Concordia University Department of Journalism

In fall 2019, 11 journalists-in-training were watching New York Times editor Amy Padnani’s Ted Talk about Overlooked, a project highlighting “remarkable people” whose lives had gone uncovered in the paper of record’s obituary section “dominated by white men.” The students, then completing an intermediate reporting class for the graduate diploma in journalism at Concordia University, decided to take the cue and start monitoring for similar imbalances in their own reporting throughout the semester.

The educational experiment was a work in progress where the students mostly set the parameters while assistant professor Amélie Daoust-Boisvert supervised. Their goal: to make sure that 40 to 50 per cent of their sources in upcoming stories were women. In a shared spreadsheet, they began to list every person they interviewed or quoted. The students were eager to see what data tracking would reveal about their own journalism, a practice that is picking up steam to foster accountability about whose stories are told and whose voices are valued in the news media. 

By December, the spreadsheet was over 150 lines long: 45 per cent women, 54.3 per cent men, and 0.7 percent other/trans/non-binary. Even students making conscious efforts toward reflecting the gender diversity of the population didn’t get all the way there in one term, but they did outperform many other news outlets. 

The Global Media Monitoring Project has tracked women quoted in news stories globally since 1995. It found that 24 percent of news subjects in 2015 were women. Coverage of COVID-19 has proven to be no exception, with a June article from online science magazine Undark showing that “male voices (are) dominating the pandemic narrative.” 

In 2019, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star participated in pilot projects to increase the gender diversity of sources. What resulted was Reflect Reality, a set of resources to “advance the voices of women in the news.” 

In 2015, Informed Opinions —  a non-profit advocacy organization founded in 2010 that is is working to achieve “gender parity” among media sources — commissioned another study that found only 29 per cent of sources quoted by influential Canadian news media were women. In addition to offering training and resources, the organization has built databases of women experts to make it easier for journalists to find qualified sources. Laura Shine and Maïka Sondarjee helped launch the French counterpart of Informed Opinions, Femmes Expertes, in 2017. 

While these practice updates have been touted by various organizations and increasingly used by some newsrooms on a voluntary basis, they are often employed with a binary frame on gender diversity and don’t always factor in other facets of identity, as incremental progress on diversity has historically led to gains for white cisgender women. 

But so far, focused, sustained attention on diversity in sourcing leads to results. 

“Bringing any change in the newsrooms starts in our classes,” says Daoust-Boisvert.

The students’ coverage of the federal electoral campaign posed a challenge since the majority of candidates were men.  But, although the list of possible subjects she handed out for an obituary assignment named as many women as men, she found that seven of the 10 students chose a male public figure. 

The experiment highlighted the benefits of raising awareness about source diversity in journalism schools, but also pointed to areas for improvement regarding the method to achieve it. After this first improvised experience, Daoust-Boisvert will require self-identification from sources for future projects. Some students were comfortable asking their sources to self-identify, or for their preferred pronouns. But others weren’t, nor did they know how to address other pressing issues about underrepresented groups in the news and complex issues around identity and race.

But the class’s pilot education experiment drove the exploration of how consciously tracking source diversity affects coverage. A small team of students in the class, co-authors of this story — Holly, Martin, Lucie and Meriem — spoke with some of the Québec reporters who are also pushing for change.

Solutions for a balanced narrative in the media

Reporter Hayley Juhl set a pile of newspapers on her desk at the Montreal Gazette, opened a notebook and counted the number of women and men quoted by her colleagues over a two week-period. 

Just like Juhl, a growing number of journalists are waking up to the issue.

Juhl heard about the BBC 50:50 Project when attending the Online News Association Conference in 2019. She thought it seemed “so cool and easy.”

The 50:50 Project is a network-wide voluntary endeavour at the BBC intending to increase women’s representation in their content. Thousands of BBC journalists from radio, TV and digital have jumped on board since the project’s inception in 2017. 

The idea: note the number of reporters and contributors of each gender appearing in a day and challenge your team to count 50 per cent women at the end of the month.

“I came back fired up,” says Juhl who is also the Diversity/Equity Member of media union CWA Canada’s executive committee. “I started it in my newsroom and it’s working.”  

