Why Representation is Essential in News Media, And How Women are Increasingly Shaping the Narrative
BY SARAH WENGERT
Much like Congress and the corporate C-suite, television’s talking heads have historically been older, white, cisgender men. While diverse female representation in the news media has trended upwards for decades, women in the industry still regularly face professional barriers and unequal treatment by audiences and colleagues alike. One such example occurred in August 2017, in the aftermath of an infamously violent weekend in Charlottesville, when former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli asked Omaha native Symone Sanders to “just shut up for a minute” on CNN. Sanders, a strategist and CNN political commentator, did not oblige, instead answering, “Pardon me, sir. You don’t get to tell me to shut up on national television …Under no circumstances do you get to speak to me in that manner. You should exhibit some decorum.”
While Cuccinelli later apologized to Sanders, many noted that his lack of respect was not typical for the forum but was very telling of how young women of color are valued and treated in the media industry — a trend that’s also backed by statistics. According to a 2015 Media Matters survey that looked at five popular Sunday morning political talk shows, including ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’ “Face the Nation,” “Fox News Sunday,” NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “State of the Union,” all five moderators were white men, as were the majority of the shows’ guest journalists. The overall number of female guests was 27 percent in 2015, with whites still representing 80 percent of guests across all five shows.
Dr. Eileen Wirth, a local history author and Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Creighton University, says it is essential for women like Sanders to be heard and accepted as they contribute their voices to the media narrative. “When you don’t have the perspective of people of both genders —and, I would add, ethnic and racial groups — when you don’t have all of these perspectives, you have a book that is missing major chapters,” says Wirth. “If you just live in this little monocultural world, your newsroom will not be as effective as it could be. A newsroom has to reflect the people it’s trying to cover if it’s going to reflect a community’s issues, concerns, problems, joys and successes.”
Wirth, who is currently researching her upcoming book about the history of women in Omaha, was one of the first few women in city news when she began her career at the Omaha World-Herald in 1969. Her recollections of this time reveal serious progress for diversity in media since then, while also underscoring the great deal of progress yet to be made and the true value of a diverse newsroom.
“The women of my age were the pioneers in journalism in Omaha,” says Wirth, noting that “crusading for women’s rights had to be done very, very subtly” in the workplace at that time. “Our real goal was to show the guys that we were their equals,” says Wirth. “Basically, we had to prove to them that they needed us as women to have a balance. You did [that] by demonstrating that having both genders represented could really be an asset to the newspaper or the television station. The presumption was that women could not get a lot of stories that a guy could, so we had to show them that we could get any story a guy could and more. We could get stories that the guys couldn’t, and we could imagine stories based on our life experiences and the people we talked to that would not have occurred to a man.”
In her time at the Omaha World-Herald, Wirth displayed a knack for uncovering and reporting stories that her male colleagues might not have — and which critically affected the cultural narrative by being brought to light. For example, she wrote a series on credit discrimination against women, a story about equity in women’s college sports that went from being turned down by a male sports writer to making page one, and a piece about Omaha’s lack of a domestic violence shelter. In addition to re-shaping the narrative, one such story even helped re-shape the law. Wirth was contacted by Doris Royal of Springfield, Nebraska, about an inheritance tax inequity that became known as the Widow Tax. Royal had launched a petition to do away with the tax, an IRS policy that essentially charged a woman an inheritance tax on her own family farm if her spouse were to die, while a man was not charged as such if his wife were to die. Wirth’s coverage was picked up by Nebraska Farm Journal, the issue gained national attention as nearly 500,000 people signed the Royal Petition, and the law was ultimately changed.
“Those of us who were the door-openers, we opened the doors, and I think that’s an achievement that a number of us are very proud to have participated in. But there’s still, to an extent, a glass ceiling for top management,” says Wirth. While data on women in media management positions supports Wirth’s point about the lingering glass ceiling, Melissa Matczak, executive editor at the Omaha World-Herald, is one exception to that rule. Matczak, who’s been with the Omaha World-Herald for 21 years, became the first female executive editor in the paper’s history when she assumed her post in January 2017.
“I’m looking at the overall direction of the newsroom and doing strategic planning — especially as we’re in the digital age and more people are consuming news on their mobile phones,” says Matczak of her role. “How do we as a local newspaper reach out to people and make the World-Herald the news of choice for them? A lot of my job is thinking more strategically about how we reach different audiences in the community and make them consumers of our news.”
Diverse Voices Are Key
Matczak agrees that strategy involves giving people of various identities a voice on the Omaha World-Herald staff. “Every person brings a different perspective and a different background, so if you have a newsroom filled with all women or all white, middle-aged males—whatever that may be—it doesn’t work,” says Matczak. “You’ve got to be as representative of the community as you can, because people from different walks of life bring different perspectives and they bring different story ideas to the table.” Matczak stresses the importance of staff diversity in gender, age and race as a means to keeping the Omaha World-Herald’s content relevant to the entire community.
