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The news media has a woman problem

Nancy Isenson
March 8, 2018

Women make up over half the world's population, but you wouldn't know it from reading the news or watching TV. With women's voices put on mute, even at DW, the media can't claim to provide the whole picture.

A television newsroom
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Sitdikov/RIA Novosti

Science writer Ed Yong realized two years ago that his reporting was skewed. Inspired by fellow The Atlantic author Adrienne LaFrance, who had examined the gender imbalance in her writing, he analyzed his own work and found that in the 23 pieces he had written so far that year, only 24 percent of the people he quoted were women. He was convinced that it mattered and that he needed to change his ways.

"I think that it is the job of journalists to not just reflect what is going on in society, but also to have a responsibility in manifesting it," said Yong. "We create the world around us through the stories that we write as well as reporting on that world. Adrienne said it best in the piece when she said that she was actively contributing to a world in which women's voices were undervalued and their contributions were underplayed, and that's not a world that I want to either live in or contribute towards."

Read more: Berlin and beyond: Keep working, women

Though more than half of the world population is female, women and girls are heavily underrepresented in the media. It's not just that men dominate in the media industry, setting the agenda in editorial offices, producing reporting and expressing their opinions as experts, but they are also usually the protagonists of the stories being told.

Bad on women around the world

Yong's findings from his own work echo the situation in the media around the world. Women made up only 24 percent of the people heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news in 2015, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project's most recent report on gender inequality in the news. That's the same ratio as in GMMP's previous, 2010 report, and comparable to other studies on women's representation in the media. The statistics are similar for news websites, like DW.

An examination of our own English-language output showed DW News was above average but with plenty of room for improvement. Women were quoted as spokespeople, experts, protagonists or eyewitnesses in 29 percent of the 30 original articles published from February 1-10 by DW's online news team, which includes many of the people who contribute to the site. Our TV news team did better — 43 percent of the 255 interview partners were women over those 10 days.

A graphic showing the gender balance in DW News' English coverage

'Not my area of expertise'

American journalist Lauren Bohn has been grappling with the gender imbalance in the media since she moved to Egypt and began reporting from the Middle East. As the "Arab Spring" gripped the region, she was struck by the paucity of women in the stories she was reading about the popular uprisings.

Read more: Arab Spring revolutions don't reach women

"While there were so many women who could opine on Tahrir Square or Syria or Tunisia, for some reason in my own stories, as conscious as I was, and in other stories, the majority of the people being quoted were men, and the majority of the men being quoted were not only white men but were typically in Washington, DC, or New York City."

She began taking pains to include more women in her work. But she soon found that seeking out women to quote was simply not enough.

A woman wrapped in a headscarf attends a protest against the Tunisian government in 2011
Women's voices were missing from the coverage of the 'Arab Spring,' Lauren Bohn found Image: picture alliance/landov

"I remember asking an Egyptian woman, who had a Ph.D. from an Ivy League school and had done field research across the region, for general insight, and she told me, 'This isn't my area of expertise.' I remember saying, 'If this isn't your area of expertise, I don't know whose area of expertise it is.'

"Conversely, whenever I would call upon a man, he would position himself to not only give me a quote, but to mansplain the whole thing, and he would be ready to write a book proposal on something that just percolated an hour ago."

Those ideas drove Bohn and Turkish-American scholar Elmira Bayrasli to start Foreign Policy Interrupted, a fellowship program and an educational platform that seeks to change the ratio of men to women talking about foreign policy issues on the media. FPI brings together female journalists and experts with editors, producers, think tanks and conferences organizers and offers interview training and workshops on writing and pitching stories. Their weekly newsletter puts a spotlight on the work being done by women and dispels the argument that there are no female experts on, say, North Korea.

'15 more minutes to get women'

Yong set out to correct the male-to-female ratio in his work by tracking his progress on a spreadsheet as he hunted for the right people, the right women, to tell his stories. It took him a little more time, he said, roughly an additional 15 minutes searching for interview partners for each piece, but he said it hasn't been hard. After four months of putting in the extra effort, he was able to bring up the share of female voices to 50 percent.

Read more: What it's like teaching women English in a German prison

Here at DW, Richard Walker, head of News, said of our own male-female ratio: "It's not so much that we have a policy. It simply reflects DW's values that we aim to produce shows that are not a parade of men in suits.

"It is striking to see that our online numbers lag somewhat behind," he added. "We'll definitely take that as an impetus to look at how we report our online stories."

So what about this very article, which only scores 33 percent with quotes from one woman and two men? Well, women can't bring about change in the gender balance on their own, and men like Ed Yong say they shouldn't have to.

"I think that men should be taking responsibility for stuff like this in a serious way. If you consider that men outnumber women in newsrooms and face all kinds of structural advantages in the media, and the fact that male sources outnumber female ones, it does seem to logically point towards men having a disproportionate responsibility to rectify that balance."

Beyond responsibility, it's in men's interest too, according to Lauren Bohn.

"This isn't just for diversity's sake," she says. "When you include the expertise, the knowledge, the experiences of women, your product is going to be better. When you're more inclusive, it's good for everyone."

A bar chart showing the EU countries with the most women in leadership positions