Independent fact-checkers are the first line of defense against misinformation.
They debunk fake news stories, fact-check politicians’ statements and partner with technology companies to limit the spread of falsehoods. They tell people what’s true and what’s false on a daily basis. And they ask the public to trust them to make those decisions.
But are fact-checking outlets representative of their diverse readers?
According to a Poynter analysis of fact-checking outlets around the world, about 41% of fact-checkers are women. In more than half of the individual organizations analyzed, women made up less than 50% of the editorial staff.
To calculate those numbers, we looked at the public staff pages for 36 signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. Gender was determined by analyzing the pronouns used in fact-checkers’ staff descriptions and social media bios. Then, we tallied the number of men and women per organization.
And it isn’t just fact-checking staffers that are predominantly men. When looking at the heads of each fact-checking site surveyed, women are further outnumbered.
Poynter found that about 71% of fact-checking sites are run by men. Our analysis only included one top leader, such as an executive director, founder or editor-in-chief, per fact-checking site. (Disclosure: The director of the IFCN is a man.)
While striking, our data is limited.
According to the Duke Reporters’ Lab, there are more than 150 fact-checking outlets worldwide — we analyzed just a fifth of them. And per an IFCN survey from last summer, just under half of the fact-checking staffs polled have fewer than five employees. Our analysis included just 309 individual journalists.
At the same time, the gender breakdown of fact-checking staffs is very similar to that of traditional media outlets in the United States.
According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual diversity survey, women made up 41.7% of newsrooms last year, an increase of more than 2% from the year before. Online-only news outlets had a larger proportion of women, with 47.8%.
While participation in ASNE’s survey has lagged in recent years, the results showed a positive uptick in the representation of women in American newsrooms.
“The demographic data from participating organizations, particularly online-only organizations, is encouraging,” said Meredith Clark, lead researcher and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, in a press release. “In these newsrooms, journalists from underrepresented groups are closing the gap, and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds make up a big part of those gains.”
Still, as media outlets in the U.S. continue to reckon with a lack of gender parity in their newsrooms, so do fact-checkers — in spite of their relatively short, reformist history.
An industry-wide problem
As Lucas Graves noted in his 2016 book, “Deciding What’s True,” the rapid growth of fact-checking in the late 2000s was, in many ways, a product of the faults of the mainstream journalism industry.
Fact-checking seeks to supplement horse-race political coverage, which often neglects taking on policy issues in favor of reporting on palace intrigue. Fact-checkers are also more accustomed to small staffs and a lack of advertising revenue. They often view themselves as journalism reformists intent on changing the status quo.
But when it comes to gender parity, fact-checkers face the same challenges as the larger media industry. And the reason why has to do with how close they are to that industry.
“I’m not surprised,” said Tai Nalon, director of Brazilian fact-checking outlet Aos Fatos, of Poynter’s analysis. “I feel that, in leadership roles, women are underrepresented the industry and there’s no way it would be different in the fact-checking industry.”
In Brazil, women rarely lead newspapers. Nalon said she never felt that the media industry was eager to promote women to leadership roles or let them create their own projects — so she and several other women set out on their own.
In Brazil, three women founded major fact-checking projects: Nalon at Aos Fatos, Cristina Tardáguila (who was recently named associate director of Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network) at Agência Lupa and Natalia Viana at Agência Pública. In neighboring Argentina, Laura Zommer is the director of Chequeado, another successful fact-checking site.
“Women had to innovate and do something like launching a fact-checking initiative because they didn’t have the space in the regular, traditional industry,” Nalon said. “I feel that our culture in Latin America also doesn’t help us to reach or to achieve a position of leadership because the newsroom political talk is done in environments that are not ‘female-friendly.’”
According to Poynter’s analysis, Aos Fatos has gender parity while Lupa has more female than male editorial employees. Nalon said she has a hiring policy that makes room for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, which has resulted in a more diverse staff.
“It was a path that was led by women,” Nalon said of fact-checking in Brazil. “I feel that this kind of mentality should be applied when hiring someone.”
According to Poynter’s analysis, the fact-checkers’ with the highest proportion of female staffers are (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact, Faktograf.hr and the Agence France-Presse’s English operation, with 62%, 66% and 75%, respectively. Fourteen fact-checkers analyzed had editorial staffs that constituted of at least 50%.
But that’s not the case everywhere in the world.
The least gender-diverse fact-checking staffs are Lead Stories and Teyit, which both have teams with 20% or fewer women. An additional six fact-checkers have only 30% or fewer women on their staffs.
What’s lost when fact-checkers lack gender parity?
