Cristina Mislán

26Journalism, Gender, and Race

Abstract: This chapter intersects various theoretical perspectives, including hegemony, racial formation, and feminist studies, with journalism studies on race and gender. Situating journalism studies within political, cultural, and sociological understandings reveals scholars’ primary concerns. Scholarly conversations have primarily focused on the production of news, content, and audiences’ perceptions. Within analyses about journalistic values, norms and routines, there are questions about the impact that practices have on representation and public perception, particularly in relation to crime and violence. Overall, this chapter seeks to underscore the theoretical underpinnings that reveal the role journalism plays in maintaining and reifying raced and gendered norms.

Keywords: race, gender, hegemony, racial formation, rape culture


In 1947, the publication of the Hutchins Commission declared various concerns regarding freedom of the press. Included in this list of concerns were cautions about media ownership concentration and the effects of concentration on media content (Blanchard 1977). Almost two decades later, another report criticized the structure of media but focused on highlighting the role that media played in representing the country’s civil rights struggles. The Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, was designed to explore the uprisings that emerged throughout United States’ cities during the 1960s. In April 1968, the Commission assessed the coverage of the uprisings that emerged following the assassination of Martin Luther King, criticizing the media for presenting an “imbalance” of what actually happened in cities across the country.

Reflecting earlier concerns about sensationalism in the Hutchins Commission, the Kerner Commission’s criticisms highlighted the sensationalist news coverage of the uprisings. The press’s responsibility to both black and white viewers had failed to provide Americans an accurate description of the problems people faced. Included in its list of concerns was a survey that underscored the lack of black representation within newsrooms. The Kerner Report argued that the lack of diverse newsrooms allowed for these misrepresentations of race and racism. Both the Hutchins Commission and the Kerner Report, thus, highlighted 20th-century criticisms about media structures and their impact on news content. Such concerns have become central to the study of journalism and its relationship with issues of race and gender.

This chapter provides an overview of the various bodies of scholarship related to the relationship between journalism, race, and gender. Journalism studies have addressed the relationship between the production of news, news discourse, and audience responses. Moreover, because of the United States’ history with racism, sexism, and American exceptionalism, many scholars have raised questions about the relationships between production, discourse, and ideology. An overview of this scholarly area illustrates three general approaches to studying the relationship between journalism, race, and gender: 1. the demographics of the journalists working in newsrooms, and the norms and routines of those journalists; 2. the discourse of news (which journalists produce); and 3. readers’ and viewers’ responses to news discourses and ideologies.

In the first approach, scholarship about the relationship between journalists’ demographics, and their norms and routines ask: What is the racial and gender makeup of newsrooms? How do homogenous newsrooms versus more diverse newsrooms influence the production and content of news? Do more diverse newsrooms produce more accurate and complex representations of non-white communities? How do homogenous newsrooms skew news reports about issues directly concerning non-white communities? How do journalists cover issues of race and gender in particular? More recently, scholarship also has explored how journalists cover specific issues (e.g., same-sex marriage) facing LGBTQIA communities.

Within the second general approach regarding news discourse, researchers have primarily asked: How do journalists’ representations depict non-white populations living in the United States? How do these representations maintain and/or challenge stereotypes about race, gender, and sexuality? Furthermore, more critical scholars ask how does news discourse maintain white patriarchal heterosexual ideologies? How do these ideologies reinforce whiteness, patriarchy, and heterosexuality as the norm, thus continuing the marginalization of people who do not fit into what society has deemed “normal”? The third general approach includes the influence news content has on readers’ and viewers’ perceptions. These studies explore how news discourse informs readers and viewers about political, economic, and social issues. Furthermore, this body of work explores whether and how the public adopts and maintains particular stereotypes related to marginalized communities.

Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is helpful for understanding how these three bodies of categories contribute to journalism studies and the role it plays in reinforcing social and political hierarchies. Defined as a process for maintaining power or dominance of one social group over another (Lull 1995), hegemony is a useful tool for examining how whiteness, patriarchy, and heterosexuality are perceived and maintained as the norm in journalism. The process of hegemony (i.e. gaining consent from the public through subtle forms of rule) helps highlight how and why scholars have conducted analyses on representation in newsrooms, misrepresentations of marginalized communities, and gendered norms in news-making processes. Scholars have explored how racial hegemony (i.e. whiteness as the norm), gender hegemony (patriarchy and masculine narratives as the norm), and heteronormativity (heterosexuality as the norm) are prevalent in news coverage.

This chapter will provide an overview on how various scholars have addressed the ways hegemonic ideologies, dominant worldviews, have shaped journalism practices and content. It is important to note that this chapter treats the categories of race, gender, and sexuality as social constructions. Drawing from critical race theorists and sociologists, this chapter understands race to be a dynamic identity that constantly changes across political and national contexts, and throughout history. For instance, Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994) illustrate how difficult it is to assign individuals and groups to racial categories, but how the state continues to organize and interpret race based on the historical legacy of slavery (Omi & Winant, 1994: 53). The “socio-historical process by which categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (p. 56) define the formations or developments of race. According to Omi and Winant, racial formation is directly linked to hegemony, where society is organized and ruled in ways that maintain the norm.

