The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One news anchor decided to put more women on air. Now his idea has gone global.

Ros Atkins, left, host of “Outside Source,” talks with Rana Rahimpour of BBC Persian in the BBC's London newsroom Tuesday. (Andrew Trythall/BBC)

Ros Atkins, who hosts the popular BBC news show “Outside Source,” had long realized that he was giving men more on-air time than women — and so were most other media decision-makers.

Then, in 2016, Atkins happened to hear a news show that featured all-male contributors.

“Something snapped in me,” he told me, “and I thought, however unlikely, I’d like to try and take this on.”

Less than three years later, his idea — equal representation for men and women commenting on or conveying the news — has not only changed who is featured on his show. Hundreds of programs across the BBC and at other media organizations worldwide are replicating its success.

Five hundred coverage and programming teams at the BBC are participating in the effort known as “50:50.” Harvard’s Kennedy School and London Business School are studying it. And 20 other media companies are trying it out, including Australia’s ABC, the Financial Times, Fortune magazine and MSNBC.

“Similar initiatives have failed over the years, in large part because they are designed by the HR department and passed down to the newsroom from on high,” said Vivian Schiller, a former news executive at NPR and Twitter and now with the Civil Foundation.

This one is succeeding, she said, “because it’s owned by the journalists who participate of their own accord.”

At the BBC, top management didn’t even know about the effort until it was well underway, Schiller noted. But, in time, BBC Director General Tony Hall encouraged the whole organization to join in — without demanding that it do so.

That there’s a problem to be solved is obvious.

The Women’s Media Center put the situation bluntly in its 2019 report: “Despite some gains, men still dominate in every part of news, entertainment and digital media.” As one example, it reported that women write only 15 percent of the op-ed pieces on international issues at the four most widely circulated American newspapers.

Fortune magazine’s executive editor, Adam Lashinsky, said his staff has long acknowledged their pages featured “too many middle-aged white men in ties and white shirts.”

“We were already having this conversation,” he told me, but the BBC’s method gave his staff a proven method to change things.

Fortune’s staff picked three areas to work on: feature photographs, the sourcing of stories in the front of the magazine and onstage representation at Fortune conferences. The effort is going slowly, he admitted, but it’s made a difference.

As Atkins explains it, the first — and crucial — step is measurement.

When he started keeping track of the correspondents and experts he was hosting on “Outside Source,” he was unpleasantly surprised to find that fewer than 40 percent were women.

And on subjects such as covering the Islamic State, it was essentially all men.

The show’s staff made a big push to widen its contacts, and now, on that subject, “you’ll see as many women as men.”

The BBC template doesn’t strive to balance men and women on a daily basis, which would be journalistically unsound and probably impossible, but rather over the course of each month.

“We are all notoriously bad at guessing how we did — the data keeps us honest,” Atkins said.

The measurement purposely excludes show hosts and major newsmakers, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May, because those aren’t controllable factors.

What it does include are reporters and commentators, among others.

One benefit is that it encourages show bookers and journalists to get beyond “the usual suspects” — the same trusted or available experts used repeatedly for efficiency’s sake. That’s especially tempting during a breaking news story.

No one who watches American cable news can doubt that we’ve seen that same former CIA official or ex-prosecutor or academic bloviator many times before — and that we’ll be seeing them again.

At the BBC, three-quarters of the project participants monitoring their gender representation for a year or more reached the 50 percent mark. Viewers and listeners have noticed, according to internal research, and in many cases appreciated it.

Aneeta Rattan, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, said media appearances can both create and combat damaging stereotypes.

“When women are not represented as experts, there is a perception that men are experts and women are not,” said Rattan, who has done more than 35 hours of interviews with 50:50 participants.

But it’s possible to change what she describes as this “huge and messy” societal problem. Part of why 50:50 is working is because there is no executive order to comply.

“There is no stick,” Rattan said, but there is the incentive of internal competition to achieve parity.

Schiller hopes that the same mind-set and techniques eventually can be applied to other forms of media underrepresentation — race, ethnicity, ideology.

Journalists know intuitively (and sometimes from ugly experience) that mandated quotas for sources are a terrible idea.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

This is an organic effort to make what is seen on screen or page look more like real life.

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