Promulgating Polarization: Study Finds Media Coverage of Women, Minorities Tends to Be Oversimplistic, Which Exacerbates Social Strains

Article excerpt

WHILE THE MEDIA act as a mirror, reflecting the society they cover, they also can influence that image for the better or the worse.

A new study has found that media coverage of women and people of color has not only reflected the polarization among these communities, but also may be helping to promulgate it.

"The 1992 presidential election campaign has exacerbated an unprecedented politics of polarization of the American people..." commented Betty Friedan, author and co-chair/co-founder of Women, Men and Media, a national research and outreach project that examines gender issues in the media.

"Have the media helped show the growing frustrations of men and women, young and old, over lack of job security, real problems, and the costs of health care, and plumbed to their root causes?" Friedan asked during a recent conference on the politics of polarization.

"Or have the media somehow exacerbated the resulting fear of crime, violence and other social strains into a polarizing search for scapegoats, intensifying Americans' fear and hatred of people of other races or other lifestyles?"

Friedan also noted the importance of asking "how the media are fulfilling their own role in conveying stereotypes, myths and deliberate propaganda, or penetrating to the true concerns that are crucial to the future of this democracy and the real interests of the American people."

The study, "The News As If All People Mattered," found that media "reductionism,'' trying to explain complex conflicts as simply one side versus another, "often results, advertently or inadvertently, in news coverage that polarizes.

"The media further stimulate polarization by such action as treating subgroups within communities of interest differently, repeating inflammatory comments without challenge or balancing statements, omission of relevant news, disregard for certain communities, quoting and referencing sources predominantly from one subgroup," the report noted.

Some 4,000 articles in 10 publications from July and August 1992 were examined to determine the extent to which their coverage of women and ethnic and racial groups led to or furthered existing polarization.

The publications examined were Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today and the Washington Post.

The study was conducted by M. Junior Bridge, president of Arlington, Va.-based Unabridged Communications. Women, Men and Media is funded primarily by the Freedom Forum, Arlington, Va.

Women

The first section of the report, which analyzed media coverage of women, found that the "white male, as reported by the media, is the subtle norm by which all else is gauged."

For example, when the subject is a white male, reference to his race and gender is rarely noted, whereas descriptive phrases, such as "black leader" or "female candidate," are often employed in addition to that person's name and title.

News articles about women also tend to describe them in ways that rarely are used when writing about men; hairstyles, clothing, marital and parental status, and similar remarks.

Further, articles about women candidates often focused on the competition between two women rather than on the issues or the historical implications.

The wives of the presidential and vice presidential candidates also garnered considerable coverage, particularly Hillary Clinton.

"There were almost twice as many articles on Hillary Clinton as on the major female candidates combined during the study period," according to the report. "There were about three times as many articles on the male presidential/vice presidential candidates' spouses as there were on the major female candidates combined."

Aside from numerous articles about Hillary Clinton's hairstyle and image, coverage focused on the issue of her career as a lawyer -- as opposed to Tipper Gore, Marilyn Quayle or Barbara Bush, who are portrayed as stay-at-home mothers, despite the fact that their activities leave them little time to bake cookies. …