Ombudsman Says NPR Reporters Need to Look Harder for Female Sources

When National Public Radio Ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote about gender imbalance among NPR’s sources and commentators last week, she made a bold claim: “The network is not as diverse on air as it would like to think.”

Shepard, with the help of two NPR interns, spent a little over a year collecting data on the network’s commentators, reporters and hosts, and on the sources interviewed for stories.

She found that while the gender breakdown of NPR hosts and reporters was almost even, there was a far greater imbalance among the organization’s commentators. Of NPR’s 12 outside commentators who were on air at least 20 times for the past 15 months, Cokie Roberts was the only female. Additionally, Shepard found that only 26 percent of the sources who appeared on NPR news shows from April 2009 to January 2010 were female.

“I wish I could say I was surprised,” Shepard told me by phone when I asked her about the imbalance. “I’ve gotten one or two complaints from listeners about this, but this [study] was not driven by listeners. This was driven by me as a listener and by my familiarity with NPR.”

Shepard said her reason for conducting the research was two-fold: to encourage top management to add more female voices to the group of NPR commentators, and to remind NPR staff of the need to find more female sources.

“I’ve been told over the years that the issue is women not being as good at self-promotion or having the confidence,” Shepard said. “I think there’s an element of that, but I don’t think it’s the overriding factor. It’s true that men are largely in positions of power, so sometimes it’s a matter of journalists looking harder for female sources.”

Some people at NPR took issue with the way Shepard collected the data for her study. “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep pointed out that the data counts all sources as the same, without factoring in the length of time each source was on the air. If the female to male ratio of NPR commentators had been more balanced, Shepard said, she would have considered the on-air time to be more relevant.

Shepard said she doesn’t know whether NPR will act on any of the information she collected, but she’s hoping something will change.

“I feel that it’s not a matter of ‘let’s get rid of everybody,’ but why can’t you have more female commentators? It seems like an easy problem to fix,” she said. “Someone in management is saying, we want Frank Deford, and David Brooks, so my doing this was aimed at the top management in asking them to consider including more female voices than they do now.”

Keith Woods, former dean of Poynter and now vice president of diversity in news and operations at NPR, is helping to diversify the content and staff at the organization, which has been called out before for its lack of diverse voices.

Last October, the National Association of Black Journalists questioned NPR’s commitment to diversity after it fired Greg Peppers, a top black manager in NPR’s newsroom at the time.

Tackling the infamous problem of a “lack of diversity” in any newsroom, Woods said, is a lot more complicated than just hiring a more diverse staff.

“The mere presence of the people you are trying to represent does not guarantee success,” Woods said. “Just because you have an organization with its leadership as women, or with its leadership as people of color doesn’t ensure that the goal you’re trying to reach in content and in voices gets met. That only comes with vigilance and perseverance no matter who’s in charge.”

Woods described Shepard’s study as a positive step toward creating greater awareness about the shortage of diversity among NPR’s commentators and sources.

“I think we would be wrong to assume that any number of initiatives will solve the problem of diversity in journalism because the target itself keeps moving. Since we haven’t hit it yet, we can work for a long time just to get to zero in some cases,” Woods said. “[Shepard's] research may not be the end all be all of social science, but if it’s part of the vigilance, then it is part of the solution.”

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