Female Experts Are Underrepresented in COVID-19 News Coverage


Despite the majority of frontline healthcare workers being women during the pandemic, television networks are infrequently featuring representative experts.

Representation, in the form of vaccine trial makeup, has been a headlining matter of discussion for the first 2 vaccine candidates to undergo federal scrutiny for authorized prevention of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) in the US.

Healthcare disparity, an ever-present and little-resolved matter in the US healthcare system, has waged on COVID-19, as minorities and women have been disparately affected, in both infection and virus severity, by the pandemic. Solutions including vaccines, experts have argued, need to represent efficacy and safety in all affected patients, especially those discriminately affected.

The matter of messaging on potential care also needs representation. And unfortunately, the media has not yet figured that out.

A new study from investigators at the University of Michigan in observance of COVID-19 speakers featured on mainstream television news segments showed that women only comprise 30% of guest speakers.

Their selection for interview opportunities and total speaking time on the topic came out to about approximately 25% apiece, with none of the observed networks faring much better at representation than the others.

Female physicians, relative male physicians, similarly fared worse in gaining airtime on COVID-19 topics throughout news networks. In fact, one popular network did not air a single interview with a female physician on COVID-19 in an observed five-week period.

In an interview with HCPLive, study author Alangoya Tezel, a medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School, discussed the unsurprising yet ultimately disappointing findings.

“I think if you’re flipping the channels—especially when you’re anxious, there’s a lot going, and there’s a lot of misinformation—and you only see male physicians and public health experts, you’re going to start thinking that’s what the healthcare workforce looks like,” Tezel said. “And that does a lot to undermine a lot of the legitimacy of our female healthcare workers—who are the majority of healthcare workers during the pandemic.”

That said, Tezel believes there is substantial opportunities for change. Medical schools including her own boast male-female ratios similar to the current healthcare workforce. But it would take peer-to-peer mentorship, institutional recognition of deserving women, and very obviously, conscious efforts from media to seek out women and minority-representative experts to highlight.

“I really just hope that, because this seems to be something that is really in the control of the news channels’ control, I hope this study attracts their attention, and I hope they are moved to invite more women and people of color who are medical experts, and to amplify those voices,” Tezel said.

The research letter, "Diversity and Representation of Physicians During the COVID-19 News Cycle," was published online in JAMA.

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