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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Jack Kelly

“Not good enough”: gender imbalance drives efforts to use women as sources more often

Kate McCarthy, director of programs for the Women’s Media Center, speaks about SheSource, an online database of media-experienced women experts, to the staff of Voice of America in September 2018. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Media Center.


Journalism has a gender problem.

In 2019, according to the Women’s Media Center’s Status of Women in the U.S. Media report, men accounted for 63 percent of bylines and other credits in print, Internet, TV and wire news. The same study found that men who report on congress had nearly two times as many followers as women working the same beat.

However, the issue of underrepresentation for women in journalism extends well beyond the makeup of newsrooms — it also exists in the stories they tell.

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, began grappling with this problem in her own stories in 2013.

“Representing women fairly and proportionally was something that I valued and thought was important, but I didn’t know if I was actually doing it. I wanted to find out,” LaFrance said.

She partnered with a graduate student at MIT to analyze 136 stories she wrote for such outlets as The Washington Post, Denver Post, Honolulu Civil Beat and other outlets across a 12-month span. The results, she declared in a 2013 Medium post about the analysis, were not good.

LaFrance found that of the nearly 2,100 people she mentioned in about 130 stories she wrote that year, just 25 percent were women. Further, 52 of those articles failed to mention women at all.

Ever since, LaFrance has consciously sought to improve these numbers. She has rooted her efforts in cultivating new relationships with “really smart women studying the things I was writing about.”

“Stories are stronger when journalists are more deliberate about looking for different perspectives,” LaFrance said. “Over a period of weeks, I made a really dedicated effort to ask people for recommendations [for women sources]. Making sure that you’re thoughtful that you have a mix of people with different backgrounds … ends up paying dividends.”

LaFrance argues, though, that diverse voices shouldn’t be included arbitrarily and that hard quotas on diversity of sources in individual stories are a bad idea.

“If you apply too rigid a framework to what we are trying to do, it doesn’t work,” LaFrance said. “There are so many editorial decisions that go into every sentence of a story, sciencing too much [making sourcing too systematic] doesn’t make sense.”

The push to equally represent women in works of journalism is also being taken on by media organizations as a whole. At the BBC, the 50:50 Challenge is an initiative that started with one program from the broadcaster and has now spread throughout the company.

The challenge is aimed at equally representing men and women across all BBC channels. Amanda Ruggeri, a senior editor and reporter with BBC Future, outlined how her team is tracking their work for the challenge.

“The way our team is counting it is in three different main ways,” Ruggeri said. “One is bylines, which is quite simple. The second is references in stories. For our purposes, that means not only who we are interviewing, but also anyone mentioned in a story, even historical figures. The third strand is pictures. Are we showing more men in pictures? Or women?”

Ruggeri said having the 50:50 Challenge at the forefront of the BBC’s reporting has made a “huge difference” in the stories they have produced.

“Not only do we believe this is the right thing to do, it is also something that makes your journalism better,” she said. “It helps us deliver fair and accurate journalism. Sometimes we’ll only catch our own bias if we speak to someone that has a different perspective than the usual, established pool of sources.”

Ruggeri also emphasized that BBC Future doesn’t seek out a woman as a source just because she is a woman, but that it strives to find the best sources and most qualified experts for every story.

Beyond news organizations, nonprofits such as the Women’s Media Center also seek to tackle the problem of underrepresentation of women in journalism. Founded in 2005, the WMC works “to raise the visibility, viability and decision-making power of women” in media and advocates to make sure women’s voices are being heard.

Part of this push is the nonprofit’s database of experts, WMC SheSource. The online tool is meant to debunk the excuse from journalists that they are incapable of finding women who are experts on a topic they are reporting on, according to Kate McCarty, who oversees WMC SheSource and is director of programs for WMC.

“With SheSource, we can find women who can talk about pretty much any issue under the sun,” McCarthy said. “Journalists saying, ‘We can’t find any women,’ is not good enough.”