In its treatment of gender, this chapter draws from Judith Butler’s theory on gender performance, which problematizes sex as a biological category and opens up space for individuals to explore various gendered identities. Butler (1988) illustrates gender identity as performative, where acts are defined by sanction and taboo. Furthermore, Butler’s (1993) Bodies that Matter argues that gender performance is inextricably tied to normalizations of sex. This chapter will demonstrate that journalism plays a key role in normalizing gender through its reification of particular codes and expectations.

Together, Butler’s framework of gender performance and Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory illuminate how news media have played a crucial role in maintaining institutional structures that create, re-create, and maintain societal norms. Drawing from these theoretical frameworks, this chapter explores how scholars have studied the role of power relations in journalism by asking critical questions about the demographics of journalists, the norms and routines of those journalists, the role of news discourse, and audiences’ responses to news content. Existing literature will illustrate that news-making processes and structures have larger political implications about hegemonic ideologies that shape society’s understandings of race and gender. Thus, this chapter provides an overview of scholarship on the race and gender of news workers, the racial implications of news coverage, and the gendered biases found in news coverage. In an effort to address what some call moments of resistance, this chapter also traces moments in which journalism has been able to offer counter-narratives through the development of non-white media outlets and feminist media activism. The chapter ends with a discussion on where future research should go, with a particular focus on how questions about intersectionality and transnationalism should be a central theme in the future of journalism studies.

2Race and gender of news workers

According to The Freedom Forum Board of Trustees, the gap between the racial and ethnic makeup of news workers and the larger public has not narrowed. During the late 1970s, newsrooms were 96 percent white and 4 percent people of color (19 percent of the US population). Since then, however, the percentage of journalists of color in newsroom staffs has increased to 12.76 percent. Simultaneously, the population of people of color made up more than 30 percent in 2014. Thus, as the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) census demonstrates, retention of journalists of color has remained a major problem. ASNE further indicates that covering communities “fully, to carry out their role in a democracy, and to succeed in the marketplace, the nation’s newsrooms must reflect the racial diversity of American society by 2025 or sooner” (McGill 1999: 6).

Current research suggests that people of color are either absent in mainstream news coverage or represented in stereotypical ways (Nishikawa et al. 2009). Such problems have led to widespread images of communities of color that depict individuals as unimportant or criminals. These simplistic narratives have often led to mistrust of the press in communities of color (Awad 2011). Scholars ask whether these representations are consequences of the lack of diversity in newsrooms. Adding to this lack of presence in newsrooms is the fact that even fewer own media platforms and gain access to power positions (Nishikawa et al. 2009).

In Don Heider’s (2013) White News: Why Local News Programs Don’t Cover People of Color, the relationship between hegemony and race is explored through an anthropological study on homogenous newsrooms. As Heider suggests, to understand the issues that pervade newsrooms regarding the coverage of communities of color, one must explore “how news decisions are made, how story ideas are selected, and how news is gathered and produced …” (p. 9). In exploring news decision-making processes, scholars may gain insight into the ways news workers may incorporate marginal voices and whether these approaches continue to reinforce and reproduce ideas that “sustain the power structure, both culturally and economically” (p. 9). Thus, in turn, such a study may reveal how particular media practices in combination with the ownership of media may lead to everyday forms of racism. Heider argues that ownership and news practices “may work together to systematically exclude certain groups of people”, where “large scale economic discrimination and small scale daily coverage decisions are also ultimately contributing to similar ends …” (p. 10). An anthropological study of newsrooms illustrates that a combination of homogeneity, ownership structures, and decision-making practices established by a few voices help to reify everyday racism in newsrooms and in news content. Everyday racism constitutes the rejection of complex and nuanced stories about the lived experiences of people of color.

While Heider illustrates how homogenous newsrooms operate daily regarding issues of race, evidence that would suggest diverse newsrooms function differently is scarce. Some scholarship has argued that the presence of journalists of color does not lead to inevitable changes in news content (Nishikawa et al. 2009). Whether or not the presence of journalists of color impact news content, therefore, is of great concern within journalism studies. Some scholarship suggests that journalists of color are confounded by journalistic norms, which may limit their influence on content. Critical journalism studies scholars have defined and critiqued the practices that often influence the norms and routines of journalists (Bennett 1990). Arguments critiquing these everyday practices suggest that such constraints on journalists “limit what journalists deem as news and influence how that news is presented” (Nishikawa et al. 2009: 244). These everyday practices include reliance on what is considered objective reporting (e.g., “two sides” to every story) and the use of authoritative sources (e.g., political and government leaders). “Official” sources are often used over community members and dissident voices. Particular decisions on what constitutes news also may promote status quo news, according to Heider (2013).

Mainstream journalistic practices extend to journalists of color, who are requested to remain “objective” and follow rules set often by white editors. Thus, journalists of color are expected to “back away from their racial identity and lived experiences and conform to the professional norms and values of the organization and the individuals who hired them” (Nishikawa et al. 2009: 245). What this scholarship suggests is that diverse newsrooms may not inevitably lead to better coverage of communities of color nor do they necessarily lead to stronger readership from multicultural communities. Still, it is important to note that many scholars and media activists often argue newsroom diversity has greater democratic benefits.

