For much of journalism’s history in the U.S., women were seen largely as a market for news, rather than as a community that should be reflected in the news. Put another way, they were generally seen as consumers of news and not worthwhile subjects of it. Moreover, women’s pathways into journalism were generally limited, with journalism being a primarily male profession for much of its history in the U.S. (and much of the world).
One of the ways in which women gained greater entrance and influence in U.S. journalism was through cultural journalism (coverage of lifestyle topics such as food, art, style, music, and other forms of entertainment) in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, what we currently understand to be cultural journalism can be traced directly back to the so-called “women’s pages,” which originally focused on the four Fs: family, fashion, food, and furnishings.
Those women’s pages covered women’s issues, which were seen as less important and were physically separated in publications from more ‘serious’ news topics. Moreover, the type of writing — which was less newsy and more personal — also distinguished such content from the ‘serious’ news. Consequently, the women’s pages largely featured coverage of trends (e.g., the latest fashion) and profiles of people (e.g., celebrities). Over time, though, the women’s pages influenced the creation of less gendered and more inclusive beats of coverage, such as The Washington Post’s style section.
However, this gendered gap between news and culture still appears in American newsrooms today. In the U.S., women journalists remain more likely to write about health and lifestyle topics. In contrast, they are less likely to write about economics, politics, or sports. They are also less likely to write for the opinion section.
More broadly, women are still less likely than men to be either journalists or subjects of journalism. According to a 2019 report from the American Society of News Editors, women make up roughly 42 percent of newsroom employees in the U.S., despite making up more than half of the U.S. population. According to a 2019 report by the Women’s Media Center, women journalists also only produce 37 percent of news stories. It is only in categories like entertainment (49% women), lifestyle and leisure (52% women), and health (58% women) that women have an equal (or greater) number of bylines than men. Men also dramatically outnumber women in news coverage in both text and images. That same report by the Women’s Media Center found that 77% of people mentioned in articles, and 70% of faces pictured in news articles, were male. These discrepancies suggest that male perspectives continue to dominate American news coverage, with female voices being peripheral.
These findings are particularly problematic because women greatly outnumber men in journalism education programs. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, two-thirds of people who graduate with a degree in Journalism or Mass Communication in the United States are women. As such, there are a variety of systemic factors within journalism — from broader social expectations to professional cultural values — that make it harder for women to enter (and succeed in) the professional practice.
One example of this is that there are distinct gender-based gaps in pay and hierarchy in American journalism. (This is also true in many other professions.) Those gaps further intersect with other factors, such as race and ethnicity. For example, white male journalists at The Associated Press earn an average of $15,000 more than Black female journalists. Similarly, female employees of The Washington Post earn 86 cents for every dollar white male employees earn. In light of the already relatively low average salary in U.S. journalism, these obstacles can make it impossible for many women to enter or remain in journalism — especially if they come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Racial and ethnic disparity remains the largest and slowest-changing gap in American journalism, with white journalists greatly outnumbering journalists of color. According to a 2019 survey by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), people of color make up just 21% of newsroom employees in print journalistic outlets in the U.S. (This includes newspapers with an online presence, like The Boston Globe.) That number is only slightly improved when it comes to online-only outlets (e.g., Quartz or The Huffington Post), where journalists of color comprise almost 31% of employees. Furthermore, according to a 2020 survey by the Radio Television Digital News Association, about one-fourth of employees in local TV news are people of color, and just 15% of local radio journalism jobs in the U.S. are held by people of color. These gaps are particularly striking when you consider that 39% of the U.S. population is not white.
This is also true at major, national news outlets. For example, the ASNE survey found that the staffs of The Boston Globe (85% white), The Los Angeles Times (64% white), The Wall Street Journal (79% white), and The Washington Post (71% white) were largely white. These figures are particularly discouraging when you consider that the large coastal cities where U.S. journalistic outlets are disproportionately located (including the aforementioned outlets) tend to have more diverse racial and ethnic populations than the average American city.
Notably, journalists of color are also less likely to hold management positions in newsrooms, with the ASNE survey finding that roughly 19% of managers at print and online-only outlets were people of color. Unsurprisingly, even within racial and ethnic categories, men are more likely to be either an employee or a manager. (The lone exception to this was among Asians, where women were more likely to hold both of those positions.)
These gaps are further exacerbated by a number of norms inherent to American journalism, such as the tendency for early-career journalists to take unpaid internships and the use of closed networks in hiring practices. Put another way, industry norms stack the deck against journalists from less-affluent backgrounds and those who are not well-connected. Researchers have also found a lack of diversity to exist in the faculties of journalism programs in higher education.
