Tuesday 17 September 2019

Media counting on gender balance

Vivian Schiller. Photo: Stephen Voss
Vivian Schiller. Photo: Stephen Voss
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Ros Atkins presents Outside Source on BBC World News. In January last year he started measuring the ratio of men to women on his show. His goal was equal gender representation on air, and there was one simple rule: always use the best guest.

"We're journalists who seek to report and explain the world and for us to do this as well as we can, women's perspectives deserve equal representation to men's," Atkins says. "If media organisations want their content to remain relevant and popular, making them very men-heavy looks an increasingly risky game."

In January 2017, 39pc of Outside Source's contributors were women. In February, with some effort, that rose to 44pc, and by April, 51pc of their contributors were women and they now average 52pc per month.

Logging the gender of the contributors, presenters and other participants on the show immediately after broadcast gave Atkins the realisation of the imbalance in his own programme. And the impetus to do something about it. Was it tough going to find new female contributors?

"The main challenge is contacts," Atkins says. "We need more women in our contacts and we need to be better at sharing the best contacts we have around the organisations. The other challenge is to make gender balance as important as political balance. That's a change of mindset for all of us, but we're seeing 50:50 as a start to change this from being an issue that we think about when we can, to one we think about every day. If we can achieve that the rest will follow."

What followed Atkins' initial efforts was a bump in ratings for Outside Source.

The programme is up 25pc in the UK in the last two years. The results were so impressive that over 80 shows are now taking part and the BBC has adopted the initiative across the organisation, and is promising an even split of contributors on all programmes by April 2019.

"We now have over 200 data sets being collected across the BBC from news to sport to factual to children's to science," Atkins says. "And we're also in talks with a number of media organisations in Europe and the US and we soon hope to announce a group of organisations that are coming together to use 50:50's methodology and to support each other to reach 50pc women's representation in the content we make."

One of the US media heavyweights helping spread the word about the 50:50 project is Vivian Schiller, pictured, a long-time media executive who has held senior roles in The New York Times, NPR, Twitter and NBC News. Schiller is now CEO of the Civil Media Foundation, a new blockchain platform for journalism. She's also a keen proponent of gender balance in the media, and wants to make Atkins's 50:50 plan big in America.

"There's a lot of work to be done in US media," Schiller says. "We're talking about broadcasting, cable news, digital pure plays, legacy print, radio, local, national blogs. So it's impossible to make any kind of sweeping statement that involves everyone. But if I were to draw one broad conclusion, I would say women are not represented enough in American news media. It seems clear to me that women are not even close to being represented in the 50:50 manner across American television, online or radio programming." Schiller is using her experience and contacts to evangelise for the 50:50 initiative and introduce Atkins's experiment to the right people at the right levels of American news organisations. And she's telling them to focus on the data. "Data is power," she says.

"What I love about 50:50 is that step one is 'don't think, just count'. The very act of counting and measuring raises people's awareness and has an impact. So if I could say one thing to American media, it would be just count.

"There needs to be equal representation of women at every level of media organisations and advertising organisations; at the executive level; at the creative level; at the production level," Schiller says. "There needs to be equal pay. Then we need to talk about representation and diversity beyond gender. These are conversations that have been happening in media for decades. It's hard to get meaningful traction, because it's so overwhelming what needs to get done. So a lot of people talk and talk and put out mission statements, but it's just too hard to get everything done.

"Is 50:50 the answer to every problem around representation?

"No, of course not. But it is one thing for which there is absolutely no excuse why it can't happen.

"So let's start here, and show progress as opposed to so much wheel spinning."

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