Similar to race, gender representation in newsrooms has illustrated mixed results. A substantial amount of literature on gender and journalism has explored whether more female representation influences the news in ways that differ from male-dominated newsrooms. Craft and Wanta (2004) compared newspapers with high and low percentages of female editors. Their results suggested that newspapers’ websites showed little difference in issues covered. Yet, there were subtle differences. According to Craft and Wanta (2004), newspapers with a higher representation of female managers tended to cover news through a more positive lens. For instance, crime news was slightly more present at male-dominated newspapers. Furthermore, female and male reporters covered similar issues at newspapers with higher female managers. At male-dominated newspapers, male reporters tended to cover political beats while female reporters covered more stories about business and education.

Similar to the relationship between hegemony and race, scholarship also has highlighted the link between gender and hegemonic ideologies. This literature underscores the ways masculine values have shaped journalism culture, thus normalizing the masculine ideologies that pervade newsrooms. For instance, journalists often use male experts; such choices privilege a masculine order that finds its way into news coverage. Research has found some differences in men’s and women’s source choices (Armstrong & Nelson 2005). Correa and Harp (2011) found that male journalists tended to use official sources while women used more citizen and private sources. A feminist perspective, therefore, deconstructs these news discourses to illustrate how mainstream news often neglects issues of importance to women. In addition to the issue of source, professional norms of objectivity, journalism training, routines, and patriarchal ideologies in newsrooms help to maintain this “masculine order”. When female journalists and managers reach a critical mass, hold positions of authority, and identify with specific stories, they often counter this hegemonic masculine culture through decisions about space, prominence, and sourcing (Correa & Harp 2011).

What much of this literature demonstrates is that investigating whether diversity actually influences content is difficult to analyze. While much scholarly conversation has shown that differences do occur when female reporters cover particular news, it is critical to ask what is a female-oriented perspective? To suggest that female reporters, editors, and managers would influence the news differently from men is to suggest that gender is a biological, essential trait of human beings. But feminist studies illustrate that in fact gender is a social construction. How society defines male and female is directly related to human interactions. For instance, the normative cultural ideas that blue is associated with men and pink with women are social constructions with no basis in biology. Thus, to ask whether gender influences the news content assumes that gender identity is essential to a person’s being.

Drawing from Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 statement in The Second Sex that one is not “born” a woman but “becomes” one, Butler (1988) conceptualizes gender as an unstable identity, one that is “instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (p. 519). Audiences and actors come to believe in their own performances that are “repeated”, reified and naturalized. Sociologists like Omi and Winant (1994) also illustrate how race is an evolving concept that is socially constructed through human interaction. A hegemonic lens then illustrates how race and gender are constructions that are performed, reified, and naturalized. How these normative constructions are reproduced within newsrooms is a question that requires us to review the literature on representation in news content.

3Journalism, representation, and race

Omi and Winant’s (1994) theory of racial formation provides insight into the ways media have helped develop and sustain racial projects in the United States. If racial formation is the socio-historical process that helps maintain, create, destroy, and transform racial categories, then it is important to highlight the role journalism has played in shaping such formations. Drawing from the vast scholarship available on racial representation and stereotypes in news, it can be argued that journalism has played a crucial role in shaping and reflecting racial formation processes. These processes link structure to representation. Racial projects do the “ideological work” in making these connections. They are “interpretations, representations, or explanations of racial dynamics” and help redistribute and reorganize resources according to racial lines (p. 56). Racial formations are prevalent at the macro and micro level via various racial projects. Race projects “connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning” (p. 56).

Journalism plays a role in maintaining racial projects via particular discursive practices. While there is much to say about the reification of stereotypes in the media through scholarly conversations about media effects, it is critical to engage with larger political questions about the role of journalism in the United States’ evolution of racial formation. Scholarship on journalism and race suggests that everyday racism prevails in newsrooms and in news content. But these everyday, micro-level occurrences cannot be separated from the macro. The combination of misrepresentations of marginalized people with the structural treatment of those same communities helps to show how hegemonic racial formations are maintained via news stories. As Omi and Winant (1994) suggest, race is an unstable and evolving category that often is contested. For instance, Awad (2011) illustrates how news coverage of Latina/o people cannot be known or documented objectively, since the meaning of Latinidad can change historically and contextually.

Scholarship on the relationship between media and nation illustrate how journalism and its practices often are perceived as both reflections and creations of the larger society in which a specific media institution exists. Journalism, therefore, is part of larger racial projects that constitute the political/public sphere, everyday “common sense” practices, and historical processes. As such, this section traces two primary themes found in research on race in news. These themes include how the representations of non-white communities raise questions about the relationship between race, crime and gender in the news.

