Women and
"All the News That's Fit to Print"?

Introduction

The integration of women into The New York Times is dramatically chronicled in the 1992 book, "The Girls In the Balcony," by Nan Robertson. The title refers to the area of the National Press Club where women reporters were restricted to until 1971. But Robertson's tale turns on the sex discrimination lawsuit filed against The New York Times in 1974 by a group of employees calling themselves the Women's Caucus.

"Suing your employers is like suing for divorce and continuing to use the same bathroom," the first-named plaintiff in the suit wrote later (Wade, 1993).

The Times vigorously denied the discrimination charges at first, but in late 1978 agreed to settle out of court. It didn't exactly throw in the towel, agreeing to a $350,000 cash settlement that averaged $454 for each of the 550 women in the class-action suit. But the Times did submit to a court- supervised affirmative action plan. The agreement, unprecedented in the media industry, called for the Times to place women in one-eighth of its top corporate positions and one-fourth of its top news and editorial slots by 1982 (Beasley & Gibbons, 1993). The Times upheld that agreement, allowing its female contingent to rise to 30 percent of the reporters and 35 percent of the editors as of last year, according to Assistant Managing Editor Carolyn Lee (personal communication, March 20, 1995).

In 1989, a feminist group headed by Betty Friedan started measuring the sexual integration of newspapers in another way. For one month, it counted how many women's bylines, pictures and names there were on the front page of each day's edition of 10 metropolitan newspapers. Starting in 1990, these annual "Women, Men and Media" studies were expanded to another 10 newspapers from smaller cities across the nation, and to all of the 20 papers' metro pages. In 1989, they found an average of 27 percent of the front-page bylines belonged to women, along with 24 percent of the photos and 11 percent of the name references. By 1994, the women's front-page averages had increased to 33 percent of the bylines, 39 percent of the photos and 25 percent of the references -- a jump from 15 percent of the references in 1993 (Bridge, 1994).

Secondary analysis, however, reveals an externality that explains the big increase in female references last year. The 1994 Women, Men and Media study was conducted during February, the same month filled with coverage of the Winter Olympics duel between figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. During February 1994, 32.3 percent of the female front-page references in The New York Times were to Harding or Kerrigan. It is likely other newspapers carried more front-page coverage of the Harding- Kerrigan matchup than the Times with its conservative Page One layout. Applying a 32.3 percent reduction in front-page female references reduces the newspapers' average to 17.2 percent in that category. An independent t-test between that figure and the 1990 average for the same 20 newspapers yields a t-observed of 1.50, compared to the t-critical of 1.73 necessary for any increase at p < .05 significance.

Looking only at The New York Times, the Women, Men and Media study of February 1994 front pages found women accounting for 18 percent of the references and 19 percent of the bylines. By comparison, the current study's random subsample of 28 New York Times from 1994 found women with 12.6 percent of the references and 17.7 percent of the bylines on Page One.

But the purpose here is not to criticize the Women, Men and Media studies or The New York Times. This study is designed to carry the content analysis regarding women one step farther. It uses a large, long-range random sample (N=1,453 pages in 224 editions from 1966 to 1994) to indicate whether the gains women have made in newsroom employment have translated into significant increases in the coverage of women (using an alpha level of .05). In other words, do female reporters tend to write about women more than men do? And are there side effects that also lead male reporters to write about women more often when more of their colleagues are women? After all, newsrooms are more than equal opportunity employers. As important as that is prima facie, the reason news organizations are the only businesses granted constitutional protection is that they are responsible for providing a pluralistic forum for our democratic society.

This content analysis is limited to The New York Times, partly because I do not have the time or money to extend a study of this magnitude to other newspapers. Mostly, however, I can think of no better place to start than the organization that considers itself the newspaper of record for the United States, if not the world. The New York Times annually ranks at or near the bottom of the Women, Men and Media charts for female representation. So if significant gains can be found in its pages, less-traditional newspapers are likely to show even larger improvement in portraying women.

Every morning's New York Times still carries the motto, "All the News That's Fit to Print." The question here is whether that promise to readers exemplifies -- or belies -- newsroom diversity.

Back to Times women index page.