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Researchers are tracking the media’s gender gap

New tool seeks to draw attention to the imbalance in sources used by major news outlets.

By BECKY RYNOR | MAR 11 2019

Kathy Abusow has been working in the forestry sector for 30 years. Now the CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) – a large non-profit collective promoting sustainable forestry practices – she is internationally recognized for her expertise and frequently invited to United Nations events, international presentations, panel discussions and inter-governmental consultations.

However, she notes, “it is very, very rare that I get calls from the media asking my opinion on issues such as illegal logging, deforestation or sustainable forestry.” It could be that “the media doesn’t know who I am,” she says, even though she is very active on various social media channels, has given a TEDx Talk and is featured prominently on the SFI website. “It would be interesting to know, in terms of media and their coverage of forestry, who are they going to?”

Likely male sources, if data gleaned by the Gender Gap Tracker is any indication, even though the number of women in forestry has grown significantly since the days Ms. Abusow recalls being “the only woman in the room.”

The Gender Gap Tracker uses advanced data analysis to cull and break down the numbers of men and women quoted in mainstream Canadian media. Co-developed by Informed Opinions, a non-profit advocacy organization, and researchers at Simon Fraser University, the tracker indicates men’s voices outnumber women’s in the media by a ratio of nearly three to one.

“That’s pretty pathetic,” says Informed Opinions founder and project lead Shari Graydon. “Democracy is essentially about being represented. If half of your potential audience is female but they never see themselves reflected on your program or in your paper, you’re missing critical insights.”

Losing important points of view

Lead researcher for the project is Maite Taboada, a linguistics professor at SFU and director of its Discourse Processing Lab. She jumped at the opportunity to work on this project “because it has the potential to bring about change,” she says. “When you don’t hear from everybody you lose certain points of view that are important. If we did a study on minority voices or people with disabilities, I think you would similarly find that we only hear from certain segments of the population.”

Dr. Taboada says the tracker compiles data by “scraping” material from major Canadian media outlets: CBC, CTV, Global, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star. Articles are downloaded to a data base, then researchers do a language analysis looking for quotes, names and pronouns such as he, she or they. The collected data is available to other researchers across the country, she says.

The system currently performs the analysis for English-language media, but the researchers are collaborating with French computational linguists to develop a version to analyze Francophone media, which they hope to release later this year, says Dr. Taboada.

Users can select the date range for the analysis, from a single day to several months (starting from October last year when the data collection began). For the 28 days of February, for example, 26 percent of all sources were female, 73 percent male, and one percent unknown. CBC News had the highest ratio – 29 percent female to 70 percent male – while the Globe and Mail had the lowest – 22 percent to 77 percent.

Ms. Graydon says there are lots of reasons why journalists may not take the extra time to specifically find a female spokesperson, such as the rushed 24-hour news cycles and diminished resources in newsrooms. She also points to research indicating women decline interview opportunities more often than men and are harder to find in the first place. Informed Opinions has compiled a database of more than 850 women experts available to comment on a range of current events.

The number of women graduating from university has surpassed that of men for decades now, says Ms. Graydon. “Now there are many, many more women in positions of authority with expertise who are able to comment.”

Ms. Abusow agrees there should be “a healthy distribution” of female voices in the media. “If there’s not, I think it’s fair to say that media is not seeking out those female voices. Once you’re intentional about it, it’s easy to find those voices.”

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  1. John Doe / March 13, 2019 at 17:48

    Another shallow perspective. If one looks at the issue with a little more depth than simply the male/female ratio, the reason, and justification, for unequal representation become obvious. Unequal representation is not due to a nefarious bias against women, as it is implied in this article. When a media outlet consults a “source”, it looks for an “expert opinion”, not just an “opinion”. While “opinion” would require a 50-50 distribution between male and female based on their roughly equal representation in the population, “expert opinion” is not so, because in just about every field there are a larger number of male experts than female experts. Thus, it is not surprising that the number of male sources is higher than the number of female sources. For precisely the same reason, there are few female race car drivers. Since racing teams want the best expert drivers, and because there are many more male expert drivers than female, there are more male race car drivers. When more women choose to become expert drivers, there will be more women drivers. When more women choose to become experts in many fields, there will be more women “sources”.

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