times, Meredith Kopit Levien, is a woman, as is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, Sally Buzbee, and the editor-in-chief of USA Today, Nicole Carroll. But these few female decision-makers are far outnumbered by legions of male media executives, editors and news directors who set the agenda at one national, regional and local news outlet after another.
Women and people of color continue to be severely underrepresented at the “ownership and governance levels of both traditional and new media corporations,” according to research by Carolyn Byerly, professor emerita of media studies at Howard University. Byerly’s survey of the boards of directors of 8 major U.S. media conglomerates in 2017 found that women held between 8 percent (Alphabet/Google) and 33 percent (Walt Disney and Verizon) of board seats at those companies. The lack of gender parity in board rooms has limited women’s influence over corporate policy, key staffing decisions and company priorities.
Female decision-makers are far outnumbered by legions of male media executives, editors and news directors who set the agenda at one national, regional and local news outlet after another.
The upper-echelons of management at commercial news outlets also tilts male. According to the News Leaders Association, women hold only 41 percent of all newsroom leadership positions (upper-level editor positions at newspapers or similar positions of authority at broadcast and digital news operations). Research conducted by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications found that women tend to be even more underrepresented in positions of power within broadcast journalism.
- In 2020, only 19 percent of TV station general managers were women and only 36 percent of the news directors at local TV stations were women.
- Women accounted for only 23.6 percent of radio station general managers and held just 28.8 percent of radio news director jobs.
- Disparity exists even in entry-level media roles: White women hold 33 percent of entry-level positions in media while women of color make up only 17 percent.
Women’s lack of power and influence inside media institutions both big and small is only part of the explanation for the media’s lack of interest in stories about the femicide epidemic, missing Black girls and women, and violence against Indigenous and Palestinian women. No doubt, the pervasiveness of a sexist (and racist) ideology that defines women’s lives as inherently less valuable or interesting than men’s has played a role as well.
Add to this the fact that feminist perspectives on current affairs and public policy issues are still marginalized in corporate media commentary and opinion. The establishment press tends to frame misogyny singularly as individual men’s contempt for particular women rather than acknowledging it as a systemic issue that fuels widespread violence against women. By neglecting this connection, the media is perpetuating an insidious cycle of abuse.
Women are underrepresented as opinion authors and commentators in the establishment press to begin with; in 2016, women wrote only 19 percent of op-eds that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. But even when women are given a platform for commentary by big corporate media, only one in 10 of their commentaries approach issues from an explicitly feminist point of view. And the feminist viewpoints featured in the establishment media generally concern straight, white, middle-class women.
No wonder news about the brutalization, murder and sterilization of women, especially women of color, seems to matter so little to the commercial media.
Promoting Gender Equity in the News
Corporate media have ignored one wakeup call after another, and, as a result, women remain sorely underrepresented in the news and newsrooms alike. By excluding women as newsmakers, sources and key decision-makers at the macro level of media organizations, the commercial news media fails its audiences. Waiting on the big commercial news outlets to spontaneously do the right thing is futile. So, what can we do to promote gender equity in the news media?
To begin with, we ought to financially support independent feminist journalism where it exists. Women’s eNews, Ms. magazine, Bitch and Rewire News Group do a far better job of covering women and women’s issues than their corporate counterparts. Not surprisingly, many of these feminist news outlets are nonprofits. And, like all nonprofits, they are starved for funds.
We should demand that senior leadership at big corporate news outlets make diversity and inclusion a priority. According to McKinsey & Company research in 2020, 53 percent of human resources (HR) respondents employed in media and entertainment revealed that only the head of HR is seen as responsible when diversity metrics or goals are met (or unmet), while only 27 percent reported that the CEO was held accountable.
Recent initiatives, like the BBC’s 50:50 Project, developed by BBC director general Adam Hall, are a step in the right direction. The goal of the 50:50 Project was to guarantee that at least 50 percent of BBC contributors were women. In 2018, the year before the initiative was launched, only 27 percent of BBC production teams had at least 50 percent women contributors. By April 2019, that number soared to 74 percent.
There simply cannot be inclusive coverage without an inclusive staff. Hiring women and journalists of color allows news organizations to report stories that better address the needs and interests of the communities they serve. This also creates an opportunity to increase readership and, in turn, revenue.
Finally, media watchdog groups like Women’s Media Center, GLAAD, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and our own Project Censored call out the sexist imagery, marginalization of feminist perspectives and underreporting of women’s issues so common in corporate media. The more aware the public is of the media’s distorting gendered lens, the better.
The photos of protesters at the Women’s March, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings and the Tokyo Olympics are shocking, but the establishment press should stop treating women merely as spectacle, novelty or eye-candy and begin taking women and gender issues seriously.