Here's Why Women Don't Trust Journalists Anymore

Few professions get as much criticism as journalism. On the list of people you’d like to have a friendly drink with, journalists probably rank just ahead of politicians and lawyers — hardly a stellar recommendation. Even so, the latest Pew Research Center numbers on public esteem for various professions are surprising; since 2009, respect for journalism has dwindled in virtually every segment of the population. There is, however, one striking trend; while drop-off rates are comparable among those of different ages, levels of education, and political leanings, the decline is sharply gendered. In 2009, 30% of men and 46% of women felt that journalists “contribute a lot to society’s well-being,” but while the approval rating among men has held fairly steady (28% in this latest poll), approval rates have fallen by 17 points among women, bottoming out at 29%.

Of course, the data is so new that it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from it, and given that women and men now demonstrate virtually identical levels of trust (or mistrust) in the media, perhaps both sexes share some of the same frustrations. The litany of complaints against the media is, after all, both long and varied; depending on who you ask, you’re likely to hear that journalism is biased, intrusive, fear-mongering, sensationalistic, or all of the above. Heck, even a lot of journalists hate journalism — or, at least, some forms of it.   

Still, the precipitous drop in women’s support is striking and has already attracted attention and speculation. Mary Katharine Ham, noting that women are generally less interested in political news, suggests that perhaps news outlets are failing to provide coverage of issues that tend to attract more female concern, like the economy. But have the content and style of the average newspaper or newscast really changed that dramatically in only four years? At least where television is concerned, the answer would seem to be yes; since 2007, the trend has been towards shorter stories, more commentary, and less live coverage. Local news outlets in particular are moving away from breaking news in order to cover traffic, weather, and sports. It is unclear, though, what effect — if any — these changes have had on female viewership.

More concerning for many women, perhaps, are the repeated allegations of misogyny in news coverage. Fox has come under fire repeatedly for its sexual objectification of women — choice remarks by male anchors and guests include, “I love the women’s movement, especially when I’m walking behind them” and “I’ve got some time and a camera — why don’t you stop by?” — but, in all fairness, other news outlets have had moments nearly as jaw-droppingly tactless. Last September, for instance, CNN contributor Erick Erickson referred to the numerous female speakers at the Democratic National Convention as “The Vagina Monologues.”

Less overt forms of gender bias are also rampant; from hiring ex-governors involved in prostitution scandals to treating female sexuality as both a salacious selling point and a thing to be condemned, it’s clear that many news organizations don’t frame their stories with female sensibility in mind. Nor is this solely an American problem; a 2012 study conducted by Women in Journalism highlights several forms of pervasive gender bias in the British news, pointing, for example, to the fact that women in positions of power tend to be portrayed in a less flattering light than their male counterparts. And as Hannah Loewentheil pointed out just a few days ago, newsrooms are still overwhelmingly both white and male. Could all of this be having an effect — conscious or unconscious — on female viewers and readers? It seems possible, at the very least.

On the other hand, perhaps the Pew numbers reflect less a decline in trust than a decline in interest. It’s no secret that traditional journalism is increasingly competing with social networking sites, and women currently use social media at higher rates than men. Given the explosion of these sites over the past few years, perhaps more women are simply turning to other sources for their news.

Whatever the case may be, I’m inclined to agree with Mary Katharine Ham on at least one point; the Pew numbers open the door for some enterprising journalistic thinker to appeal to a segment of the population that is currently disenchanted, disinterested, or both.