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The portrayal of women in selected British newspapers

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 1998 26 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of Contents

I Introduction
1.1. Topic of paper and method
1.2. Reality, language, the mind and their reciprocality

II The presentation of women in newspapers
2.1. Statistics
2.1.1. Visible women in reality
2.1.2. Visible women in newspaper articles
2.1.3. Visible women as recipients and producers of news Women as readers Women as writers
2.2. Linguistic portrayal of women in newspapers
2.2.1. Lexical analysis Naming Stereotypes, categorisations and labels Diminutives Word choice Generic language use Women as the unusual
2.2.2. Grammatical analysis Verb and noun phrases Premodification Direct and indirect speech

III Conclusion

IV Bibliography

I Introduction

1.1. Topic of paper and method

The topic of this paper is the representation of women in selected British newspapers. The question which I will try to answer is, whether women are portrayed significantly different from men and if so, in how far this is brought about linguistically.

After giving a short synopsis of why a non- discriminatory treatment of women in the media may be favourable, I will first give statistical evidence from the material collected and supplement this with statistical information on where women stand in society.

I will then go on to analyse staff and correspondents to see in how far women are involved in the perceptible news production or news reception.

After having finished these chapters leading up to the topic of the linguistic analysis, I will then focus on the language in the newspapers. Here, attention will be both on the grammatical and the lexical level.

On the lexical level telling semantic devices will be categorisation, generic usage, marked expressions and naming, among others.

On the grammatical level, clause structures, noun phrases, verb phrases, activity, passivity and others will be of interest.

A final conclusion will summarise the findings.

The material used will be the internet editions of five major British newspapers. These were randomly selected and downloaded in the last week of July 1998. The five newspapers chosen are (in alphabetical order) the Guardian, the Independent, the Mirror, the Star and the Times.

Recurrent news items of this week were Blair's cabinet reshuffle, the Tour de France, the Clinton- Lewinsky- affair, a cancer scare at a British hospital, the release of a wrongfully sentenced veterinarian and the clearing of the name of a wrongfully sentenced teenager.

Except for the articles on the Tour de France, they all had a high frequencies of references to women, either as agents or as patients.

1.2. Reality, language, the mind and their reciprocality

When discussing the portrayal of women in newspapers, this has to be done in light of possible interlinkages between language, reality and mind. It has often been contended that language plays an active role in the formation of the mind, of opinion and of knowledge beyond the superficially perceptible. This notion is especially connected with the names of Sapir, Whorf and Adam Schaff. By looking at languages others than those of Indo- European origin, they discover different strategies in naming and usage in these languages. This leads Sapir to conclude that

[h]uman beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.[1] 7

Although this opinion has been rejected time and again, it still today appeals to many and is adapted, and used to explain many phenomena of mind and language, e.g.

[...] language serves as an ideological filter on the world: language shapes or constructs our notions of reality, rather than labelling that reality in any transparent and straightforward way.[2]

Applied to language in newspapers this would mean that if there language gave a picture of women only in powerless situations, this would be accepted as their normal position. Accordingly this role distribution would go not reflected, unchallenged and unchanged.

Because language makes certain things impossible or very difficult to think, these unlikely angles do not get noticed and are not put into practice by one language community while in another it may be the only approach thought to be logically possible. In this way, non- inclusive language helps perpetuate existing structures in society whereas a language sensitive to those outside the circle of white male western politicians and business leaders may raise awareness of different realities.

The power of discourse in facilitating and maintaining discrimination against 'members' of 'groups' is tremendous. Language provides names for categories, and so helps to set their boundaries and relationships; and discourse allows these names to be spoken and written frequently, so contributing to the apparent reality and currency of the categories.[3]

Media can have many effects. They are said to be highly influential, to have a potential for influencing, controlling and innovation.

Medien sind Sozialisationsinstanzen. Sie vermitteln Werte, Normen und Verhaltensmuster und prägen geschlechtsspezifische Rollenbilder.[4]

Media can cause change and contribute to the learning and adoption of norms and expectations.

Due to the connection of language, mind and reality, it is of immense importance that the media, above all newspapers with their high circulation and far reach, give a picture of a world not based on prejudices and handed- down categories but on how it actually is today.

This, according to the Sapir/ Whorf theory, would influence the minds of the readers by broadening them to other views and this in turn would change the reality of the people living in that particular language community.