Juhl focuses on the print edition of the Gazette, highlighting names in a two-week sample of newspapers monthly. She looks at anyone that shows up in the stories, marking down if they are male, female or non-binary. Like the BBC, she skips people whom the story can’t do without. 

“If it’s a newsmaker, let’s say, Trudeau, I don’t count,” she says. The tally also excludes women victims of crimes. 

Juhl’s strategy rests on providing her colleagues with feedback and encouragement too. According to her, the newsroom has responded favourably. And her efforts pay off.

From the first tally in September 2019 until November 2019, she noticed an increase to 42 from 29 per cent women in stories. For unknown reasons, the number was down to 34 per cent in January 2020. 

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic might have posed additional challenges to overwhelmed reporters. In April, she counted that 40 percent of sources in the newspaper were women. “Many were nurses, caregivers and family members of people who are sick. Doctors, officials and spokespeople were overwhelmingly male.” 

But Juhl remains optimistic. “The project is still on people’s minds because they do go out of their way to let me know when they’ve purposely chosen,” she says. Even better,  wrote the always cheerful Juhl to the newsroom in February, “[the pandemic] is a great opportunity to raise the voices of female scientists.”

Beyond gender

Most who are fighting gender gaps know the exercise has to go further.

“In mainstream media, there aren’t many women of colour with important platforms,” says Dalila Awada, co-host of the QUB radio podcast Pigments forts and columnist at Journal Métro.

She discusses the added burdens of fielding disproportionately hostile reactions from audience members to women featured in the media. 

From workplace discrimination to harassment from readers, viewers and listeners, and navigating traditional standards of the profession designed to serve and cater to white audiences, sustained accounts of systemic racism in Canadian newsrooms have put the spotlight on working conditions for racialized media workers.

Even when newsrooms include people of colour and women, “it’s as if we wanted them to play a certain role, one that’s positive and stays away from controversial topics,” says Awada. 

But podcasts, she says, allow her to reach a new audience with an open mind.

“We believe what gets measured gets done.”

For Informed Opinions founder Shari Graydon, both journalism and representation are fundamental to democracy. “The common default to middle-aged, cisgendered, heterosexual, university-educated, affluent white male sources doesn’t serve the interests of our multicultural country,” she says. 

In February 2019, Informed Opinions partnered with the Discourse Processing Lab at Simon Fraser University to launch the Gender Gap Tracker.

Graydon explains it is a text-based analytics tool that tracks in real time the ratio of men and women sources being quoted by journalists in Canada’s seven most influential news platforms. “It makes the data public so people can better appreciate the gender gap in our public discourse,” she says. The tool uses natural language processing and machine learning techniques to assess the source’s gender. 

“We believe what gets measured gets done,” says Maite Taboada, director of the Discourse Processing Lab. 

According to Graydon, some journalists have argued that the Gender Gap Tracker doesn’t reflect their performances in the newsroom.

“Younger reporters and newsrooms that are especially diverse tend to be less surprised about the numbers,” she says. “But journalists at a few of the more established private sector legacy media players have challenged the accuracy of the research, resisting the story it tells about how chronically overrepresented men’s perspectives are.”

However, according to the team, the percentage of women being quoted has increased by four per cent since the launch in February 2019.

“That may sound like a very small margin, but our research has found that women’s perspectives increased by only five per cent in the 26-year period between 1993 and 2019,” says Graydon. The results are partly driven by the quoting of high-profile female public health officers during the COVID-19 crisis. But the database of women experts has seen a three-fold increase of inquiries over a year. “We’re very encouraged.” 

The other side of the coin is that there is very little data on newsroom composition and staffing, a problem that various advocates, researchers and organizations are working to address, including the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour partnership and Ryerson journalism professors Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah (J-Source’s editor-in-chief).

Other research initiatives to encourage greater reflection on sourcing practices are ongoing. The Journalism Representation Index (or JeRI Project), based at Ryerson and spearheaded by Malik and Gavin Adamson, will use machine learning to assess how reporters frame power and expertise in news coverage of racial profiling by police. Duncan McCue, host of Cross Country Checkup and journalism instructor, offers resources to help reporters diversify their source lists and increase inclusion of Indigenous experts. 

