The article had a lot of links. Surely, Katherine Rye Jewell thought, one of the underlined words would summon a piece of her relevant scholarship: her recent op-ed, maybe, or her book.
Jewell, an associate professor of history at Fitchburg State University, had spoken with a journalist a few days before the article was published on the website of a major national magazine last summer. When she read the piece, she immediately recognized passages of their conversation. But her name was not mentioned. She clicked on every hyperlink; not a single one linked back to her work.
“He used a line that was almost verbatim what I had said, and my contributions structured one paragraph,” said Jewell, whose book related to the article, “Dollars for Dixie: Business and the Transformation of Conservatism in the Twentieth Century,” had recently been published. When she saw that she hadn’t been cited, Jewell said, she questioned her expertise. “I felt like, ‘Oh well, I guess I’m really just not that good.’”
Then she talked to her professor friends. And Jewell realized that, especially for women, this kind of thing happens all the time.
“Among female historians, there is a whisper network … You hear these kinds of stories,” said Emily Prifogle, co-founder of Women Also Know History, an organization dedicated to promoting the work of female historians. Last Sunday, when The Lily broke a story about historian Sarah Milov, whose book provided all the material for a recent episode of NPR’s Here & Now but who was never mentioned on the segment, many female historians began speaking up on Twitter.
“There were so many retweets from other women, telling their version of [Milov’s] story,” said Prifogle. Of course, the same thing sometimes happens to white, male scholars, said Karin Wulf, another co-founder of Women Also Know History. But groups underrepresented in academia — people of color, LGBT people and women — “get dissed much more often.” For this article, I spoke to five female academics who recounted near-identical experiences: A media organization drew directly from their work but did not give them credit.
It’s a difficult issue because journalists often talk to sources for background information. If a journalist interviews an expert, there is no guarantee they’ll use quoted material from that interview in the final piece. But original ideas from an academic, both journalists and academics seem to agree, should have a name attached.
As sources, women are cited in major media outlets significantly less than men. A recent study by the University of Nevada at Las Vegas showed that men are quoted on the front page of the New York Times 3.4 times more often than women. In separate self-analyses of their own sources, Atlantic staff writer Ed Yong and executive editor (then a staff writer) Adrienne LaFrance both found that they reached out to men for interviews far more often than to women. (The gender-imbalance in sourcing likely occurs throughout mainstream media, but The Atlantic has made a point of interrogating, and trying to correct, the issue.)
“The research we have shows that women’s voices are missing from the media,” said Kate McCarthy, who runs WMC SheSource for the Women’s Media Center, a national database designed to connect journalists with female experts. “And frequently when women are called on to offer something up, they are quoted without citation.”
The problem is particularly acute for black women, said Christen Smith, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, and founder of the Cite Black Women Collective, an organization that promotes the citation of black women in academia. “Women in general don’t get quoted, but black women experience it threefold. We get it from all sides,” said Smith, who started the collective after a colleague paraphrased whole sections of her book in a conference presentation without any citation. Black women, Smith said, are far less likely to be seen as “experts” by the media, and are therefore less likely to be approached for an interview in the first place.
Occasionally, but only occasionally, female academics will call out the omission of their names in the media. After Oprah Winfrey told the story of Recy Taylor, who spearheaded a bold anti-rape campaign decades before #MeToo, before an audience of nearly 20 million people at the 2018 Golden Globes, historian Danielle McGuire responded with an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review: Winfrey, she said, had recounted a historical narrative that had taken McGuire “nearly two decades of research … to stitch together.” Winfrey never mentioned McGuire, whose book, “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and the Resistance,” tells the definitive story of Taylor’s life. McGuire’s work was also overlooked in much of the media coverage that followed Winfrey’s speech.
This kind of thing never feels good, said Joan Cashin, a professor of history at Ohio State University. When she heard a male scholar reading passages from her book, “verbatim,” on a public radio station, she said, she had to pull her car over on the side of the road.
“I recognized my own prose immediately,” Cashin said. He was quoting from “First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’ Civil War,” she said, her book released the previous year. “I remember it vividly: the shock of it.” Cashin never called up the station to complain, she said. By that point, the book had already received a good amount of publicity.
“I decided to just let it go.”
Many women I spoke to wondered if the journalists’ decision to omit their name had somehow been their fault. Ellen Wald, who earned her doctorate in history at Boston University and now consults on energy and geopolitics, blames herself for telling a journalist for a national business publication “too many things” from her then-forthcoming book, “Saudi, Inc.” When the article came out, Wald said, it was clear that the journalist “had taken a lot directly from the interview.” But the piece did not mention either Wald’s name or the title of her book.
“I trusted her, spent so much time with her, I told her so much,” said Wald. “I felt like it was all my fault.”
History is a particularly tricky field for attribution, said Wulf, because journalists often feel they can “do it themselves.” Certain, more “traditional” historical subjects — the Founding Fathers, say, or world wars — might seem to require an expert. Looking into more modern areas of historical exploration, on the other hand — the history of gender, households or relationships, for example — a journalist may feel empowered to just do a little googling, or scan Wikipedia, Wulf said. They might reach out to someone for background. Maybe they won’t feel a quote is necessary.
“It’s not an accident that those ‘traditional’ subjects are often, though not always, practiced by traditional historians,” Wulf said. And when you search for images of a “historian” on Google, she notes, almost all the pictures show white men. (The vast majority of them have beards.)
Female academics are also probably less inclined, on the whole, to point out the omission of their name, said Wald, because they’re less likely to have tenure. As an untenured faculty member in any field, Wald said, there is an acute sense that you should not “rock the boat” or “make waves.” Accusing anyone — journalist or fellow historian — of using your work without attribution, particularly in a public forum, might “piss the wrong person off,” she said, jeopardizing your chances of gaining tenure.
Sarah Milov, who goes up for tenure this year, is in a particularly precarious position, said Cashin: “A woman in her situation has to be careful.” When considering whether to grant tenure, Cashin explained, a university board will typically reach out to a swath of top scholars in the professor’s field. One negative letter, she said, “can really sink someone’s career.” Reading the original Lily article about Milov’s experience with NPR, Wald said, it seemed clear to her that Milov “was trying really hard not to lay blame.” She suspects this is why.
Media mentions are important, said Cashin, particularly for academics early on in their careers. “Even if it’s just a few sentences on an NPR affiliate … it signals that this scholar has produced good work: something valuable and interesting that other people learn from,” she said.
Colleges and universities will sometimes consider media appearances when deciding whether to grant tenure.
As part of the years-long process of applying for tenure, Jewell, tenured in 2018, had to submit an annual letter to the dean, which always included a section on “contributions to the content of the discipline.” Especially working at a teaching-focused university, where most professors teach four courses a semester with little time for personal research, Jewell said, media mentions count a lot. Whenever she was interviewed by a publication, she included a printed copy of the article with her letter, highlighting her name.
The omission of female experts in the media almost certainly isn’t intentional, said Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at the University of Michigan. After NPR’s All Things Considered credited only her male co-author in a segment last summer, Weineck penned a viral essay about the incident for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“It’s not like there are a bunch of people sitting in a room at NPR saying, ‘Let’s not air women’s voices,’” Weineck said. Instead, the problem is “systemic sloppiness:” journalists pulling things together quickly, usually on a tight deadline.