“You have different perspectives as you go through life, and it’s important if we’re reflecting our community and what they’re interested in that we have all those different perspectives in the newsroom,” says Matczak. “For instance, if most of the editors in the room are 35 to 40 and older and they’re all assigning stories from only their point of view, you’re not necessarily getting content that might appeal to someone 25 to 35, and we want to be a habit for that segment of the community as well. That’s just one example, whether it’s gender, age, racial diversity… when you don’t have all those voices at the table there is something missing. That’s important to me and it certainly plays out in making sure that you have females in reporting, editing and leadership positions.”
KETV’s Chinh Doan is another local example of the power of diverse voices and representation in media. The anchor and reporter, who just celebrated her five-year anniversary at KETV, has an incredible personal story. When Doan was 4 years old, she and her father received refugee status, which allowed them to move from their native Vietnam to Oklahoma City. Due to paperwork complications, Doan’s mother was unable to join them in the United States until 2012, when Doan succeeded in sponsoring her mother and the family was rejoined after 18 years apart. Not long after Doan and her father settled in Oklahoma City, he got a job working as a janitor at Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. “[My father] would bring home scraps of the paper and I got very interested in reading,” says Doan, whose fascination with the paper propelled her to start reading beyond her grade level. “We just had regular antenna TV and watched the news every night before bed. From reading the newspaper that my father would bring home and watching the news every night as part of a family routine, I grew up around news and learned English more quickly as a result. My parents say I’ve always been a very curious child, so they were not surprised when at the age of 8 I decided I wanted to go into journalism.”
Doan, who is incredibly driven and describes herself as a lifelong “multi-tasker,” got involved in journalism in middle school and high school, held internships in high school and college, and brings great passion to the table as a working journalist.
“My goal as a journalist has always been to shed light on topics and people who may often get overlooked,” says Doan. “I really do try my best in all of my reports, whether it’s a feature story, an investigative piece, or a crime report, to represent as many sides as possible and be as transparent as possible on where I get my information from, and to show diversity in my story. If I’m out doing what we call, ‘man on the street’ or ‘woman on the street’ interviews, in which I’m picking random people, I always make an effort to pick a variety of people, because if you’re asking people how they feel about whatever issue it is and you’re asking the same people in the same neighborhood with the same background, you’re likely going to get a lot of the same feedback. I make a conscientious effort to make sure all voices are heard because that creates the most accurate coverage.”
Beyond accuracy in news media, Doan argues that allowing a diverse range of voices to shape the narrative is flat-out good for business. “It is so important to have people who look different and come from different backgrounds and positions, or else you’re going to hire the same people, and studies have shown that diversity makes your business more successful. It increases productivity and engagement, and in the end, it increases profit for your organization,” says Doan. She’s proud of KETV’s efforts to promote a variety of voices by hiring a diverse team.
“Media wouldn’t serve its full purpose if we didn’t have such a diverse group of journalists, and that’s because our world and community are so diverse,” says Doan. “People are so different in the way they look, talk, and have shared experiences and interests. We wouldn’t be able to represent the community without a variety of voices. For example, in the newsroom at KETV, I think we’ve done a good job of hiring people who not only look different but who come from different parts of the country, have different backgrounds … and I hope the viewers notice that we make an effort to have such a diverse group of men and women so that way the viewers in our community feel connected to us and know that we’re doing our best to make sure that we don’t overlook anyone or any topic.”
Female Journalists Face Extra Scrutiny
However, having a seat at the table doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from the additional scrutiny that women in many industries face. “For whatever reason, my female colleagues and I get more critical feedback on irrelevant things than my male colleagues, and we don’t know why,” says Doan, mentioning Australian TV anchor Karl Stefanovic, who wore the same suit for a year unnoticed to prove a point about sexism. Stefanovic told Australian newspaper The Age that while he is judged on his interviews, sense of humor, and how he performs his job, his female colleagues are judged “more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say, and what they wear.”
“It’s something my female colleagues and I have all seen,” says Doan. “People complain about somebody wearing too much makeup, not enough makeup, the hair is distracting because it’s blowing in the wind, the lipstick is too bright—I mean, it’s unbelievable. When it’s so many years of a culture that’s built up to this, it’s not easy or quick to change. But if I see a negative email about one of my colleagues I will respond and say, ‘Hey, so and so is fantastic at her job. I think that dress looks great on her and very professional.’ Being kind to people, but also addressing whatever it is that they felt so passionate about, is helpful to opening that dialogue, but obviously we can’t respond to every single message we get, so you kind of have to pick your battles.”
While diversity in news media voices is an ongoing hot topic, it persists against the backdrop of an overall evolving industry. As new trends and realities face the industry, women are stepping up to address them and shape the future of their profession. Wirth notes the 24-hour news cycle and the decline of print as two prominent changemaker trends in news media. “The internet has destroyed all notion of space, time and distance,” she says.