II The presentation of women in newspapers

2.1. Statistics

2.1.1. Visible women in reality

A discussion of how women are portrayed in newspapers also has to take into account, how many women and in which positions they are pictured. Earliest studies into the presentation of women in the media, for example by Gaye Tuchman, found that women were significantly underrepresented. More recent publications suggest that this claim is no longer valid and that the presentation of women in the media has soared. They report of women identified with the private, domestic sphere and men identified with public spheres and hint at a presentation of role distribution not in accordance with reality.

In 1995 women comprised almost half of the total British workforce (49.6%). Since World War II there has been an enormous increase in women's paid employment. In the 1950s women made up about one third (1959: 34.1%), now there are approximately as many women as men in paid employment.

Moreover, the areas in which women are employed, get ever more diversified and they reach more and more influential positions. Still, though, the labour market is segregated both vertically and horizontally. Women tend to be employed in areas which are traditionally seen as favourable to their assumed talents, and they face a barrier above which they seldom rise. This barrier has been named the "glass ceiling" as it is not physically tangible and yet is a roof to women's promotional opportunities (and often aspirations as well).

The following table on the socio- economic grouping by sex illustrates this point.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


According to this statistic, approximately 28 per cent of the two top notch positions are held by women. Tony Blair's newly reshuffled cabinet is composed to 20.8 per cent of women.

If these figures are taken as a basis, one may expect that women will appear in similar percentages in newspaper reports.

A less viable approach would be to assume that, as in all Great Britain women make up 51.4 per cent of the whole population (in 1996), they would also make up 51.4 per cent of the news coverage. This assumption seems unlikely because topics of public interest are mostly concerned with politics and business. Accordingly, newspapers which are not exclusively reporting on these topics (tabloids, for example) can be expected to feature higher proportions of women in their reports.

2.1.2. Visible women in newspaper articles

A first step in the examination of gender representation in newspapers is to keep tally of occurrences of male and female persons reported on. References to persons include naming, personal pronouns, and categorisations, among others. It soon emerges that many articles do not mention women at all, very few mention only women and the majority of articles mentions both men and women.

Another type, that rarely occurs, is the article that does not mention any persons. These are found exclusively in the business section of the newspapers.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1

Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of articles among the three possible options for the combination of men and women. Counted were not the numbers of articles but the numbers of words per category. This approach makes it possible to easily compare the different categories when calculating percentages.

The Guardian has the highest amount of articles which mention both men and women but also has an almost imperceptible mean percentage (0.29) of articles devoted entirely to women. The Star has the highest percentage of newspaper text in article solely on women, a sky- soaring 6.44 per cent mean. On the other hand, it also has the highest number of words in articles only reporting of men (46.66%). This is closely followed by the Times with 46.32 per cent of space devoted on reports of men only. Both the Independent and the Mirror have similar amounts of text reporting on men (42.82%/ 41.85%) and on women (1.21%/ 1.1%).

This first impression gives a rather bleak impression of the state of the portrayal of women in the examined newspapers. They seem to be little important enough to be able to command articles on their own. Women do not seem to be existent without men placed at their side.

The amount of women in influential positions would have justified the assumption that articles only reporting on men would surpass those reporting only on women four to five times. However, here men dominate seven to 93 times more text than women do! The mean for all five examined newspapers shows that 44.8 times more room is devoted entirely to men than to women.


[1] Edward Sapir (1958): "The Status of Linguistics as a Science". In: Edward Sapir: Culture, Language and Personality. Selected Essays. Ed. by David G. Mandelbaum. University of California Press, Berkeley/ Los Angeles. 65-77. p. 69.

[2] Susan Ehrlich/ Ruth King (1994): "Feminist meanings and the (de)politicization of the lexicon". In: Language in Society 23, 59-76. p. 60.

[3] Roger Fowler. (1991): Language in the News. Routledge, London & New York. p.94.

[4] Christiane Püttner: "Die Schöne und der Sex- Strolch. Das Frauen- und Männerbild in der Presse- Berichterstattung zum Thema sexuelle Gewalt". In:Christiane Hackl/ Elizabeth Prommer/ Brigitte Scherer (Hg.) (1996): Models und Machos? UVK Medien, Konstanz. S. 95-120. S. 114.

[5] S. Walby (1997): Gender Transformations. Routledge, London & New York. p. 35


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
550 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena – Anglistics/American Studies
1,0 (A)
British Linguistic Analysis Events



Titel: The portrayal of women in selected British newspapers