Write about women’s accomplishments, not their connection to men
By Tracy Everbach
“Wife of a Bears lineman wins bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”
That’s what the Chicago Tribune tweeted last summer when Corey Cogdell, a three-time Olympian, medaled in trap shooting. Cogdell happens to be married to Mitchell Unrein of the Bears, and Tribune officials said they simply were trying to make a local connection for their readers.
A lot of people didn’t buy it, voicing their disdain on social media. Why connect an accomplished athlete to her husband, they asked?
The Tribune shouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction. Women often are portrayed in media coverage by their connection to a man — identifying them as mothers, wives, grandmothers and other such descriptors.
Last summer, when Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination for president, several news organizations chose to feature a photo of her husband on home pages and front pages. Some news organizations responded that the reason President Bill Clinton was pictured instead of Hillary Clinton was because she was not present in the arena. Again, many didn’t buy that excuse and saw it as a way to diminish a woman’s accomplishments.
Women have long been overlooked and ignored in media coverage. For example, academic studies show that women only compose about one-fourth of the sources quoted on front pages of newspapers, are quoted as experts much less often than men, and often are stereotyped in media portrayals: characterized by their appearances –their clothing, their hair, their weight, aspects of their bodies, rather than what they do. Even Supreme Court justices are not exempt from this.
When a woman achieves something, she deserves recognition – on her own. Stereotyping is not something journalists do intentionally. They work on deadline, trying to find sources within short time frames, and follow ingrained news values (such as finding a local connection). It takes a great deal of effort to begin thinking in a more inclusive way, whether it involves gender, race, sexuality, or another factor.
Here’s an easy experiment. Envision these people in your mind: a doctor, a professor, an editor, a CEO, an athlete. The chances are that all of the people you pictured were male. Even though we logically know that women hold all these positions (Hey, I’m a professor!), our minds assume the default is male. This is through no fault of our own – it’s because of patterns and beliefs that are ingrained into us since childhood through parents, peers, authority figures, and yes, mass media. We are socialized to accept certain gender roles as “normal.”
To break these habits takes practice. And journalists have little time to practice.
In a college class I teach called Race, Gender and the Media, we discuss these issues for an entire semester. Students come to see that much of what we consume in mass media repeats common stereotypes.
Too many news organizations repeat these clichés and assumptions. So, I urge those in the profession and those who teach journalism to think before they write.
- Identifying a woman by her motherhood, wifehood or any other connection often is not warranted. Before you do so, ask yourself, would I say it about a man? You’d likely never write about the president of the United States, “Father of five issues executive order.”
- If you are going to describe any aspect of a woman’s appearance, make sure it is connected to the story. Or better yet, just leave it out. One of the worst, most irrelevant and demeaning leads I ever read was in a Vanity Fair article about actress Margot Robbie. See how far you can read before feeling nauseated.
America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find the girl next door. In case you’ve missed it, her name is Margot Robbie. She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character. As I said, she is from Australia.
(And we wonder why women fall so far behind men in wages, in positions of power, in recognition and respect.)
- Try to reach out to women as sources and experts to even the playing field. The Women’s Media Center features a database of women experts in various topics at www.SheSource.org. A U.K.-based project has another list, http://thewomensroom.org.uk/findanexpert, as does the Op-Ed Project, https://www.theopedproject.org/.
While researching this piece, I checked the AP stylebook entry on “woman, women.” Note to the Associated Press: Your entry is extremely outdated. Need some help rewriting it? I’ll be happy to give you suggestions.
Look at some of these “gems” from p. 304 of the 2016 stylebook: “Copy should not assume maleness when both sexes are involved, as in: Jackson told newsmen …” (Seriously? Who under the age of 90 uses “newsmen” in 2017?) Also, “Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject, as in: Golda Meir, a doughty grandmother, told the Egyptians today …” (I’ll give an A to any college student who knows who Golda Meir was without Googling her name. And really, who these days would even think to describe her that way?)
Hmm … maybe we have progressed somewhat.
Tracy Everbach is an associate professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, where she teaches classes on race and gender in the media. She is a former newspaper reporter. She is co-author of an upcoming book, Mediating Misogyny: Gender, Technology and Harassment (Palgrave MacMillan).