3.1Race and crime in the news

Omi and Winant (1994) argue that racism is apparent when discourse and policies link to essentialist representations of race. In other words, policies may suggest that an individual’s or entire group of people’s behavior (or socio-economic and political status) is a natural or biological consequence of a particular racial category. Much of the literature on race in the news suggests that news content often directly and indirectly associates crime with non-white communities. One can argue that the implications of this linkage highlight how crime is perceived to be “naturally” linked to “otherness”. Additional stereotypes include portraying black Americans as athletes or entertainers (Hoffman 1991). These discursive texts also imply that black individuals are often perceived as genetically advanced in entertainment careers, such as sport athletes and music artists, but not in other more “serious” careers like science, math, and politics. The absence of “serious” representations and the hypervisibility of entertainment also have shaped racial formations in media. How these representations are created result from a few different factors. These factors include journalists’ choice of sources, perceptions of credibility, reliance on conflict, and oversimplified narratives that privilege white voices, to name a few (Hoffman 1991).

What complicates the misrepresentations of marginalized voices is the notion of objectivity (Awad 2011). Anything outside of the “objective” norm is conceived as biased or disqualified as interesting. Critical news scholars highlight the relationship between hegemony and objectivity. Some scholars have noted that the goals of neutrality and objectivity help to maintain what appears to be “normal”, “natural”, and common sense, which, in turn, supports the values and norms of a ruling elite who hold social and political power. How neutrality works to maintain the status quo is through the “choice of words and use of language, delimiting of arguments so that truly oppositional positions are presented as legitimate considerations” (Meyers 2004: 96). For instance, Awad (2011) found that a latina/o community disagreed with their local newspaper San Jose Mercury News’ claims to impartiality. Some of these perceptions resulted from the newspaper’s publishing of news stories about crime and gangs. One particular story explicitly focused on the association of gangs with Latina/o youth.

Such hegemonic norms have led to the overwhelming representation of various communities as criminals. Journalism helps maintain and support social control and the construction of morality (Grabe et al. 2006). These questions about right and wrong, behavior and deviance have racial implications. Being constantly depicted as criminals and immoral, black Americans are less likely to be portrayed as victims (Dixon & Linz 2000). Entman and Rojecki (2000) also suggest that black criminals are portrayed as more threatening than white criminals. Gilliam et al. (1996) highlight that television news focuses on crime as being violent and associated with non-white people. Such links are critical when examining the public’s perceptions of punishment, punitive policies, and crime rate. Yet, some literature has suggested that both white and black people are more likely to be represented as perpetuators than victims; yet, black Americans still are underrepresented as victims, while white Americans are overrepresented (Dixon, Azocar & Casas 2003). In contrast, however, Bjornstrom et al. (2010) found no significance between the reporting of white and black perpetuators. Chiricos and Eschholz (2002) also found that Latina/os are overrepresented in crime news in comparison to their proportion in the population.

Why are these images not only damaging discursively but also within sociohistorical processes? Literature suggests there is a positive correlation between the overrepresentation of black individuals as criminals and viewers’ perceptions of black people as violent (Dixon 2008). The association between non-white people and crime has raised concerns about the tendency for individuals of color to mistakenly be identified as criminals. For instance, some research demonstrates that white people report greater fear of crime in the presence of black individuals (Chiricos, Hogan & Gertz 1997).

What this literature suggests is that journalism plays a role in constructing and reifying hegemonic understandings about race. As such, media representations must be placed within the social, cultural, and political contexts in which those representations emerge (Spencer 2014). For instance, the significance of crime news and race representation must be contextualized within a conversation about structural policies, institutional systems (e.g., law), state violence (e.g., police brutality) and culture (everyday practices). The representations of “others”, of those who are not white and/or placed within a western geographical space, provide insight into the “ideological values implicit in our society” (p. 6). Thus, representation is the “thing” itself, but an interpretation of the “thing”. In addition, some research has found that representations significantly relate to public perceptions about the racial composition of crime suspects. Combining critical scholarship on news with cultural studies on representation and media effects reveals the media processes that may maintain the nation’s macro and micro-level racial projects.

3.2Welfare queens and the culture of poverty

Similar to the issue of crime, the systemic association between race and poverty is another theme that often emerges from journalism studies on race and representation. Scholarly conversations on race and poverty have underscored how media have consistently relied on narratives that link black communities to poverty, but seldom do so with white people. Thus, in any conversations about poverty in the United States, what audiences often see are people of color living in poverty, particularly single black mothers with children. The media consensus (at least it seems so) is that men of color are missing from these families, because they occupy prisons instead of households. These types of stories further stigmatize both poverty and non-white communities by reinforcing the myth of the American Dream. The myths of personal responsibility and meritocracy continue to influence how the public perceives people living in poverty.

Such myths then help shape negative stereotypes like laziness, which becomes associated with people of color. People are blamed for their circumstances; thus, poverty becomes a non-white problem (Gilens 1996). Clawson and Trice (2000) examined a short time period during the Clinton administration when it implemented a structural transformation of the welfare system, which turned control of these programs to the state level. The authors found that black individuals were disproportionately portrayed as poor in magazine visual images. More specifically, black individuals were overrepresented in negative stories about poverty in which stereotypes were prevalent. Drawing from Omi and Winant’s (1994) racial formation theory, it can be argued that these associations between poverty and race (like crime and race) have essentialist implications. Such stereotypes imply that only nonwhite people are poor and there is something “natural” about latina/os and black individuals being perceptible to poverty. Of course, these are narratives, assumptions, and stereotypes (not realities). Yet, public perception illustrates that Americans greatly exaggerate the extent to which black people make up the population of those living in poverty. Thus, public misperceptions directly intertwine with media misrepresentations (Gilens 1996).

