Lack of female sources in NY Times front-page stories highlights need for change

Editor’s note: This research was conducted by University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students Alexi Layton and Rochelle Richards under the guidance of Prof. Alicia Shepard.

The New York Times is one of the world’s leading news organizations. But there’s room for improvement — especially when it comes to diversity.

In an analysis of 352 front-page stories from the Times in January and February 2013, we found that Times reporters quoted 3.4 times as many male sources as female sources.

Sources were identified as either male, female or unknown. Unknown were institutions, those only quoted as “spokespersons,” anonymous sources, etc. In total, only 19 percent (or 465 of 2,411) sources were female. The front-page stories were categorized as World, U.S., Politics, Art, Business, DealBook, Education, Health, N.Y./Region, Science, Sports, Style and Technology.

Graphics by Alexi Layton.

We chose to analyze the Times because it has significant influence and its stories help shape public opinion. This is not an extensive analysis, and the Times numbers aren’t necessarily reflective of the number of female sources in news stories published by other outlets.

What does the Times have to say about the analysis?

We reached out to Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times, for her reaction to the analysis. She referred us to Associate Managing Editor for Standards Phil Corbett.

“I’m not surprised that there is a significant discrepancy between male and female sources,” Corbett said by email. “But I am disappointed to see just how big the gap is, and how pervasive it is across various types of stories.”

Corbett recognizes the Times and other news outlets can look within to help solve this problem.

“This situation illustrates the importance of pushing for a more diverse newsroom — in gender, race and ethnicity, background, religion and other factors — which remains a priority for us,” Corbett said.

When we asked him whether the Times would institute a diversity quota, he said: “I can’t imagine how that could work. That seems like a blunt instrument that could create as many problems as it solves.”

(Though it’s not a common practice, it has worked for MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, whose quota led to more diversity on his show “Up with Chris Hayes.”)

There are a number of ways to get more diverse sources, which we’ll talk about a little later. First, though, let’s look at the different factors that could have influenced our findings — lack of diversity among reporters whose stories appeared on the front page; a tendency to turn to the “usual suspects”; women not stepping up to be sources; and a lack of female sources.

How do story categories & reporters’ gender factor in?

While the discrepancy in sources exists regardless of the reporter’s sex, it is larger in stories written by men.

  • Of 96 stories reported by women only, there were more than twice as many male sources as female sources (408 compared with 189).
  • Of 214 stories reported by men only, there were four times as many male sources as female sources (977 compared with 228).
  • The other 42 stories we analyzed had mixed bylines — one man and one woman, two men and one woman, etc.
Graphic by Alexi Layton.

We also assessed stories based on their categories. There was no category where reporters quoted more female sources than male sources.

World and Politics stories dominated the front pages of the Times in those two months, and the gender discrepancy of sources was the most glaring in these categories.

In the 83 World stories, there were six times as many male sources as female sources (377 vs. 62), and in the 76 Politics stories, there were 4.5 times as many male sources as female sources (367 vs. 80).

Are journalists turning to the “usual suspects” as sources?

Corbett said some reporters (not just at the Times but in general) have a tendency to rely on the same small pool of experts, or the “Golden Rolodex.”

“This is not surprising when reporters are on deadline or diving into a story where they don’t have a lot of background, but it’s problematic,” Corbett said. “Regardless of gender, it can make for too narrow a perspective. And if you start with a pool of sources already weighted toward men, this tendency is going to perpetuate the problem.”

Asked about our findings in a phone interview, Ana Homayoun, author of “The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life,” said that “I want to know more of the background. Are those people searching out for male and female sources, and then just using the male sources? Did they only ask men or are the men the ones that get back to them in a timely fashion?”

Homayoun called the lack of diversity “a day-to-day issue that people need to cognizant of. Women themselves are their best assets in terms of moving these forward. If we want voices to be heard in an equal way, what are the things that need to happen to change?”

Graphic created by Alexi Layton.

Are female sources harder to find than male sources?

Jodi Kantor, the Times Washington correspondent who wrote several stories analyzed in UNLV’s project, said some women shy away from being sources.

“I have sometimes found that women — even those who are very accomplished in their fields — are less willing than their male counterparts to speak to reporters,” Kantor said via email.

She has also run into some situations where finding female sources just isn’t an option.

“In 2008 I wrote a biographical story about President Obama’s time as a professor at University of Chicago law school,” Kantor said. “There were almost no tenured women on the faculty at that time, so it would have been extremely difficult to quote women professors who knew Mr. Obama during his time there.”

Corbett partially attributed the gender discrepancy to the paucity of females in high-level positions, and he’s right: men are still largely at the heads of most government posts and big corporations, which means more male sources. For example, women hold only 18.3 percent of the 535 seats in Congress today. In the corporate world, only four percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization promoting women.

“Despite progress, the upper echelons of the worlds of politics and business — perhaps our two biggest coverage areas — continue to be dominated by men,” Corbett said. “Technology, academia and top-level sports are not much better. As long as that gap exists, there will be a discrepancy in our coverage as well.”

But sometimes the Times appeared to pass over pertinent female figures. A Feb. 18 story by Jennifer Steinhauer, “Pro-gun lawmakers are open to limits on size of magazines,” highlighted political opinions from both parties on the size of gun magazines:

“As interviews with several lawmakers seemed to underscore, a vote to regulate high-capacity magazines would have to be separate from a bill to renew the assault weapons ban to stand a chance of passage. (Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has offered a bill that does both.)”

