GENDER AND THE NEWS
In many Western cultures (including the United States) women represent one of several ‘co-cultures.’ Samovar and Porter (2004) define the term co-cultures as “…groups or social communities exhibiting communication characteristics, perceptions, values, beliefs and practices that are significantly different enough to distinguish them from the other groups, communities and the dominant culture” (p. 11). The dominant culture in many societies (including the United States) is that of the white male.
One aspect of communication in modern society is the continuous dispersion of news via the print, electronic and broadcast media. An ongoing body of research and theory support the notion that reception of and reaction to news varies significantly between the dominant male culture and the female co-culture. In the following review, five studies are examined that ascertain and demonstrate these gender differences.
The female co-culture’s perception of both crime stories as well its interaction with online news media was the focus of a 2002 study by Ketterer. Ketterer states that female consumption of daily newspapers has been on downward trend for over forty years—resulting in an ever-increasing distance between the two genders with regards to their newspaper reading habits. He also relates that in spite of concerted efforts by news organizations to lure in a stronger female readership, the numbers remain persistently low.
Kettlerer’s research not only examined gender reaction to crime stories—but also the likelihood of readers self-expanding their news coverage via the use of hypertext links. Further, he notes how past studies have revealed that expanded media focus on crime creates an increase in the amount of fear in the public sector—especially with the female co-culture. Ironically, it is the dominant male culture that should react with an increase of fear—for its members are more likely to be crime victims than are women.
Ketterer had female/male subjects–of a variety of ages– read four crime stories off of a fictitious online newspaper. The subjects were also equipped with the option of utilizing various links for further reading. Interestingly, the results revealed fewer general differences in the perception/reaction of crime stories between male and female participants; however, women reported being more upset by the stories than did men. Also interesting is the fact that in spite (or because) of being more upset than the male participants—the female sector believed the stories to be more significant than did their male counterparts.
Although both genders displayed a close parity in their usage of the hypertext links—females thought the background and chart links more crucial than did males. In general, females believed the links to be more useful and credible than did men. Of the four stories presented, women found one concerning date rape to be particularly distressing—as well as more relevant, than did men.
Ketterer’s findings suggest that the female co-culture would read and respond to news stories with which they can relate. Issues and topics of which are of particular concern to women—supported by various hypertext links to additional information—would be a plus for any online news source interested in capturing a larger share of the female market. Regarding gender differences, Ketterer believes further studies using a bigger variety in terms of types of news stories and links would be beneficial.
In their 2004 Dutch study, Vettehen, Schaap and Schlosser used interpretive formulas to examine the ‘real time’ thoughts and reactions of male and female test subjects as they watched television news broadcasts. The researchers considered the specific content of the various news items in the program in relation to both genders’ responses. They also considered the subjects’ educational levels as well as their professions. Further, Vettehen et al. admit that their study was fairly small.
Findings revealed that the female subjects demonstrated a greater amount of understanding towards the individuals that were the topics of the different stories than did male subjects. The response of the women in the study revealed that they were more emotionally drawn into the news stories than were the men. Also, highly-educated, professional males expressed fewer opinions than similarly educated females with no profession.
Further, there seemed to be an indication of a lack of comprehensible information or of not being properly informed on the part of the female subjects. Researchers concluded this to be the result of news programs being more ‘male-oriented’ or specifically targeting the male dominant culture. The higher-educated female subjects were critical towards the news organization for this bias—while lower-educated females just seemed embarrassed by it. Consequently, Vettehen et al. believe (in all probability) many women are not receiving what they want or need from television news broadcasts. The focuses and subject matter they deem critical or alluring are not being presented. In general, news programming seems biased towards masculine interests, tastes and needs.
The researchers state that not only is their analysis based on a relatively small representative study, but a lot of their conclusions can be considered—at best–conditional; however, their research certainly supports the theory that there exists several differences regarding the way men and women view and react to news programs. Vettehen et al. think that the basic tenets of television journalism, i.e. the concept of the ‘hard-impact,’ brevity, objectivity, etc. are by nature more akin to the (biological or cultural) receptivity of the male dominant culture—therefore, there is little likelihood of television news becoming ‘feminized’ without conscious effort. Finally, Vettehen et al. suggest that more studies should be done using techniques that would vary the social sets, program material and formal features that would reveal information on the sort of meanings affixed to the news and how they relate to characteristics of both the news features as well as its viewers.
In the first of two studies presented in this review, Kamhawi and Grabe (2005) looked at the differences between men and women in terms of how they process broadcast news. Kamhawi and Grabe manipulated both the video and audio portions of programming in order to produce the valence conditions of negative, positive and ambiguous. The information the researchers obtained reflected interactions between message valence and gender for self-reported stimulation. It also displayed understanding of news material as well as detection memory.
Findings revealed that the male subjects showed the greatest levels of stimulation—demonstrating the highest detection memory and understanding for negative-valenced messages with scores that were especially indicative of a negativity bias. The female portion of the study, in contrast, were more stimulated by the positively-valenced stories—not only processing these message types more successfully than the negative-framed types—but actually demonstrating signs of an avoidance response to those that were negatively presented.
Negative news items incited an approach response in males, while the same news items caused the aforementioned avoidance response in females. Further, the male subjects encoded negative messages more successfully than the female subjects; conversely, women were better at encoding positive news than they were at encoding negative news items. Overall, men seem to have an edge with the ability to process news—positive, negative and ambiguously-valenced.
