Deborah L. Rhode
excerpts from “Media Images, Feminist Issues” in Signs, Spring 1995, Vol. 20, no. 3, Copyright 1995, by The University of Chicago Press.
“…The basic story is one of partial progress. Over the last quarter century, much has improved in press portraits of feminism, feminists, and gender-related issues. Yet much still needs improvement. […] At issue is what the media choose to present (or not to present) as news about women and how they characterize (or caricature) the women’s movement. […] The press is increasingly responsible for supplying the information and images through which we understand our lives (Hall 1977, 340-42). For any social movement, the media play a crucial role in shaping public consciousness and public policy. Journalists’ standard framing devices of selection, exclusion, emphasis, and tone can profoundly affect cultural perceptions (Gitlin 1980, 3-7; Goffman 1974, 10-11).
Inattention to Women and “Women’s Issues”
The inadequate representation of women in media decision making is mirrored in the media’s inadequate representation of women’s perspectives and concerns. In recent surveys, men provided 85% of newspaper quotes or references, accounted for 75% of the television interviewees, and constituted 90% of the most frequently cited pundits (Bridge 1993; O’Reilly 1993, 127, 129). This proportionality, or lack thereof, held up across subject matter areas, even on issues that centrally involved women, such as breast implants (Douglas 1992; Bridge 1993; O’Reilly 1993, 125, 127). […] Female writers who write on general topics often remain in the Rolodex under “F”; “as St. Augustine put it, men need women only for the things they can’t get from a man” (Pollitt 1993, 409). The result is much as Kirk Anderson portrays it in his cartoon of a talk show anchor stating that, “in the next half-hour, my wealthy white conservative male friends and I will discuss the annoyingly persistent black underclass, and why women get so emotional about abortion” (Ward, 1993, 192).
Women’s issues are also underrepresented in the mainstream media (Kahn & Goldenberg 1991, 105-7). To be sure, the situation has improved dramatically since the 1960s and early 1970s, when leading papers rarely discussed matters such as child care and domestic violence or did so only in the “style” section (Quindlen 1993a, 3). […] on a day-to-day basis, gender biases remain. Subjects that are of greater interest to male than female readers have greater priority among largely male editors. […]
Issues of particular concern to women of color are often ignored, as are the women themselves. […] What coverage does occur often presents biased images. The mainstream media prefer to center stories on deviance rather than on achievements or victimization among people of color and to explain such deviance in terms of race rather than other, more complicated factors (Minnesota Advisory Committee 1993, 5-7). For example, rapes of white women by black men receive a grossly disproportionate amount of media attention, although they account for only a small minority of reported rapes. Sexual assaults against black women are largely overlooked, even though this is the group likeliest to be victims of such brutality (Benedict 1992, 9). During the week of the highly publicized rape of a white investment banker in Central Park by a non-white gang, twenty-eight other women in New York also reported rapes. Nearly all of these were women of color, and their assaults, including at least one of comparable brutality, went largely unreported by the press (Benedict 1992, 219; Terry 1993, 160).
Moreover, despite the enormous volume of commentary attempting to account for the Central Park rape, the most obvious gender-related explanations were notable for their absence. Almost all the coverage focused on race and poverty; almost none surveyed the research on gang rape, which reveals that such crimes are frequently committed by white middle-class athletes and fraternity members. As sociologist Jane Hood put it, “Like the proverbial fish who cannot describe the water, Americans see everything but gender at work in the [New York] assault. Given more than 30 years of research on rape, that myopia is hard to explain” (quoted in Benedict 1992, 210).
