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Editors Try This: 100 Story Ideas in 100 minutes

  We’re not doing a great job as journalists covering issues of gender and family. I gave a presentation to the Associated Press Managing Editors and Suburban Newspapers of America editors at the Chicago Sun-Times last week and dared the editors to come up with 100 story ideas after my 100-minute talk about stories at the intersection of the economy and gender. 

 Before we broke for lunch, half the room said they did. We’ll see how many of those stories get reported, written and published.

But today The Wall Street Journal defies logic, facts, stats and anecdotal realities from thousands of sources and declared there is no wage gap. Really? On Equal Pay Day? It’s making me crazy. As a journalist, as a woman, as a journalism educator, as a parent of sons, as a thinking human being.

It’s the same old story of viewing the news through a lens of denial. 

I wrote about it in “Everyman News,” in the chapter, “Diversity of Thought Shifts Content.” If we cannot achieve parity of gender and race in newsrooms, and according to ASNE, (The American Society of Newspaper Editors) we can’t, then we can for sure make a point in our coverage of trying to be inclusive in our sourcing and expansive in our brainstorming. OR we can keep saying what is real is not really there.     

     The recent White House Council on Women & Girls’ report, “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” contained the seeds for hundreds of story ideas and in particular broke down the wage gap. Compared to all workers:

•Black women earned 71 percent

•Hispanic women earned 62 percent
•White women earned 82 percent of what all men earned
•Asian women earned 95 percent
•White women to white men: 79 percent
•Black women to Black men: 94 percent
•Hispanic Women to Hispanic men: 90 percent
•Asian women to Asian men: 82 percent

     Read the rest of the report.  Absorb and dissect its contents. Among some of the stats are that women experience the highest poverty rates.It’s just that simple. If realities are denied, then the realities of the gender make-up of sources for the journalism is also denied.

•In 2011, only 27 percent of sources were female: The Gender Project
•In 2010, only 24 percent of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast, 76% – more than 3 out of 4 – of the people in the news are male: Global Media Monitoring Project
 
More from “Who Makes the News” on news  subjects:
-24 percent of the people heard or read on traditional platforms like newspapers, television and radio were female in the sample.
-23 percent of the news subjects on the 84 websites monitored were women.
•Story focus:
-13 percent of the news items in traditional media focus specifically on women.
-11 percent of the online news stories were centered around women.
•Authorship:
-41 percent of stories reported on traditional platforms were by female reporters in the same countries as the Internet pilot. Overall, 37 percent of stories in the whole sample were reported by women.
-36 percent of the news stories in the online samples were reported by women.
•Stereotypes:
-46 percent of the stories monitored in traditional media reinforced gender stereotypes, while only 6 percent challenged these stereotypes.
-42 percent of the online news stories were found to reinforce gender stereotypes and only 4 percent challenged them.

      OK, so it is quantified, and we are sick of reading the same old stories from the same bylines (PMS or pale, male and stale as my friends call it). Aren’t we sick of assigning and writing those stories too? 

I challenged the editors to go beyond the usual suspects and the same old thinking.  Come up with 100 story ideas today. Now.

Imagine a practice of journalism that involved consistently discovering news and stories by seeking new types of sources through academic, government, non-profit and grassroots organizations. Seek out stories that are hyperlocal, local, domestic or international with local ramifications. Beat the bushes to find story ideas that are citizen-driven and interactive. Learn from think tanks, centers on specific issues and trends. And for goodness sake, pay attention to what is happening out there in social media. And train every one of your staffers to be keenly observant.

It’s what I tell my students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University very quarter, whether in the Reporting & Writing or Multimedia Storytelling classes. I just talked about this yesterday in lab.

Stories looking at gender, family and marriage issues intersect with the economy in a myriad of ways. All you have to do is cast the net for news. Story ideas will swim in. You have to know what you’re looking for, not stop looking at what is there and not throw back a big fish when you can definitely use it in the future in a new way.
  
    According to the White House report, 18 percent of women 40-44 never had a child; 46 percent of women 25-29 never had a child. For me this is the reason Eat Pray Love sold a gazillion copies.   More older women are divorced or widowed. For me this is the reason Betty White and Helen Mirren are hot and hundreds of thousands of women nationwide are into Roller Derby, the latest fitness craze for “women  old enough to know better.”
       
This country has more single mothers and the highest poverty rates are women as heads of households. There is no end to the stories that can come from that sentence. Tell the single and married working mothers paying for childcare there is no wage gap and it is not impacting women and their children across the country.
 
