Can Anyone Hear Us? Women Media Sources and Experts Need to Speak Louder

Full disclosure here, Alicia Shepard is a friend of mine. That is not critical to the story. But I need to say it.

She is the ombudsman (not ombudswoman) at National Public Radio and she wrote a brilliant, however unsettling piece last week on the dearth of female sources on NPR on her NPR blog.  

http://www.npr.org/ombudsman/

This is what she and her staff found:  

My office researched the number of female commentators who appear on air regularly, along with the number of females who are interviewed or quoted in stories on ME, ATC and the weekend counterparts.

The news is not encouraging, though NPR is trying to do something about it.

Admittedly, the relative lack of female voices reflects the broader world. The fact remains that even in the fifth decade after the feminist revolution; men are still largely in charge in government at all levels, in corporations and nearly all other aspects of society. That means, by default, there are going to be more male than female news sources.

To cut to the chase? The green bars are the female sources. The gold are the men.  

But this much? You would think from this graphic that women don’t have a lot to say as sources or commentators.  That they don’t answer the phone or emails when reporters cast the net or that they are not listed somewhere as an expert, they don’t have a Web presence or they are just not well-known.

But that inequity reflects the reporter or producer’s choice, not the lack of female expertise in the world. It reflects a comfort zone, a status quo, a settling for what is easy to do, not what is more fair, more ethical or just plain right. It is something all journalists in all platforms can do better.

As you can see, Weekend Edition comes close to parity. Are women more available to talk then?

I tell my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University that inclusiveness is required in good journalism. When we think of diversity of sources, the notion is not limited to race, ethnicity or gender. It is also about age, socioeconomic status, ability, geography, ideology, education, religion, sexual orientation, everything. 

Why bother trying to find sources that reflect the diversity of society? Because it makes the journalism better. Because, as I wrote in my last book, “Everyman News,” diversity of thought changes content. Just by asking the same question of a different type of source, you will yield different responses and ultimately deeper content.  

In her new book, “Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done” (Times Books), Susan Douglas, a communications professor at the University of Michigan , writes that the myth of the all-powerful woman may be more of a hinderance than an inspiration. It may massage us into complacency thinking just because Oprah rules the airwaves, and Cyndi Lauper is having fun in Donald Trump’s boardroom, all is fair in gender terms.

But no. I agree with Douglas. It’s not time to pronounce victory and say we achieved the goal. It’s time to keep trying to make room for other voices. We can start with female voices and work from there.

Driving to work this morning I smiled when I heard the voice of Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist and author on NPR. She was commenting on the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team winning the NCAA title over Stanford University. And full disclosure here, Christine is also a friend of mine, a fellow NU alum. She is an expert, great journalist and the right source on that story.  She should be heard.

According to Lisa on her NPR blog:

When listeners don’t hear women as sources and commentators on the air, they can get the impression that women aren’t smart, aren’t experts and aren’t authoritative.

That’s just not true.

I agree. As the other half of the commenting world, we need to speak louder. As journalists and authors we need to report more fully and be more inclusive in the sourcing of our work.  It’s only fair. It’s time we all were heard. And seen. And read.    

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2 Comments

Filed under Features, Media, News, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Can Anyone Hear Us? Women Media Sources and Experts Need to Speak Louder

  1. Michele:

    This is a great post. Right on target.

    That said, I find myself wondering if we will ever get to stop making this point!

    Some years back, the White House project did a study of female experts featured on the Sunday morning TV news shows. They found much the same results as Alicia Shepard. Very few women were looked to as experts, and, at the time, none of the shows was anchored by a woman.

    Christiane Amanpour brings a female face to the anchor chair on Sunday, so there’s been some progress since their study, but it is very slow.

    Although including many voices is the right thing to do, in my experience institutions don’t change just because it’s the right thing to do.

    As you say, women do need to speak louder. But for too long, we have let media outlets take our tacit support for granted.

    I think it’s time for a return to more creative approaches by female viewers/listeners and our male allies.

    After all, media outlets depend on women’s money to survive. NPR needs women pledgers and commercial media need women viewers in order to attract advertisers looking to target women consumers.

    Maybe we need to have a “girlcott” of different media outlets.

    Perhaps during the next NPR pledge drive, we should all contact our stations and suggest that if they would like women’s money, we would urge them to take concrete steps to include more women’s voices and views. And ask them to openly share the steps they are taking with their listeners.

    Maybe we need a campaign directed at companies that advertise via commercial media outlets.

    We need to speak up, but I think we also need to consider withdrawing our support from those who for far too many years have failed to support us.

    Laura Kaufman

  2. Sheila

    Michele:

    Enjoyed your post. Thought you might like to hear of a longitudinal study on international news media that confirms the lack of expert female voices quoted in news articles that you may not have encountered to date.

    The WACC Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) is the world’s longest running media monitoring research on the representation of women and men in international news media. Conducted every 5 years since 1995, the GMMP 2010 monitored the world’s news on one day in 108 countries.

    The 2010 report findings regarding women as expert sources resonates with your post. While women have achieved near parity as givers of “popular opinion” in news articles, the research showed less than one out of every five experts interviewed for news articles is female. For more information on GMMP 2010, check out www,whomakesthenews.org.

    Cheers, Sheila

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