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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s
dallas morning news
Pope Coverage Sexist
23 January 1999
Pope John Paul II is coming to the United States, and thus it is time for newspapers to do some soul-searching. How will they cover the visit?
Will they follow past history and ignore women as sources of serious commentary? Or will they show they are truly committed to fairness and gender equity in news coverage by bucking precedent and giving women equal space? Will they focus on substance or fluff?
For those of us interested in seeing women included in the news media, few events rival the frustration and disappointment occasioned by news coverage of a papal visit.
The last time John Paul journeyed to the United States, in October 1995, Catholics for a Free Choice commissioned a study to quantify and analyze news coverage of the event. We hoped that by sharing a quantification of the problem with reporters and editors, future coverage might be positively affected.
The survey examined 205 stories from 12 news organizations, including The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, several smaller dailies and three wire services. The analysis examined how reporters covered the pope's tour in general and determined the extent of the disparity between male and female points of view.
The study documented an overwhelming reliance on male voices - a 64 percent male to 36 percent female imbalance.
But it was starkly manifest in stories dealing with substantive matters that require the input of experts, analysts and commentators. In this class of stories, 79 percent of experts quoted were men.
It was as though women capable of providing informed commentary and thoughtful analysis do not exist.
While the church is undeniably male-dominated, there are many women theologians, pastoral leaders, church employees and others who can offer opinions from the most liberal to the most conservative.
The study revealed scant attention to some of the most vital issues that U.S. Catholics are dealing with. Substantive topics were the central focus of fewer than one-quarter of the stories. Many of these matters are, at their core, women's stories.
They include hot-button issues such as divorce, contraception, assisted reproduction, abortion and euthanasia, by which women - society's primary care-givers from birth to death - are disproportionately affected.
The news media have two important tasks: one, to reflect reality as it exists; and two, to examine that reality, its causes, implications and appropriateness. In their coverage of Catholicism, the media do not adequately fulfill either responsibility.
In distributing the report of our survey widely throughout the news media, we hoped we would never again see a story about women's ordination that failed to quote a woman. We hoped that when the pope returned for a visit to an American city, fewer news reports would focus on his plane, his pope mobile, his garments, and that more would hone in on the issues at the heart of Catholicism in the United States today.
With the pope's arrival in St. Louis days away, we'll soon see.
Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an independent group that favors abortion rights.
This article appeared in the 23 January 1999 edition of the Dallas Morning News.