Why Women Can’t Get Away From “Soft” News

Female journalists tend to focus on subjects like relationships, sex, and family. That matters not just for their careers, but for the whole country.

Male guests outnumber women on Meet the Press. Via wordpress.com

A recent study by the Op-Ed Project found that while women wrote half or more of the editorials last year on gender, family, and style, their share of op-eds on politics and the economy were worryingly small. In traditional media outlets during the study period, women wrote just 11% of op-eds on the economy, and around 12% of those on international politics. In new media, the picture wasn’t much better — women there wrote just 19% of editorials on the economy.

It’s not that there are no female experts in these fields — male economists do outnumber female ones, the Op-Ed Project points out, but the gap is closing. Rather, women aren’t writing on areas of their expertise. Some say the problem is that women just don’t pitch articles as much as men do, but others argue it goes far deeper.

Many at the Op-Ed Project have chalked these numbers up to a dearth of confidence among women. Last year, founder Catherine Orenstein told Poynter that “women are pulling themselves out of the discussion” by not pitching op-eds. And Katherine Lanpher, a senior seminar leader with the Op-Ed project, says “many women and other minorities need to be reminded that they’re sitting on powerful solutions to big problems and if they don’t share their knowledge the world is a poorer place.”

Lanpher told BuzzFeed that women may pitch more editorials on “soft” subjects because “they’re convinced that no one’s going to question their expertise there,” whereas “they think that in hard subjects there will always be someone who knows more.” She added that while “there’s a lot of self-editing” among women, “if you’re a white male who’s gone to one of 10 top schools, you have cultural expectations that you will be heard and that people want to hear you.” And while women were disproportionately raised to be modest and humble, she says, they need to get over that conditioning when it prevents them “from sharing information that can actually help the world.”

The Op-Ed Project / Via wordpress.com

But Emily Douglas, a senior editor at The Nation, says that even if women do pitch less in certain areas (which would be hard to measure), that shouldn’t be “an excuse for having a skewed gender ratio in a publication’s coverage” of those areas. And she notes that women may not have the same kind of access to male editors that men do: “Editors should assume that writers who look like the people they have in their networks are going to have an easier time reaching them.” Ultimately, she thinks media outlets and their critics should take the focus off who pitches what and “start talking about editors’ obligations to include diverse writers in their publications.”

Jennifer Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News, agrees that the problem isn’t just about pitching. She argues that women’s under-representation in “hard” news is “a long-term problem” that goes beyond op-eds, noting that women are less likely to be quoted as sources in all types of stories except those about lifestyle issues (a recent study found that male sources outnumber female ones even in stories about women’s rights and birth control). Says Pozner, “Theres a one-to-one parallel between the shunting of women’s bylines into only a few core areas that are considered ‘soft’ stories and the vast marginalization of women as newsmakers and sources in both print and broadcast news.”

The problem also goes both ways, she says. Some stories are seen as “soft” and therefore deemphasized precisely because they involve women’s issues: “We have a long history in corporate media of treating stories that affect women, children, and families as if they are not front-page stories.”

Really, says Pozner, women are pitching “hard” stories, but they’re fighting an uphill battle against widespread bias. And that battle won’t be won by women simply pitching more. Instead, she suggests “systemic” solutions like tying executive bonuses to newsroom diversity targets, both in bylines and in sourcing. And she says we need to look not just at pitching but at assigning. Many stories are specifically assigned to a writer, rather than accepted from a cold pitch, and editors need to make it their mission to assign more pieces to women — not just on “soft” topics, but on all of them.

Others concur that any change will likely have to be systemic. Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at the Atlantic, says that while “some softer areas are of greater interest to women and they want to write about them,” historically increases in women’s representation in other spheres haven’t happened “until specific institutions made an internal commitment to seeing them change.” Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, thinks change will have to be even broader-based: any real solution to the hard news/soft news gender divide will have to be “a big societal solution” that involves “increasing our comfort with breaking out of traditional roles.”

A more gender-balanced media would have real effects, says Pozner, and not only on journalists. She says the under-representation of women as both talk show guests and op-ed writers immediately post-9/11 obscured the fact that women were much more skeptical about a military response than men were, and may have contributed directly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Increased confidence and pitching skills can help some women, says Pozner. But that alone won’t get women into op-ed sections and talk show chairs, nor will it get them quoted as experts in stories. Right now, she says, media consumers and producers alike are able to ignore women’s thoughts on major, life-or-death issues. And, she says, it’s not because women don’t care about these issues — it’s because no one is asking them.

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