The silenced sex? Women’s voices in US election coverage

A new report shows only 12% of US election coverage on the abortion debate quotes women. Judith Bruhn explores why this under-representation of women’s voices is undermining women’s freedom of speech.

4th Estate.net, a website analysing and visualising the social influence of media and newsmakers in the US, has published statistics on the representation of women’s voices in media coverage. Their report is based on a sampling of news stories from national print outlets, TV broadcasts and radio transcripts covering the 2012 US election. Their findings show that major US media outlets significantly under-represent women’s voices on women’s issues in their coverage. In the discussion of abortion, women are quoted only 12% of the time, organisations 7% and men a whopping 81%. A similar pattern can be seen for birth control. The topic of  women’s rights is only slightly better represented, with organisations responsible for 17% of the quotes, women 31% and men 52%.

4th Estate.net graph displaying the representation of women’s voices in the US 2012 election coverage.

Some organisations may represent women’s viewpoints, but for none of the topic areas analysed do women and organisations together represent more than 50% of quotes. This is not to say that men necessarily misrepresent women’s issues or undermine their rights – they may be very capable and concerned voices in the debate. The point is that women, those with the most first-hand experience on women’s issues and policies, receive significantly less attention and representation in election coverage than do men. This not only undermines the media’s credibility, as 4th Estate point out, but also undermines women’s freedom of speech on those issues.

Our first and most important draft principle states: “We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.” “Able” means that our voices need to be heard – they need to be adequately and fairly represented in the media. 4th Estate highlights this troubling gender gap and rightly points out that the section of society most affected by these issues has been silenced.  The media heavily shape our opinions and attitudes. It is therefore important that different parts of society have access to media to make their voices heard. In order to make “informed decisions and participate fully in political life”, as our third draft principle suggests, we need to hear women’s and men’s voices equally on important issues.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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