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Where Are The Women? Media analysis of gender representation in Brexit news

By Melody House, University of Strathclyde

It’s the portmanteau that strikes fear, loathing, and dismay in those who hear it: Brexit. With the leave date now potentially extended to October, it is clear that the only certainty with Brexit is uncertainty. As such, it is and has been – and will continue to be - a major topic of discussion in the news.

Gender Equal Media Scotland tasked me with monitoring news around Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement vote that took place on the 15th of January this year. As such, I chose to focus on the day before, the day of, and the day after the ‘meaningful vote’ (14-16 January), as these saw a large number of news stories dedicated to analysing and debating Brexit. I focused on Scottish news media, and looked at three different types: television, radio, and, print. I recorded two television shows (BBC’s Reporting Scotland, and, STV’s Scotland Tonight); two radio shows (BBC’s Good Morning Scotland, and, BBC’s Newsdrive); and seven newspapers (The National, The Scotsman, The Scottish Sun, Scottish Daily Mail, Daily Record, The Herald, and, The Press & Journal). In the end, I recorded 288 news stories across the three media, and a further 94 letters-to-the-editor in the newspapers.

I followed the Global Media Monitoring Project’s (GMMP) guidelines, and used their code sheets which can be found on their website. When it came to data processing, I coded unique appearances of persons in the news, unless they were coded in different roles. For example, if Theresa May was coded in one paper 7 times as either an expert or a subject, I recorded her once in each role. Jeremy Corbyn, May, and other key players appeared in almost every single story in various different capacities. Coding once for unique appearances in specific roles was therefore the most representative method.

The results were shocking. Women appeared less than men in every single category coded across all media (See graphs below). Women made up 25.4% of people in the news, and 26.8% of reporters/journalists. I was most surprised that women made up 36.5% of the popular opinions coded, and only 9.5% of letters-to-the-editor. If nothing else, I would expect that women would be over represented in categories related to the private sphere, yet that was not the case here.

Somewhat less surprising, was that women only made up 24.2% of experts coded. Female MPs currently comprise 32.3% of parliament. Therefore there is room to at least reflect a slightly more realistic representation of the women in politics, if not an equal one. Although it is to be expected, it is shocking that 75.7% of the political experts represented in news are men. This is especially surprising when paired with the knowledge that just last year BBC Scotland and STV, held a media training course for women experts in order to give them more representation in the news. Yet, even if we only look at the female experts in TV and Radio, they only make up 29.5%.

This is almost exactly the percentage of female reporters and journalists in TV and Radio, 29.3%. Launching their media training course, BBC Scotland and STV claimed they wanted to ‘reflect their audiences’: unless 70% of their audience is male, they have a lot of improving to do.

The GMMP has shown, that political news generally performs the worst in terms of representing women. Their 2015 study showed that women only made up 16% of political news coverage. Although my study suggests a notable increase from that (around 9,7%), it could be down to differences in methodology (they looked at one day only), data processing, and that more women are in politics this year than in 2015. Regardless, what is consistent with these and similar monitoring projects, is that women are always underrepresented in political news coverage and rarely make it above 30% of air time.

Media monitoring is not an exact science. Other content analyses, making use of guidelines and protocols other than GMMP, may yield different results. There are a number of ways to interpret the data as it stands. One could be that women are clearly smart enough to stay away from the calamity that is Brexit. Realistically, however, it’s that the British news media is failing to equally represent women. I will suggest how in my next three blogs. For now I’m left wondering, where are the women?

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