Still, in all of this, I urged the editors in the conference room last weeek also not to just look for stereotypical woe-is-me, half-empty stories bemoaning the economy. I urged them to find inspirational,  multidimensional stories, and to write about the individuals and communities making a solid difference.  And tell the truth. See and report what is really there.
 
We’ll see what happens.
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The Storification Of America

 

Jim Houser with Obama

Robert and Gary Allen. Mrs. Waters of Bruce Randolph School. Kathy Proctor. James Howard. Jim Houser. Brandon Fisher. Not household names. Not celebrities. Not diplomats. All of these ordinary Americans were mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union speech 2011. These citizens shared prominence with Gabby Giffords, the late Robert Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, the Secretary of Defense, al Qaeda, the Taliban and Sputnik.

    The score is 7-7. Unofficial sources to offficial sources. Two presidents, a Congresswoman, a cabinet secretary, two terrorist movements and a Russian space capsule. All had the same number of mentions as four business owners, a school principal, a mom going back to school and a cancer patient.

    What does it mean? So what? What may have become overused in the 2008 presidential race with Joe the Plumber is more widely evident today in all media. Our culture embraces the anecdotal power of the humanistic stories of individuals. And nowhere was it more noticable than in Obama’s speech Tuesday night.

     As I stress to my journalism students at the Medill School at Northwestern University, the rise of unofficial sources needed to flesh out every news and feature story is undeniable. The age of “official source stenography” is dead. The president knows this better than anyone and capitalizes on it. When the president of the United States mentions real people as often as he names diplomats in his annual address, something big has happened.

   I call it the Storification of America.

    

 Thanks to crowdsourcing,  social media, blogging and all forms of participatory journalism, there is a demand for communication to be inclusive. Away from top-down to bottom up, all in. It’s not such a rosy we’re-all-in-this-together appraoch, rather, it is a basic shift in the way that we understand information and how we look at the world. It is in thanks to a media relying on more unofficial sourcing in its reporting to articulate the truths of events, trends and issues, than in taking the word at face value of the official sources with the titles.

      We not only as citizens want to testify, we want to storify. And I did not make up the name.

       Storify.com is a new aggregating tool for social media users and anyone and everyone wanting to connect to current mainstream media and to add reliable sources to their blogs. As I see it, it is an attempt to upgrade the blogosphere from the “my dog is sleeping right now and I am brushing my teeth” to a more professional, polished arena for links to real stories, real posts, real video,real  audio, real photos and commentary vetted and published elsewhere. I hope it punctures a hole in the balloon of hearsay.

     My 2008 book, Everyman News, dealt with the overwhelming prepronderance of unofficial sources in news stories in domestic newspapers, and the growth of that trend. And why. There are many reasons driving the cultural shift to honor the individual and to consider the sanctity of story as peculiar to our time and place. 

      The use of “story” as a brand is nearly ubiquitious. It’s even on my drive to work where a billboard for a local college begs viewers to log on to read “mystory.”    

     Obama ended his speech with a reminder of the depth of reliance we have on story in America. He said:

From the earliest days of our founding, American has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.

   We need to understand the growing storification of our lives as we move ahead as journalists, observers and contributors if any of this is going to make sense.

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Surgeon General Loves Reporters

Dr. Regina Benjamin, the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, has gone from being bothered by reporters to embracing the chance to be interviewed.

Speaking to an audience of about 100 in a half-filled auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago earlier this week, the first female African-American doctor whose job is to care for 300 million Americans admitted she used to hate when journalists would call.

“A reporter would call and say, ‘I want to interview you,’ and I was annoyed because I wanted to see patients,” said the former small-town family practice phyisician in Louisiana in her MacArthur Fellows Science Lecture.

But after one local article sparked a pile of letters from third graders who said they wanted to grow up and be like her, she changed her mind.

“Those articles were not about me,” Benjamin said, nodding to her sorority sisters in the audience from Delta Sigma Theta. “They were about them. I have been answering reporters ever since. You never know who is watching you. And with that comes responsibility.”

Sure, the former MacArthur Fellow spoke about major health issues facing Americans– obesity, poverty, sexually transmitted diseases, breastfeeding, substance abuse, violence and the overall healthcare system–  but her focus on personal responsibility for influencing the wider culture was what stuck. 

“I want to change the way we think about health,” Benjamin said to nods and applause. “We have to move from a system focusing on sick care to a system focused on prevention and wellness.”

