Women in the news — or often not

By · Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

This past week New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about a University of Nevada study that showed front-page stories in Sullivan’s paper quoted men more than three times as often as women. (The actual count was 65% of sources were male, 19% were female and 17% were unknown.)

After mulling the study and chatting with some colleagues, Sullivan suggested it was time to “start a conversation” about this.

It reminded me of a time — a quarter-century or so ago — when the Gannett Co. “started a conversation” about this very thing, too, though with a twist: Gannett was looking at the predominance of Caucasians among its many properties’ news sources. They were indeed dominant. (Gannett also noted that all kinds of “minorities” were slighted as sources. Sources skewed younger, for example. And they certainly skewed male.)

[stextbox id=”black”]” ‘Your story quotes only men – go find a couple of women,’ is a conversation that’s hard to imagine going over too well at The Times or in any newsroom.” — Margaret Sullivan[/stextbox]

Conversations were “started” in newsrooms all over the company back then. Indeed, such conversations were mandated — and action was, as well. Editors and reporters compiled and expanded source lists by topic, expanding their go-to people beyond what had become a pretty predictable log. The results were tracked, and the lists expanded to include those many others who also were minorities of one kind or another. I know: I was an editor who chafed a bit about writing notes to corporate about how we were doing, and those notes had to be a lot more specific than simply noting, “We’re doing better.” Gannett was ridiculed in many quarters for this, much along the lines of Sullivan’s musing about such a mandate, were it imposed today. (“It wouldn’t go well,” she understates.)

Nancy Woodhull, via woodhullandwatson.weebly.com

Nancy Woodhull, via woodhullandwatson.weebly.com

Is such an idea so outlandish a thought? We get so stuck on wrestling over that, anticipating the outrage, that we spend little time thinking about why things are the way they are and what we should do about them. Talk is easy. Action difficult, uncomfortable and threatening.

And, obviously, this is a complicated topic. The study authors (Professor Alicia Shepard and two students) do a good job exploring all the possible explanations for this phenomenon in a post for Poynter.

Sullivan wrote:

I talked with Susan Chira, an assistant managing editor, about the study, and about whether The Times will and should make any changes. Ms. Chira – a former Metro reporter and foreign correspondent who became the first female foreign editor of The Times – said the results of the study gave her pause. (Ms. Chira is also the author of “A Mother’s Place,” on working motherhood in America.)

“The numbers are certainly not optimal,” she said of the study. “There have got to be a lot more women worthy of quoting.” That’s true, she said, despite the fact that more newsmakers – politicians, business people, government officials – are male, and thus more likely to be in a position to be called as sources.

But, she said, she dislikes the idea of a mandate or quota for including more women. And she said some of the response to the study was overwrought.

Quotas or mandates would “result in tokenism that sets us all back,” she said. “The answer has to come from awareness. This is a consciousness issue. How do you get reporters to ask themselves if they have made a stringent enough effort to include women in this story? How do reporters expand their bank of go-to people that they rely on as sources?”

Sullivan said of talking about the problem and encouraging staff to do better: “I’m not sure that’s going to make much of a difference, but I also dislike the idea of anything mandated.” She also noted in her blogpost, ” ‘Your story quotes only men – go find a couple of women,’ is a conversation that’s hard to imagine going over too well at The Times or in any newsroom. But those conversations may result in positive change: articles with a broader base of information and perspective.’ ”

Sullivan’s take is conservative, and understandable, albeit a little disappointing. Kudos to her for acknowledging the study, though she probably could not avoid it. It will be interesting to see if she follows up, and what she finds. It is with policy as it is with journalism: Where is the followup and the accountability? Quota-setting is one thing. But assuring accountability is quite another, and presumably a worthy mission.

Thus, “a conversation starts” — perhaps — in 2013.

We spend a lot of time in this blog thinking about the way journalists work and how their jobs have changed. We don’t talk much about these “bigger issues,” though we should.

It is interesting to be “starting a conversation” about how men dominate our reporting, and how circumspect — even “scared” we are to do something about it. And this in a world where women journalism majors are outnumbering men. Women make up some 60% of our enrollment at the Newhouse School, and we are not unusual in that regard. Women see journalism as a career where they have a chance. It is ironic that the business is hiring more of them, but they aren’t doing enough, some would say, for themselves.

We all recognize that it really does remain a white man’s world on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, to name two obvious places. If you don’t believe that (is it possible you wouldn’t?) then pay attention to the next summit of the leadership involving either of these institutions and do a head count.

Our mentor, Nancy Woodhull at Gannett, championed women in newsrooms and in the news, and took some heat for it. A decade and a half after her death, the question comes up again, and makes us wonder how far we have, or haven’t come.

Never as far as we thought. Never as far as we should have.

Nancy would be disappointed, but hardly surprised.

She would not be angry. But she would act. And she would insist on quantifiable results that would be celebrated — or else.

Steve Davis

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