Creating Technology for Social Change

Women, News, and the Internet: (almost) Everything We Know

In my upcoming master’s thesis, I’m making large-scale, automated technologies to measure and change the representation of women in news online. Judith Donath, one of my thesis readers, has strongly challenged the assumptions of this project. Can I actually make a good argument that women should have a fair and equal voice in society? Can I create a reasonable definition of equality, one that’s good enough to include in computer software?

A positive vision of the role of women in the news needs to start with an understanding of the role they currently play: what are women watching, how are they using their voices, are those voices being heard, how are they presented in the news, and how does that influence what happens in society?

This is the first part of my answer to Judith, a review of what we know about women, news, and the Internet. Have I missed anything? Add it in the comments.

To learn more about this project, check out Open Gender Tracking, an open source Knight Foundation funded project by Irene Ros. Read my PBS IdeaLab article on the influence of social media on the news and my Guardian Datablog post on Women’s representation in media. Watch the video, read the overview, or browse some data.

Or just keep reading.

Table of Contents

Does More Women in the Media Grow Women’s Participation in Society?

Yes. According to a remarkably thorough lit review (pdf) published by the Shorenstein Center, “Media representations of women in positions of power, such as female Senators or Senate candidates, seem to have the power to disrupt the cycle and increase women’s interest in and engagement with politics.” It goes on to claim:

the participation and political knowledge gaps appear to shrink or even disappear where women see other women participating in politics (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001, Chapter 13). In states with no female Senator (or Senate candidate), for instance, 65% of men and only 51% of women can name one Senator. However, in states with a female Senator or female candidate for Senator, 75% of men and 79% of women can name a Senator (Ibid, 343).

How do Women and Men Consume News?

The majority of Americans watch news on TV, although even television news may be declining alongside print and radio, according to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press (pdf). Women are a majority of the audience for morning news and daytime talk shows, while men are the majority of readers for business and politics specific publications. Mainstream news like Fox, NPR, and CNN have fairly equal audiences, and a majority of women report reading a daily newspaper.

Many articles misread this data. The Pew report can’t tell us what topics women and men are paying attention to. The survey also doesn’t tell us about the reach of the publications surveyed. If I find a free moment, I’ll try to piece together a relative picture of Pew’s graph using subscription and viewer data from advertising sites like this one.

How do Women and Men Access Online News?

Women consume news online in different numbers than men. According to data from Pew, 42% of American women report using the Internet for news, compared to 49% of men. A greater percentage of women than men report seeing news via social networking sites (21% of women). Only 23% of women mobile Internet users get news regularly on a mobile device, compared to 33% of men with mobiles or tablets. Only 13% of American women regularly consume news on a mobile device.

Research by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found more engagement with news than the Pew research on News Consumption. In their 2012 study on the future of mobile news, Pew claims that half of Americans own either a tablet or smartphone, and that over 60% of those people consume news on mobile devices. This latter study suggests that the recent growth of the tablet and smartphone industry may be bringing a new demand for news into American life. News reading was the second most common activity on tablet. The study found that around 10% more men that women consume news on tablet and smartphones.

The study found that more men and women tablet users read in-depth articles and watched news video than checked the news multiple times per day. Tablet users from 18-49 were much more likely to share news through email or social networking than older users.

How Many Women and Men are using Social Media?

Research does not agree on the proportion of women and men on social media. In 2012, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 75% of women online say they use social networking sites, compared to 69% of men. Of those, 15% women say they use Twitter, compared to 14% of men. Women are also more prominent on Facebook. 70% of online women say they use Facebook, compared to 63% of men (report here). According to Pew, women are also more likely to use social networking sites every day.

Women may not be a majority of social media users, according to a recently-published analysis of 3.2 million Twitter users. This study estimates that women are only 28% of Twitter users, although the gender gap has decreased over time (pdf).

What Are Women Using Social Media For?

With so many social media platforms, it’s very difficult to generalise why men or women use social media. Surveys like this one don’t differentiate between social media platforms.

A March 2012 study by the Pew Internet in American Life project shows that Facebook is far more popular than other social networks. 66% of online American adults use Facebook, compared to the 16% which use Twitter. Women are also more active on these sites. “More than half of female internet users use social networking sites on a typical day (54%), compared with 42% of male internet users.”

News discovery is also influenced by differences between social platforms. On Facebook, 70% of users claim to get most of their news links from friends and family, compared to 36% of Twitter users, according to Pew’s 2012 State of the News Media report. The report goes on to differentiate between men and women news consumers:

Men and women responded very differently. Women were more likely to see the news as not special to Twitter (53% versus 30% who said they wouldn’t get it elsewhere). Men were more likely to see it as giving them a unique or broader sense of the news (46% versus 35% who said they would get the news elsewhere).

