Why we all lose when women are excluded from the news

By Melanie Walker, WAN-IFRA Media Development Director and Women in News Executive Director

Today, the 8thof March, the news media will recognise and celebrate the successful women in their midst. But as media, it is also a moment to focus on our own gender-related challenges.

The persistent under-representation of women in our newsrooms and our news reports is a problem. It matters to the communities we serve and the individuals we employ that this is addressed, urgently. 

We have work to do if we are to #breakthebias.

Those consuming news want to identify with the people they read about. So why are women and their perspectives still overshadowed or missing from news content? What can we do about it?

WAN-IFRA Women in News is a media industry initiative to tackle under-representation through improved leadership. We want more women to be written about, to be used as authoritative sources and indeed to be hired as journalists, and to contribute to leadership teams of news organisations. We know gender balance makes for more inclusive and equitable societies. 

At the core of our change programme is the philosophy that you need to track and measure the problem if you are to know it and fix it. And the simplest way to do this is to count. 

Two years ago, WAN-IFRA Women in News started to work on an initiative with the media partners in our Advisory programme who had committed to improving the gender balance in their organisations and in the content they produce. We introduced a tracking exercise to analyse their news content regularly, looking at four key indicators: Prominence of women, women as main characters, women as authors, and women as sources.  

More than 6,000 articles from 29 partners were reviewed, with regular reports delivered to these media organisations to allow them to assess their own performance in this area. 

The results underscore the need for more self-reflection and action. In 2020, our gender balance tracking gave us a baseline average score of 19.8% across all four indicators. This trailed global averages, which have been stuck at 25% for the past 10 years. Results from our Advisory partners in 2021 showed little improvement across the board, with an overall average of 20.13%. 

Some good news

The 2021 average masks some encouraging improvements within individual indicators and regions.

Between 2020 and 2021, our African media partners increased the prominence of women in stories from 20.83% to 23.40%. Women as main characters also increased, from 17.70% to 20%. Perhaps most encouraging – women as news sources made the most significant leap, from 15% to 23.5%. 

The proportion of women bylines decreased year on year from 25% to 23.5%. 

Results for the Arab Region were mixed, with an overall increase of women as sources nudging upward from 14% to nearly 17% year on year. All other indicators, however, showed a decrease year on year. 

Results for the Arab Region were mixed, with an overall increase of women as sources nudging upward from 14% to nearly 17% year on year. All other indicators, however, showed a decrease year on year.

 

These mixed results show that new obstacles can frustrate progress. The downward trend of women’s voices in the news is particularly disturbing. The reasons for this decrease are unknown. Time will tell if this trend is tied in any way to the two-year pandemic. However, it is vital that we actively try to reverse this trend and #breakthebias.

Practical approaches include training and sensitisation on unconscious bias, the usage of gender-inclusive language and reporting practices. Tracking content to both assess the scale of the imbalance and provide a benchmark to measure progress or decline is key. Organisations such as the BBC have adopted a simple process to track their inclusion of women and visible minorities in their news stories through their highly effective BBC 50/50 project. 

Today, we at Women in News have released an automated gender balance tracker tool to help individuals and news organisations understand their blind spots. This tool is now available in English and will soon be available in Arabic.

Users, be they organisational or individual, can track and analyse their content against the four indicators and produce progress reports. Practical manuals and toolkits are also available to support newsrooms’ internal editorial guidelines. 

Humans are hardwired to be biased. It takes conscious effort to recognise this bias and pro-actively work to overcome it. The first step is to understand the depth of the problem. The second is to take concrete action to be more inclusive – make a concerted effort to find women or visible minorities as experts and sources in your stories, check oneself for stereotypical or biased language – and editor –  make sure you are equitable in your story assignments.  While the road to equity is long, together we can #breakthebias.

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