WMC SheSource was originally founded by the White House Project, a different nonprofit that promoted women in government but transitioned to WMC in 2009. Since the transition, the database has grown from about 400 experts to more than 1,500.

The WMC is not alone in its mission to connect reporters with women. 500 Women Scientists, a self-described grassroots organization working to build an “inclusive scientific community,” has created its own database to connect reporters, educators and lawmakers with women scientists. Similarly, an organization called Women Also Know Stuff, has developed a database of experts who can speak about topics from African politics to nuclear weapons to terrorism.

Journalists can turn to a number of other databases as well:

Do you know about other resources we should add to this list? Please email with a brief description and link.


For information on the conference hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” on April 26, see this summary.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.




When news orgs turn to stock imagery: An ethics Q & A with Mark E. Johnson

University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication student Becca Beato works with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer’s Mike Haskey during a photojournalism workshop at the Georgia National Fair on Friday, October 5, 2018, in Perry, Georgia. (Photo/Mark E. Johnson,


As the practices of journalism continue to become more digitally oriented, they’re also becoming more visual. Metrics for more than the last two decades have shown that having a visual attached to a story, tweet or Facebook post increases engagement.

Despite these trends, photojournalists and visual journalists are often the first members of a newsroom to be the victims of budget cuts. As a result, news organizations have begun to turn to stock imagery and community photographers to help fill their newsrooms’ visual needs.

Mark E. Johnson, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Georgia with a wealth of experience as a photo and visual journalist, sees these shifts as serious ethical issues for media companies.

In a recent interview with the Center for Journalism Ethics, Johnson spoke about stock imagery, click-driven content and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some ethical concerns with using stock imagery to help drive engagement?

Every study out there shows that having some sort of visual associated with your social media or online posts drives engagement and increases engagement. If you have an image in your Twitter feed, people are more likely to click on it. Same for Facebook. The ethical issue that I have there is, for news organizations that are not creating imagery, they’re tending to lean on stock libraries. The problem that you run into then is that you have some dramatic image that actually has nothing to do, whatsoever, with the story. You have generic people sitting behind a desk or vacant classrooms.

There was an interesting article a couple of years ago where someone found every usage of one stock photo of a classroom. That classroom photo was associated with rising test scores, falling test scores, shootings in schools, rapes in classrooms and sexual assaults by teachers on students. It was all of these different stories with the exact same visual that had nothing to do with any of these events. The ethical issue that you run into there is if you are producing works of journalism, then you need to be producing works of journalism all the way through. You wouldn’t just grab a generic quote and stick it in the middle of your story. Why would you have a generic image and stick that at the top of your story? Or embed it in your social media post?

What are some other ethical issues fueled by online visuals?

Another issue is the use of online galleries to drive traffic. More and more news organizations over the last decade have taken to dispatching a photographer out to some event and telling them, “shoot as many pictures as you can and post them all online.” The idea then is to use those large galleries to get people to click through looking for pictures of themselves or their friends. And there isn’t necessarily a journalistic narrative there. All they are trying to do is generate more clicks. There is no real journalism in these posts. You have to ask yourself, “If it’s not journalism, then what’s the purpose of this gallery?”  

Mark E. Johnson, senior lecturer, journalism

Why have we seen an increase in use of stock imagery?

There are a couple of issues that have come up here. One, the visual staffs have not been able to defend themselves against cuts. Part of the reason for that is that visual journalists tend not to rise up the food chain of an organization. There are a very small number of publications that have had someone at the top of the masthead that has come from the visual side. When you look at the upper management structure of newsrooms, your editor-in-chiefs, executive editors and managing editors almost all come from the words side. So one of the things that needs to be done is to get visual people to do the work to be able to rise up through the management chain so they are represented at the table during the big budget meeting where decisions about cuts are made and they can say, “you can’t eliminate the photo staffs. You can’t eliminate the visual staffs, because that’s the first point of engagement we have with our audiences.” Every metric that we’ve looked at in the last 25 years shows that visuals drive engagement, why aren’t those voices being heard higher up the food chain?

