When it comes to engaging in discussion about the news online, women’s voices are being excluded, according to new research from the University of Sydney.
An analysis of the comments sections of major online international news platforms has shown that men’s voices dominate across the board. The study looked at online publications such as the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the New York Times to establish how many commenters on news stories are female. The answer? Not many at all.
While digital news is often heralded as a unique opportunity to engage readers and allow them to join the conversation, this benefit is not being extended to female readers, the study suggests.
Of the news outlets surveyed across the US, Australia and Britain, 15 publication’s feature comments sections that are heavily dominated by male voices. On every platform, the overwhelming majority of readers leaving comments on each news story are men.
At worst, women make up just 3% of all comments on news stories. On the best performing news platforms, women still make up only 35% of all voices.
Dr Fiona Martin, Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at the University of Sydney and author of the study said the lack of women’s voices is reflected in similar trends studied in the context of meetings and other public gatherings – whether in person or online, women’s voices are being excluded from the conversation.
“In some ways, this study reflected what we already knew about gender dynamics in public conversations – that men always tend to dominate. However we did not expect this to translate directly to public conversations online,” Martin told Women’s Agenda.
“It appears our experience of online conversations is reflecting our gendered experiences of the world at large. Just like in face-to-face public conversations, like meetings or forums, women are being put off by male voices being adversarial, dismissive and sometimes abusive.”
Apart from these experiental reasons for the imbalance, Martin said there are very practical explanations behind it too.
“Women do more unpaid work around the home and are more likely to be in caring roles – they simply don’t have as much time to spend commenting on news websites,” she said.
So the majority of readers engaging with online news through comments are men – why does it matter?
Dr Martin said the lack of women’s voices in comments sections of news websites is particularly dangerous because readers’ comments have the ability to influence other readers’ perceptions of the news. If the comments are dominated by male voices and opinions, these voices and opinions will be the ones influencing other readers’ views.
“Comments can influence opinion. Research suggests negative comments reduce readers’ opinion of an article, so it’s also plausible that an absence of views from women, or migrants or young people could also affect how people interpret online news,” she said.
“If there are certain voices being systematically excluded from public debate, the impression is that those voices are not being valued and those opinions are not being considered. This is particularly worrying when you consider the fact that newsrooms, politicians and marketing agencies are increasingly looking to comments sections to gauge public opinion, to understand how people think and feel.”
Dr Martin emphasised that even apart from this danger, the lack of women commenting on online news stories also poses a commercial risk. With digital media heavily focused on engagement, excluding female commenters is a risky business move.
“Engagement is a key performance metric for online news. If news websites are failing to persuade a whole section of their readership to engage, it is not good for business. Encouraging readers to comment benefits news platforms commercially because it encourages higher engagement, greater investment in and loyalty to the site and greater identification with the brand.”
“Losing female commenters because they are concerned about being attacked or abuse or just don’t think they will enjoy the experience is a huge loss of potential.”
What can digital news platforms do to fix the problem? Dr Martin said publishers need to increase the appeal of comments sections by making them safer for women – by being vigilant about removing offensive and abusive comments – and also by encouraging journalists to engage directly with commenters to make them feel more involved.
“Involving more people in the comments, more productively, and making sure the quality of the interaction is civil and rewarding can only have benefits,” she said.
The danger of women’s lack of engagement as readers is compounded by the fact that the majority of journalists are men, too. Male bylines still dominate news platforms the world over – on average, they outnumber female bylines three to one. This figure is worse still when it comes to opinion pieces – in the US, male columnists outnumber female columnists four to one.
And not only are the voices reporting the news dominated by men, the voices analysing the news are too – the majority of experts quoted in news stories are men. In January and February of 2013, 81% of news articles did not consult one female source.
Women’s voices are excluded from news behind the scenes as well – women still make up on 36% of staff in newsrooms across the world.
That leaves women underrepresented in almost every facet of news – in comments on the news as well as in the production, reporting and analysis of the news. Just how much is this imbalance impacting how readers interpret what is happening in the world around them? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the notion is a concerning one.
Do you feel comfortable commenting on news stories? We’d love to hear what you think.