J-Source’s Gender Diversity in Canadian Journalism Project confirmed that cisgender women, non-binary and transgender journalists still contend with unequal pay, barriers to career advancement and harassment in the workplace. 

Ninety per cent of respondents were cisgender women and 73 per cent identified as white.

The challenge of broadcasting 

In 2015, a contributor to La Sphère — Radio-Canada Première’s Moteur de recherche host Matthieu Dugal’s previous show — pointed out that the program was falling short on gender representation. That’s when Dugal decided to start tracking. 

The team began to track the number of women appearing on each weekly show. Six months later, they achieved gender parity.

And they maintained it in every show Dugal has hosted since. He admits that it sometimes requires more work, but it also means that the pool of experts he can rely on has grown larger. 

Étienne Larrivée-Roy, head researcher at Radio-Canada Première radio show, Pénélope, says that the team has strived for a diverse array of guests and contributors from the beginning. “Inclusivity and diversity are core values for us,” he explains. Larrivée-Roy says that 60 per cent of their guests identify as women. 

There are examples on the anglophone side of the public broadcaster as well, like CBC Sports that committed to “gender-balanced” coverage in March. 

The public broadcaster, however, has repeatedly come under scrutiny for failing to create an equitable work environment for racialized employees, in terms of labour practices and adjudicating journalistic standards. CBC says its Journalistic Standards and Practices are under review in response to criticism that “internal rules on journalistic ‘impartiality’ are distorting coverage of anti-Black racism,” reported Press Progress.

In August, months into an international reckoning over anti-Black racism in all facets of society from policing to news organizations, CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton was widely criticized for celebrating a panel of all white women with a tweet reading #proud

Broadcast television stations might opt for the path of least resistance when booking guests, sometimes owing to what they characterize as time constraints.

A journalist with over eight years of experience in Québec’s private radio and television news industry agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. She says that, although she draws her colleagues’ attention to gender disparity issues on the shows, she sometimes faces backlash.

“Not to come off as overly feminist, I joke, ‘Is this show for my dad?’ Because it will get so male-dominated,” she says. “The media has a responsibility to show its female audiences that their voices matter.”

She notes that many women experts suffer from imposter syndrome, leading them to turn down last-minute requests from news stations. “They feel that they aren’t the ‘absolute authority’ to discuss a topic.”

“It is true that men like to talk,” says Elias Makos, host of the eponymous show on CJAD 800 Montreal. Women “are not going to be actively trying to get on air. So you’ve got to do a little bit more seeking and then you’ve got to do more reaffirming because they’ll say, ‘I’m not good.’”

While CJAD hasn’t established a station-wide policy for tracking gender parity, some producers and hosts still aim for it informally.

“Within a show, if I have no female guests, I’ll make a note of it,” says Robyn Flynn, producer for the Aaron Rand Show at CJAD. “It’s so easy to just automatically ask a man. I always think, can we ask a woman?”

How to improve gender representation in your coverage

We asked our sources for their best advice. Here’s what they told us:

  1. Enhance diversity in the newsroom through hiring practices.
  2. Make changes happen instead of waiting for them.
  3. Make it a priority and set a realistic goal.
  4. Put someone or even better — a team — in charge.
  5. Count and use a spreadsheet.
  6. Keep the newsroom informed about progress.
  7. Give positive feedback to your colleagues.
  8. Keep your eyes and ears open to new, diverse experts and sources.
  9. Keep a diversity-oriented common contact book.
  10. Keep up the good work: It will get easier, and even normal, we promise.

Matthew Guité, former producer for the Elias Makos Show and now at 580 CFRA in Ottawa, points out that it is sometimes simpler and faster, especially on a daily show, to go back to experts they know, because doing so ensures that they will be comfortable.

“Sometimes, without realizing, you end up lining up five guys on a variety of topics,” he says.

We need to stop accepting such lineups, says Makos, sitting next to Guité. “We got to make sure that we hear different types of voices.”

Disclosure: Writing this story, we interviewed seven women and five men.

Correction: This story was updated on Nov. 4, 2020 at 4:45 p.m. ET to correctly note that Femmes Expertes was formed in 2017 as the French counterpart to Informed Opinions.