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Nov. 18, 2021, 11:25 a.m.
Reporting & Production

What’s the future of the gender beat in U.S. newsrooms?

“If no one on the politics team feels equipped to write about abortion bans or their analysis is really surface level, it’s not good for the news organization, and it’s not good for readers or democracy, either.”

They’ve written about abortion bans and pink pussy hats, laid plain the sexual misdeeds of powerful men, pondered the political glass ceiling and explored how professional women struggle when it comes to equal pay, childcare, and office bro culture.

These are just some of the ways journalists are covering the “gender beat” — a concept that began to emerge in large, urban U.S. newsrooms around 2016 and has continued to gain traction ever since. As my new research documents, the journalists working these beats are committed to serious coverage of issues that have historically been deemed un-newsworthy or too “soft” for the front page. But they also want to see news organizations do more to dismantle journalism’s pervasive macho culture — something that will require sweeping changes in a field that has been actively reinforcing masculine norms since the late 1800s.

“This is stuff that you don’t want to be forced into one corner,” said Emma Gray, who was a senior women’s reporter at HuffPost during our research. “It’s coverage that should, in an ideal world, cut across the entire newsroom.”

While a handful of publications have had gender-focused beats since the late aughts, many more added them in response to the 2017 Women’s Marches and the resurgence of the #MeToo movement. The journalists working these beats have churned out daily stories about high-profile sexual assault trials, explored the toxic side of Vice President Kamala Harris’s online fandom, and produced in-depth projects about the many ways the pandemic has magnified the gender gap. By the middle of 2020, there were at least 66 journalists who described themselves on Twitter as covering gender and related issues primarily for U.S. news organizations. (To arrive at this number, we used Followerwonk to search Twitter bios for keywords related to gender and journalism. We then rounded out the list through Google searches and word of mouth.) These journalists were working at metros like The Boston Globe, at local nonprofit startups like Michigan Advance, and at digitally native juggernauts like BuzzFeed. Many had been informally covering gender issues for years but said 2017 marked an inflection point for their work.

“[It] helped reporters and especially male editors realize the sort of snowball effect that can come from not valuing women’s issues,” said Erica Hensley, who launched a gender beat at Mississippi Today in 2018.

Hensley and Gray were among 20 gender-focused journalists my research team and I interviewed during the summer of 2020. Through these conversations, I saw how gender beats might help combat structural sexism in both news organizations and society, but I also came to understand their limitations. Most of the journalists we spoke to were conflicted about the existence of their beats and worried that dedicated gender beats could further ghettoize women’s issues.

“My goal is for this beat not to exist,” said Abbey Crain, who left The Wall Street Journal several years ago to create a gender beat in her home state of Alabama at “Women’s issues and gender issues should be everyone’s issues. But it’s literally not, so I feel like we have to have this extra step so that we’re covering them at the same level.”

At the same time, many of the journalists we interviewed — especially those who cover sexual violence — stressed that the work they do requires specialized skills that have not historically been part of journalists’ training.

“Not just anybody can write about gender,” said Slate’s Christina Cauterucci. “It is a skill that requires honing and expertise in the same way that writing about economics or something requires expertise.” But she also sees problems in isolating gender too much: “If no one on the politics team feels equipped to write about abortion bans or their analysis is really surface level, it’s not good for the news organization, and it’s not good for readers or democracy, either.”

News organizations, many of the journalists said, must do more than add a few specialized beats if they want to provide coverage that accurately represents and serves all segments of society. They want industry leaders to do more to diversify newsrooms that remain overwhelmingly white and male.

“It’s not enough to only hire women and put them in a gender beat,” said Nishita Jha, BuzzFeed’s global women’s rights reporter. “One of the big things that’s missing in newsrooms is women in leadership roles and also women of color in leadership roles.”

Allison Donahue, who covers gender as part of her job at Michigan Advance, agrees: “I’m white. I’m middle class. I don’t represent everyone. I especially don’t represent everyone who needs to be represented in journalism … You have to have Black women, Latina women, queer women.”

Several of the journalists interviewed pointed to The 19th, a nonprofit news organization “reporting at the intersection of gender, politics and policy,” as an example of the serious, comprehensive coverage they wanted to see more of across the news landscape. They also wanted to see more gender diversity among journalists covering the beat.

“It would be great to have more non-binary, gender-nonconforming people in the newsrooms because I think that’s also a really important component of gender coverage,” said Gray, who is now a columnist and podcaster at MSNBC.

This isn’t the first time journalists have leveraged feminist social movements to improve news coverage of women. Second-wave feminism propelled women into professional spaces, including newsrooms, and many of those barrier-breaking journalists were inspired by women’s rights activists to challenge masculine norms around news coverage. They made some progress, but news organizations failed to provide long-term, nuanced coverage of gender inequities, especially as they relate to women of color. News stories also continued to perpetuate sexist tropes or ignore women’s experiences altogether.

When we conducted these interviews during the summer of 2020, there was already some evidence that attention was softening toward some of the issues covered by modern gender beat journalists, at least when it comes to coverage of sexual misconduct.

“The news environment has sort of moved on from #MeToo stories,” said Emily Peck, who was a senior reporter at HuffPost at the time of her interview. “Women are still coming to me with their stories. I’m still trying to look into them. But it’s just hard for those to break through right now.”

It’s also important to note that, in the year since we wrapped up our research, both Peck and Gray were laid off from HuffPost. The New York Times, meanwhile, recently announced it’s folding the In Her Words newsletter. The news industry is fluid, so layoffs and changes to distribution strategies aren’t uncommon, but decisions like these do raise questions about news organizations’ long-term commitment to gender-informed coverage. (This is also something I plan to address in a companion study.)

Still, most of the journalists we interviewed felt they were making progress in terms of how their news organizations address gender-related issues.

“I’ve opened the door to so many different types of stories and people that we wouldn’t have previously covered,” said Stephanie Ebbert, a longtime Boston Globe reporter who honed in on gender issues after the 2016 elections. “There were a lot of issues that just weren’t really on our radar at the Globe that I was able to turn attention to and highlight.”

So what, then, is the future of the gender beat in U.S. newsrooms? Newsroom managers would be wise to devote more resources to gender-focused coverage, but they must proceed with caution to ensure gender beats are more than short-term fads. That means recognizing the value of gender beat expertise as it relates to promotion, pay raises, and awards. Otherwise, covering gender may become another one of the non-promotable tasks that women disproportionately assume in newsrooms.

Newsroom leaders must also commit to eventually phasing these beats out — not because they fall out of vogue or the stories they generate become un-newsworthy, but because the work done by gender beat journalists pushes news organizations (and society) to a place where the lived experiences of women are no longer treated as subordinate to those of men.

Meg Heckman is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, where she leverages historical and contemporary research to dismantle journalism’s macho culture and improve representation of women in news media. This study was supported by a grant from Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design. Research assistants Deanna Schwartz, Annie Probert and Lex Weaver contributed in many vital ways.

Photo from the Philadelphia Women’s March in 2018 by Rob Kall used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 18, 2021, 11:25 a.m.
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