Get the Data and Get it Done: How to Tackle Gender Imbalance in Newsrooms

A comparative study by the European Journalism Observatory (EJO) revealed what has been obvious all along, but now it has some tough numbers to back it up. 41% of all stories published in eleven countries’ major newspapers were written by men and only 23% by women.

This is not just another report about gender inequality, it is about what our daughters are learning as they grow up — that it’s still a man’s world. In the eleven European countries covered by the EJO study, 41% of all stories were written by men and only 23% by women, the rest was mainly news agency material.

The authors wrote: “News coverage in Europe is overwhelmingly dominated by male journalists and commentators, who spend much of their time writing about other men.” Only in Portugal did bylines by women exceed those by men. Italy and Germany came in last — by the way, the second devastating analysis about gender equality in Germany published this week.

And it gets worse. In the newspapers and news websites that were analysed, only 15% of pictures showed women by themselves — and this included every female who made it into print or on screen, from German chancellor Angela Merkel to the barely-clad fashion model. In contrast, 43% of pictures showed just men.

Now please don’t anybody dare call this a pipeline problem. There are plenty of female journalists and often they even outnumber men, which is no coincidence either. This is newsroom culture. Like almost everywhere else in the business world, news organizations reward those who belong to the dominant group and behave accordingly, other talent doesn’t get seen. But journalism isn’t just any industry.

Journalism is supposed to represent society and be its voice, at least in democracies. Journalists filter images, facts, quotes and opinion – – they decide who gets a say. And they pride themselves on doing this job much better than algorithms. Only here is the catch, for while it’s important to question algorithmic choice, sometimes editorial choice can be just as bad or even worse. In the 2017 Digital News Report of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, an alarming 54 of respondents said they’d prefer news selection by algorithms to choices made by editors. Looking at the EJO study, who can blame them?

This is a call to action, if journalism doesn’t want to lose its credibility. And yes, there are ways to tackle this challenge. First, editors need to make sure that women are equally represented across all hierarchy levels, particularly in the prestigious genres.

But this alone doesn’t help. Many female journalists learn their skills in a male environment and adjust their work accordingly. This doesn’t make room for the new perspectives that people are attracted by, a critical mass of constructive dissenters is needed. No story the Financial Times ever published online was more read than an undercover report about hostesses being groped at a prestigious fundraising event. Women have an increasing say in the FT newsroom, and it shows.

Second, get the data! The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, for example, monitors the percentage of male and female coverage with a dashboard. They even invented a bot that points out to every single author how balanced their stories are along gender lines. Awareness is key, problems need to be acknowledged to get solved. And to solve them, clear targets are essential.

Third, newsrooms need to debate their values and think critically about their products. A distorted male/female ratio is a good indicator for a distorted view on society. If news is all about winning and losing, it’s most likely losing out on the people who don’t even show up for the game. Journalism needs to focus more on things that matter to citizens in their daily lives. Otherwise audiences tune out. According to the Digital News Report, 29% are already doing so.

Outside of the news media, the world is full of women. We need to show them to our daughters — and to our sons.

This column was first published in NewsMavens on May 18th, 2018