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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Diversity Toolbox

Investigative reporting opens to more women

By Sally Lehrman

Brace yourself. Reports on women and people of color in the news tend to depress. But the latest compilation of data may coax you into a tiny bit of a smile.

Investigative reporting, that high-status bastion of male dominance in the news business, is opening up, according to data in the Women's Media Center's The Status of Women in the Media 2013 report. In fact, in two highly regarded investigative operations, the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, the report says, “women had an edge.”

At the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch, women produced 10 percent more bylines than men, according to a six-month byline count in 2012. About half of the Center for Investigative Reporting staff is female and one-third, people of color.

“If you work in an organization that values ideas, which we do, when people come from different backgrounds it just widens your idea pool and your sensitivity pool,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director. “I don’t like staffing with all white guys.”

(Disclosure: Rosenthal participates in the Executive Roundtable on Digital Journalism Ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center, where I work.)

At ProPublica, the Women’s Media Center “edge” was just 1 percent, with nearly 44 percent of articles by women compared with 43 percent by men (the rest were shared bylines or “other”). I’d call that even. ProPublica executives explained that in investigative reporting, bylines ebb and flow as reporters dig into long-term projects, then start reporting results. Compare this data to Politico and Slate, which both turned in half as many female bylines as male ones. The proportion of female staff at ProPublica, including administration, is 44 percent, or 22 out of 50 people.

Robin Fields, who became managing editor of the investigative shop in January, says she makes an effort to encourage women’s voices because it leads to better, more interesting stories. “People see things differently out of their own experience. Also, they ignore things from the prism of their own experience,” she said. Consider the Women’s Media Center data on sourcing: Among NPR journalists, women used males and females almost equally as sources, while men turned to other men 80 percent of the time.

“All (types of) diversity will make sure you’re not missing huge swaths of stories and parts of society,” Fields said.

Such ideas aren’t controversial, but women’s bylines tend to be sparse in politics, opinion and especially sports, the other areas the Women’s Media Center included in its meta-analysis of studies of women in the media. Women also come up missing as writers for top magazines. Nearly three-quarters of writers for The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Nation in 2012 were men; The New Republic and Harper’s barely let women in the door, with bylines close to 84 percent male.

From a staffing perspective, women remain stubbornly short of parity in print and broadcast newsrooms at 37 percent, and in the online arena, possibly much worse — no one seems to be counting.

Yet females have the edge as users of social media, that community engagement space that news media covet. The Women’s Media Center cites a 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey that found that women have been significantly more active on social networking sites than men for the past four years. They access social sites more often than men by using a smartphone. Yet at least on mobile devices, they’re not looking for news. If more news operations took Rosenthal’s approach to diversity, which seems to incorporate priorities both practical and ethical, perhaps this could change.

Despite the challenges facing women, the situation for journalists of color appears much worse. Minorities make up a little over 12 percent in print-focused newsrooms, according to the American Society of News Editors. Numbers at online operations are all over the map, but out of the 68 that reported to ASNE, 41 had no minority staffers at all.

In that light, ProPublica doesn’t look too bad in reporting to ASNE that just 15 percent of its staff is African- American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American or multiracial. “In this regard, we continue to make progress on diversity and consider it a priority, but we’re not yet satisfied with where we are,” ProPublica’s Fields wrote in an email.

Rosenthal’s advice for journalists looking for a job: Look at the organization. If the staff is nearly all white or all men, you may not like working there. Or it may be looking for change. “I think you should ask that question,” he said. “Are you interested in diverse hiring? Is this a company I can be comfortable in?”

For managers, Rosenthal has sobering words. If you don’t seek diversity in your hiring, he said, “you’re hurting journalism, you’re hurting your understanding of communities, and hurting the potential of your stories to have impact. It has to come from the top.”

Sally Lehrman is a Senior Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Email her at slehrman[DOT]markkula AT gmail[DOT]com.

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