For example, during the Watergate scandal Wirth recalls that the Omaha audience’s access to new information was somewhat at the mercy of which wire stories were picked up by the Omaha World-Herald. If an individual missed the singular 5:30 p.m. newscast there was no later broadcast, cable news show or online clip to catch up with. This restricted access to information and breaking news is in stark contrast to today’s powerful 24-hour news cycle.
“Now, I get the Washington Post online and I read it three times a day. So, I’m sitting here in Omaha having essentially the same access to news as it happens as anybody in New York or Washington. That’s huge,” says Wirth. Three TV networks once dictated the storyline of what was newsworthy and what was not. “But now, with countless websites and news organizations, anyone can pick their style of news. That has never really happened in the United States before, where if you are of the liberal persuasion you can watch MSNBC or if you’re of the other persuasion you can listen to FOX News, or if you missed something you go catch it online.”
At the Omaha World-Herald, Matczak and her team are working to strategically balance a variety of content and platforms. “It’s about taking our content and figuring out how we best maximize our audience — whether it’s print, newsletter, desktop, mobile —all those different platforms,” says Matczak. “Print is still very essential to what we do, so we have to maintain the integrity of that product, but also understand that many audiences are online. In the newsroom we’re trying to figure out how to take more than a century of operating as a daily print paper, and still do that, but then also calibrate to doing other platforms and having a staff that can be nimble to do all sorts of things… it’s an interesting time to be a journalist.”
Despite the explosion of media platforms, news outlets, and the constant availability of breaking news and updates to a wide audience, Wirth notes that the traditional economic model for responsible journalism is no longer in play in light of decreased ad revenue. She believes a new model is needed to support great journalism. “On one hand, you’ve had this explosion of news outlets and stories, but on the other hand, you’ve had a decline in revenue sources for traditional— particularly local — journalism,” says Wirth. “The New York Times and Washington Post are going to do just fine, thank you, but at the regional level you see a decline in, for example, statehouse reporting or city hall coverage, and that’s partially because the ad revenue just isn’t there and that’s kind of frightening because it means less oversight of state and local government. To me that is very distressing.”
Luckily for Omahans, Matczak and her team are working to create solutions that will propel the industry forward. A big part of that means refining Omaha World-Herald’s local focus. “For papers our size there needs to be razor-like focus on news in our community that only we can cover and excel at,” says Matczak. “You can get information on so many different topics at your fingertips right now, so where the World-Herald really needs to focus is local news, sports and entertainment — things readers can’t get anywhere else. And there’s always been a focus on that, but because of the rapid acceleration of information, we really need to have razor-like focus on those topics right now. I’d say that’s a [nationwide] trend with regional or smaller metro papers.”
Likewise on the TV side, Doan says new platforms like social media and digital have impacted the industry by creating a freer exchange of information with audiences. For example, Doan recently covered the story of a cat clinging to the roof of a minivan as it barreled down the interstate. Through sharing and correspondence on social media, Doan was able to track down the owner and follow up on the story, which ultimately went viral.
Combatting ‘Fake News ’
Another unmistakable trend in news media is an increase in criticism of the industry itself. With their work facing unprecedented scrutiny, how should members of the news media address or combat claims that they, as a whole, are “the enemy of the people” or that their output is “fake news”?
“If people want to believe that truth is fake news, there’s nothing the media can do to change their beliefs. So, my advice to the media is keep doing what you’re doing. Be careful — scrupulously careful — on facts. You don’t want to give anyone an opening to make spurious claims. Offer good, solid, fact-based journalism,” says Wirth, adding that journalists should meticulously avoid potential conflicts of interest. Matczak concurs that journalists can best protect the press’ reputation by doing their best work. “Don’t make mistakes in your writing. Adhere to journalism ethics. Don’t tweet about politics. If you’re doing your job the way you’re supposed to do it, you just have to stay on that course,” says Matczak.
“Approach journalism how we’ve always approached it: Make sure you get names spelled right. Triple-check everything. Make sure you’re characterizing a headline the way the story should be characterized. Be extra, extra careful in everything you do. Make sure you understand that statistic thrown out at a city council meeting. Ask that extra question to make sure you’re comprehending the issue. When you read a story, ask yourself if there are other viewpoints. All of those things are still in play now as much as they were 10, 20 years ago, we’re just receiving extra scrutiny, but I tell reporters, ‘This isn’t a pity party.’ You have to make sure that your writing and daily actions are hitting that bar. And, if we make a mistake, we correct it right away.”
Doan says that building trust in the media can be particularly challenging in an era where anyone can start a blog and circulate inaccurate information, which can then be passed along through various outlets and platforms. “I hope we hear this time and time again: It’s so much more important to be accurate than to be first. It’s a competitive space and we want to be first [with the story], but that shouldn’t be the priority because that’s often when mistakes happen,” says Doan. “There are so many passionate journalists — people who are in it for the right reasons — that hopefully the public’s trust can grow again. I would hope that those spreading misinformation will eventually lose the battle.”