Finally – More Women Are Heading America’s Top News Organizations

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Photo by Matthias Wagner on Unsplash

The good news for women in journalism keeps coming. In the past year, women have stepped up into key leadership roles at a growing number of major news outlets.

Photo credit: Axel Springer Alyson Shontell will be Fortune’s next–and first female–Editor in Chief starting on October 6, 2021.

The latest: Alyson Shontell this month becomes Fortune’s first female editor-in-chief in the magazine’s 96-year history. Shontell comes to the new position after serving as co-editor-in-chief of Insider’s business division.

She takes the helm of a publication whose recent history is emblematic of the disruption of the magazine industry. Fortune built its reputation as one of the premier magazines published by the Time Inc. empire. In January 2018, Time Inc and its publications FortuneMoneySports Illustrated, People and Time was acquired by Meredith Corporation, itself a media empire based in Des Moines, that owns television stations, online properties and magazines and traces its own history back to 1902. But Meredith was just a temporary waystation for Fortune – in  November of that year, Meredith sold Fortune to Thai billionaire Chatchaval Jiaravanon for $150 million.

Fortune despite its change of ownership remains well regarded among business publications. However, Shontell takes the helm at a time when Fortune is losing readers and advertisers due to the ongoing struggle of legacy publications to find a way forward in the digital age.

The appointment of Shontell to the top of Fortune’s masthead may bring new energy to the magazine, and giving the top spot to a woman is another first worth celebrating.

But you do have to wonder why we are still celebrating firsts, why it has taken so long for major news outlets to promote women and people of color to the top leadership spots. Research has shown that diversity within news organizations leads to more diversity in news content — both the kinds of stories covered and the diversity of experts and sources quoted in articles and interviewed on television. Many news outlets are making considerable effort to diversity their sources.

But there is a major platform where women’s voices remain largely absent – the five big Sunday morning television shows.

These highly influential shows are where experts, elected officials, thought leaders and newsmakers often help shape the public discourse on key issues. And thanks largely to the election, their audiences grew last year though falling significantly this year. Who they invite to be guests deserves scrutiny both for diversity of the participants and for the views they bring to the table. 

For an example of story policy, Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd, made news in December 2018 when Todd announced that a special on climate change would not include climate deniers. What gets said on these shows is amplified across the news sphere, and can legitimize fringe positions in a false equivalence that can ripple through the nation’s halls of power. This is why many outlets also decided not to give a platform to virus and vaccine naysayers.

A yearlong review by the Women’s Media Center of five Sunday morning shows found that more than two-thirds of the guests in 2020 were men, and most were White men. The study also found that of the 258 episodes analyzed, not a single regular or substitute host was a person of color. Looking at both regular hosts and substitutes, there were 15 hosts in 2020: 10 were White men, five were White women.

The report, released September 21, looked at NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation, ABC’s This Week, Fox News Channel’s Fox News Sunday, and CNN’s State of the Union. 

“With White men dominating these major Sunday news shows, it is White male perspectives that shape the culture by telling us who we are, what our roles in society are, and what we can be,” Julie Burton, president and CEO of the Women’s Media Center, said in a release. “This marginalizes women and people of color. It also results in missing major stories and an expanded audience. Both the industry and the public are ill-served by the underrepresentation of women and people of color.”

During the survey period, CBS News was led by a Susan Zirinsky. ABC is now led by Kimberly Godwin but she didn’t take the top job until this past April. Women in these leadership roles can, and should, make a difference in the diversity of their news content and that includes more diverse guests on this influential Sunday morning shows. But other research suggests women at the top can’t do it alone. They also need more diverse staffs, and that’s one goal embraced by these new more diverse top editors.

The Women’s Media Center study cited research by Professor Carolyn Byerly and Katherine A. McGraw, which found that when women made up at least 45% of the reporting staff at a news organization, “there was a significant statistical increase in the number of stories with women as the main subject.”

It also makes a difference when a news outlet conducts a census that shows the diversity, or lack of, among those who produce its stories and those featured in those stories. A few weeks ago, New Yorker staffer Erin Overbey tweeted out her own survey of the venerable magazine, finding that, according to an article in the Washington Post: “Almost none of the 40,000-plus feature articles and reviews published by the magazine over the decades had been edited by a Black person, and only a tiny fraction of the total were written by Black, Latino and Asian American women — not surprising, perhaps, in a magazine whose history stretches to 1925. But in a few narrow categories (such as the magazine’s Comments section), she determined that the New Yorker’s writers were less diverse over the past 30 years than in earlier decades.”

Outlets like Fortune, the Sunday Morning Shows and The New Yorker all share a stature that could be enhanced by more diversity within – like Fortune naming Shontell editor in chief. But at the same time, they also need to do more to assure diversity among those appearing as guests on talk shows and used as sources in reporting. Thanks to a number of journalism organizations and outlets, there are toolkits now available to help journalists find diverse experts. 

It can take leadership at the top to start to move the diversity needle in newsrooms. An example is Maribel Perez Wadsworth, the president of news at Gannett and publisher of USA Today, who calls diversity a “declared choice.” She committed to have Gannett’s local newsrooms match the demographics of their community by 2025. And she’s made progress. One success story, Gannett’s El Paso newsroom is now 58% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and more than 50% of its leaders are Latinx.

As a Neiman Lab article on newsroom diversity noted: “Wadsworth understands instinctively that the more diverse her staff, the more their reporting will reflect their diverse communities.”

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Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist who moved to Bainbridge Island after several decades reporting from Washington, D.C. She taught journalism at Georgetown University and is former Washington editor of Glamour.

1 COMMENT

  1. Great story, Linda. I agree that it’s a shame we still have to celebrate real achievers as “the first woman who.” As Gloria Steinem told us, we won’t be truly equal until we can celebrate a mediocre woman making it.

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