Even as many women refrain from engaging in comment discussions on news sites, a University of Missouri School of Journalism pilot study indicates they are more freely voicing their opinions on social media.

“I don't comment on articles I read,” one respondent said. “The only way I would include my thoughts on the subject were if I were sharing an article via Facebook to my friends.”

Women are outnumbered in news comments on major news sites around the world by a margin of 3 to 1, research has shown.

A 2015-2016 RJI Fellowship project led by Marie Tessier of The New York Times seeks to find out why, and how women’s voices can be engaged in civic news conversations.

In December 2015, we conducted a survey of 512 women ages 18 to 35, asking about their online engagement, specifically in regards to commenting on news articles. This convenience survey found 78 percent of women added their own opinions to articles when sharing perspectives on social media, compared to 22 percent of women who comment on news sites.

The results of the pilot study align with existing Pew Research Center results about online engagement and news. 

A 2015 Pew Research survey found women turn toward social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram and largely stay away from online discussion forums, which are dominated by men.

Women are more likely to use Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, while online forums are popular among men

Women use social media to connect with others, whereas men use it to gather information and increase their status

According to Jodi Kahn, chief consumer officer for Fresh Direct and president of the now defunct iVillage, social media sites offer a way to connect with family and friends and talk to others within smaller, more personal groups — the type of conversation women find more meaningful.

Men, however, use online forums and social media to increase their influence, according to Sherry Perlmutter Bowen, a gender and communication professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. By “sharing their wisdom” and commenting, men “climb the ladder.”

Bowen believes the difference in women's and men’s online behavior is a reflection of the outside world.

“Girls and boys are often raised in two distinct cultures where they learn different rules and norms for behavior and talk,” Bowen said. “Girls learn to build relationships by sharing social information. Boys learn to compare and compete with others, always striving for more success.”

What does this mean for news organizations?

Facebook and social media sites are a gateway between news organizations and their audiences. About one-third of U.S. adults use Facebook to get news. Of those, half share links to articles, videos and images from news sites and 46 percent discuss news events or issues on Facebook. 

Surprisingly, while men significantly outnumbered women in online comments sections, this is not the case on Facebook. A Pew Research survey found women are actually more likely to consume, share and like news on Facebook than men.

Facebook news consumption

Women’s lack of commenting on news sites, then, is not a lack of willingness to engage. Rather, women are looking for a different environment of discussion. It is on Facebook, among friends and family that they find this. Our research found women largely stay away from commenting on new sites because they find the environment unproductive and uncivil.

“I think overall commenting is great among people you can trust, but among the general public commenting is horrible to the point of scary,” another respondent said. “I don't mind commenting on Facebook where only my friends will see something. ...”

Women use social media as a way to communicate with others and share ideas

When women comment on articles, their network of friends on Facebook sees it, which can prompt discussion within Facebook. Interestingly, across almost all platforms, women are more engaged with social media when compared to men. According to Pew Research, on average there is an 8 percent gap between women and men on social media platforms. Women have more friends on Facebook when compared to men, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, and participate in 62 percent of network sharing. Since women are so active on social media, Facebook and other social media sites can be a bridge between news organizations and women’s discussion forums.

A study by Dr. Fiona Martin, an Australian Research Council DECRA fellow, found the sites with the highest level of women’s participation, like The Texas Tribune where women make up 35 percent of the participants, require verification through Facebook. On other sites where there was lower participation from women, like The Guardian where women make up only 3 percent of the named commentators, there is high pseudonym use and no Facebook verification.

In addition, discussion and commentary from women in the study is much more common on Facebook than it is on news sites. The data from our survey found that women are almost three times as likely to comment on an article on Facebook than they were on comment sections of news sites.  On Facebook, unlike on news sites’ comments sections, women are engaged in the discussion and their voices are being heard.

Online discussion and comment forums provide a different type of conversation, one that is more appealing to men than it is to women. If news organizations adapt to women’s online behavior in comment sections, they can lead the way to more meaningful online discussion.


Related Stories

comments powered by Disqus
MU | Missouri School of Journalism | University of Missouri