Can a Woman Deliver the News?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 50

Only the United States uses a single, never-changing male anchor.

A longstanding argument holds that women's voices are not authoritative on-air personalities. Following this tradition, U.S. network anchors have almost always been male, despite the star status of Barbara Walters and the more recent on-air success of women such as Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung.

Until recently there was little data on the situation in other countries. But as the research coordinator for a late 1980's study of women's participation in five countries' newscasts, I had the opportunity to observe that barriers against women are falling in many countries. At the same time, it was obvious that the style and organization of newscasts had a major impact on women's presence and visibility on national news shows.

In our study on Television's Invisible Women: A Five-Nation Study of Anchors, Reporters and Correspondents, we analyzed a week of newscasts from three developing countries - Columbia, Sri Lanka and Jamaica – and two industrial powers, Japan and the United States. In all five, women's appearance as anchors seemed to be determined largely by each country's system of anchor selection and rotation.

Both Jamaica and Sri Lanka use a stable of rotating anchors; in Jamaica, for example, audiences saw five different faces in four days of the study. Five out of eight Jamaican anchors during the survey week were women. Japan used a male/female team and Colombia featured such a team on one day. Both Sri Lanka and United States use a single anchor. However, a woman in Sri Lanka's rotating crew of journalists anchored the news once during the week surveyed. Only the United States uses a single, never-changing male anchor.

A look at women's role as reporters, however, demonstrated that common assumptions and stereotypes crossed national borders. In all five countries, business and the economy, the most prevalent types of news, were covered by both men and women. But women almost never covered disasters, accidents and crime. In all five countries, also, governmental stories were covered by men and science/health stories were covered by women.

The ban against women as foreign correspondents, a frequent route to career advancement, was also nearly universal in the three countries that sent journalists abroad. The discrimination may be the result of paternalistic feelings that foreign reporting is too dangerous or strenuous for women, or perhaps that women could not get stories effectively because of perceived machismo, would be too conspicuous to move freely or would face legal barriers in some countries.

It's clear that gatekeepers still associate certain stories with women. Surprisingly, Colombia, Jamaica and Sri Lanka all had a strong female presence in domestic reporting, with stories covering a wide range of topics.

What would happen if women's news roles expanded? Journalism professor Catherine Covert has speculated that female values of "concord, harmony, affiliation and community" might make women less drawn to writing the news "as a series of conflicts."

Unfortunately, we'll never know until more women get on the air.

Author Bio: 

Anne M. Cooper Chen is a professor in the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.