The Lace Curtain

By Brott, Armin | Nieman Reports, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Lace Curtain

Brott, Armin, Nieman Reports

"One of the central accomplishments of the women's movement over the last two decades has been to draw media attention to the physical suffering and institutional victimization of women in North American society," writes gender bias researcher Adam Jones. But does this imply that men's suffering and victimization have been given their share of concern and coverage by the media? "Absolutely not," say Jones and a large number of others who have chronicled what they claim is a pervasive strain of anti-male bias in the media.

Not surprisingly, many women's advocates take strong exception to this claim, asserting instead that the true gender bias in the media is an overwhelmingly anti-female one. And as proof, they offer counts of the gender of people pictured and quoted in the media, and of the by-lines of journalists. For example, the 1994 survey of 20 newspapers in 10 major markets and 10 smaller markets conducted by Columbia University's Women, Men, and Media (WMM), found that women wrote only 33 percent of the front-page newspaper stories and appeared in the same percentage of front page pictures (53 percent in The New York Times, though). Just 21 percent of network news was reported by women, and only 24 percent of those interviewed for nightly news shows were female.

But does this prove that there is anti-female bias in the media? That depends on your definition. While it might be proof of anti-female bias in hiring by the media, and it may chronicle the continuing effects of discrimination in various other fields (politics, for example), it may say nothing about whether there is a fair mix of coverage of women's and men's suffering in the news.

And for Adam Jones, coverage is the real issue. "The other side of human suffering and victimization...has, unfortunately, passed almost unnoticed by mainstream media," he writes in his extensive analysis of gender bias in Canada's "National Newspaper," The (Toronto) Globe and Mail. "Aspects of suffering which could be considered largely or specifically 'male' have tended to be ignored, dismissed, or distorted."

Because Jones's 1992 conclusions fly so completely in the face of conventional wisdom, one might be tempted to dismiss them. But that would be premature. First, his is essentially the only scientific research to do an indepth analysis of each and every article concerning violence over a certain time period, and to evaluate whether it contained bias against either portraying the man as a victim, or the woman as the victimizer. Other research on media gender bias has consisted simply of the type of number counts described above. Second, his findings are confirmed by anecdotal accounts by dozens of men and women who work in the media.

So does the media have a tendency to give more coverage to, and be more critical of, men who are guilty of wrongdoing than women who are guilty of the same wrongdoing? And does the media have a tendency to give a story more play when the woman is the "victim" than when the male is? Clearly, there's a lot of disagreement on this issue. After all, deciding whether coverage is negative or positive can be a rather subjective task. Nevertheless, further exploration of the widespread claims of anti-male/pro-female bias (which, for the rest of this article I'll refer to as the "Lace Curtain"), seems warranted--if for no other reason than out of a commitment to intellectual curiosity and journalistic integrity.

But before going any further, let's get one piece of business out of the way. Nothing in this article is meant to suggest that women have not suffered or to deny that, in many areas, they have been discriminated against as a class. What is being discussed is how issues that affect men and women are covered by the media--not past (or even present) discrimination.

Nevertheless, the question of past discrimination often makes it hard to recognize the effects of the Lace Curtain. Until quite recently, women were generally excluded from testing and research in non-gender specific health areas. …

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