Kamhawi and Grabe suggest that the gender variation could be a result of the evolutionary psychology proposal that women have a much weaker negativity bias than men; however, the researchers do not dismiss the possibility that further studies could show cultural or social conditioning to have been the primary cause for the variation in responses based on gender. They indicate that further clarification regarding the variations were beyond the size and purpose of their study. Further, Kamhawi and Grabe conclude that the female scoring for all the valences (positive, negative and ambiguous) revealed less bias in controlled resource distribution to a certain valence state than that demonstrated by the scores of male subjects. In other words, the female co-culture is better able to interact with subtlety and ambiguity in emotional valences. This study indicates that more focus needs to be given to other areas of gender variables and news comprehension and processing. It also explains why Western news audiences are typically dominated by the dominant Western culture—men.
Ball and Sanders (2006) conducted an experiment with a bit of a twist. The British researchers looked at the perceptions, reactions and attitudes of journalism students concerning journalism methodologies and practices. Using established formats of questioning (initiated by Johnstone, Slawski and Bowmen; Donsbach and Kocher, respectively, all in 1971) the researchers considered such mitigating factors as social class, ethnicity, personal/familial ‘tie’ with journalism—and gender. In areas dealing with ethical attitudes and implications—gender proved to be important.
Questionable ethical aspects of journalism—such as the usage of hidden cameras or recording devices, masquerading as someone else in order to garner access or information and the idea of paying news sources were generally unacceptable by the female students—and conversely, approved by the male students; however, the strongest area of gender difference was found to be the in the use of documents (business, personal or governmental) labeled as confidential—without proper authorization.
The study establishes a distinct distaste on the part of the female co-culture for the consumption of news stories that were obtained via practices that could be considered an invasion of privacy. Further, researchers (using chi-square tests) experimented and indicated that gender was the single most influential factor regarding student responses relative to ethical questions—social background had no statistical pertinence. Lastly, Ball and Sanders state that in spite of the explicit aforementioned examples, in the realm of journalism ethics there are actually more similarities found between the dominant male culture and the female co-culture than there are differences.
Kamhawi and Grabe continued their research of gender differences relative to audience reactions of broadcast news; however, in this 2007 study, they followed-up on their previous suggestion that the differences in male and female processing have an evolutionary psychology basis. Specifically, Kamhawi and Grabe conducted experiments to ascertain whether the female co-culture avoids negatively-framed messages—while being fairly stimulated by positively-presented messages; conversely, they also looked to discover if the dominant male culture advances toward the more negatively-presented news items with greater frequency than it does the positive-formed messages.
According to Kamhawi and Grabe, female audiences not only enjoyed negative-framed news less—they are unable to personally relate to the people featured in those types of news stories. The male subjects of the study reported having experienced more involvement and more fulfillment with the negatively-presented items than with those presented more positively. It is important to note here that the news stories presented to the test audience did not consist of positive news items—all news items consisted of negative content—the difference was in the presentation or framing, only; i.e. the news was negative—but was presented either in a positive or negative fashion. In each ‘version,’ the facts themselves were kept uniform—the difference was only in their presentation. An interesting effect, however, seems to be that women tend to hold much more passionate reactions to both positively and negatively presented news items than their male counterparts. In the study, the females’ unfavorable feelings towards negatively-framed news stories were stronger that those of the male test subjects; while the females’ ‘good’ feelings toward positively-presented news were also stronger than those of the men.
Kamhawi and Grabe’s study seems to indicate that there are definitive differences in how male and female audiences process and react to the news—thus, confirming their past research. It also supports the findings of the aforementioned Vettehen, Schaap and Schlosser (2004), as well as that of Ketterer (2002). These studies not only demonstrated a marked difference between male and female perception and reaction to broadcast (and electronic/web) news—but how the presentation of the news is often a determining factor in whether or not female audiences are tuning in and paying attention. According to Kamhawi and Grabe, the negative framing of news items explains why television news has such a predominantly male audience.
With negatively presented news, the female co-culture is not only less emotionally ‘committed’—it is even more likely to doubt the objectivity and credibility of the journalists delivering the stories. The sheer skill and value of the art of journalism—its merit—is cast in doubt by the female audience when news stories are presented negatively. All of the studies described in this review state that there are negative ramifications for the female co-culture as a result of their differences in responding to the ‘masculine’ presentation of the news. There are clear indications that an information ‘gap’ exists between men and women—regardless of age, education or profession. Much of this gap can be attributed to the very masculine bias of television and other electronic news presentations and formats.
Kamhawi and Grabe do not suggest a change in news content (from serious to ‘happy’ news) as much as a change in perspective or with the selection of alternative choices in presentation. They cite examples such as those that occurred during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. Among the horrific tales of human tragedy—there were also tales of human heroism and dedication. In other words, the same news ‘umbrella’ topic can be presented using a myriad of different types of supporting stories.
Finally, this reviewer believes that the results of all five studies fairly succinctly establish distinct gender differences in the perception, processing , reaction and general attitude towards the presentation of news via modern media. These studies reveal that despite any efforts to the contrary, news continues to be fashioned in arrangements and themes that are especially repellant to the female co-culture. All of the researches examined in this review suggest that news organizations need to concentrate on utilizing more positive frameworks—regardless of a given story’s actual content. News sources need to offer alternative views or ‘takes’ on events. They need to emphasize positive features or elements while developing and discovering items that are especially relevant and of interest to women.
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