Before mentioning Sen. Feinstein, Steinhauer quoted eight men: Sens. Christopher S. Murphy, Angus King Jr., Harry Reid, Mark R. Warner and Frank R. Lautenberg; James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police; Mark E. Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords’ husband; and lawyer Robert A. Levy, who was involved in a significant gun ruling in Washington, D.C. Feinstein wasn’t quoted, even though her proposal seemed to be the solution Congress was looking for.

Maybe Feinstein didn’t want to comment or couldn’t be reached before deadline. But either way, her voice is missing. Readers might not even notice the overload of male sources and the lack of female voices — and reporters and editors might not, either.

How does staffing factor into the issue?

There were more than twice as many male bylines as female bylines — 318 men appearing on the front page compared to 142 women in the two months UNLV studied.

Female bylines showed up more than male bylines only in Health stories, while Technology and Education both had an equal number of male and female bylines. Other than in these three categories, there were more male than female bylines.

Mary Hausch, UNLV journalism professor and former managing editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, believes both male and female reporters should find sources that represent today’s reality; women represent 51 percent of the population and minorities are now a majority of U.S. births.

“All reporters should be striving for inclusiveness in their cultivation of sources,” Hausch said in an email. “An issue should not be made of the fact, for example, that a reporter is quoting a black female. It should just be happening.”

Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, said she believes the lack of female sources in Times stories is a “structural problem,” more than an issue stemming from individual journalists.

“There’s the issue of more stories, and fewer and fewer people to cover these stories,” she said. “So who has time to go get new sources? Journalists then just default to same five white guys they have had in their Rolodex for years.”

What can news organizations do about gender disparity?

There are resources available to help journalists find female experts.

The OpEd Project connects female experts in all fields to high-level media outlets. SheSource, powered by Women’s Media Center, is a database founded in 2005 with female experts on diverse topics. The POWER Sources Project, founded by Pozner in 2001, also helps reporters find knowledgeable, diverse female sources.

“A representative media values the talents and contributions of everyone, and amplifying women’s voices creates role models for women and girls,” said SheSource director Kate McCarthy via email.

Homayoun said women can play a big role in making sources more diverse: “Instead of sitting around and saying, ‘This is a problem,’ women should be saying, ‘How can we find solutions?’ ”

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  • Robert Knilands

    Major mistake about Feinstein’s bill, and still not corrected 8 days later.

  • Robert Knilands

    It is. You should read the article more closely. I’ll help you out:

    “As interviews with several lawmakers seemed to underscore, a vote to regulate high-capacity magazines would have to be separate from a bill to renew the assault weapons ban to stand a chance of passage. (Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has offered a bill that does both.)

    Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, shared the view of many conservative Democrats that each piece of gun legislation must be considered separately. “I’m not going to vote for Feinstein’s bill,” he said. “Beyond that I just want to wait and see what we have.”

    In summary, the senators, at least on the Democrat side, didn’t want a single bill to combine both the magazine and the assault weapon restrictions. And that means offering a single bill that does both wasn’t the solution “Congress” (actually the Senate — another inaccuracy) was looking for.
    You can feel free to continue to insist nothing is wrong here, or you can finally read the article closely and correct the misinformation. At this point, either action will be entertaining.

  • Poynter

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks for reading the piece. We don’t see any reason to correct that line, as it isn’t incorrect. Appreciate you raising your concerns, though.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Robert Knilands

    Good to see that piece of completely inaccurate information about Feinstein’s bill is still alive and well.
    Correcting details in a timely fashion — I guess that’s not a Poynter priority.

  • Rumionemore

    You can watch TV news programs and see the “usual sources” issue at work.
    Factor in that reporters are on deadline or lazy – or both. They’ve gone to great lengths to cultivate sources, and they know who will respond quickly. If you notice, they are less likely to dig into their treasured sources should they become the news of the day. Ryan Crocker who was arrested for a DUI hit-and-run comes to mind with public broadcasting. They ignored that tidbit of his arrest and have called on him re: Benghazi and other issues. David Petraeus was also a favorite with them and other news sources. I look for his return in a few months as an “expert source.” Reporters know he’s a media hog and will talk. Same for Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
    Biology and the career ladders also have a lot to do with women as sources. There aren’t as many women who are in a position to speak from authority. Many professional women are mothers, and there may be nurturing chemistry that becomes active when a mother knows she has to “put herself out there” for possible combat and some dirty challenges to information she has provided. Too, as pointed out, women are thought of as sources for topics such as health, the family and children.

  • Jion mama
  • Jion mama
  • Robert Knilands

    “An issue should not be made of the fact, for example, that a reporter is quoting a black female.”
    Irony alert! Isn’t this piece making an issue of it?
    Well, at least someone was courageous enough to refer to a quota this time around. I guess that’s progress.
    Source counts are a weak way to analyze coverage, though, for the reasons described by Jodi Kantor. Anyone who covers a city council with 7 or 8 men out of 9 people is going to have an unbalanced count. Twisting that reality into a “conclusion” likely reached before a word of research is not accomplishing much.
    Wouldn’t it be great if Poynter ever got back to its alleged mission of improving journalism? Counts and quotas aren’t really achieving that goal.

  • Laura Soto-Barra

    Well done again, Alicia!

    She did this analysis before at NPR when she was the Ombudsman: