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The Illusion of Inclusion: Final thoughts on the media analysis of women in Brexit news

By Melody House, University of Strathclyde

For the past few months I have been working on a media monitoring project for Gender Equal Media Scotland (GEMS), tasked with analysing gender representation in the news around Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (14-16 January 2019). The results showed a stark disparity on the basis of gender, with women appearing far less than men in print, radio, and television news. In fact, women rarely made it above 30% of air time or print space. Yet the one aspect of this study which shocked me the most was that it really seemed like there were a lot more women represented than the numbers show.

The results from my study correlated with similar ones on the subject. In fact, they even match analyses conducted in countries outside the UK. The underrepresentation of women in media is clearly a worldwide issue. But why does it feel like women appear in the news more than 30% of the time? This is where I will focus the remainder of my blog. As this is the last blog in my series, and I have already covered the data, stereotypes in print media, and gendered voice bias in radio; I will focus on television here.

I monitored two TV news shows: BBCs Reporting Scotland (of which there were three shows a day), and STVs Scotland Tonight (just one show a day). Reporting Scotland featured four female anchors, Sally McNair, Jackie Bird, Laura Maciver, and Sally Magnusson, while Scotland Tonight featured one female anchor, Rona
Dougall (all pictured below).

Stills from BBCs Reporting Scotland, from left: Sally McNair, anchor (14 Jan); Katie Hunter, reporter (16 Jan); Jackie Bird, anchor (14 Jan); Laura Maciver, anchor (14 Jan); and Sally Magnusson, anchor (15 Jan). Still from STVs Scotland Tonight, Rona Dougall, anchor (16 Jan).

While Reporting Scotland featured at least one female anchor every day, Scotland Tonight only featured Dougall once, on Wednesday the 16th. Needless to say, female journalists were not overly featured in my study, appearing only 26% of the time. That number didn’t fare much better in other categories. Only 28% of the experts coded were women, and 33% of the general public that appeared in the news were women. So why, then, did it seem like there were so many more?

It could all be down to the ‘default male’ principle. Feminist Scholar, Deborah Cameron, has spoken about this issue on her blog. She explained it with an example of a cartoon dog. The cartoon gave no allusion to the dog’s gender, yet as Cameron pointed out, it is more than likely that the average person would assume the dog was male. Miraculously, the ‘default male’ principle has even been found in Disney Princess films. A recent study conducted by feminist linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, found that male characters speak more in almost every Disney Princess film since The Little Mermaid. From the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney musicals have put greater emphasis on the ensemble, resembling that of a staged musical production. As such, more male characters have been added to their princess films. Take Frozen for example. The film has not one, but two strong female leads. Yet the other three secondary characters, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven are all male. Even the villain, Hans, is man. As such, 59% of the dialogue comes from male characters.

Eisenhauer likened this to the ‘default male’ principle. She explained that due to the ensemble focus, when a ‘shopkeeper’, or ‘baker’ needs to be added, the character that comes to mind is almost always male - take the opening number from Beauty and the Beast, for example. I would argue this same principle is why it seems like there are more women in Brexit news than there actually are. Seeing men on screen in roles of authority is so normal to us, that the sheer number of men featured doesn’t really register. Yet as seeing a woman is quite rare, when we do, she sticks out. We recognise her, and take note of her appearance. This gives us the illusion of inclusion, when in reality, it’s a miracle any of us were featured at all.

Throughout this study, it has become clear that our media has a long way to go before achieving gender parity. But gender is not the only basis for underrepresentation. Race and class, too, are characteristics which are subject to bias. Further studies are clearly needed in order to get a more accurate picture of representation in the media. For now, it’s up to the media to ensure they include women as part of their world.

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