To further understand how these misperceptions are recreated and reified in media, it is important to contextualize such conversations within political and cultural understandings about poverty and policy. In When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, Katznelson (2005) extends beyond conversations about affirmative action policies in the 1960s, when such policies were seen as “black”. Instead, Katznelson chronicles affirmative action policies that developed in the decades before 1960, when those policies were “white”. Katznelson highlights that while black Americans moved economically and socially upward in society during the postwar economic boom, by the time President Lyndon Johnson announced his “Great Society” effort to eliminate poverty it was a statement understood to address black poverty. But the elimination of black poverty would come with addressing the black family structure; thus, Johnson echoed the 1965 Moynihan Report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”. Such discourse defined poverty as a “self-perpetuating ‘tangle of pathology’ marked by the ‘deterioration of the Negro family’” (p. 16).

The arguments that helped solidify the culture of poverty ideology in Johnson’s statements and the Moynihan report originated from cultural anthropologist Oscar Lewis’ studies on Puerto Rican and Mexican communities. The term “subculture of poverty” appeared in Lewis’ 1959 ethnography Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. The idea of the culture of poverty contended that people were socialized into behaviors and attitudes that shaped their inability to escape poverty. Such arguments, as indicated in the Moynihan Report, were not divorced from black Americans.

But as Katznelson (2005) highlights, these arguments were not only wrong but they also left out structural explanations. How affirmative action and welfare policies came to be associated with non-white poverty lies in understanding the history of President Theodore Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s was shaped and developed in a way that maintained discriminatory practices against people of color, particularly black Americans. According to Katznelson, the maintenance of discrimination in the New Deal was no accident; the southern wing of the Democratic Party dictated the details of Social Security, labor legislation, the GI Bill, and other “landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called ‘the southern way of life’” (p. 17).

Despite many criticisms of the culture of poverty argument, it has maintained relevancy in the American imagination. Journalism plays a major role in reifying its main components by placing culture at the center of poverty and policy. For instance, Kelly (2010) illustrates how television news coverage of US welfare reform from 1992 to 2007 “controlled” the image of the welfare mother. The image was controlled through the depictions of women on public assistance as “childlike, hyperfertile, lazy, and bad mothers” (p. 76). Kelly argues that such stereotypes support polices intended to regulate women’s reproduction and mothering.

The representations of black women as bad mothers can be traced to slavery, according to Hancock (2004). The terms “jezebel” and “mammy” (Collins 2005) represented “oversexed and asexual women respectively who shared in common neglect of their own children, in favor of having sex (the ‘Jezebel’) or tending the master’s children (‘Mammy’)” (p. 27). These images have continued to pervade historical images of black women, “controlling” images that include the “welfare queen”. These controlling images constitute the stereotypes and moral judgments of the welfare queen’s public identity (p. 27). Once again, the New Deal program of the early to mid-20th century is important. These portrayals of bad mothers strongly influenced the state’s regulation of black women and poverty.

Despite political action during the 1960s to combat the silencing of black women living in poverty, the image of the welfare queen continued to influence public policy. Hancock argues that “woman-centered” welfare policies have meant “mother-centered” policies, which has relegated the state as an “agent regulating maternal behavior” (p. 27). Furthermore, just as Katznelson (2005) argues that welfare programs were not intended to benefit non-white communities, Hancock argues social welfare policies developed for working mothers did not include black mothers as beneficiaries. According to Hancock, black mothers were urged to use Victorian ideals of motherhood as a model to solve their issues. Yet, due to the structural barriers that restricted black women to domestic work and agriculture, the emphasis became individualized. Still, Victorian ideals combined with nationalism to prescribe mothers as the natural caretakers of American citizens. Black women, however, were not incorporated into these Victorian ideals, since slavery had relegated their bodies as lustful to justify white men’s sexual abuse. Thus, such prescriptions set the standard for “good” versus “bad” mothers, a highly racialized and gendered dichotomy.

Contextualizing journalistic representations within the history of social policy makes apparent the connections between structure and representation. News coverage of public policy, opinion, and culture cannot be divorced from histories of structures. Just as important is a conversation about the role journalism has played in providing social commentaries about the intersection between gender and race. Scholarly conversations on race and poverty must include the representations of black women, where both racialized and gendered discourse continues to reify stereotypes like the jezebel and mammy in contemporary news (Meyers, 2004). In addition, intersecting poverty with crime also highlights the ways in which “jezebel” stereotypes are employed to justify victim-blaming narratives about victims of violence (explained more in the next section). These representations, policies, and histories, however, have not gone unchallenged.