Formerly criticized as someone who was not a lean example of perfect health, Benjamin said she considered walking as “taking medication,” and said her own walk in the Grand Canyon proved any and every American can become active.

Admitting “you can’t legislate behavior,” Benjamin was as patient answering audience questions ranging from the absurdly personal  to the contextually thoughtful, as she said she is from reporters.

Speaking about her own grandmother’s move to start an all-black church in Lousiana decades ago, Benjamin advocated for “servant leadership,” and her own model of “leadership from behind.” She explained that this philosophy centers on the notion that “you don’t forget to reach behind and pull someone else up. You also push them out in front of you and let them know you have their back. They will know you will not let them fall. ” 

It was an uplifting prescription for success and one I wish more from every profession would adopt.

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2010 and still not half the media world yet

A few weeks ago the American Society of Newspaper Editors Diversity Report came out with the latest depressing numbers. It’s worse now for women in newsrooms than it was last year. Thirty-seven percent of all newsroom employees were female in 2009, compared to 37.4 percent the year before. OK, not so much.

Except that I wrote about this in 2004 for womensenews  when the percentage of women in newswrooms was 37.23 percent. One step forward, a few steps back. Or maybe we are just running in place.  My lead then was:

 “Ambition defies the boundaries of gender. Opportunity is less democratic.”

I guess that could be my mantra.

There are the same percentage of women supervisors in newsrooms now as  in 2005– 34.8 percent, after a brief trend of minor increases. There are fewer women reporters, or 38.7 percent of  staff, compared to 39.1 percent in 2008. A woeful percentage of women are photographers, artists, videographers, or 26.9 percent, down from 27.1 percent in 2008.

 Recently businessinsider.com posted a story on the 12 most powerful women in new media, boasting that Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington and my old friend, Melinda Hennebeger, were part of a force of digital nature.   

Check out this breathless lede:

Media is not just a crotchety old man’s world. Women are making a huge impact, too.

As the media industry evolves, they are leading powerful companies, launching new ventures and redefining the future of journalism. And their success stories serve as models for those hoping to make a mark in this multi-faceted, risky business.

Isn’t it a little late in the 21st century to think it’s news that media is not just for men? I mean, how old is Brenda Starr? Seems condescending and a little ridiculous to keep saying it is not a man’s world. And a lot old.

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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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Everyman is Everywhere

In town visiting three students on Journalism Residency, I was driving past the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art yesterday. The banner flapping from the lightpost read: “SFMOMA, Your own narrative fills in the blanks.”

In my inbox, an email from Vogue (I buy it for the articles), urged me to “share my own Vogue story.” The text read: “Each month we tell you what inspires us, what moves us, and what takes our breath away. But now we want to hear from you. Share your Vogue story. Tell us how the magazine has been apart (sic) of your life.”

You really want my story?

My answer is that I see it in my mailbox every month,  take it out, flip through the pages and sometimes laugh at the gaunt 20 year-olds teetering in impossible heels with ratted wild wicked witch hair. Sometimes I take the fragrance inserts and rub them on my wrists. I read the profiles. Sometimes I see a pair of shoes that make me swoon.

But they are right, it is “apart” from my life. Not an integral part of my life. It is a magazine. And no matter how much I loved the movie, “Sepetember Issue,” I believe deep in my soul that Anna Wintour cares not a wink about my story.  The disingenuous attempt at inclusion feels false. No one wants Vogue to be about everywoman. For that I can look in the mirror.    

Still, it seems so many outlets want my story. Your story. Your narrative. Our narrative.

Each morning my Google Alerts for “everyman” include up to 20 entries of mentions from the trend toward “everyman” Oscars this year to pity for the downfall of Tiger Woods as Everyman. I don’t think so.

The overuse of the word and the notion of “we’re all in this together” supports my notion that we are immersed in a culture where the avergae citizen  is more appealing and newsworthy than an elite celebrity.

Sometimes the moniker is not deserved or sincerely applicable. Take Scott Brown, Republican’s No. 41. He is no Everyman for me, even though that has become his subtitled reference. Show me an everyman who poses for Cosmopolitan and wins a Senate seat. John Edwards was not an everyman either. He was a cheating slug.

Is he really an Everyman?

Pizza Hut and Comcast have everyman advertising campaigns, the late Walter Cronkite had everyman appeal, Barack Obama was an everyman and now not so much. Books, magazines, museums, ads, movies, pols, everyone and everything want to appeal to everyman.

Some of it I don’t buy. Some of it is just slapping a popular title on anything and everything.  Everyone is not an everyman.

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