The media’s coverage of International Women’s Day left us with more questions than answers
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The media’s coverage of International Women’s Day left us with more questions than answers

March 11, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Spanish unions strike, women in multiple cities hold protests for International Women’s Day

Women marched in multiple cities and unions in Spain went on strike this Thursday for International Women’s Day. There were women’s protests in 170 countries, Spanish newspaper El País reported. Spain had proposed a general strike with union backing for Thursday in support of gender equality between men and women, according to El País. About 5.3 million people went on strike for a day in Spain, according to unions there. Spanish law prohibits unions from holding strikes that only apply to one of the sexes, so both men and women were allowed to stop working.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • When women marched in multiple cities around the world for International Women’s Day, much of the media coverage portrayed the demonstrations positively
  • But outlets used vague language that wasn’t backed up with facts, and they didn’t provide alternative points of view
  • See how the media may hinder progress by providing oversimplified and biased accounts of issues such as gender equality and violence

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Powerfully echoed

    Many of the International Women’s Day events on Thursday powerfully echoed the #MeToo movement that has mobilized women against sexual violence and workplace harassment. (Associated Press)

  • Embittered men

    In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, a throng of activists was joined by a victim of one of the acid attacks frequently perpetrated in the country by embittered men. (Associated Press)

  • Enduring machista culture

    Coordinated by an umbrella group, the 8 March Commission, the strike called for an end to Spain’s enduring machista culture. (The Guardian)

  • Power imbalance

    In Italy, actress Asia Argento, who helped sparked (sic) the #MeToo campaign last year, said she is launching a new movement, #WeToo, to unite women against a power imbalance favoring men. (Associated Press)

  • Candid apology

    In Russia, a candid apology from a powerful legislator to women he sexually harassed. (Associated Press)

  • “Toxic virus of misogyny”

    “The Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny,” McAleese said. (Associated Press)

  • Harder time

    Women also have a harder time accessing the job market, and when they do, they are more likely to be offered more precarious contracts and worse conditions. (El Pais)

  • “Empire of misogyny”

    A former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, described the Catholic Church as an “empire of misogyny” (BBC)

When women marched in multiple cities around the world for International Women’s Day, much of the media coverage portrayed the demonstrations positively. News outlets wrote about women opposing “gender inequality,” the “gender wage gap” and “power imbalance,” which to most people likely sounds like a good thing, at least in the abstract.

But what do these phrases mean in practical terms? What evidence and reasoning back them? In order to solve a problem, it’s useful to understand it and its root causes so we can come up with a plan. And then when executing the plan, there needs to be a way of knowing whether it’s achieving its objectives. This requires measurement, precise language and concrete facts – yet these things were lacking from the news coverage we analyzed.

Let’s take a closer look at the distortions we found, and how they influenced our ratings.

Emotional language

Consider the following two examples (subjective, emotional words, a.k.a spin, in bold):

Associated Press: “Many of the International Women’s Day events on Thursday powerfully echoed the #MeToo movement that has mobilized women against sexual violence and workplace harassment.”

The Guardian: “…the strike called for an end to Spain’s enduring machista culture.”

These statements sound positive, but what do they mean in a practical sense? How exactly did the events “powerfully echo” the #MeToo movement? What measurable impact did the demonstrations have, or what impact could they have, on sexual violence and harassment?

“Machista” (or “machismo” in its noun form) means “a strong sense of masculine pride” or “an exaggerated masculinity.” Depending on the context, it can have either positive or negative connotations. But given that protesters are trying to “end” it, The Guardian is likely using it in the negative sense.

But what specifically are men doing? How has this “machista culture” been quantified?

Neither outlet gives details.

AP had the most emotional and subjective language and as a result was rated 60 percent spun. The other three were less spun in comparison: 41, 41 and 37 percent for The Guardian, El Pais and BBC, respectively.

Selective information

One of the ways news outlets slant information is by downplaying facts that counter the viewpoint they want to promote. In this case, all four outlets directly or indirectly supported the view that the protests were positive and would promote change for women; they contained few statements that suggested otherwise. This is in part why AP, BBC, El Pais and The Guardian were rated as being 87, 80, 79, and 73 percent slanted, respectively.

