Here’s what you miss by only talking to white men about the digital revolution and journalism

September 10, 2013

Newsrooms continue to experience a gender imbalance. But the Internet means you don't need to be in a newsroom to reach an audience. (Women's Media Center.)

On Monday, Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Nieman Journalism Lab launched Riptide, a new project about the disruption of journalism by technology. The project bills itself as an "oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology, from 1980 to the present."

But looking at the final product and their list of sources, it appears that the project misses a key aspect of how the digital age disrupted traditional journalism: Digital advances, particularly the spread of the Internet and the rise of blogging, gave a powerful new way for voices marginalized in the elite journalism sphere to spread their stories.

Jeanne Brooks, the digital director of nonprofit group the Online News Association, counted just five white women, two men of color, and zero women of color among 61 people interviewed for the project. All three of the project's authors are also white men. That's a 100 percent white male group using 90 percent white male perspective on the changes in journalism field and calling it a defining narrative.

But one of the report's authors, Paul Sagan, defends the breakdown of sources. The authors identified institutions they thought were seminal to how technology changed journalism from 1980 to the present and then sought to interview leaders at those institutions. Over that time period, he says, those leaders were "regrettably overwhelmingly white men."

Of course, it's no secret that the traditional media has gender and racial balance problems. In 2012, the American Society of News Editors and the Center for Advanced Social Research at the Missouri School of Journalism found women held only 36.9 percent of newsroom roles at newspapers -- the same rate as in 1999. Who Writes For tracks the gender balance of the New York Time's front page and consistently reports a heavily male perspective. And a look at ASNE's 2012 minority census of newspapers shows a truly startling amount of papers reporting 0 percent of the people in their newsroom are members of minority groups.

The technology sector also has a history of gender and race problems. It comes across in the lists its media outlets make, the advertisements technology companies produce, and even the individual presentations at major hackathons -- see the embarrassing "TitStare" presentation made on the same stage as a 9-year-old girl at TechCrunch Disrupt this weekend.

The Nieman Lab and the Shorenstein Center are aware of the status quo in both of these industries. The Nieman Journalism Lab has noted issues with racial diversity in newsrooms and covered how to use technology to make a more inclusive environment for women in the news world. The Shorenstein Center has hosted speakers on the of barriers surrounding women's engagement in news and technology, including media writer Rachel Sklar, the founder of Change the Ratio.

The project would have been stronger if it had done a better job of incorporating the perspective of female and minority voices. For example, one of the ways the digital age disrupted the journalism field was making it easier for marginalized voices to find audiences. With the rise of the Internet, no longer did media require the approval of elite gatekeepers to become accessible to the masses. And you don't have to look very far to find good examples of this -- just think about the rise of the feminist blogosphere.

Two sources they might have included among their interview subjects are the proprietors of Feministing and Racialicious. Both are blogs that provide news and media criticism about gender or race, and where they intersect. They're the sort of outlets that might have been local zines a generation before, but use the Internet as a way to connect with audiences who often don't have a voice in traditional media outlets. They are upstarts empowered by technology that truly allowed them to develop unfettered by the shackles of a traditional media distribution model.

The authors also could have focused on Jezebel, a blog launched by the Gawker Media empire that frequently deals with those same issues along with a heavy dose of fashion and pop culture -- it would have been a perfect example of how upstart online empires harnessed interest from audiences sometimes left behind by major legacy news sources to great effect.

Sagan defends the choice not to explore these topics by noting that this was only the initial product to come out of the project. The authors intentionally based the product on the Web so other threads could be expanded upon in the future. He also points to interviews that touch on the idea of self-identifying communities, including one by Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, and others from Arianna Huffington, Betsy Morgan, Jonah Peretti, and current Post editor Marty Baron.

Those interviews do contain the occasional comment that touches on the idea that the Internet allowed for consumers to self-select their outlets, creating non-geographically tied communities, and freed some contributors from "mainstream media gatekeepers" as Morgan put it. But none of the interviews specifically address how the journalists and content creators who used the tools provided by the digital revolution to expand the voice of marginalized groups played a part in the disruption of traditional journalism structures by giving some consumers alternatives that spoke more to their experiences.

Riptide is an impressive piece of journalism and its interviews provide valuable insight into how the business models of traditional press outlets were upended by everything from cable news to the Internet. I understand that this project's focus required conversations with people of power in fields that do not enjoy a great deal of diversity. But by overlooking the other side of how technology has empowered a diverse group of consumers to access a diverse group of perspectives absent from those fields, the authors have neglected a major part of the story. Hopefully as Riptide expands, it will gather more diverse perspectives.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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