Research Article: Women Are Seen More than Heard in Online Newspapers

Date Published: February 3, 2016

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sen Jia, Thomas Lansdall-Welfare, Saatviga Sudhahar, Cynthia Carter, Nello Cristianini, Keith Laws.


Feminist news media researchers have long contended that masculine news values shape journalists’ quotidian decisions about what is newsworthy. As a result, it is argued, topics and issues traditionally regarded as primarily of interest and relevance to women are routinely marginalised in the news, while men’s views and voices are given privileged space. When women do show up in the news, it is often as “eye candy,” thus reinforcing women’s value as sources of visual pleasure rather than residing in the content of their views. To date, evidence to support such claims has tended to be based on small-scale, manual analyses of news content. In this article, we report on findings from our large-scale, data-driven study of gender representation in online English language news media. We analysed both words and images so as to give a broader picture of how gender is represented in online news. The corpus of news content examined consists of 2,353,652 articles collected over a period of six months from more than 950 different news outlets. From this initial dataset, we extracted 2,171,239 references to named persons and 1,376,824 images resolving the gender of names and faces using automated computational methods. We found that males were represented more often than females in both images and text, but in proportions that changed across topics, news outlets and mode. Moreover, the proportion of females was consistently higher in images than in text, for virtually all topics and news outlets; women were more likely to be represented visually than they were mentioned as a news actor or source. Our large-scale, data-driven analysis offers important empirical evidence of macroscopic patterns in news content concerning the way men and women are represented.

Partial Text

Researchers have consistently argued and demonstrated the ways in which news media representations help to shape public perceptions about the world [1,2] including those around gender [3]. For example, various studies have investigated how women are under-represented in the news media [4,5,6,7], looking at the percentage of the news written by women [5], how often women are mentioned in news stories and how often women are used as experts [6,7], with other studies covering the images displayed in the news [4]. These studies, amongst many others, have established how males dominate the narrative of mainstream news media. However, most of this research has been performed by hand on small samples of news articles, examining a limited number of news outlets over short time periods. Critical investigation of news output can now be undertaken, including both text and images, on a vast scale using modern Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Our study is one of only a few using systematic large scale data collection focusing on issues around gender representation in the news [8,9,10,11]. The use of a large number of articles, obtained from hundreds of different outlets, allows this study to be less dependent on the specific choice of outlets, and also gives us sufficient statistical power to analyse the link between gender ratio (the ratio between males and females represented in an article) and certain topics, including entertainment, fashion, religion, business and politics.

In this study, we sought to investigate how the gender representation differs across topic categories, modes of content (text or images) and by news outlets. Our first set of measurements split the data into each of the 12 topic categories, or the “Other” category, and measured the gender balance in the text and images for each topic. In the second set of measurements, we split the data based upon the news outlet that published the article, presenting results focused on popular outlets with high readership, and a sufficiently large number of news articles present in our corpus to be representative.

Why are women routinely marginalized or “symbolically annihilated” in the news, to utilize a term developed by media sociologist Gaye Tuchman [13]. Over several decades, feminist news research has demonstrated that there is a persistent pattern of underrepresentation of women in relation to men in the world’s news media. Feminist news researchers have argued that the underrepresentation of women in the news undermines important liberal principles, thus undermining democracy itself.