Washington Post appointment emblematic of media industry's persistent marginalization of women
Last week, Cameron Barr was named The Washington Post’s new managing editor. An accomplished journalist with a lengthy resume, Barr promises to bring a broad perspective to an organization with expanding global ambitions. His appointment, however, brings into sharp relief how shallow a commitment to diversity, and the standards of journalism that demand diversity, can be. The world’s “Most Innovative” media company seems challenged, like the rest of the industry, by the idea that diversity that includes women is an ethical priority or that a lack of gender diversity, at the levels where it counts most, matters to its readers or its future.
In October 2014, Post blogger Eric Wemple called out his own organization on its soon to be all-male masthead (he included the business side). At that time, the editorial senior management “circle of trust” was made up of six senior men and no women. Today, instead of six, the Post lists seven positions on its editorial masthead. In the intervening year, the Deputy Managing Editor position, in a Post version of the new $10 bill, was split into two, one filled by Tracy Grant, the other by Scott Vance, and a position not previously listed, Associate Editorial Page Editor, was added, filled by Jo-Ann Armao.
Earlier this year in a letter to staff, publisher Fred Ryan touted the Post’s expanding and diverse audience and innovative drive. But what about disrupting an institutionally biased status quo that perpetuates a shocking paucity of women in leadership? The two women on the masthead are undoubtedly terrific at their jobs, but their presence is hardly indicative of women’s senior editorial influence at the Post. As deputy managing editor, Scott Vance is responsible for news. Tracy Grant, who has extensive editorial experience, is responsible for recruitment and development. The presence of Jo-Ann Armao, in terms of editorial output, is swamped by imbalance. Armao has written nine articles since 2012, compared to a combined 49 published by her male superiors to date this year alone. Additionally, the Post’s website lists five men and three woman as editorial writers, and 13 of the 14 listed regular columnists are men. Women make up less than 20 percent of the company’s publicly named editorial positions and an even smaller portion of the company’s actual public voice.
Homogeneity, with its limited and limiting epistemology and almost inevitable systems justification, props up a corporate status quo out of sync with the world we live in. This is particularly consequential in media because it degrades the fairness and accuracy at the heart of good journalism. Assembling a staff of people whose lived experiences differ isn’t about appearing more egalitarian, or being more creative. Diverse groups of people generate more thorough, nuanced ideas (and, corporately, are significantly more profitable). Imbalanced deliberative bodies make poorer decisions, including structural and editorial ones. Persistent, conscious, largely white, male dominance of media—nationally and internationally—actively hurts the public good, impedes justice, and undermines democracy.
Knowing what we know today, allowing these imbalances to continue in media management is grossly unethical and should be one of the most pressing ethical issues facing the industry.
Implicit biases pervade our media, and the sex-specific patterns above are evident in how news is organized and prioritized. Reflecting national media metrics, major areas of coverage at the Post are topically sex-segregated. Education, Metro, National, Outlook, and Sports have male editors; a merged Arts and Style section is managed by a woman, and the paper’s Health, Science, and Environment coverage is headed by a woman. Studies show that such horizontal sex segregation usually happens by senior assignment. Despite the fact that women make up the majority of journalism students, men (majority white) continue to make up 64.6 percent of newsroom supervisors. Sixty-one percent of the Post’s bylines are male, which means men continue to write the bulk of politics, criminal justice, science, sports, and technology news. When women are assigned what are considered “important” stories at a much lower rate than men, it narrows their chances of entering editorial management.
Decisions at the top have meaningful butterfly effects on how news is made and public opinions are shaped. Research shows that there are qualitative differences in how information is presented, depending on the gender of the person writing. This is also true of race. Overall in news media, there are more male sources and more op-eds and bylined stories written by men. A study recently published by McGill University researchers found that five out of six names appearing in the news are men’s. Not only are men the vast majority of subjects and cited sources, but they are far more likely to appear as experts.
Readers are as affected by comments as they are by the content of articles. In addition, an analysis of more than a million online comments revealed that men are far more likely to comment online on stories they believe are written by men and women on stories by women. The same study revealed gendered patterns of sympathy for rape victims and perpetrators. Last December, the ratio of men to women writing about Rolling Stone’s botched coverage of sexual assault at the University of Virginia at the Post was five to one. As MSNBC’s Krystal Ball reported at the time, only 31 percent of media outlets covered the Rolling Stone story of an institution’s failure to prosecute campus rapists, compared to the 57 percent that covered it after doubt had been cast on a woman’s account.
The Post’s investigation into the Rolling Stone story came on the heels of its decision last year to continue publishing syndicated columnist George Will after he described being a rape victim on campus as a “coveted status” and suggested that many women making rape claims were “delusional.” The Chicago Tribune declined to run Will’s piece, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dropped Will as a columnist. But the Post’s editorial page editor defended him, explaining that his comments were “well within bounds of legitimate debate,” thereby determining the bounds of legitimate debate. This smacked, in the ugliest paternalistic way, of an excessively long history of men deciding what “legitimate” rape is, in the near complete absence of women.
In July, Media Matters asked editors at prominent newspapers what they do differently after the parsing of Rolling Stone’s avoidable “journalistic failures” last year. Six men and two women commented, all of the men saying, in effect, “nothing,” that verifying facts was the core issue. It is not the core issue. While getting the facts straight has to be a number one priority, narrative power is a much broader concern. Media analysis shows that rape myths are regularly communicated through story choices, language, and framing.
The prevalence of rape myths in our culture is a testament to how, relying on high “traditional journalistic standards,” it is possible to get facts straight, but a story wrong. Last month, more than 250 astronomers and physicists sent a letter to the New York Times protesting the paper’s coverage of sexual harassment charges made against a prominent astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. “This article,” they wrote, “epitomizes the culture that champions the voices of predators and minimizes the experiences of survivors.” The letter importantly tied this fact to more general, pervasive inequalities: “Women are dramatically underrepresented in our field and other sciences, in part because of the sexism and misogyny that this article reinforced.”
In the words of the Society of Professional Journalists, ethical journalism is “taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.” This standard is meaningless if only individual reporters are expected to uphold it. Institutions should be held to the same standard. As Poynter’s Eric Deggans wrote last year, media has a “social justice imperative,...speaking up for those who lack power in society, opposing unfair treatment in government systems and holding big institutions accountable.” I have made repeated attempts to get a comment on these matters from The Washington Post, which declined comment. The Post should be lauded for achieving one of the higher levels of newsroom racial and ethnic diversity in the country. But more has to be done to achieve gender parity, especially gender parity that appreciates women’s diversity. It doesn’t require malice on the part of individuals to perpetuate institutionalized bias. It requires a belief in one’s own objectivity, a disregard for the effects of entitlement, and personal gender role conservatism, which has been shown to inhibit women’s leadership success in the workplace.
Which industry leaders, with the power to make change, are holding institutions like the Post, and the industry itself, accountable? It is a global problem that women are not selecting, assigning, and prioritizing stories, determining framing, or allocating critical editorial resources—and the costs to society are high.
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