Should you mention her shoes? Maybe.

Photo credit: Mike M/Flickr
Photo credit: Mike M/Flickr

As I write this, I’m standing at my kitchen counter, drinking a blueberry smoothy and wearing a pair of sneakers wet from a run in the rain. My hair is a mess, and I’m pretty sure my  T-shirt has a couple of holes across the back. My shorts are gray. Why am I telling you all this? Maybe it’s to convey that I’m busy, squeezing spurts of writing between exercise and showering. Or perhaps I want to describe a typical morning in the life of a modern freelancer/blogger/grad student. Or maybe it’s because, as a culture, we tend to think of women in terms of their appearance.

Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, Wendy Davis’s pink sneakers and, most recently, the wardrobe evolution of Google’s Melody Meckfessel have fueled an ongoing discussion about what’s fair game when describing female subjects in news stories. Like so many things in journalism, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Details like shoes, hair and clothing can bring a profile to life — or they can reveal subtle gender baises and turn a dynamic female subject into just another pretty thing.

Here are a few questions to ask before you drop in a line about her Jimmy Choos:

What’s your purpose for including the detail? Will the information help build a central theme in the story? Or are you including it only to lend color to the piece? If it’s the latter, consider finding a detail that doesn’t emphasize the female subject’s looks.  Think of it as a reporting challenge.

Would you say something similar if the subject were male? Detailed physical descriptions of men are lesson common, but they do exist, like in this New Yorker piece about cyber security. These descriptors give life to a story otherwise heavy on tech, but they don’t distract from the important things those men have to say.

How prominent is the detail? As Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon points out, wardrobe was mentioned in stories about the filibusters of both Davis and Rand Paul, but the bit about Paul’s outfit was much lower down in the story. Physical descriptions may be more appropriate if they’re just part of a story that otherwise portrays a woman a complex human being worthy of public attention for something other than her looks.

What do you think? Are there other things to consider before describing a female newsmaker? What are some examples of appropriate physical descriptions of female subjects? What are some of the worst?

Women’s mags, journalism and the web

Read this piece in the New Republic about the many ways women’s magazines are viewed as journalistically inferior to those aimed at men.

While you’re reading, consider the following: What does this perception mean for women who want to start publications online? Will they be able to attract investors and build meaningful brands? Will their work be valued as much as that of their male peers?

On Twitter, a hashtag for female editors

Here’s another example of how Twitter and other forms of social media are boosting feminism: After Port magazine declared an all-male golden age of magazine publishing, it wasn’t long before a hashtag emerged to celebrate the work of female editors.

Amy Wallace,  editor at large of Los Angeles magazine, launched the effort yesterday, and it wasn’t long before it took off:

(Full disclosure: Tim Fernholz and I are old friends. He rocks.)

And here are mine:





My entire flippin’ point, writ small

An antique button I found recently. The slogan applies  in this case, too.  Credit: Meg Heckman
An antique button I recently found at a swap shop. The slogan applies in this case, too. Credit: Meg Heckman

Great news, gang! Magazines are entering a new golden age, one dominated 100 percent by … white men. At least according to Porta publication that chose to illustrate the resurgence of the glossy by putting a half-dozen top magazine editors on its cover. The problem is, there’s not a woman in the bunch. (And, as book critic Ruth Franklin points out, it’s not like a qualified female editor would have been hard to find.)


Covers like this are, of course, the product of chance, logistics and quick decisions made on deadline — but the message they send still matters. Being part of a prominent feature brings with it a mantel of credibility — something women have to work harder to earn than their male peers. One recent study found that while women are increasingly likely to win the Pulitzer– perhaps the biggest measure of credibility in American journalism — female winners tend to have more academic credentials than their male peers. In other words, they had to get letters after their names to be taken seriously.

And being taken seriously is more important than ever before, now that journalists must often build their personal brands without the support of major news organizations.

Despite the all-male cover, the online version of Port’s article makes some strong arguments for why magazines may be uniquely poised to make old brands thrive on new digital platforms.

So, cover boys, I wish you all the luck in the world in this new golden age. I just hope there’s room in it for me.

