Infographic of the Day: The Horrifying Gender Gap in Media Sourcing

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Even when news stories are about issues central to women, the press overwhelming quotes men.

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Today's lousy jobs numbers may go some way to refocusing the election on the economy. But despite the Romney campaign's best efforts to make the economy central, and political scientists' insistence that it's the single best determinant of who will win in November, much of the political conversation has been about women's issues this year. This week, it was sex-selective abortion; the week before, congressional Republicans tried to ban late-term abortions in D.C.. Earlier, there were battles over whether employers should be forced to cover birth control and the Planned Parenthood funding saga.

Those issues have been unavoidable for anyone paying attention to the news, but you've probably most heard about them from men. Though it's hardly shocking or novel that men are overrepresented in media and punditry, it's horrifying how true that is even for issues that primarily concern women, as this graph shows (larger version here). On abortion, eight out of every 10 commentators are male. It's only slightly better for birth control. 4th Estate, the media-tracking project that produced this graphic, says "women's rights" is the issue with the most parity, but men are still a slight majority there, too (4th Estate says the category involves any story not directly or specifically related to the other three -- so, for example, the hubbub after Rush Limbaugh called activists Sandra Fluke a "slut").

Nor does the problem seem to have any boundaries of medium or politics. The three big prestige papers have nearly identical ratios of men to women, with males making up two-thirds of those quoted on women's issues. USA Today is even worse. News Corporation, with its conservative leaning Fox News and Fox Business channels, is slightly more male-dominated than other major media companies. But left-leaning MSNBC's Hardball has fewer women than Fox News' Special Report, while centrist CNN's State of the Union, though hosted by Candy Crowley, is so bad it could practically pass for the clubhouse at Augusta National.

It's a dispiriting picture -- and one that raises serious questions about the validity of the debates as the media presents them. (I suspect that much of the deficit comes because media organizations choose to cover these stories more as political theater than policy debate, allowing them to turn to their existing stable of aging Wise Men -- the David Gergens and George Wills of the world -- rather than find women to comment, and thereby bypass divisive, messy social values questions.)

For a little extra reading, check out Erika Fry's excellent article on the dearth of female editorialists in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Here's a key passage:

Women wrote 20 percent of op-eds in the nation's leading newspapers--The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal--between September 15 and December 7, 2011, according to a byline survey conducted by Taryn Yaeger of The OpEd Project, an organization that aims to diversify public debate. (Full disclosure: Since December, I have done part-time work for the organization).

And women were practically absent in the debate of many hard news subjects, with their opinions accounting for 11 percent of commentaries on the economy, 13 percent on international politics, 14 percent on social action and 16 percent on security. Perhaps just as striking, women produced just over half--53 percent--of commentaries on "women's issues."

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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