“When you are really small, gender matters because it affects relationships — it affects the way people perceive the work of others,” Nalon said. “At Aos Fatos, it’s not just a matter of gender — it’s a matter of origin, too. We try to hire people of different backgrounds, such as where they studied, what region of the country there are from.”
It’s not just diverse newsrooms that some fact-checkers struggle with. They also struggle to attract diverse readers.
In fall 2017, Full Fact, a British fact-checking charity, published original research about the gender makeup of its audience. What it found was that 64% of sessions on Full Fact’s website were categorized by Google Analytics as being from men, while only 36% of sessions were from women — numbers that have balanced somewhat since then. Additionally, name recognition among men was 3% higher than women, according to a YouGov survey.
Last July, Full Fact expanded that research to other fact-checkers around the world, four of which shared their data with the organization. It found that both PolitiFact and Teyit, a Turkish fact-checking site, had more than twice as many male readers as females, according to Google Analytics. The former’s audience on Facebook was somewhat less imbalanced, while other fact-checkers worldwide saw larger disparities between men and women.
The reason fact-checkers are struggling to reach more women is complicated, according to Amy Sippitt, impact and research manager at Full Fact. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg scenario.
“Most of the surveys that we have suggest that men are more engaged in politics and potentially more knowledgeable about politics, or at least more kind of confident in that political knowledge. So we need to kind of dig more into how much is it particularly fact-checking that’s not appealing,” she told Poynter in a podcast in December. “Obviously then from there still must be things that we can be doing that would improve our appeal to women.”
Part of that might come down to the selection of which facts to check and how to communicate them, Sippitt wrote in July.
Last year, a fact-checking project called FemFacts launched in Europe to give women more of a voice in media. In Colombia, El Poder de Elegir, part of the nonprofit organization Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls), has also aimed to elevate female representation in fact-checking.
Theoretically, fact-checking organizations could improve the breadth and appeal of their coverage, and thereby grow their audiences, with more women among top ranks. Poynter found that men outnumber women as heads of mainstream outlets by about seven to three.
Still, there are some notable exceptions — and they offer visibility for women who might aspire to lead a fact-checking newsroom someday.
“One aspect I think the sector does well on is we have some impressive female leaders around the world who are great role models,” Sippitt said in an email. “At Full Fact, we have women heading up our automated fact-checking, communications and research work, and most of our management team are women.”
Women at the forefront
Aside from Brazil, women also lead fact-checking operations in countries from Spain to the Philippines.
In the latter country, fact-checkers have faced mounting pressure from the government, which recently accused them of coordinating a destabilization plot. In the past, fact-checkers have also been the target of intense online harassment for their work debunking falsehoods on Facebook.
But despite that hostile environment, Yvonne Chua said gender hasn’t really been a major barrier for getting women into Philippine newsrooms.
“I think it’s the exact opposite in the Philippines,” said the director of Vera Files of Poynter’s analysis. “If you look at the two (IFCN) verified signatories from the Philippines (Vera Files and Rappler), they are led by women. If you look at the fact-checking units, they’re also led by women. In Vera Files’ case, there are more women than men since I was leading it in January.”
Chua attributes that fact to the overall gender breakdown of the Philippines.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the country was roughly divided between men and women as of March 2019. But women were more likely to have a college education and less likely to be poor if they were listed as the head of a household.
“If you look at the profile of news organizations in the Philippines, the women have broken through the glass ceiling since the 1980s,” Chua said. “The composition of newsrooms was increasingly becoming women.”
In the U.S., it’s a different picture. Of the five major newspapers in the country, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, only the last is led by a woman.
Angie Holan, editor of PolitiFact, said that gender parity in political journalism is even worse.
“In the United States and in American journalism, the top-tier editing ranks still seem to skew male,” she said. “Now there are, I think, some noted female political editors at many news organizations. But like politics itself, I just think it’s male-dominated — and if fact-checking follows that trend, it doesn’t particularly surprise me.”
Still, fact-checking has a few unique benefits that make it a bit more friendly for women, Holan said. For starters, it has more predictable hours than a traditional political reporting gig, which makes it easier to have a work-life balance. The international fact-checking community has also been a better source of support than the general media industry, Nalon said.
Despite that, Poynter’s analysis shows that fact-checking continues to be somewhat male-dominated worldwide. And for women who want to lead the industry, Holan has one piece of advice.
“I would encourage women journalists who want to lead to set goals and achieve them and not let any extra barriers get in their way,” she said.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Science Feedback’s fact-checking staff is less than 20% female. Its entire operation is less than 20% female, but its editorial team is 33% female.