Media should reflect all society, not just a typically male ruling class

By Jane Martinson

18 September 2017

A hunch five years ago that the front pages of British newspapers were dominated by men prompted research that proved the hunch right: daily newspapers were full of male writers and voices.

Since then much has changed, not least the appointment of the UK’s second female prime minister, the first woman to run for the highest office in the US and, closer to home, the appointment of the first female editor-in-chief of the Guardian.

So has this seismic change led to a revolution in national newspaper front pages? No, according to a similar study to be released on Tuesday by the industry body Women in Journalism.

The WIJ research in 2012 found that 78% of all front page bylines were male. This year, a similar exercise over two six-week periods revealed that men were still writing 75% of all front page stories.

Why does this male dominance persist despite so much change elsewhere? The latest WIJ research reveals some papers are changing faster than others. But in line with so many equality measures – pay for example – the pace of change on average is glacial.

Firstly, when faced with huge political events such as the US or UK election and tragedies such as the London Bridge terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire, male dominated newsdesks tend to send male reporters to cover them. Are male journalists more likely to have received hostile environment training? Probably.

More likely is the fact that big beats in politics, crime and defence are typically covered by men and these beats are given near universal prominence in the news agendas of very different papers.

The opposite is true for health and education on the broadsheets and showbiz at the tabloids. At the Sun, the number of female bylines would have been even lower than its already lower than average 15% if it weren’t for a handful of stories about the Duchess of Cambridge and the former Playboy model Nadiya Bychkova, now appearing on Strictly.

At the Guardian the appointment of two women as joint political editor has had the opposite effect. In 2012, just 22% of the Guardian’s front page stories were written by women; in 2017, the research suggests that women wrote 43% of all front page stories, making the paper the closest to achieving byline gender parity of all 11 dailies in the research.

Bylines are a blunt tool of course and fail to reflect the full gamut of newspaper expertise. Yet older research by my colleague Kira Cochrane suggests that a dominance in fashion journalism, for example, does not make up for a tendency for sports reporters to be men. Until there is more research on roles and references across all news organisations, front pages act as a useful proxy, both as a window to the soul of those who decide the news agenda and because, while fewer people might be buying them, papers still largely set the news agenda followed by broadcasters. Social media attention to services such as #tomorrowpaperstoday underlines this.

Five years ago, the only women to feature on front pages tended to be wearing fancy or few clothes. The appointment of national political leaders in the UK as well as Scotland and Wales may have changed that, but not much. Just look at the Daily Mail’s focus when Theresa May met Nicola Sturgeon in March. With bare body parts of two political leaders taking up half of the shot, the headline read: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”

The latest research, carried out by Katie Hind and Aine Quinn and led by the Sunday Times executive Eleanor Mills, focused on decision makers rather than who was being cited as experts or photographed. Taking 17 different job titles, the research found that on average men make up 66% of senior jobs. Only two papers achieved gender parity, the FT and the Guardian, which also had more women than men in senior positions.

The appointment of the first female editor at the Guardian appears to have led to dramatic change but mainly because of the appointments and decisions Katharine Viner has taken. After all, there were fewer female bylines in the six-week period during which the Standard was edited by Sarah Sands than the later period edited by George Osborne in the latest research. His tenure has still coincided with a woefully low number of female bylines – just 15% in the period covered

British newspapers are not some relic of a pre-digital Fleet Street either. A report from the Women’s Media Center in 2014 found that male journalists in the US made up 63% of bylines in print, online and wire news media.

Broadcasters have fared little better and this week the BBC was among those accused by the media regulator, Ofcom of a “woeful” lack of diversity with women, minority ethnic groups and disabled people all under-represented.

Stung by a series of damaging rows over ageism and sexism involving the newsreader Moira Stuart and the former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly in 2012, the then BBC director general, George Entwistle, said: “What the BBC often reflects is the way the world is.”

Since then, the corporation has appointed a female political editor and introduced a second presenter on Today, though its pay audit suggests that equality is still struggling somewhat off air.

Some will argue that the media should just be worrying about the coming digital catastrophe rather than who makes decisions or writes stories. Yet, the media should reflect the whole of society and not the concerns of one, typically male ruling class. If nothing else, Grenfell tower and recent surprising elections show how out of touch the media can seem to many potential readers and those in the news. Making women decide the news agenda won’t just change that overnight but having a greater diversity of opinion must help.

This perhaps underlines a statement first made more than 100 years ago: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The media industry may like to think this only applies to those it chooses to write about, but the WJ research suggests that the media needs more light.

The WIJ research will be presented at the LSE on Tuesday.