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Reflections for journalists who say they can’t find women (especially women of color) as sources, columnists and pundits

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

June 15th, 2008

Something struck me as I glanced at the ten posts listed on the front page of WIMN’s Voices today: eight of the ten posts were written by women of color. While this isn’t particularly out of the ordinary here, it certainly offers a good rebuttal to media outlets that blame the near invisibility of women of color in news on a supposed lack of qualified people to plug into various media slots.

As moderator of the recent “There Is No Media Justice Without Women: Strategies for Feminist Social Justice Media Activism” session at the 2008 National Conference on Media Reform, one of the things I discussed (partial audio here) was how WIMN’s POWER (Perspectives Of Women Expand Reporting) Sources Project exists to help amplify the quantity and diversity of women’s voices appearing in the public debate. This project was founded as a sort of win-win strategy for improving women’s representations in the media: we help journalists find well-informed experts for stories about everything from public policy to plumbing, and the happy byproduct is that news consumers don’t always have to understand “expert” as synonymous with “male” (or “white”). Why is this important? Because too many news outlets — not only corporate media, but some of our progressive and independent publications as well — still marginalize women as sources and experts in their stories, as decision-makers on the mastheads and as commentators on the op-ed pages. This is especially true for women of color, whose opinions are largely invisible in the pundit class.

When questioned about this persistent shutting out of women’s voices — and especially the perspectives of women of color — as sources, experts, op-ed writers and pundits, many profit-minded corporate news outlets and many well-intentioned indy press editors alike tend to offer a routine stable of answers:

A. We’d love to have a woman expert for this story, but there aren’t enough women in [insert whatever field is the subject of the news story or the op-ed] so we can’t find any good female sources or guests on [insert almost any topic other than child care, abortion, rape, fashion or celebrity/lifestyle];

B. We’d love to have more women as commentators, but our shows “are not having long discussions about issues that are not at the forefront of the agenda” and “the object here is to deliver the news, not to get women on the air.” (Because media have no role in determining what’s at “the forefront of the agenda” and, alternately, women’s concerns are necessarily marginal? So, there are “newsmakers,” and then there are women? Who knew they were mutually exclusive?);

C. We’d love to have more women on our op-ed pages, but op-eds are combative and women are more hesitant about expressing their opinions (ie, “Women don’t shout. Women don’t like politics. Women shrink from intellectual debate. Women don’t try,” as Katha Pollitt astutely summed up — the handily debunked — here);

D. We’d love to have more women sources/writers/guests, but we just don’t have time to find them.

(Unlike with the link-happy bullets A - C, I’ll offer no link in bullet D to a handy-dandy article I or other media critics have written challenging this notion. Where the first three are lazy, intentionally or unintentionally biased excuses for bad journalistic practices, the problem of time is real, and it’s another negative byproduct of media consolidation. I’ve heard this frustration over and over again from good journalists — many of them women — who see the value in producing more print and broadcast journalism that more fully represents the cross-section of Americans’ expertise and opinions, but who are nevertheless stuck in downsized newsrooms and are doing the best they can to churn out ever more content with less time, less money and fewer resources to devote to newsgathering, with little to no time to devote to diversifying their rolodexes, go-to columnists roster, and op-ed staffs. The result: overreliance on a tired, old cabal of the same mostly male, mostly white sources that they’ve been calling for years, often to the chagrin of the very journalists doing the calling.)

But, here’s the good news:

There is no shortage of articulate, provocative, intellectually challenging women out there who could and should be represented as contributors and sources for corporate and independent media alike — women who never shy away from expressing their opinions, women who are nearly endless wells of important information and insights, women who are experts in a huge array of fields, from traditionally understood “women’s issues” such as sexual violence, reproductive justice and health and body image, to the “hard news” stories that have traditionally been defined as male-oriented, such as global economics, war and prison reform. And make no mistake – when I say that there is no shortage of ready-for-primetime female information-providers and opinion-leaders in this country, I’m talking about women of color and white women alike, not just the latter.

The best news of all? It doesn’t take extensive resources to find them.

How do I know? Because for more than two years, WIMN’s Voices (and Women In Media & News, the six-year-old non-profit media analysis, education and advocacy group that hosts this blog) has brought you the writing of an incredibly diverse forum of women where dozens of always informative, often provocative, intellectually challenging media analysts and media activists have regularly weighed in on more than fifty news beats, listed in the column on the left. These are powerful thinkers with impressive resumes, as you can see by clicking through any random sample of “profile” links listed next to their names in the column on the right.

Here’s the truth: if WIMN (an organization so low-budget that we can’t afford to pay full time staff, have an office, or compensate our bloggers for their labor) can do it — “it” being the supposedly impossible act of assembling a diverse slate of qualified, outspoken, well-informed women with something to say — then certainly producing gender equitable journalism that is also proportionally representative of the racial diversity of our country shouldn’t be outside the scope of corporate news institutions such as the New York Times or NBC or Fox News. And it shouldn’t be outside the scope of our undeniably underresourced, well-intentioned alternative press, either, because I can assure you that no matter how little funding The Nation, The Progressive and the Utne Reader receive, WIMN has less. Lots less. Laughably less. Trust me.

So, to all those journalists who have utilized WIMN’s POWER Sources or featured WIMN’s Voices bloggers in their stories because they know that news can only improve when women’s perspectives are included: thank you. (Thank you also to those reporters, editors and producers who feature women equitably in their stories without any help from WIMN, but just as a matter of course.)

And to all you reporters, editors and producers who would like to include more women and people of color as experts in your news stories, writers on your op-ed pages and guests on your TV and radio news shows (we know many of you read this blog), remember the women of WIMN’s Voices when you wonder where to find dynamic new voices to feature. Next time you think, “Where are the women?” — they’re here. And they’re members of the POWER Sources Project (contact WIMN and we’ll be happy to connect you with any blogger you read here, or one of hundreds of experts from our national network of sources). And they’re responsible for many of the sites in the blogroll at the right.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

[UPDATE: I didn’t write this post intending to ask you for your support. But a reader just emailed me and asked how to support our work. In light of that request, I’d like to suggest that if you value WIMN’s efforts to help journalists diversify their news, and if you support our work to amplify women’s voices in public debate both in print and broadcast media as well as in this independent media blog, please support WIMN today as generously as you can. We truly cannot do it without you.]

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