The ABC is tracking its own gender bias in coverage. Maybe everyone should.

One of the most persistently overlooked groups in the news media is the biggest of all: women. ABC, says Gaven Morris, took an unflinching look at its own coverage — and vowed to do better. But the problems are systemic and not limited to ABC. Below, Morris lists tips for reporters, editors and news organisations on how to do better.

By Gaven Morris
ABC News Director

When first female Melbourne Cup winner Michelle Payne surged to her historic victory last November and used her post-race interview to tell her “chauvinistic” doubters to “get stuffed”, it seemed everyone in the media wanted to voice an opinion on it. And most of those voices belonged to men. In fact I was struck by the extent of the airtime and column inches devoted to males who apparently felt completely qualified to comment on the life experiences of a young female jockey.

Checklist for Change

  • Expand contact lists. Under time pressure, every journalist will tend to go back to the same sources they know are reliable talent. In slow(er) times, work on building your go-to list.
  • Distribute topics. Women’s voices should be heard on all topics, not just traditionally female ones such as work/life balance and child care.
  • Measure. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. News organisations that are serious about change need to keep data and track their progress.
  • Be transparent. Collecting data and then keeping it a dark secret won’t help drive change. We need to share our knowledge internally and externally.

Not that it’s unusual. Last year the latest report from the Global Media Monitoring Project found the proportion of women interviewed in Australian sport coverage for TV, radio or print was a barely detectable one per cent. For all types of news coverage, internationally and at home only about 24 per cent of the people seen, heard or read about were female, a level unmoved from five years earlier.

While much is changing in the media sector, one thing never seems to: white, middle-aged males continue to dominate in front of the cameras and microphones.

I have nothing against white, middle-aged males. I am one. But a media which primarily talks to people like me simply does not accurately reflect the world any of us live in. It’s unrepresentative, it’s inaccurate and it’s boring.

These days editorial leaders work hard to better reflect the diversity of the communities we cover, including talking to people from a variety of cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds. In ABC News, improving the diversity of voices in our news and current affairs is a front-of-mind goal.

Perversely, however, the main group that remains most persistently overlooked in the news media is the biggest one of all. Women. And as we mark International Women’s Day this month, with this year’s theme “Pledge for Parity”, it is an opportune moment to spotlight that.

While news organisations have made substantial progress behind the scenes in employing more women and promoting them to senior positions, when it comes to who we interview for our stories the news of the day is still largely coming from a male perspective, despite the increasing participation of women in public life.

These are some other recent examples of local and international findings:

  • The 2013 Women in Media Report by Women’s Leadership Institute Australia found female sources accounted for 20 per cent of all news commentary in Australia’s major metro and national newspapers. Its latest survey is due out this month.
  • An Auckland University of Technology study of New Zealand’s 2014 election coverage found that 71 per cent of sources used were male.
  • The US study “A Paper Ceiling”, published in October, found the ratio of male names to female across approximately 2000 English-language newspapers and online news websites over five years was nearly 5:1.

The research also consistently finds that men continue to be far more likely to be mentioned as experts or as main sources of news and women as “general public” sources.

Why are women so substantially underrepresented in media coverage? Partly because they are still underrepresented at the top of fields such as politics, business and sport. But it’s also to do with busy journalists needing to think more broadly and make the effort to inject fresh blood into their contact books.

It isn’t good enough to blame society and wait for it to change. At ABC News we recognise we need to take an industry leadership position in creating change. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so in 2014 we began an annual analysis of interviewees in our news and current affairs programs to see how our content compares to national population data.

Eight separate days are analysed from three weeks’ worth of news and current affairs content across TV, radio and online — more than 170 hours’ worth altogether. Interviewees are sorted into broad categories based on ethnicity and gender. The number of appearances and the time given to each appearance are recorded.

It is no exaggeration to say that the results of the inaugural 2014 study shocked us: 80 per cent of interview time was dedicated to men. Although that figure was in line with all other local and international findings, it is unacceptable.

The News Executive communicated these findings to editorial managers and teams. Encouragingly, simply making people aware of the imbalance has been enough to bring about a reasonable impact. In the second study, conducted last October, the percentage of women interviewees rose to 26 per cent.

Considering no target was set, that result was promising and displays a commitment to change. But clearly there is still much work to do.

You can see who talks the most on Q&A

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 11.06.07 AMFind the share of the discussion each panellist contributed on the Transcripts tab for each show (here’s the most recent example).

ABC News is now making greater diversity a requirement, aiming for 50/50 male/female representation in order to accurately reflect the population. We are talking more about the issue internally and externally, including being transparent with our numbers. For example, public affairs program Q&A has begun publishing “share of voice data” on its website, showing the percentage of time each panelist actually speaks each week.

Making ourselves publicly accountable is a necessary step to achieving change and becoming a relevant media organisation that truly represents all Australians. Not just the ones who look like me and think they know more than Michelle Payne about being a woman jockey.

Gaven Morris is director of news for ABC. Twitter: @gavmorris