This demographic discrepancy is not new, and it is also not secret. American journalism organizations have called for change for a number of years, and individual journalistic outlets have begun in recent years to take accounting of their own gaps in representation (both within their newsrooms and within their coverage). For example, several journalistic outlets, such as NPR, document both their employment and coverage of women and people of color. And, in recent years, problematic issues in representation at some news outlets have led to public changes of leadership and pledges to shift hiring and coverage practices. This has been driven in part by an emerging culture of peer critique under which journalistic outlets identify and critique cultural violations in each other’s coverage.
However, increased attention doesn’t guarantee increased representation. Indeed, it is unclear if the recent changes are emblematic of a moment in time or a sustained trend toward greater inclusivity within journalism. Additionally, although younger U.S. newsroom employees are equally likely to be male and female — and they’re less likely to be white than their older counterparts — they are still much more likely to identify as white than with a minority racial or ethnic group.
The American public also recognizes these issues. According to a 2020 Gallup study, more Americans say that news media are doing poorly in reflecting U.S. diversity than say they are doing well. Additionally, approximately 69% of Americans believe that reflecting this diversity is either a “critical” or “very important” role of the media. However, the respondents to that survey were far more divided when it came to identifying how journalistic outlets could better fulfill that role.
These demographic gaps limit the stories that are covered by American journalists by reducing the richness of the lived experiences found in the newsroom. As journalist Gabriel Arana wrote in a critique of journalism’s failure to look like the communities it covers: “Ultimately, the value of diversity to journalism is not about skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or social class. It’s about the stories people can tell.” American journalism misses many important stories when it doesn’t represent the population it serves.
In addition to creating gaps in coverage, this lack of representation can also lead to flawed or biased reporting practices, such as coverage that stereotypes specific communities and groups. According to schema theory, people organize knowledge into categories, or schemas, in their minds. People then retrieve these schemas when they are confronted with media messages that depict these categories. These schemas can become entangled with loaded cultural meanings that lend themselves to stereotypes. By creating and disseminating content, journalistic outlets also rely on pre-existing schemas, or mental shortcuts, to help quickly call up information within the minds of their audiences and to help them synthesize new information. (This psychological framework is similar to that of priming theory and associative network models of human memory.)
For example, crime coverage that features racial stereotypes can connect those stereotypes to particular groups. When presented with a news story about crime that features an unknown perpetrator, people are likely to draw upon existing stereotypes and assume things about that unknown (e.g., that it was a Black male). Indeed, according to The Marshall Project, mainstream American journalists are less likely to cover Black victims of homicide, and when they do, that coverage results in less complex, less humane portrayals. That results in lower levels of empathy for Black victims (and Black people as a whole).
The same system of stereotype reinforcement comes into play with coverage of other groups and identities, too. One recurring paradox that persists in news coverage of gender is that of “double binds.” Double binds over-simplify complex and dynamic people, organizations, or groups into a one-dimensional, either-or narrative. For example, one common double bind used to depict powerful women is that of femininity vs. competence — essentially, the idea that competent women can’t be feminine and feminine women can’t be competent. This also appears in American journalistic coverage of female political candidates, which often plays up stereotypically feminine attributes (e.g., motherhood and attractiveness) while de-emphasizing stereotypically masculine attributes (e.g., leadership).
Journalists generally don’t intend to stereotype populations, oversimplify their experiences, or miss out on highly relevant story angles. Instead, journalists (like the general population) are simply ignorant about important issues and ideas that are more salient to members of communities and groups outside their own. Thus, more representative newsrooms can be an asset precisely because they allow journalists to more readily and proactively identify and address problems with coverage — or the lack thereof. This can generate not only better journalism but also increase public trust in that journalism.
Although women greatly outnumber men in American journalism higher education, men outnumber women in the profession itself. A variety of systemic factors within journalism — from broader social expectations to professional cultural values — make it harder for women to enter (and succeed in) the industry.
The newsrooms at online-only journalistic outlets are more representative of the U.S. population than their traditional media counterparts when it comes to both gender and race, though such spaces are still far from being representative.
Gaps in newsroom diversity are influenced by a variety of factors, including some American journalistic norms. These include the tendency for early-career journalists to take unpaid internships and the use of closed networks in hiring practices.
American journalism misses many important stories when newsrooms don’t represent the communities they serve. In addition to creating gaps in coverage, this lack of representation can also lead to flawed or biased reporting practices, such as coverage that stereotypes specific communities and groups.