Twitter news followers are more likely to be male, 57% versus 44% of Facebook users and 48% of the population over all. They are also younger; 39% are 18 to 29 years old, which is nearly double the population over all (22%), but about the same as Facebook users (37%).

Both women and men post photos that they have taken to social media sites, according to a 2012 Pew Internet in American Life study on photos and videos as Social Currency Online. Women are slightly more likely to post original photos and much more likely to curate images and videos

Men are more likely to click on Facebook ads than women, according to a study of 65 billion ad impressions. What’s fascinating is that marketers target men more frequently than they target women, which means that men see far more ads than women. It’s also cheaper to show ads to men on Facebook than it is to show ads to women. Since men are more likely to click on ads, the total cost per customer of women on Facebook is much more than men.

What News Do Women Read?

We don’t really know, especially online, where readers jump in and out of individual articles rather than just subscribe to a particular paper. Claims about the news reading habits of women are based on three methods: 1) guessing by looking at media brands with majority female audiences, 2) surveying women to find out their reported news preferences, 3) surveying women’s political knowledge.

Studies on political knowledge claim that in the US, men are much more knowledgeable about politics and international affairs than women, but it’s possible that those surveys are undercounting (Mondak & Anderson have published an excellent summary in the Journal of Politics in 2004). Women are less likely to offer certain answers and are more likely to answer “don’t know” in response to multiple-choice survey questions. Men are more likely to guess.

I’m still following the citation trail for more recent data on women’s political knowledge and news interests. I expect to look very closely at Jay Dow’s 2009 article in Political Behaviour on Gender Differences in Political Knowledge.

How Are Women Using Their Voices Online?

In theory, the Internet lowers the cost of political speech, fostering new conversations outside mainstream media and opening opportunities for underrepresented people. Is that happening for women? That’s hard to say. My sense is that there are three overlapping counterpublics of women’s voices online: mommy bloggers, the feminist blogosphere, and professional women.

So called mommy bloggers have been recognised as an important online bloc for nearly a decade. In the US, the most notable women’s blogging community is BlogHer, a network of around 3,000 women bloggers who syndicate content out to BlogHer and participate in an advertising pool. BlogHer hosts a series of women’s blogger conferences since 2005. According to BlogHer’s 2012 Women & Social Media study, women trust blogs more than Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. They also prefer blogs as a source of information for product decisions. However, this is a survey of BlogHer’s readership, who are expected to follow and trust blogs.

In the UK, parenting website Mumsnet is is a major hub of the UK blogosphere. In the 2009 parliamentary election, candidates reached out directly to Mumsnet. In 2011, Mumsnet initially supported Tory proposals for internet content filtering but retracted that support after technically-knowledgeable Mumsnet members objected. Prime Minister David Cameron once responded personally to Mumsnet criticism on cuts to social services.

The feminist blogosphere appears to be more recent. Emily Nussbaum writes about this bold, pop-culture-infused conversation in her excellent New York Magazine article, “The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto“:

Perhaps more important, these sites inspired an even sharper cadre of commenters, who bonded and argued, sometimes didactically, sometimes cruelly, but just as often pushing one another to hone their ideas—all this from a generation of women written off in the media as uninterested in any form of gender analysis, let alone the label “feminist.” Freed from the boundaries of print, writers could blur the lines between formal and casual writing; between a call to arms, a confession, and a stand-up routine—and this new looseness of form in turn emboldened readers to join in, to take risks in the safety of the shared spotlight.

Sam Meier of PolicyMic points out that making ends meet is a huge challenge for the feminist blogosphere. Vanessa Valenti just left Feministing, which she co-founded, to start the PR firm ValentiMartin Media. In her farewell post, she argues that “the largest challenge facing online feminist work today [is] that it’s completely unsustainable.” Courtney Martin published an excellent account of feminist speech revenue models in The Nation in 2011.

Professional women comprise another vocal group online. I am most familiar with women’s voices in technology, journalism, and the academy. In professions with grant or consulting structures, women use their voices online to find contracts, grants, and other opportunities. These professions have vocal women who work together to mentor each other, share their voices, and in many cases demand equality in the workplace, on the conference circuit, and in the media.

Two notable quantitative studies include Dave Munger’s analysis of women science bloggers and this beautiful Chronicle of Higher Education graphic on scholarly publishing’s gender gap.

How Many Women are Writing in the News?

Women have been more affected than men by the decline of the news industry. The percentage of women employed in American newsrooms has been declining since 2001, even as the overall number of news jobs has declined, according to the American Society of Newsroom Editors. In 2001, around 10,219 women were employed as reporters in American newsrooms, accounting for nearly 40% of reporters. In 2012, 3338 fewer women were employed as reporters, constituting around 38% of reporters.

