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Men Are Outnumbering Women in News Photos – Here’s How You Can Combat It

Culture

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Men are as many as 2/3 of the faces we see in the photos that accompany news stories; even in mixed company, their faces show up as much as 10% larger.

Who’s in the news? According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, we’re seeing far more men in the spotlight on news stories than women. In their analysis of news stories shared on Facebook between April 1 and June 30, 2018, “men comprised more than half of the faces in photos accompanying links from news outlets, with as many as 2/3 of the faces pictured.”

Why does it matter on Facebook? Pew elected to analyze photos as they appear on that platform’s news feed because “the site standardizes the presentation of news image and text across outlets” in a way that Twitter and LinkedIn don’t always consistently do.

Further, “in contrast to other formats such as print media, the photograph in a Facebook post occupies more screen space than the accompanying text and is the main object that Facebook users see when they scroll through.” And in a culture that increasingly finds people assessing a story’s contents on headline and picture alone, this first impression holds a great deal of weight.

Some hard numbers on the phenomenon:

  • 44,056 images were analyzed from 17 different news outlets, including ones associated with the major news networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox), publications with print counterparts (Newsweek, Washington Post, USA Today), and online-only publications (Buzzfeed, Vox).
  • Across the 22,342 posts with photos featuring identifiable human faces, 53% only featured men. Less than 22% showed only women. The remainder showed a combination of men and women.
  • According to Pew, across all photos with identifiable human faces, “men’s faces took up more space […] with the average male face being 10% larger than the average female face.”

Could this disparity be attributed to the nature of the news being shared? It could; for example, Nieman Lab points out that 1/4 of the US Congress is female, which likely contributes to a male-heavy compendium of photos in political stories.

But this deep disparity isn’t always the case. And in a world where we’ve repeatedly proven that representation matters, the faces that show up on Facebook matter as well. Social media as a whole has outpaced print media as a major source of news for adults in America, and 43% of US adults report that they get their news from Facebook specifically.

So as content creators and prospective news authors, what can we do to combat this disparity in the face of news?

Diversify Photo Sources

It has not escaped my attention that this report largely ignores individuals who identify as nonbinary, and—while not explicitly stated—likely also largely excludes trans* individuals. Recognizing this severe dearth of representation, Broadly’s Gender Spectrum stock photo collection wrote frankly about correcting this frequent oversight. Their words ring true for gender representation, but also for many other areas of representation or marginalization:

Stock photos that accompany articles do more than illustrate subject matter. They have the power to shape perceptions of entire communities. When used critically, they can chip away at harmful stereotypes, pushing more accurate perceptions and understandings to the fore. This is why, over the last several years, initiatives have emerged to increase diversity in stock photos across race, gender, body size, ability and more.

Unsure of where to start? We shared a trio of sources for diverse stock photos to allow new images into your collections. But there are many more collections to discover; search further and wider to craft a visual narrative that includes people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and genders.

Rethink Citations and Stories

In response to this study, Facebook spokesperson Joe Osborne noted, “the study results most likely reflect the gender gap in business, politics, sports, and other areas that the media covers. Ultimately, news editors choose which images to include and which stories they post to Facebook.” To Osborne’s credit, this statement is correct. And the gender gap in media likely contributes to the disparity revealed in its photos; despite outnumbering men in journalism programs and in college overall, women represent just 41.7% of employees working in newsrooms today. The 2018 diversity survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors laments this fact, with Nieman Labs literally calling the results “f’ing abysmal.”

With that said, those who craft these stories can play a role in how editors select accompanying photos. Who are you citing as you research your stories? Who are you interviewing? “Gender gaps” in citations on multiple fronts often mean that articles, blogs, and other pieces skew male in their support. Taking care to cite across gender, as well as other points and parameters of difference, can in turn provide additional cues to inform the match between piece and photograph.

Push Past the First Assumption

Google ran into trouble last year for repeated AI mistakes in the realm of gender; after multiple attempts to correct assumptions about the gender of certain professions or individuals, these autofill options were wholly removed. It’s instructive to remember that these AI characteristics are “learned,” and that people provide the cues that “teach.”

Writing a story about scientists or engineers? Why can’t the default image be of women? If a story doesn’t specify the gender associated with a trend, phenomenon, or story, female characteristics can serve in that default capacity. It is only by challenging these assumptions openly, regularly, and in highly visible spaces—like the news and on social media—that we can start to create concrete societal change around them. Having a wider swath of stock photos to choose from can help with this, but so can consulting a variety of people in a workplace.

The news, when reported fairly and from a perspective in a way that seeks to widen our perspective, can include more people than we might imagine. Let’s do what it takes to move toward that version of our world.

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