The Daily Male: Byline bias at heart of news agenda

PUBLISHED: 07:00 04 October 2017

The Daily Mail displays its approach over the meeting of Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May.

The Daily Mail displays its approach over the meeting of Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May.


A new report from campaigning group Women in Journalism shines a light on the sexism of Fleet Street, says its authors Eleanor Mills, Katie Hind and Áine Quinn.

The media is the mirror that society holds up to itself. It is through newspapers – whether in print or on screen – that the first draft of history is created and power is held to account.

We believe that democracy can only flourish when the mirror the media holds up to society provides a true reflection; because of the lack of diversity in British newspapers the lens we hold up to society is a distorted one. Society sees itself not as it is, but through the prism of a predominantly old, white, male gaze. This puts half the population at a disadvantage – and, at its worst, can put women off entering public life.

Particularly egregious examples of this distorting lens include “Legs-it” – how the Daily Mail described the meeting of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, the two most powerful political leaders in the country, in March this year. Or how David Cameron’s decision to appoint more women to his cabinet in July 2014 was treated as an excuse to picture the new female ministers on a ‘Downing Street Catwalk’ where their outfits were critiqued.

Both examples reinforce to the public that no matter how powerful a woman is, or how impressive her credentials are for doing a job, it is her appearance that matters more than anything.

This distortion is damaging to the way women feel about themselves and puts many of them off entering public life. In a less obvious way, the terminology around men and women is often indicative of a double standard: the title of our research, The Tycoon and the Escort, refers to the descriptions used in the coverage of the murder by a businessman of his lover, for which he received a life sentence in 2016.

The ‘Tycoon’ and the ‘Escort’ exemplifies the kind of loaded language which often reveals the bias of the male media lens where men are millionaires and business tycoons while women – even powerful ones – are judged by a hotness quotient or ‘would-ya?’ yardstick on their arm-candy factor. That is the male lens in action. It could easily have been the ‘Failing Businessman’ and the ‘Entrepreneur’. As we know in papers, words matter.

It has long been argued that time and increasing numbers of women in the media and public life will fix our long-established ‘women problem’; that as more women reach the top of the profession, the male lens will vanish. But as the campaigners for more women on FTSE 100 boards have discovered, the pace of change is glacial; on current progress it will take 100 years to reach parity between men and women in business. Our new research suggests the same is true of journalism.

In November and December 2016 and June and July 2017 we staged a re-run of research Women in Journalism carried out in 2012 into how many front page stories are being written by women. We wanted to find out if women were getting the chance not just to write about typically female subjects – lifestyle, fashion, culture – but were shaping the “hard news” which we see on coffee tables and garage forecourts across Britain.

We discovered that once again progress is slow or non-existent. True, there are more female bylines on the front pages than there were five years ago, but only by a couple of percentage points. At three publications the numbers have actually gone backwards (see table below).

Percentage of front page female bylines in daily newspapers.

The Sun’s 15% of female bylines were largely courtesy of two royal stories about the Duchess of Cambridge, a story on a new Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer who had previously worked as a Playboy model, a Premier League footballer cheating on his wife, and a transgender man having a baby. What about the election? The Sun’s election coverage was male-dominated, as was the Daily Mirror’s.

George Osborne’s Evening Standard was the second-to-worst performing newspaper for its number of front page female bylines. Under the former Chancellor’s editorship, just 15% of front pages were written by women. We compared this to a two-month period from November 8 – December 17 2016, when Sarah Sands was at the helm. During this period just 8% of front page bylines were by women, showing that a female editor is no guarantee of a better gender balance on bylines.

There is, however, good news. The Guardian was the best for female bylines, with 43% of front page stories written by women.

This is almost double the proportion of female bylines from our 2012 research, which supports the idea that replacing Alan Rusbridger with Katharine Viner has had an impact on women being more visible both on the front page and in the office. Culture change can come from the top, but just having a female editor and not changing other roles or the culture is not enough.

The broadsheets generally fare better than tabloids; largely because there are more stories on the front page, giving women more of a chance. Second to the Guardian was the Telegraph, followed by the Financial Times. The Daily Mail had more female bylines than the Mirror, the Express, Metro, the Sun and the Times. However the broadsheets had much lower female byline counts if we only counted the lead story.

