Media coverage of #MeToo may have robbed victims of their power, research finds

Because of the myriad of sexual misconduct cases that were finaly excavated last year, 2018 is now considered the "Year of #MeToo." One positive product of the movement has been a greater awareness of all the ways sexual misconduct permeates our culture. Media coverage was a huge factor in all of it. And although news coverage of #MeToo cast women in a sympathetic light, some researchers believe that some aspects of it may have depicted them as having less power and agency than the men accused of sexual misconduct.

The findings, presented at the Association of Computational Linguistics (ACL) Meeting in Italy last month, show that the #MeToo movement empowered women to speak out about their experiences, but media coverage of the movement often failed at conveying this power.

What motivated this research was the authors' desire to prove that how the media reports on #MeToo — or any other important sociopolitical movement — matters profoundly. “Journalists can choose which narratives to highlight in order to promote certain portrayals of people," said Yulia Tsvetkov, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, whose team conducted the research, in a statement. "They can encourage or undermine movements like #MeToo.” Portrayals of sexual harassment have major ripple effects, shaping not only the public’s reactions, but also how the people directly involved process and deal, the researchers note in a paper they presented at the ACL meeting.

In this paper, Tsvetkov and her team used a type of machine learning known as natural language processing to analyze 27,602 online articles covering #MeToo from 1,576 media outlets. They scored the most frequently-mentioned entities (including not only individuals, but also news outlets, for instances) on agency, power, and sentiment (or how much the coverage sympathized with the entity). They based the scores on their analysis of verbs, accounting for how their connotation can vary depending on their context. For instance, in the paper, they pointed out how “push” has a different connotation in the sentence, “She pushed him away,” than in the sentence, “Will one part of the movement’s legacy be to push society to find the right words to describe it all?”

Portrayals of sexual harassment have major ripple effects, shaping not only the public’s reactions, but also how the people directly involved process and deal.

Even men who had already been accused of sexual misconduct, including President Donald Trump and former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, ranked high in power. The highest-powered entities didn’t include any women, while entities that ranked the lowest in power consisted primarily of female accusers, including actor Uma Thurman, who had accused former film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, as well as Dylan Farrow, who had accused her adoptive father, actor and director Woody Allen, of sexual assault.

Entities with the highest agency included women as well as men. But these women — such as actor Frances McDormand — hadn’t accused men of sexual misconduct, although they had voiced support of the #MeToo movement.

Men accused of sexual misconduct naturally ranked the lowest in sentiment. But the entities that ranked the highest in sentiment, again, didn’t include women who had accused men of sexual misconduct, but instead, women who had supported #MeToo, like actor and Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. Likewise, in another analysis in the paper that focused specifically on media coverage of the sexual misconduct allegations against actor-comedian Aziz Ansari, female journalists scored higher on agency than Ansari’s accuser, Grace.

At the ACL meeting, Tsvetkov's team also presented a paper that expanded on these findings. The paper analyzed portrayals of public figures in newspaper articles, as well as movie characters. Men, again, were depicted as more powerful than women.

The research shows that although media coverage of #MeToo has been mostly positive, the public still needs to interrogate it thorougly. "Bias can be unconscious, veiled and hidden in a seemingly positive narrative," Tsvetkov said in the statement. It’s not enough to portray #MeToo victims in a positive light; it’s important to depict them as empowered, too.