4Journalism, representation, and gender

Drawing from Judith Butler’s (1988) theory of gender performativity provides insight into the codes of gender present in media. Feminists have long separated sex from gender to illustrate that sex does not determine specific “social meanings for women’s experience” (p. 520). Biological distinctions of the body are not denied; rather they are perceived as separate from the process through which the body “comes to bear cultural meanings” (p. 520). Sut Jhally demonstrates in his documentary Codes of Gender that media teach and recreate society’s hegemonic norms of gender. Media essentially reify the norms of masculinity and femininity, which itself is created by the “idea of gender” (Butler 1988: 522). Furthermore, while there are individual ways of “doing” gender, “one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions” (p. 525). Much of the literature on feminism and popular culture demonstrates how media act as mediums that reproduce those “sanctions and proscriptions”.

As feminist scholars have suggested, femininity often itself is defined in opposition to masculinity (Butler 1988). Because masculinity is defined as strong, powerful, independent, holistic, and complex, femininity has been constructed as its opposite (e.g., weak, dependent, simplistic, hypersexualized, and infantilized). Yet, as feminist media studies scholar Susan Douglas (1995) suggests, women often see not images of their making, but “a culture that regards [women] as unknowable, mysterious, laughable, other” (p. 271). Simultaneously, according to Douglas, the media help create a culture of schizophrenia, where women rebel against and submit to prevailing images that construct what “desirable” women should be (p. 8). Much of these representations have engaged audiences on television shows, in films, and in music. But one must ask how journalism fits into this media picture. Previous research illustrates how female journalists are often subjected to similar hegemonic proscriptions and sanctions. In addition, this literature suggests that the coverage of women’s issues and rights suffer when male-dominated newsrooms continue to reify society’s gender codes.

4.1The male gaze in journalism

Laura Mulvey’s (1975) Screen essay on the ways film reflects “erotic ways of looking and spectacle”, illustrates how patriarchy structures film. Drawing from psychoanalytic theory, Mulvey demonstrates how the paradox of phallocentrism, which depends on the “image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world”, manifests itself on screen, where women represent the “male other”. According to Mulvey, the male imposes his own desires upon this “male other”, the “silent image of woman” (p. 6). Such impositions render women the “bearer of meaning”, not the maker of meaning” (p. 6). Cinema is a prime media example that raises questions about the unconscious and hegemonic ways the dominant order have structured “ways of seeing and pleasure in looking” (p. 7). Mulvey, therefore, illustrates how visual pleasure has “coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (p. 7).

Since Mulvey’s examination of the male gaze in cinema, many feminist media studies scholars have applied this framework to other forms of media. In particular, scholars have analyzed how female journalists on television news are subjected to the male gaze. In an analysis of Katie Couric’s debut as the first solo female anchor of evening news, Gibson (2009) demonstrates how sexualizing and personalizing frames in news articles reproduced hegemonic norms about femininity. As a result, these codes of femininity undermined her performance of authority. The trivialization of Couric can be traced to the historical presence of women in mass media. In 1978, Gaye Tuchman wrote that the trivialization and underrepresentation of women resulted in their symbolic annihilation. In 1979, Tuchman expanded upon the depiction of women in mass media, suggesting that media content be analyzed as a myth-making tool. According to Tuchman, these myths constituted “ways of seeing the world that resonate with the conscious mind and the unconscious passions … that are embedded in, expressive of, and reproductive of social organization” (p. 541). The news and entertainment, therefore, generate myths, not images.

The male gaze has helped to reinforce the myths of gender in mass media. Rakow and Kranich (2000) argue that news media ignore or display women’s issues in a particular way that is a consequence of the gendering of news. The hard/soft news line is distinguished by the notion that serious news is masculine and human interest news is feminine. As a result, the dominant masculine narrative renders women “not as speaking subjects but as signs” (p. 164). The authors found that women were predominantly represented as private individuals affected by crime, public policy, or disasters. They were also represented primarily as victims (Grabe et al. 2006). These findings suggest that women appear in the news as anonymous examples of “uninformed public opinion, as housewife, consumer, neighbor, as mother, or as victim” (p. 169). Like Mulvey’s argument that women are the bearers of meaning (and not the creators), Rakow and Kranich found that women “as sources carry rather than create meaning” in the news in which they appear (p. 170). Furthermore, race also has implications, since only white women can signify, according to Rakow and Kranich. Signs are maintained through the homogeneity of appearance.

Yet, other research has illustrated that the gendering of news is more complicated than suggested in previous literature. Lundell and Ekstrom (2008) argue that visual representations of women in politics invite viewers to see women as both an “other” and a “person with whom we ourselves can identify” (p. 892). Thus, the representation of female politicians aligned with conventional narratives of “immoral women politicians”, where women are often portrayed as too masculine and going against stereotypical feminine behavior. But a counter-narrative also invites the reader to identify and sympathize with female politicians. Thus, some research suggests that the news does not always present simplistic gender codes. Specifically, while the male gaze has a relevant presence in the visual images of female politicians (making them into the “immoral” and lonely “other”), they also invoke symbols that suggest a sympathetic reading via the “story-telling character of a princess” (p. 895). Still, previous literature suggests that the gendering of news has continued to produce hegemonic portrayals and myths of women in media and society. An area in which these portrayals play an especially important role is in a conversation about violence against women. The codes of femininity, which constitute descriptions like weakness, motherhood, and dependence are further highlighted in news about rape and assault.

