In the New York Times last weekend, female voices dominated the conversation about how elite college students drink alcohol and have sex with one another. Men dominate the Times coverage of all other topics.
In January and February of this year, UNLV students Alexi Layton and Rochelle Richards, under the guidance of their professor Alicia Shepard, scoured the 325 front-page stories published in the New York Times, and found that the paper quoted male sources 3.4 times as frequently as female ones. (Shepard got similarly dismal results when she performed a count of NPR’s on-air sources in 2010.) The endless trend pieces about how women accessorize, parent, and hook up today have failed to materialize into equal representation across the newspaper. In the Times, men are individuals who are quoted to represent countries, corporations, academics, and citizens; women are quoted to represent other women.
As Layton and Shepard note, the Times’ sourcing problem is, in part, a reflection of a global lack of female representation in positions of power: World leaders, members of Congress, and Fortune 500 CEOs are still overwhelmingly male. The gender discrepancy in the paper’s sourcing for stories about world news, politics, and business—punctuated at Poynter by a series of depressing charts—is striking, if not totally surprising. But male sources also vastly outnumber female ones in sections of the newspaper that are perceived to be more female-dominated, like style, arts, education, and health.
Part of the issue is that the Times reporting staff is dominated by men, too. Layton and Shepard found that of the 325 stories published on the front page, 214 were written by men; their stories mentioned four times as many male sources as female sources. Of the 96 stories written by women, men were quoted twice as frequently as women. Hiring more female reporters could help lift the Times’ sourcing ratio from terrible to just bad.
But regardless of who’s writing the story, the Times’ sourcing gap highlights the paper’s sometimes arbitrary standards for determining who deserves to be heard. Times Washington correspondent Jodi Kantor, whose byline regularly appears on the paper’s front page, told Layton and Shepard that she has no choice but to quote men in her pieces: “In 2008 I wrote a biographical story about President Obama’s time as a professor at University of Chicago law school,” she said. “There were almost no tenured women on the faculty at that time, so it would have been extremely difficult to quote women professors who knew Mr. Obama during his time there.”
Kantor doesn’t explain why the story required her to value the perspectives of the school’s tenured faculty over those of the university’s students, support staff, or—God forbid—its nontenured faculty members. (In fact, as Kantor notes in the story, Obama himself did not have tenure at the school.) In assessing Obama as a candidate for president, it’s important to understand how he’s treated all kinds of people, not just fellow law professors. It’s certainly important to understand how he’s treated women, and the University of Chicago’s failure to promote women is no excuse for the Times to discount their perspectives entirely.
In addition to the all-male faculty members she cited in the piece, Kantor did quote eight of Obama's (hundreds of) former students. Only one was a woman. It’s clear that global structural inequalities are keeping female voices out of the New York Times. But the Times is keeping them out, too.
Correction, July 19, 2013: The post originally misstated who scoured the New York Times to count sources by gender. It was Alexi Layton and Rochelle Richards.