A new study from the University of Michigan looked at the number of experts who appeared on mainstream television news to comment about the pandemic and COVID-19 virus, revealing that only 30 percent were women.
In fact, women experts were only given a quarter of total speak time on the topic of COVID-19 during panel discussions, interviews, commentary and debates.
Female doctors were also found to have considerably less airtime than male doctors on the topic. One mainstream network, Fox News Network, did not have a single interview with a female doctor in a five-week period; though it interviewed one female nurse. The research analysed the primetime programming on three of America’s most popular cable news networks: Fox News Network, CNN, and MSNBC.
The study’s author, Alangoya Tezel, spoke to HCPLive, an online news site for American GPs, saying she doesn’t find these results very surprising.
“I think if you’re flipping the channels—especially when you’re anxious, there’s a lot going, and there’s a lot of misinformation—and you only see male physicians and public health experts, you’re going to start thinking that’s what the healthcare workforce looks like,” Tezel said. “And that does a lot to undermine a lot of the legitimacy of our female healthcare workers—who are the majority of healthcare workers during the pandemic.”
Tezel, a University of Michigan researcher, titled her paper ‘Diversity and Representation of Physicians During the COVID-19 News Cycle’, and remarked that despite 41 percent of medical schools comprising of women in the United States, women continue to be underrepresented as authors of COVID-19 pandemic-related news, publications and as leaders of the country’s response.
“Given the news media’s long-standing role in shaping public consciousness, we sought to investigate whose voices are being broadcast,” Tezel wrote in the introduction to her research paper.
Tezel and her team recorded the name, gender, given job title, degree, speaking time, and interview content (COVID-19 related vs unrelated) for every guest interviewed on a primetime show. MSNBC had the greatest number of female experts on, as well as the longest airtime given to women, followed by CNN.
She told HCPLive that the media should work harder to make conscious efforts to seek out women and minority-representative experts.
“I really just hope that, because this seems to be something that is really in the control of the news channels’ control, I hope this study attracts their attention, and I hope they are moved to invite more women and people of colour who are medical experts, and to amplify those voices,” Tezel said.
The problem of a lack of female experts in our media is not a new problem. According to a 2015 report by the Global Media Mentoring Project, women made up only 19 percent of experts featured in news stories and 37 percent of reporters covering stories across the world. In the UK, studies showed that male to female experts appeared at a ratio of 3 to 1.
The latest research from the University of Michigan taps onto the myriad of studies showing the dearth of female experts on television and mainstream media. But research lead Alangoya Tezel hopes studies like her’s will draw further attention for things to change.
“This study provides informative descriptive information on the representation of medical experts and gender gap in media representation during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tezel expressed in the conclusion of her paper. “This inconsistency with the composition of the workforce could detract from the perceived legitimacy of female doctors amid a national crisis. Greater diversity of voices might enrich discourse.”