4.2Rape culture and victim-blaming

As the above sections have demonstrated, media help define gender, and produce myths and stereotypes associated with gender identity. News coverage similarly helps define understandings of rape and perpetuators (Kitzinger 2009: 74). Furthermore, news reports may influence perceptions about victims and the consequences of sexual violence. The literature on rape in news illustrates how media outlets also are influenced by dominant social attitudes, and legal practices and discourse. In addition, news discourse on rape is influenced by several other factors, including institutional racism and sexism within newsrooms, emphasis on sensational news, and journalist practices (Kitzinger 2009).

Some feminist media histories provide insight into the role that sexual violence against women has played in news media. This historiography illustrates how key newspaper figures have helped to further exploit the issue of sexual violence. For instance, in 1885, William Stead, the editor of the London newspaper Pall Mall Gazette, undertook a piece of investigative journalism in relation to a debate about child prostitution. According to historical accounts, Stead bought 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong and had her examined to confirm her virginity. He then sent her to Paris and wrote descriptions about his adventures. While newsagents banned the newspaper, it sold out on streets (Kitzinger 2009: 75). Of course, Stead’s series of articles provoked massive demonstrations and was credited for helping raise the age of consent for girls. Media interest once again developed with the story of “Jack the Ripper”. According to Kitzinger, the serial killer was the “perfect fodder for the 13 national dailies in hot competition” (p. 75). These stories were filled with gory details, “fallen women”, and reports of “foreign-looking” suspects or accusations that targeted orthodox Jewish people. Centuries later sexual violence “still makes for ‘good copy’” (p. 75). This historical relationship between news and sexual violence illustrates how journalists participate in voyeurism and sensationalism, decontextualize abuse, encourage racism, blame victims, and excuse perpetrators.

A substantial amount of feminist scholarship has examined these journalistic practices associated with the reporting of rape. Previous literature has particularly demonstrated the prevalence of rape myths (O’Hara 2012; Bonnes 2013). According to Franiuk et al. (2008), rape myths are “generalized and widely held beliefs about sexual assault that serve to trivialize the sexual assault or suggest that a sexual assault did not actually occur” (p. 288). Myths about victims suggest the victim is lying and has ulterior motives, was “asking for it”, is promiscuous so cannot be raped, or “wanted it the entire time” (p. 288; O’Hara 2012).

Myths also exist in relation to perpetrators. These myths include excusing perpetrators and creating narrow depictions about people who commit sexual assault. In addition, myths about the nature of sexual violence include the “false belief that rape is trivial” and not harmful to victims (O’Hara 2012). This particular myth also includes the notion that rape is “natural” (men have a predisposition to getting sex through force) (p. 289). In a case where professional basketball athlete Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault, Franiuk et al. (2008) found that at least one rape myth was present in each article analyzed. Furthermore, they found that news articles about Bryant’s sexual assault case were more likely to endorse the myth that the victim lied. Other myths present in news articles included the notion that the victim “wanted it” and that Bryant was not a “typical” perpetrator.

Another way victims are often blamed and delegitimized is through stories’ emphasis on alcohol. In a study about the United Kingdom newspaper the Daily Mail, Meyer (2010) found that news discourse “refashions old rape myths” and “regenders rape involving alcohol as a problem of female drinking rather than male sexual violence” (p. 19). The role that alcohol plays in conviction rates regarding rape is important to understand as context for examining the news coverage of sexual violence. When alcohol is involved in rape incidents, legal and cultural discourses make it more difficult to convict perpetrators (Meyer 2010). For instance, victims can be discredited when their memories are depicted as unreliable due to heavy intoxication. Because the burden of proof is on the victim, the prosecutor’s case can be further weakened. In addition, cultural discourses that see drinking (especially binge drinking) as unfeminine and inappropriate for women can influence the low conviction rates for rape involving alcohol, according to Meyer.

As this chapter has consistently illustrated, media play a key role in reifying societal understandings about race and gender categories. As such, the cultural and legal discourses that emerge within the public sphere are reified in news reports as well. Media discourse help to further reinforce cultural norms that insist on the trivialization of rape and acceptance of rape myths (Kahlor & Eastin 2011). The rape myth that victims are “asking for it” is one that continues to “reinforce harmful attitudes and beliefs about women and violence towards women” (Kahlor & Eastin 2011: 214). Meyer (2010) found that much of the Daily Mail’s discourse on rape involving alcohol linked binge drinking to casual sexuality. Thus, opinion columnists suggested that victims were “asking for it” if they were intoxicated during the incident. This article links alcohol usage and gender codes to the discourse of rape culture, illustrating how myths are further perpetuated through societal and mediated constructions of femininity and masculinity.

