By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ
APPEARANCES OF WOMEN on the pages of American newspapers large and small have declined markedly.
According to the most recent Women Men and Media survey, the number of front-page references to women has declined for the second year in a row.
In 1995, the report showed that the number of newspaper front-page references to women fell to 19% from a high of 25% in 1994, while this year’s survey shows the percentage dropping again to only 15%.
Author/professor Betty Friedan, who is Women Men and Media’s executive director and co-chair, called the findings disturbing and explained them as a backlash against women.
“I don’t believe there is a conspiracy by editors,” she said. “I think it is an unwitting reflection of a backlash against women in the United States. It’s a reflection of the increasing economic frustration of men in a tough economy. But women are suffering also.”
The study ? which has been conducted for the past eight years by M. Junior Bridge of Unabridged Communications ? looked at four key pages (news front, local front, business front and op-ed) from 20 newspapers during the month of February. Bridge calculated the percentage of references to women (by proper name in copy, headlines and photos), women’s bylines and appearances in photographs.
The smaller market newspapers in the study generally have included more women in their pages, and this was found to be true again.
Bridge reported that while the 10 major-market papers studied had an average of 12% for front-page references to women, the small- and medium-sized papers averaged 18%.
Further, while there were no front pages that contained no references to men, 28 out of 35 front pages studied lacked any female mentions ? eight of which were from major-market newspapers.
When newspapers did feature women on their front pages, the Women Men and Media report found that more than half were about victims or other negative news, such as women murdered, missing or abused; those who were accused of a crime or other wrongdoing; deaths; and the divorce announcement of England’s Princess Diana.
Newspapers of all sizes had an average of 24% for the local front-page references to women, again in stories that were predominantly negative.
Slightly more women were found to be writing the front-page news than in previous studies, although they still only made up about a third of all bylines.
The report noted that 35% of front-page bylines were women’s, up from 34% in the 1995 report. The figure has shown little change over the past few years, however, coming in at 33% in 1994 and 34% in both 1992 and 1993.
There were more women writers represented on the front pages of the newspapers’ local sections, according to the survey, which found that 43% of bylines on local front pages belonged to women.
At 33%, the percentage of women in front-page photographs remained the same in 1996 as the year before, but nevertheless was a significant decline from the high of 39% recorded in 1994.
Just over a quarter (26%) of the opinion pieces published in February in the 20 newspapers were written by women, down from 27% last year and 28% in 1994, the report found.
There were even fewer references to women on the business front pages, which averaged only 14%. On these business fronts, women were in 25% of the photos and wrote 34% of the stories.
Bridge found that it was more common for women featured in business stories to appear on inside pages and in feature, rather than business, sections.
Ironically, in this election year when women are being talked about as “swing voters,” women were in less than 1% of the front-page political references, and when they were, they usually were there in their roles as wives and daughters.
“I think what I learned [from the results] is how important this audit is every year,” commented Nancy J. Woodhull, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York and co-chair of Women Men and Media.
“The next step is for more people to do the same type of audit at their newspaper and discuss the findings,” Woodhull added.
The audit, Woodhull explained, is a “snapshot,” not “bean counting” or something that should be used to implement quotas, but something that should spur people to ask “Why? Do we do it because it is always done that way?”
In addition, Woodhull noted that the desire to change has to come not only from the top, but from the trenches as well.
“When we look at bylines, we see that women don’t quote women any more than men do,” she said. “Someone on high can, and should, say we should diversify, but it is really up to the person who executes it.”
The major-market newspapers studied were: the Atlanta Journal and Constitution; Chicago Tribune; Houston Chronicle; Los Angeles Times; Miami Herald; New York Times; Seattle Times; St. Louis Post-Dispatch; USA Today; and the Washington Post.
The medium- and small-market papers examined were: the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal; Beacon-News, Aurora, Ill.; the Courier, Findlay, Ohio; the Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.; Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle; Joplin (Mo.) Globe; the News-Times, Danbury, Conn.; Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial; Sun-Journal, Lewiston, Maine; and the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News.
Primary funding for the report came from the Freedom Forum, with additional support from Capital Cities/ABC and the Sister Fund.