On NHPR, a great show but a grim reminder

New Hampshire Public Radio’s venerable morning talk show The Exchange focused on the local newspaper industry this morning. The discussion was interesting, and I appreciated how the guests drew distinctions between the challenges and opportunities the modern media ecology brings to newspapers of different sizes. The calls from listeners who appreciate quality local journalism were nice to hear, too.

But the show unintentionally illustrated another challenge for local newspapers: Achieving gender balance in leadership. All five of the guests were men and, as I was listening to the show, I had trouble thinking of more than a few women in top management positions at New Hampshire newspapers. I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s certainly something local papers should consider as they imagine their digital future. Local news organizations, after all, will remain relevant only if they reflect the communities they serve.

Not surprising, but still depressing

Here’s something to file under “discouraging:” A collection of charts from Media Matters showing that cable news is overwhelmingly white and male.

Of the networks surveyed, MSNBC was the most likely to feature female guests during the month of April — but they were still outnumbered by men two-to-one. MSNBC was also the most racially diverse, which isn’t saying much considering that 73 percent of its guests were white.

The results are even more depressing when viewed in the context of national demographics:

While white men enjoyed representation on cable that was nearly double that of their representation in the U.S. population, white women, who represent 32 percent of the population, were only 21 percent of guests on cable. Non-white women fared even worse. While they make up 19 percent of the population, they were only 8 percent of all guests on cable. Non-white men were also underrepresented; only 13 percent of guests on cable were non-white men while they make up 18 percent of the population.

Also interesting: The gender balance didn’t shift much when the host was female. This differs from a study by the 4th Estate Project that found female reporters working for National Public Radio were more likely to interview female sources.

My (virtual) trip to France

Students at a middle school outside of Paris crowd in front of the camera. Photo/Meg Heckman
Students at a middle school outside of Paris crowd in front of the camera. Photo/Meg Heckman

Earlier this year, I published a video that explores the gender gap between j-school classrooms and newsrooms. My goal was to start a conversation about why women make up the majority of journalism students but are still the minority of working journalists. It wasn’t long before that conversation became international.

A week after I posted the video to YouTube, I received an email from Anne Belieres Chupot, an English teacher at a middle school outside of Paris. Anne had showed my video to her students and wanted them to hear more about life as a journalist in the United States.

For about an hour yesterday morning, I talked to the class by Skype. The students were in their early teens, so they were amused by the running coffee gag in the video — but they also asked great questions about the role of women in American media. We talked about digital storytelling and compared the New York Time’s Jill Abramson to Natalie Nougayrède, the new editor of Le Monde

Skype, we decided, was just one of the ways technology is changing how we communicate, which is why it’s important that students — and journalists — of both genders are technically literate.

Merci, gang, for a wonderful conversation.

Sex, rockets and Stroganoff

Beef stroganoff is suddenly the epicenter of a debate over gender, science and journalism. Photo/WikiMedia Commons.
Beef Stroganoff is suddenly the epicenter of a debate over gender, science and journalism. Photo/WikiMedia Commons.

At first, I was outraged by the way the New York Times started its obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill by describing her cooking skills. I calmed down, though, when I remembered that I once built an entire obituary around a much-loved (male) minister’s talent for pie crust. Then I got mad again when I thought of how hard it is for female scientists to be recognized for anything besides their gender or how rare it is for women to rate staff-written obituaries.

On Monday, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in with a column that distills why Brill’s gender should not have been the central theme of the obituary:

The way (Brill) handled her role as a wife and mother certainly had a place, given the era in which she did her work. Cultural context is important. But if Yvonne Brill’s life was worth writing about because of her achievements, and all agree that it was, then the glories of her beef stroganoff should have been little more than a footnote. The emphasis on her domesticity — and, more important, the obituary’s overall framing as a story about gender — had the effect of undervaluing what really landed Mrs. Brill on the Times obituaries page: her groundbreaking scientific work.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Brill’s obit, although I’m fairly certain I would not have included the words “beef Stroganoff” anywhere in the first three grafs of that particular story. It is, however, heartening that a major news organization like the Times heeded criticisms and rewrote the lede.

Quote of the day

“Management can’t meet the challenge of discrimination against women by just promoting one or two women to highly visible jobs while the rest of the corporate structure remains a male preserve.” –  former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham while speaking to a group of male business leaders in the 1970s.