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#PasstheMic - where are the women of colour in Scottish election news?

by Professor Karen Boyle and Melody House at the University of Strathclyde, and Talat Yaqoob founder of Pass the Mic.

Pass the Mic is a project focusing on women of colour in Scottish news media. Initially an online database of women of colour experts, thanks to funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, from 2020-21 the project has expanded to undertake direct work with women of colour experts and media partners STV, The Herald, Sunday National, Daily Record, Scotsman, Courier and Holyrood magazine to challenge exclusionary cultures within news media and create a platform for the expertise of women of colour. This funding has also enabled them to undertake research to establish baseline information about where women of colour currently appear in Scottish news media in partnership with Gender Equal Media Scotland.

Read the previous blogs in the series here:

This blog presents some initial findings from part 2 of our Pass the Mic research. As detailed in our previous blog, these findings are based on an analysis of 3843 stories across seven Scottish papers, twitter accounts and websites, and three television shows, during a nine-day period spanning the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary elections (1st-9th May). Across these 3843 stories, we coded 13,576 people appearing in these stories and 4158 journalists or anchors.

As in our November study, which focused on a “routine” news period, a majority (45.2%) of journalists/ anchors were men, with the proportion of women roughly equivalent across the two studies (34.2% in May, 33.4% in November). In 20.5% we couldn’t determine the sex of the journalist (e.g. there was no byline, or they were referred to as “Record Reporter”).

An even smaller proportion of journalists/ anchors in our second sample were people of colour: only 0.4% (n=15%) were women of colour and 0.1% (n=6) were men of colour. In 27.5% it was not known whether the journalist was a person of colour or not.

When we turn to the people in the news, the gender differential is sharper with men making up 62.5% and women 32.9%: this is comparable with our November sample (61.6%/ 33.7%). It is worth emphasising that this does not simply reflect the marginalisation of women in Scottish public life. In the May 2021 election, 45% of MSPs elected were women, but only 34.7% of politicians in our news sample were women. In this respect, Scottish media continue to lag behind Scottish politics. Of the four media types, television had the highest proportion of women in the news (42.6%) and newspapers the lowest (31.6%) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: people in the news by gender and medium

The proportion of people of colour was 8.1%, compared to 8.5% in the routine period. However, the November figure for stories specifically about Scotland was only 5%. Our second period therefore shows a marked increase in the proportion of people of colour in stories about Scotland (from 5% to 8.1%) although this was due to one man: 40.9% of all references to people of colour were to Anas Sarwar, leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Women of colour made up only 2.1% of all people in the news (26.3% of all people of colour), and were more likely to be on the web or television (2.3% of all people in these stories were women of colour) and least likely on twitter (where women of colour made up 1.6% of people in the news).

Unsurprisingly, during the election politician was the dominant occupational category for all people (51.3%) with party leaders making up around half of these (49.2% of all politicians, though there were no women of colour in this category). This meant there was less variation than in our routine news sample, but men of colour and women of colour still appeared in a narrower range of occupations (21 and 23 of 28 respectively) than their white counterparts (both 27 of 28).

In television, everyone we coded was – by definition – seen and heard, so in thinking now about who was seen and heard we again focused on our newspaper, web and twitter samples. Here we found that 38.4% of all people in the news were quoted and 35.6% were photographed. That the percentage of people quoted was lower than in our previous study is largely down to the number of stories which focused on key battlegrounds in the election with reference to a range of candidates (all of whom were coded) but quotations mainly from party leader or representatives (23.4% of all people quoted were party leaders).

Mirroring our previous study, people of colour were less likely to be quoted than people not of colour (Figure 2): the persistence of this finding is striking and suggests the enduring marginalisation of people of colour in Scottish public life despite notable exceptions such as Anas Sarwar or Humza Yousaf. Indeed, 61.3% of quotations attributed to men of colour were from Anas Sarwar, and quotes from Sarwar made up 46.1% of all quotations attributed to people of colour.

Whilst overall, people in the news were more likely to be quoted than photographed, this pattern was reversed for people of colour, who were more likely to be seen than heard from. There was a particularly marked differential between the proportion of women of colour who were photographed (49.7% of all women of colour) and those who were quoted (28.8%), a theme we will explore in more detail in a future blog with specific reference to stories focusing on the election of the first women of colour MSPs.

Figure 2: percentage of people photographed and quoted by gender and race

Again, we paid particular attention to experts and members of the public invited to share personal experiences or offer popular opinion (Table 2). Yet again, expertise remains the most sharply gendered category, although experts are not widely used and comprise just 4.7% of people in our news sample. Men made up 60.4%of all experts and women just 20.6% (in 19% the gender of experts was unknown, e.g. “a party source”). Whilst the proportion of experts who were women was less than in our November sample, this is unsurprising given the well-documented marginalisation of women in news about politics and government generally, as well as the specific marginalisation of women in coverage of UK elections even when women lead major parties. Strikingly, however, television achieved gender parity, with 50% of experts being women, though it is worth sounding a note of caution here given the small number of television experts overall (n=20).

However, in this study we counted even fewer women of colour experts – just 8! This means that 0.06% of the 13,576 people in this news sample were women of colour experts, and women of colour made up just 1.3% of all those coded as experts. Men of colour experts didn’t fare much better, with only 10 in our sample (1.6% of all experts).

Unlike our November study, we did find greater gender parity in personal experience and popular opinion.

Table 2: Functions of people in the news

Men not of colourWomen not of colourMen of colourWomen of colourRace unknown
Personal experience1311342212142
Popular opinion10810447247

Overall, our second study confirmed some of the patterns we observed in our previous study: the virtual invisibility of people of colour journalists in Scotland’s mainstream news media; the continued domination of men in the news; the visual emphasis on people of colour and marginalisation of their speech; and the way that expertise is both gendered and racialised. That these patterns persist despite the distorting impact of the election – what we might call the Sturgeon/Sarwar effect – demonstrates the robustness of these findings as the basis for future interventions with our media partners.

Further Analysis:

Given that the 2021 Scottish Parliament election saw the highest number of “ethnic minority” candidates and political parties taking further steps to ensure diversity in their candidate lists (for example SNP reserving top regional list places for “BAME” candidates), there could have (and should have been) a more representative sample of people of colour across our media. Interestingly, whilst much was written about the diversity on the ballot paper (across a number of platforms), this failed to result in any significantly higher numbers of women of colour in Scottish media coverage (in comparison to our November 2020 sample). In our election coverage review, women of colour made up only 2.1% of all people in the news (26.3% of all people of colour), this is up a mere 0.5% from November. The critical importance of the election and the influence of the media on it, means we cannot be satisfied with such a small increase in representation (which is likely to reflect only 1 or 2 more women of colour being involved). This is particularly stark when national conversations about race, racism and social media abuse were taking place.

Whilst the election of the first two women of colour finally came about in this election, the coverage and analysis of this was not led by women of colour. The majority of those quoted were the First Minister or leaders of parties. Whilst this is, of course, necessary, given the context of racism and sexism and the work of Pass the Mic with some of these media platforms, women of colour experts could have easily been accessed and asked for their analysis. This research should be taken seriously by media outlets and push some reflection on who is given space during such an important time in Scotland’s news and political landscape. We would have expected a (one off) increase in the proportion of women of colour (higher than the 0.5% increase witnessed), however this second media monitoring review reinforces much of what was found in November; that women of colour are under-represented (even within their population numbers), that they are more likely to be included in images rather than quoted and that their expertise are being overlooked.

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