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Young people diverge on gender equity. News leaders need to act 

May 9, 2024 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT
A picture of young teens walking on the road towards gender equity
The topline: Success is not a zero-sum game and the news media has a role in educating audiences about the overall positive impact of equity.

Something is shifting with Gen Z. Data from Gallup shows that in the US, women aged 18 to 30 are now thirty percentage points more liberal than men. That gap opened after decades of a roughly equal spread of worldviews. As media organizations seek to attract, engage and retain younger audiences, understanding what drives them and accurately representing them will be essential. However, as the news media struggles with increased polarization on many fronts, it appears that gender equity is rising on the list of contentious topics. 

This divide is a result, and signal of, something more than young women simply becoming increasingly liberal. Research from King’s College London in February showed that, specifically when it comes to attitudes to masculinity and women’s equality, there is a growing division. In some cases, young men today are no more supportive of action on gender equality than older men, despite generally being more socially liberal.

A growing number of people – one in three in the UK– think that gender equality has been “solved.” Yet when it comes to the news, women’s perspectives remain “firmly niche,” according to The Missing Perspectives of Women in News report.  “The proportion of people who believe that feminism has gone too far, that equality has been achieved, that’s growing across all groups,” the report’s author and researcher, Luba Kassova told us. “Gen Z young men are leading though: A higher proportion of them seem to think that.”

Women’s expert voices remain significantly muted in high-profile news genres such as politics, where men’s share of voice is up to seven times higher, and the economy, where men’s share of voices is up to 31 times  higher. It’s not just female expertise that’s lacking: In 2019, the coverage of gender equality issues constituted less than half a percent of all news coverage in the U.S.

But do news organizations have a role to play in building understanding around gender issues, and closing the gap in attitudes between young men and women? And if so, where do they start? Kassova shared some context around these issues and steps newsrooms can take.

Including missing perspectives

Kassova’s first piece of advice is that newsrooms need to build on the work many already have underway to make sure that those perspectives which are not usually heard, including young women, are part of their coverage. “The more male-dominated the coverage is, the more it becomes a fertile ground for the view that everything is fine, because the news agenda doesn’t reflect the perspectives of women, who tend to be marginalized,” she explained. She notes that her research has shown for every female voice, there are three male voices in online coverage.

There have been concerted efforts among many organizations to improve diversity across the board, with Kassova’s research showing that a third of women hold top-level leadership positions in newsrooms. However, this hasn’t provided the critical mass previously thought necessary to improve women’s visibility in the news. “The relationship between the number of women in organizational resources, in newsgathering and in news outputs is not linear,” despite previous hypotheses, her report states.

The biggest issue, which particularly impacts younger people, is the culture in newsrooms and news leadership. It continues to be dominated by men who are older, white, educated and richer (MOWERs). “A more homogenous group of people who set the tone, set the culture, set the rules of what constitutes a story, which stories should be prioritized,” said Kassova. 

She says that this really inhibits progress when it comes to serving young people. “All these biases lead to substantive organizational challenges, including the under-representation of young editors and reporters, the intersectional invisibility of young female employees, and content of reduced relevance to young audiences,” she recently wrote in Press Gazette.

For newsbrands who want to accelerate their efforts, the voices of women should be amplified at each stage of the news value chain, from news leadership and newsgathering to news coverage and consumption. Kassova has authored a report, From Outrage to Opportunity: How to Include the Missing Perspectives of Women of All Colors in News Leadership which gives detailed recommendations for how to go about this.

Counter misunderstandings on gender equity issues

One starting point when it comes to what to cover is addressing the very strong misunderstanding among people of all ages about what feminism and gender equality is. “There’s a mis-perception that it’s a zero-sum game, where women are elevated at the expense of men,” Kassova pointed out. “There are plenty of publications fuelling that narrative by using condescending terms when they cover either young people, or young men,or men in general. And that doesn’t help.”

