December 9, 2015
(Photo by Matthew Keefe, via Flickr)

(Photo from Matthew Keefe, via Flickr)

As an expert on media ethics, I’ve been a frequent guest on radio and television programs for more than a decade. But this week was a first for me: When I joined the CBC’s morning news show, The Current, to talk about the ethics of which name to call the terrorist group fighting for control of Iraq and Syria, all of the other guests were women. And the host was a woman.

We were not talking about parenting, dating, the glass ceiling or any other topic that could be perceived as a women’s issue. We were talking about the meaning of the words world leaders and journalists use to describe the most dangerous terrorism organization in the world.

I’m a veteran of live broadcast talking shows. Having an all-women panel in this segment created a notable difference for me as a participant. I suspect the audience had a different experience too, but you’ll have to listen to it and decide for yourself.

Those of us who regularly appear as broadcast guests know that there are a couple of dirty tricks you can use to hijack the conversation. The one used most often is to talk for the entire time without taking a breath, no matter what question the host asks you. This is sometimes employed by guests who get the first question and don’t care what the other discussants have to say because they think their words are more important.

The other device is to interrupt the host or a guest to make a point. Some shows actually encourage you to do this. But it’s very difficult, especially if the guests are in remote studios.

As a guest panelist this week on the CBC, I found myself marveling at how secure I felt that I would be able to make coherent contributions even though I was the last one questioned. Zeba Khan delivered the best explanation I’ve heard for using Daesh, rather than ISIS or ISIL. Bessma Momani then described how we create Islamophobia that plays into the hands of terrorist recruiters.

By being smart, competent and thoughtful, both of them made me sound smarter, more competent and more thoughtful. This great conversation was moderated by Anna Maria Tremonti and organized by producer Pacinthe Mattar.

Having smart women talking about a non-female topic on a general-interest show was so novel to me that I decided to share my surprise with Mattar. Was that an accident? Was she aware that we were all women? She wrote back:

“I was very aware of the fact that it was an all-women panel, and I’m struck and sad but not surprised that that hasn’t happened to you before! Our show has an all-star female roster — from Anna Maria, to our executive producer, to our senior producer, our documentary producer, our technicians, and producers like me. So it’s a value we hold dear, as do the men who work here too.”

There you have it, an argument for diversity of all sorts. Would a show not dominated by women ever field an all-female guest panel on a topic that’s not about women? I’m not sure they would, certainly not on purpose.

In an era where we struggle to hear women’s voices in the marketplace of ideas, as well as the voices of others who aren’t white men, this case study demonstrates that the makeup of an organization is likely to influence the diversity of its content.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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