Existing feminist scholarship on sexual violence in news illustrates how cultural and legal discourse serves to further blame victims and helps continue the trend of low convictions rates for perpetrators. Much like the scholarship on race and crime, these studies illustrate how public policy and news media are intricately linked. Examining these hegemonic norms about violence, particularly rape, helps reveal how gender codes play a key role in shaping news coverage. As the theory of hegemony suggests, news supports “the values, beliefs and norms of a ruling elite that wields social, economic and political power within a hierarchy of social formations” (Meyers 2004: 96). The process in which certain ideas become “natural” and “normal” is important for understanding how sexual violence is gendered and normalized (i.e. men being predisposed to violence) within media discourse. As part of this process, the norms of “neutrality” help to frame stories so “that they appear not to be ideological at all, but instead seem natural and grounded in everyday reality” (p. 67). Thus, it can be argued that the media help to institutionalize male supremacist ideologies in which masculine narratives prevail and dictate how women and women’s issues are covered.

Overall, feminist literature on gender and violence in the news has raised critical questions about the production and content of news media. The analyses of the gendering of news, the predominance of masculine narratives, and the prevalence of rape culture discourse suggest that improvements in the treatment of women in news may require more than increasing the amount of coverage and the presence of female journalists (Beam & Cicco 2010). Instead, a fundamental change in news narratives may be required to significantly change the coverage of women. The question as to whether the presence of more female journalists would present oppositional narratives about women and women’s issue continues to be raised. For instance, Durham (2013) suggests feminist readers and bloggers often participate in feminist praxis online to respond to newspaper’s exploitation of sexual violence. What feminist scholars may continue to ask is what other changes would help develop more complex understandings about gender in society.

5Where do we go from here?

This chapter has provided an overview of the scholarship on journalism, gender, and race. Drawing from various bodies of literatures, it illustrates how cultural and political analyses of mass media need to be situated within scholarly conversations about the evolutions, definitions, and understandings of race and gender in society. The studies highlighted in this chapter have underscored how the relationship between the production of news, content, and public perception provides a complex picture of race and gender in journalism. As the sections above demonstrate, the issue of violence is consistently central to any conversation about representation in news. In relation to both race and gender, journalism studies have primarily been concerned with the issue of crime and sexual violence. Overall, what this chapter has demonstrated is that the theoretical perspectives of racial formation, hegemony, gender performativity, the male gaze, and rape culture help to reveal how journalism continues to play a critical role in maintaining societal norms, inequalities, and the status quo.

Now that we have an understanding of the picture that existing literature paints for us, scholars must ask: where do we go from here? In which direction should the study of journalism, race, and gender move to paint a more nuanced picture of the issues that continue to face the professional and scholarly field? Much of the literature this chapter highlights has focused on one issue: race or gender representation. What the author of this chapter suggests is that scholars look to conducting analyses that intersect race and gender. Thus, more journalism studies need to draw from theoretical perspectives of intersectionality and critical race studies to better understand how women of color perceive, experience, and see themselves in mass media. For instance, Jackson (2013) found ideological differences in the constructions of rape and race, illustrating the racialized implications of gang rape. Similar to many other scholarly sources, Jackson found that sources and lack of marginalized voices contributed greatly to the news content. Thus, scholarship that intersects race and gender within journalism further reveals the hegemonic discourses of everyday racism and sexism. Furthermore, analysis that examines the role of journalism in shaping understandings about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality is an area that needs much more exploration. With LGBTQIA rights, issues, and lived experiences increasingly entering mass mediated conversations, scholars will need to examine how communities and issues are portrayed. In addition, how media may play a role in shaping societal understandings about sexuality (as well as its evolution) deserves attention.

Within Western bodies of literature, there have been examinations of the “other”, non-western nations and cultures. Yet, much of this literature focuses on Western news coverage. As such, the future of journalism studies lies in de-centering a Eurocentric lens from media history; instead, what would provide journalism studies with a more robust and rigorous body of work is scholarship on non-white, non-European media that have helped shape the nation. Mainstream and traditional media outlets are but one picture of a much larger one, where non-white and feminist activists as well as transnational voices are speaking through their own separate channels. How do these voices contribute, challenge, and/or reify the nation, its interests, and politics? A more global, non-western approach may offer scholars working within journalism studies more theoretical and practical understandings of journalistic practices, ideologies, and values.

Further reading

For a concise explanation of hegemony, see Lull’s chapter “Hegemony” in Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. There are a few key texts that offer insights into the relationship between production, representation and audiences. Entman and Rojecki’s (2000) book The Black Image in the White Mind provides a complex model for understanding how white audiences perceive the images and stereotypes of black individuals. For ethnographic work on the diversity of broadcast newsrooms, see Heider’s (2013) White News: Why Local News Programs Don’t Cover People of Color. Key feminist analyses explore the relationship between gender and journalism, with a primary emphasis on newsroom cultures and content. Douglas’ (1995) Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media explores the media representations, myths and politics of gender in the United States. Tuchman’s (1978) article on symbolic annihilation remains relevant for current and future work. Furthermore, Durham’s (2013) work on sexual assault and journalistic reporting is essential reading. For texts that incorporate an analysis of the intersectionality of race and gender, see Hancock’s (2004) The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen.


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