Jessica Goodfellow
Dec 15, 2020

Representation and balance in the newsroom thrown into spotlight

Covid-19 has both exacerbated the imbalance of news and undermined the legitimacy of many news organisations. In this critical environment, Campaign speaks to the BBC, Bloomberg and CNN on the measures they have in place to address balance and representation.

Representation and balance in the newsroom thrown into spotlight

As legitimate news across the world has been undermined by a pandemic-induced misinformation crisis in 2020, newsrooms have been forced to review their practices. With journalism under intense scrutiny, resources have been poured into fact-check divisions, and as politics has become more polarised, newsrooms have more carefully reviewed their balance.

A major determinant of balanced coverage that accurately reflects the diversity of thought and experience of the public is the diversity of the newsroom. Journalists may strive to report without bias and opinion. Some journalists even relinquish their right to vote to maintain their impartiality. But everyone is bound by their lived experiences—a writer's income, race, enthnicity, sexuality, disability and more may inform how they choose to question a politican, write a lede or spike a story.

"It matters who reports a story, who edits that content, who is in charge of deciding where that story plays and on what platform—as well as whose voices and perspectives we turn to in order to determine what stories to tell and how to tell them," says Bloomberg’s senior executive editor Laura Zalenko, based in New York.

The diversity of the newsroom "absolutely makes a difference in terms of how we determine what stories to write and how to write them", Zalenko adds.

The diversity of a news organisation's contributors or interviewees further informs the balance of its coverage. This is interwoven with the makeup of staff—media companies that actively seek a diverse editorial team are more likely to have a more even gender representation of sources.

Take Bloomberg as an example. Prior to introducing a formal initiative on the balance of its sources, women accounted for just 10% of guests on Bloomberg TV globally, and female experts were cited and quoted in about 2.5% of the top featured stories on its Terminal platform. Two years after launching its New Voices initiative—in which it tracks, reports and sets targets against the proportion of female voices it features—those figures have raised to 27% and 20% respectively. Bloomberg is targeting 50% representation across all its platforms.

In tandem, it has introduced recruitment, development and retention initiatives aimed at helping elevate women in the newsroom, including career-development programs and a senior editor workshop for women to address a dearth of female editors handling its most ambitious stories. It's no coincidence that the number of women being promoted at Bloomberg globally comes hand-in-hand with a better representation of voices across its platforms—diversity often (but not always) trickles down.

Covid-19 has exacerbated the imbalance of news. A report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in September found that in news coverage of the crisis, each woman's voice was “drowned out” by at least three men. The study covered the UK, US, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and India, and found that across the six countries only 19% of experts quoted in highly ranked coronavirus stories were women, compared with 77% of men.

Often, the disproportionate number of male voices quoted in journalism comes down to reporters returning to the same, reliable sources for stories. To address this, Bloomberg has built a database for its journalists that now includes more than 6,000 names of female experts in business and finance.

Bloomberg has also sponsored a media training program for female executives in cities around the world, including Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney, to equip more female experts with the skills and the confidence to be interviewed in media reports.

Bloomberg is not the only news organisation that has recognised the importance of representative sources. The BBC launched a 50:50 project in April 2018 to encourage news organisations to monitor and set targets against the proportion of female sources they quote. Several broadcasters, including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in the US, ABC News in Australia and TVNZ in New Zealand, have embedded 50:50 tracking in their newsroom. The initiative was expanded this year to include ethnicity and disability data. The BBC's director-general Tim Davie has set diversity targets for black, Asian and minority-ethnic (20%) and disability (12%) representation.

Liz Gibbons, the head of news at BBC World News says: "Diversity is really important for the BBC, both within and outside of our newsrooms. As a global organisation, we aim to reflect the varied nature of our audience and are in a fortunate position to have access to a diverse pool of talent and journalists with local expertise from a wide range of regions. The BBC has created a clear plan to further enhance our diversity, with a number of initiatives in place to help achieve our ambitious targets."

BBC Global News also has an initiative, called 'Project Springboard', to provide job opportunities to people from diverse backgrounds without the need for any previous experience and with a simplified application process. Across the organisation's Singapore, Sydney and London offices, seven young people have completed six-month placements with BBC Global News. Of those, one has been hired full-time in the BBC's product development team.

BBC StoryWorks' Kimberly Giacon, who is the lead of Project Springboard, explains: "It is our ambition that Project Springboard builds a network of enthusiastic, ambitious and skilled young people who will go on to have exciting careers in the media industry and provide Global News with a broader range of insights, perspectives and creative approaches vital for future growth."

CNN president Jeff Zucker signalled the importance of diversity and inclusion to the organisation in July 2019, when Johnita Due was appointed to the executive team as SVP and chief diversity and inclusion officer. Due, who reports directly to Zucker, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific the news organisation has made a "sincere commitment, across all screens and behind-the-scenes, to develop our people and use our diverse voices to strengthen our content".

Part of this ambition is through hard measures, like improving the representation of people of colour in senior roles through internal mobility and development programs. Beyond this, Due has introduced an internal programme called Connected Conversations, in which staff share their personal experiences connected to stories in the news. The aim is to cultivate employee engagement and connectivity. But in some cases, actionable solutions have been uncovered. Due shares that in one session covering Asian and Asian-American voices, CNN's on air and behind-the-scenes colleagues discussed how they and their communities have been impacted by the rampant racism and xenophobia against Asians during the pandemic. They also discussed how Asians can be more included in coverage about race and other stories, and how to improve advocacy and representation in the industry. 

"What is very striking to me in my role is the enthusiasm with which our employees of all backgrounds have embraced this," Due says. "This has to be a long-term commitment, and I think there is real determination that we stick with it as a company."

CNN's APAC SVP and managing editor, Ellana Lee, says the diversity of CNN's on-air and behind-the-camera staff in the region has been critical to the success of its coverage on a global stage.

"We’re in eight cities across the region, which brings with it a natural, instinctive disposition to knit diversity into our storytelling," Lee says. "In terms of Asian voices, we’re able to draw on the vast experience of on-air talent like Kristie Lu Stout in Hong Kong, as well as more recent arrivals like Vedika Sud in New Delhi and Selina Wang in Tokyo. Diversity is also critical behind the camera, and we’ve been very successful in identifying new local talent to expand our pipeline." Yong Xiong, who joined CNN from Beijing in 2018 and was recently awarded Young Talent of the Year by the Association for International Broadcasting, is a perfect example, she says, adding that the new talent is "an enormously gifted producer who added a unique dimension to our coverage this year".

"This is not something new for us," Lee adds. "We’ve been building out our regional strength for many years and that’s reflected in our global coverage, where Asian stories have been elevated effectively across CNN’s platforms. It’s also about viewing international stories through an Asian prism, and we bring that perspective into the global mix for the network too."

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