Women’s voices missing from COVID-19 news coverage

28 October 2020

A study commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation finds a substantial bias towards men’s perspectives in newsgathering and news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, in both the global north and the global south. The study provides 21 recommendations on amplifying the “substantially muted voices of women” in COVID-19 news coverage.

The study titled, ‘The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 News: A special report on women’s under-representation in news media,’ released in September 2020, focuses on six countries: India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, UK, and US. It draws on a computational news content analysis of 11,913 publications and 1.9 million stories between 1 March and 15 April 2020, as well as a mix of other quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

The study finds that in the six countries analyzed, women are effectively political invisible in COVID-19-related decision-making processes. Moreover, in times of crisis, journalists may revert back to “established sources” who are significantly more likely to be men. The study finds that every individual woman’s voice in the news on COVID-19 is “drowned out by the voices of at least three, four, or five men.”

The findings reveal not just how many women are represented in COVID-19 news, but also how they are portrayed in the story. The author explains that the women who are given a platform in the COVID-19 story are “rarely portrayed as authoritative experts or as empowered individuals but more frequently as sources of personal opinion or as victims/people affected by the disease.” Women constituted 19% of experts while men constituted 77% in the 175 most highly ranked COVID-19 articles across the six countries.

In addition, few women feature as “protagonists” in COVID-19 news coverage, even less so than in news not related to COVID-19. The absence of women’s perspectives in COVID-19 news means that women have limited influence over the framing of the crisis. This results in limited influence over policymaking directions, and thus further marginalization within societies.

Recommendations to redress the bias include steps to focus on women as sources of expertise and protagonists, cover gender equality, consider the implications of the framing of stories, and seek to understand the implications of reporting on women’s lives.

The study is authored by Luba Kassova, international audience strategy consultancy AKAS Ltd. This report is the precursor to an expanded publication on the entire news value chain, commissioned in support of UN Women’s Generation Equality Forum. The expanded study will offer a gender parity checklist for news providers around the world. [Publication: The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 News: A special report on women’s under-representation in news media]

This article will be cross-posted at the global SDG Knowledge Hub of IISD as part of a series of publications from the Leave No One Behind partnership.