Any adequate explanation would have to include the media’s own selective vision. In Helen Benedict’s recent surveys, only one of some thirty reporters who routinely covered sex crimes had ever read a book on rape and few had made any effort to consult experts (Benedict, in press, 7). […]
The marginalization of women occurs not only through failure to represent their perspectives but also through failure to recognize them as independent agents, apart from their relation to men. This symbolic erasure was apparent in television descriptions of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, in which the subjects of gang rape figured [only] as wives and daughters (Ward 1993, 190). Like early English common law, which treated rape as a crime against men’s property interest, some contemporary media accounts carry similar subtexts: “Five [males] broke into the house of a … school teacher, beat him, raped his wife and looted everything they could find” (Beasley & Gibbons 1993, 34). Similarly, a recent newspaper headline – “Widow, 70, Dies after Beating by Intruder” – reflects the significance of women’s marital status even after death (Ward 1993, 191). Other information, such as the victim’s work as a crime prevention volunteer, is of less apparent importance. Such persistent value hierarchies are aptly captured in a recent Cath Jackson cartoon. It features a male editor lecturing a female staffer on the obvious problems with an article titled “Wheelchair Woman Climbs Mt. Everest”: “You’ve miss the main points: WHO is her husband? WHAT does he do? WHERE would she be without him and WHY isn’t she at home looking after the kids?” (Jackson 1993, 4).
Beasley, Maurine H., and Sheila J. Gibbons. 1993. Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism. Washington, D.C.: American University Press.
Benedict, Helen. 1992. Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bridge, M. Junior. 1993. “The News: Looking Like America? Not Yet…” In Women, Men and Media. Los Angeles Center for Women, Men and the Media.
Douglas, Susan J. 1992. “Missing Voices: Women and the U.S. News Media.” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Extra (Special Issue), 4.
Gitlin, Todd. 1908. The Whole World Is Watching. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Goffman, Irving. 1974 Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Hall, Stuart. 1977 “Culture, Media, and the Ideological Effect” In Mass Communication and Society,ed. James Curran, Michael Gurevitch, and Janet Woollacott. London: Edward Arnold.
Jackson, Cath. 1993. “Trouble and Strife” (cartoon) In Caryl Rivers, “Bandwagons, Women and Cultural Mythology.” Media Studies Journal, vol.7.
Kahn, Kim Fridkin, and Edie N. Goldenberg. 1991. “The Media, Obstacle or Ally of Feminists.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 515.
Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. 1993. Stereotyping Minorities by the News Media in Minnesota. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
O’Reilly, Jane. 1993. “The Pales Males of Punditry.” Media Studies Journal, vol. 7.
Pollitt, Katha. 1993. “Not Just Bad Sex.” New Yorker, October 4, 220.
Quindlen, Anna. (1992) 1993. “The Two Faces of Eve.” In her Thinking Out Loud, 197. New York: Random House.
Terry, Don. 1993. “In the Wreck of an Infamous Rape, 28 Other Victims Suffer.” In Gender and Public Policy, ed. Kenneth Winston and Mary Jo Bane. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.
Ward, Jean. 1993. “Talking (Fairly) about the World: A Reprieve on Journalistic Language.” Media Studies Journal, vol. 7.
Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, the director of the Center on the Legal Profession, and the director of the Program in Law and Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University. She is the founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics, the former president of the Association of American Law Schools, the former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, the former founding director of Stanford’s Center on Ethics, a former trustee of Yale University, and the former director of Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She also served as senior counsel to the minority members of the Judiciary Committee, the United States House of Representatives, on presidential impeachment issues during the Clinton administration. She is the most frequently cited scholar on legal ethics. She has received the American Bar Association’s Michael Franck award for contributions to the field of professional responsibility; the American Bar Foundation’s W. M. Keck Foundation Award for distinguished scholarship on legal ethics, the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award for her work on expanding public service opportunities in law schools, and the White House’s Champion of Change award for a lifetime’s work in increasing access to justice. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and vice chair of the board of Legal Momentum (formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund).
Professor Rhode graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Yale College and received her legal training from Yale Law School. After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, she joined the Stanford faculty. She is the author or coauthor of over twenty books and over 250 articles. She also serves as a columnist for the National Law Journal and has also published editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Slate. Recent publications include The Beauty Bias, Women and Leadership, Legal Ethics, Gender and Law, Moral Leadership, and Access to Justice.