The Daily Mail also had female journalists on the ground at the summer’s big news stories – in particular Grenfell Tower. Health, royal and television stories are still more often covered by women, as exemplified by coverage in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

In 2017 it is depressing that women are still so under-represented on the crucial front pages of our national newspapers – and that the pace of change is so slow. There are promising signs with the appointment of Viner at the Guardian being a particularly shining example, as well as the increase in the numbers of female news editors, and even a female Sports Editor on the Mail on Sunday.

However, this is still not enough – the double standard is alive and kicking. Women are still judged on their appearance, or most likely to appear as victims or arm candy.

WIJ wants to see more stories about women with agency: doing things in their own right, as more and more women reach powerful positions in our society, they deserve a media culture which gives them a fair crack of the whip and doesn’t judge them by outdated, male metrics.

The Daily Mail's take on female political heavyweights was to turn Downing Street into a catwalk.

The reason we are drawing attention to the woman deficit is because newspapers are lagging behind broadcast media in particular. In 2015 a House of Lords report into Women and Broadcasting, which pointed up the lack of presenters and female experts, had a measurable effect: it is now deemed unacceptable to have an all-male panel, for example, on Question Time.

In newspapers the gender bias is more hidden – particularly when it comes to the dearth of women in the parliamentary lobby, in business coverage and on hard news stories, and where decisions are made – which is why we decided to shine a light on the problem.

Journalism is the first draft of history – it is unacceptable in the 21st century that the big stories are still overwhelmingly written by men, that journalism is still delivered through the male lens. We hope that by airing this often hidden issue and committing to continue to monitor progress, that will change.

Women in Journalism is a networking, campaigning, training and social organisation for women journalists

To see the full report and learn more about the methodology involved, and the responses from different newspapers, visit


Another strand of the research involved an analysis of how women are portrayed on the front pages of newspapers. The report noted the women who featured the most and observed some common themes of how women are depicted:

Theresa May

If Theresa May were not the Prime Minister, and we had a man instead, the number of women featured on front pages would drop significantly. May was by far the woman who featured on the front pages the most, which given the study covered the general election, the London terror attack and the Grenfell Tower disaster, perhaps is no surprise.

There was, however, a difference in how she was pictured, with the Daily Mirror and the Guardian regularly using very unflattering photographs of her, and the Daily Mail using very flattering shots of her, possibly due to their political leanings. Though the infamous ‘Legs-it’ front page was not published during our research periods, it is still clear that in 2017, the Prime Minister is still being judged on her appearance – which is somewhat of a disappointment.

Theresa May also featured in written stories more than any other woman, unsurprisingly given her role as Prime Minister. She is though, often mentioned alongside male colleagues and members of the cabinet. There was little coverage of her with her husband, Philip May.

In short, there is little evidence to suggest that any mistreatment of Theresa May is due to her being a woman rather than her not fitting the political agendas of some publications. The Sun, which backed her before the election, quickly turned on her after her woeful performance at the polls, with their front page headlined, ‘Mayhem’. However, once again, there is no evidence to suggest this is due to her gender.


Not all women are treated so fairly. The Sun and the Daily Star were most guilty of putting gratuitous photographs of semi-naked women on their front pages. During the time covered by the study, the Sun had three such front pages, two from the reality TV show, Love Island, and another anonymous woman to exemplify a sex story splash.

To illustrate a story about some Oxford University students having a ‘strip party’, the Sun used pictures of the female participant, who was wearing stockings, a bra and a collar around her neck, but did not show pictures of the male student involved. This was the case for two days running.

The Sunday Mirror, on July 9 2017, provided its readers with some insight into the Battle of Mosul. The piece was, as we were told on the front page, brought to us ‘from our man on the front line’, which was exemplified by its male reporter in his hard hat. Next to it was a story about actress Liz Hurley meeting a snake which was accompanied by a picture of her wearing raunchy underwear. The double standard is alive and well.


There is some positive news, though, particularly when it comes to women in sport. Our research period included the Wimbledon tennis championships. British tennis star Johanna Konta was portrayed respectfully in the media. In contrast to its treatment of models, the Sun treated Konta exactly the same as they did her fellow male star, Andy Murray. One headline read: ‘Kont stop me now!’ The next day was the encouraging ‘Give us hope Johanna’.

The Daily Mail were just as positive, using Konta as their main example of the four British tennis players who were through to the third round of the competition. As her success continued, so did their support of the star, with the headlines ‘History Girl’ and ‘As Murray crashes out and hints he may take a break from tennis, now do us proud, Jo’.

The Times were equally kind to Konta, putting her on the front page two days running.

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