“What’s really important is for journalists to educate society as to what it actually means; that it’s not a zero-sum game. There’s so much research that has been done to show that where there is a higher level of gender equality, everyone – including men – tend to be happier, more prosperous, safer… So it’s really important for journalists to act as a conduit for truth and to raise awareness of what feminism means, and what equality means.”

Countering the damaging zero-sum perception involves talking to both feminists and anti-feminists. Kassova explained that journalists covering gender are much less likely to engage with the male perspective of what men find to be troublesome in the narrative around gender. But digging into that can actually unearth some different perspectives and build bridges with reluctant audiences.

“Young people live in different worlds because the social media that we construct for ourselves presents different worlds,” she said. “The only way to bridge that is to reflect people’s different perspectives. And there isn’t enough of that happening. The ideology that we carry too often dictates the sources that we speak to. I think we need to be very mindful to counteract them, to present different perspectives so that everyone feels heard.”

As a practical example, this can be exploring how the millennia-old patriarchy has impacted both men and women. Although women are by far the biggest victims of the system, men suffer from it too. By not engaging with that, we end up with a situation where social issues like the #MeToo movement are presented as a men vs. women conflict. 

“We have to stop that,” Kassova highlighted. “You can only achieve gender equality if dominant genders and all genders surrounding work and move in the same direction. What’s happened until now in many feminist narratives is men and women are pitted against each other, very often seeing men purely as perpetrators, and women as victims. And there isn’t a more sophisticated narrative.”

“The way to deal with it is really to be equitable, and to cover issues with compassion rather than judgment. There is not enough solution-based journalism and there is not enough understanding.”

Involve younger audiences in news coverage

With some parts of the news industry contracting significantly, age is something that news leaders have prioritized. But although there is an acute understanding that change needs to happen, this hasn’t always been approached tactically.

 “One of the perennial questions strategically is how do we bring younger audiences in?” said Kassova. “But there the conversation tends to be around, how do we make the output that we’ve already thought about, the stories that we’ve already crafted, more attractive to audiences? There isn’t enough self-reflection to look at, what are the organizational barriers that lead us to produce content that is disengaging?”

This links back to the MOWER leadership issue highlighted earlier. The average age of a journalist is 47 in the US, and 43 in the UK, so there is already a generational mismatch between those who produce the news, and those who they want to consume it. But the answer is not necessarily to flock to TikTok. 

“What’s really important is for news organizations not to think just about what platforms they go to, but what are the perspectives that haven’t been heard?” explained Kassova. If the structural and cultural issues within newsrooms are addressed, and marginalized perspectives prioritized, the rest will fall into place.

For those who aren’t persuaded by the need to cover underserved audiences, there’s a strong economic incentive too. “Covering more diverse perspectives, and having more equitable coverage leads to increased revenue, because it brings in new audiences,” Kassova pointed out. “There is about $11 billion waiting to be won by the news industry given the consumption gap that exists at the moment: around 11 to 12 percent. If the industry closes this gap by one percentage point a year, then in the next five years, there’s an additional $11 billion to be made.”

We need news coverage that is compassionate and equitable

Polarization in society can be driven by and inflamed by the media. Newsrooms have an important role to play in highlighting women’s perspectives and stories, as well as counteracting some of the misunderstandings and zero-sum arguments around feminism. If these voices aren’t heard, divisions in society, and among younger people, are only going to grow.

“I am a big proponent of equitable coverage and compassionate coverage,” Kassova concluded. “It’s really important because that’s the only way we can actually break the polarization that happens on so many levels; intergenerational, intragenerational societal polarization, global polarization. I think compassion is the glue that will bring us back together.” 

One point Kassova was firm on is that more research needs to be done around Gen Z and their attitudes. There may well be growing diverging views within the genders as well, and as an industry, we need to work to understand the drivers of these changes, particularly as we work to build our audiences – and news leaders – of the future. 

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