In the UK, women journalists mostly write about entertainment, news, the arts, and lifestyle, according to a study of an entire year’s news I conducted with Lisa Evans at the Guardian. It’s more rare to read a sports, business, or science article by a woman. Explore the data here.

The lifelong achievements of women are also less likely to appear in obituary sections of the New York Times. Stephen Bloom has sampled a few decades to get the overall trend. My student Sophie Diehl recently carried out research showing that the gender imbalance in editorially-chosen obituaries is much greater than paid death notices, breaking it out by topic. We’ll publish the results soon. See also this recent piece in Mother Jones.

Opinion writing, a major channel through which ideas enter the mainstream, is predominantly male. The Op Ed Project’s annual byline survey shows that 20% of American opinion pieces in traditional media are written by women, and that women are more likely to be published on topics of family, gender and style than politics or the economy. Erika Fry has posted an excellent overview of gender in US opinion writing in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Having an article published doesn’t guarantee that people will read it, especially online. In my study with Lisa Evans on a year of UK news, we were able to show that readers of different publications gave opinion writing by women very different amounts of attention, as measured by social media likes and shares. Women’s opinion writing in the Guardian attracts a disproportionately large percentage of likes/shares, while women’s writing in the Telegraph receive’s a much smaller percentage of attention than the percentage of content by women. Explore the data here

How are Women Represented in mainstream media?

Most people and ideas get into the news by being quoted or written about, rather than actually writing the news. How are women represented when they do appear in the news?

For an accessible introduction to gender representation in the media, I suggest the film Miss Representation.  Some of the film’s claims rest on shaky data. That’s why researchers like me are trying to improve how gender is measured in the media. Along these lines, consider following the Geena Davis Institute’s upcoming work on gender in children’s television.

female news subjects by region

The motherlode, global study on this topic is “Who Makes The News,” by the Global Media Monitoring Project, which has been analysing global news content for gender since 1995. Their latest report, released in 2010, looks at 1281 newspapers, radio stations, and television stations in 108 countries. It covers 16734 news items, over 20k news personnell, and 35k news subjects. The GMMP looks in detail at topics where women are quoted, whether they’re central to stories, whether they’re cited as experts or victims, and whether those stories reinforce or challenge regional stereotypes about women. I couldn’t even begin to summarise it (pdf here), it’s so comprehensive.

Representation is especially important when a democracy argues through a policy idea in the media. In those cases, speakers fight over the language and framing of political stories. One detailed analysis of gender and framing is Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States (find it on Amazon). The resulting book is pretty theoretical, featuring complicated diagrams that look like the Galactic Senate in Star Wars. Huan Sun reviews it here.

They randomly sampled over 2500 news articles from four quality newspapers in US and Germany in a period of three decades. They develop concepts of standing and framing as the measurements of actors’ success in the discourse competition. Standing refers to whether the actors have a voice in the public sphere, and framing is to examine how dominant the voice is in comparison with other rival voices.

(our joint team at the Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Center is working on projects to do large-scale, quantified frame analysis. Watch Ethan Zuckerman’s Wired for Change Talk to learn more)

How are Women Represented in Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an influential mirror on society, a means through which we understand our world, despite Heather Ford‘s reminder that Wikipedia is no proxy for culture. How are women faring on Wikipedia?

There are a lot of different ways to count representation. Joseph Reagle and Lauren Rhue’s excellent 2011 paper on Gender Bias in Wikipedia and Brittanica demonstrates those techniques very thoroughly. Wikipedia offers better coverage and longer articles, and both men and women have articles of similar length. Update: Joseph wrote a gracious blog post correcting a misunderstanding I had from his paper and adding two points to this paragraph:

  • Wikipedia dominates Britannica in biographical coverage, but more so when it comes to men.
  • Britannica is more balanced in whom it neglects to cover than Wikipedia.

Women and men contribute to Wikipedia in different numbers. As of January 2010, only 16% of Wikipedia editors were women, and they were making only 9% of the edits. Women were much more likely to make edits about people or the arts than history or science. Women on Wikipedia don’t back down from contentious topics, although many of them leave when their edits are reverted. In individual cases, women are no more likely to leave than men, but women’s edits are reverted more frequently, leading to disproportionately high departures by women. The 2011 paper WP:Clubhouse? offers a thorough exploration of this issue. Wikipedia is very aware of the gap and is very active changing it. Read the Wikipedia Gender Gap page for more information about Wikipedia gender equality initiatives.

What Have I Missed? Add Questons & Suggestions Below