Analysis Media

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

Sarah Seltzer

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.

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.

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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.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.