Here are some statements from the articles that provided alternative perspectives, although they were fewer in number relative to those supporting the main point of view:

The Guardian: “On Monday the bishop of San Sebastián, José Ignacio Munilla, said Christianity was opposed to ‘radical feminism’ because it had made victims of women and ‘the true feminine cause.’”

BBC: “Some have opposed the strike…Two of the five female ministers in Spain’s conservative government, Agriculture Minister Isabel García Teresina and the president of the Madrid region, Cristina Cifuentes, said they would work longer hours to show the capacity of women.”

Whether you agree with these views or not, they provide different perspectives on the protests, without necessarily being opposed to goals such as gender equality. They may raise questions. For example, could primarily blaming men or society have downsides? Could some protests support the victimization of women, or a perception that women are reliant on others to improve their circumstances? Could they actually disempower women? Is it possible that by designating a day for women, it could further a divide between the sexes and reinforce a belief that women are lesser and needing of a “special day.” Could there be other approaches?

It can be uncomfortable to examine other points of view, especially those that question our core beliefs and values. However, when people consider other viewpoints they don’t have to abandon their worldview; asking questions and examining different perspectives is a part of critical thinking. In this case specifically, it’s possible to consider the above perspectives while also acknowledging the importance of addressing the issues of sexual harassment and discrimination against women, as well as the roles that men, women and society play in causing these problems.

With that in mind, here are some perspectives that weren’t explored in the articles:

  • What were some views of the women who didn’t go on strike? BBC and El Pais mentioned that many self-employed women (there are 1.1 million self-employed women in Spain, according to El Pais) remained at work, but didn’t provide their perspectives.
  • Some research and analysis shows that once figures are adjusted for aspects such as occupation, position, education, seniority and hours worked per week, the gender wage gap in some countries shrinks* (e.g. from around 20 percent to 7 percent in the U.S. for college graduates one year after graduation). The remaining percent is the “unexplained” gap, meaning we can’t for sure explain why it exists; it could be due to a number of factors that are difficult to measure, including, but not limited to, gender bias.

*The explained and unexplained wage gaps for Spain were about 4 percent and 11 percent, respectively, according to Figure 3 in Eurostat’s “Gender pay gap statistics.” However, the study’s methodology hasn’t been released yet, so we can’t compare it to the U.S. study above (i.e. we can’t compare which factors the study accounted for and which ones it didn’t).

Lacking specifics

Let’s revisit phrases like “gender wage gap,” “gender violence” and “gender equality.” How are these being defined and quantified? Some of the outlets provided a few details. For example, The Guardian said government statistics in Spain showed that reported violent abuse cases against women increased from 129,193 in 2015 to 142,893 in 2016. BBC cited Eurostat statistics that said the unadjusted gap in average hourly earnings between men and women was 13 and 19 percent in the public and private sectors, respectively.

However, these examples were the exceptions to a general lack of concrete facts in the coverage we analyzed. Furthermore, these statistics alone don’t provide a full picture. As noted above, there are limitations to only looking at unadjusted differences in average wages between men and women. Also, to better understand how to prevent violence against women, further analysis would be required to examine what factors are causing it, how it compares to violence against men, and to what degree the causes are influenced by gender.

Here are some questions that might inspire further exploration of the facts surrounding gender equality and violence:

  • How do we define “gender equality” and how do we measure it?
  • Are we talking about equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?
  • How do we define “gender violence” and how do we measure it?
  • How does violence against women compare to violence against men?
  • What are the possible causes of such violence?
  • How might “gender violence” be distinct from other forms of human violence? How might it be similar?


Few people would disagree with the goal of creating a fairer and less violent world for both men and women. But how do we do this in practice? The Knife believes an evidence-based and scientific approach is one piece of the puzzle, as is the ability to have civil and rational conversations about facts and different viewpoints. But media outlets may hinder this process by providing oversimplified and biased accounts of social issues such as gender equality and violence.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 37% Spun

  • 41% Spun

  • 41% Spun

  • 60% Spun

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >