Under-represented and unheard: Women in COVID-19 news

The voices of women experts, including scientists, have been badly under-represented in the overall news reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, a report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has found following a comprehensive analysis of news coverage.

The report, The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 News: A special report on women’s under-representation in news media, was authored by Luba Kassova, director of the international audience consultancy AKAS.

Kassova was tasked with researching the representation and portrayal of women in news relating to COVID-19 and with identifying “how well women’s news needs are being met in the existing news coverage”. Researchers looked at women as sources of news expertise; news stories leading with women protagonists; and coverage of gender equality issues in news stories on COVID-19.

The report is based on a computational content analysis of nearly 12,000 publications and 1,9 million news reports between 1 March and 15 April 2020 conducted by Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, as well as qualitative and quantitative analyses of coronavirus stories across six countries: India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Women associated with anecdotes, experience

An analysis of news coverage between these dates showed a considerable bias towards men in the gathering of news relating to COVID-19 in both the Global North (the UK and the US) and the Global South (India, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa).

“This means that women are failing to shape the health-related, political, economic or social news frames used in developing the COVID-19 story and are therefore likely to have little influence over crafting the social policies put forward by governments in response to it,” the report found.

In Part 2 of the report, “The Unheard and Underreported Voices of Women in News about COVID-19”, looks at, among other things, “the missing women experts in COVID-19 news”.

In their assessment of how women’s expertise has been reflected in the news, the researchers found that, between 2005 and 2015, “fewer than one in five experts globally in the news were women.

“For instance, in the UK and the US, half of those who had obtained masters degrees were women but in 2015, women only made up 20% of the experts or commentators in the news in the UK and 36% in the US.” Similarly, in Nigeria, a third of masters degree graduates were women but only 17% of the experts or commentators in the news were women.

“Research found that in terms of sources, men were associated more with knowledge and authority and women … with personal testimony or interesting anecdotes.”

Women’s quoted voices higher in UK

The report compared the historical snapshot with the situation in 2019. In a chapter ‘The missing women experts in COVID-19/coronavirus news’, the researchers looked at the quantitative share of women’s quoted voices in the news compared to men’s and at a qualitative assessment of how women were portrayed between 1 March and 15 April this year.

It found women’s expert voices in COVID-19 stories are “worryingly marginalised”.

Women’s proportion of quoted voices in these stories was higher in the UK than in any other countries assessed. However, men were still quoted nearly three times more often than women. The women’s share of quoted voices in both COVID-19 and other news stories was considerably smaller than that of men in all the six countries assessed.

“In the UK, 25% of people quoted in COVID-19/coronavirus articles were women. This was followed by Kenya and the US, where women were quoted a fifth of the time (20% and 19% respectively), then by South Africa, Nigeria and India, where women’s share of voice … was 17%, 17% and 16% respectively.

“In summary – men were quoted between 2.9 (UK) and 5.1 (India) times more frequently than women in COVID-19 stories in the six analysed countries.”

Women scientists concerned over patriarchy

US and European women scientists have recently voiced their desperation about battling the patriarchy in science as well as their marginalisation in the COVID-19 story, the researchers found.

“As women who are deeply involved in COVID-19 science, it has become clear to us that our expertise means little when it comes to real decision-making in this public health emergency. We are frustrated that our work is being overlooked and misrepresented in the media. We are exhausted knowing that after this is all over, we will have a powerful fight on our hands to reclaim the professional ground that is slipping away from us during this emergency.”

The researchers found that the women’s share of being quoted in online news for both COVID-19 and other news stories between 1 March and 15 April was most marginalised in India, Nigeria and SA.

They also found that news reports were “skewed” towards the perspectives of men, with men being four times more likely to be cited as experts in news stories than women.

Politicians most often quoted on COVID-19

Additionally, COVID-19 stories published during this time period “overwhelmingly amplify men’s expertise and dial down women’s”, with women’s expertise and voices being much less likely to be cited. Women were, however, much more likely to be quoted for their “subjective, personal views” which hold less authority in terms of coverage and in “the strength of discourse”.

The study also found that the people most often quoted in news stories on COVID-19 were politicians, with a small minority of these being women.

“A likely reason behind the marginalisation of women’s share of voice in COVID-19-related news stories may lie in the story sourcing choices that journalists make. Typically, in times of crisis, ‘status quo bias’ tends to cause journalists to revert back to ‘established sources’ who are significantly more likely to be men.”

The researchers found that the constant bias against women operates “against a backdrop of women’s effective political invisibility within the COVID-19-related decision-making process in the countries analysed and the unique socio-economic, health and psychological challenges that women face globally. Every individual woman’s voice in the news on COVID-19 is drowned out by the voices of at least three, four or five men”.