The second thing is that we need to remind newsrooms that they have an ethical responsibility to accurately portray their communities. And when you do a story about issues in a school and you grab a generic image, you’re not ethically representing what’s going on in your community. You may feel that you are because the facts in the story are true, but the image is essentially a lie. And I don’t think there are enough folks that are pointing out that stock images on news stories are effectively lies. It cheapens the overall product. That’s a conversation that newsrooms need to be having. They need to be considering where in the story process they start thinking about visuals? The simple answer is, as soon as they start working on the story. You can’t divorce the text from the visuals anymore. On every platform that’s out there you need to have both. It has to be a part of a conversation right from the start.

Why have newsrooms started sending out a photographer to produce image galleries?

The business model for online sites is clicks. The more clicks you get, the more revenue you generate. You sell ad spaces on a cost per impression platform, so for every 1,000 clicks a page gets, you get paid $20 from an advertiser. So you want to generate as many clicks as you possibly can, and visual galleries are the quickest way to generate a lot of them for a relatively low cost because you can find someone in your community who just loves taking pictures and wants to go to an event. They spend 90 minutes at that event and take a picture of every face that they can find. And then they dump all of that stuff on the website and push it out on social media and the front page and promote it as a gallery. In turn, you have people that were at the event clicking through trying to find themselves. But there’s no story there. Ask any word-side editor if they would ever send a reporter out to an event and tell them, “just collect the names of as many people that are there and let’s just publish a list online.” What’s the value of that?

Is this something that affects smaller newsrooms more than major ones?

I think that if you look at the major news organizations, they have a higher ethical standard. They have a stronger commitment to journalism because they can afford to have that stronger commitment. It’s pretty rare that you see stock photos in The Washington Post or The New York Times. It does happen from time-to-time, but it tends to be more on the feature sections, and almost never in the news sections.

There was a terrible incident that someone pointed out to me last year where a local radio station in Utica, New York, did a story about some sort of gun incident in the city. They grabbed a stock photo of a brick building out of focus and there was barbed wire in the foreground. When you look at that photo long enough you realize it’s actually a very specific piece of barbed wire in front of a very specific building. The building was the entrance to Auschwitz. The story was two guys who were arrested for having guns. The stock photo they grabbed was of a concentration camp. Would you just insert something into the middle of a story about the Holocaust? You would never do that. Why are you doing it with visuals?

Johnson wrote about stock imagery last year in this piece for Poynter.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

New funding models mean new ethical challenges for media companies

Photo: The Colorado Sun

It’s no secret that in recent decades the financial woes of traditional newspapers have continued to get worse. It’s also no secret that Americans’ trust in the news media has dropped over the past decade.

According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center on the state of the news media, total estimated newspaper industry advertising revenue in 2017 was $16.5 billion. That’s a 10 percent drop from 2016 and a 66 percent decrease from when advertising revenue hit its peak in 2000. And while circulation revenue has incrementally increased in the last 18 years, those gains are just a drop in the bucket when compared to the industry’s losses.

A separate report from Pew published earlier this year found that just 21 percent of U.S. adults had “a lot of trust” in national news organizations. The same report stated that 29 percent of American adults trusted the same outlets “not too much/none at all.”

Decreases in advertising revenue have left media organizations looking for new sources of income and, in some cases, turning to completely new funding models. But as journalism funding models change, so do the ethical challenges associated with them. Media companies have to keep the lights on and earn audience trust.

Ensuring the independence of non-profit news

One alternative to traditional, advertising supported media is grant- and donation-based nonprofit investigative journalism. According to Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), the model has seen a rise in popularity since 2009 but has been around for decades.

“Nonprofit investigative journalism has been a part of the American journalistic landscape for more than four decades,” Hall said. “But starting at about 2009, you did see a sharp increase in the number of investigative newsrooms being formed here in the United States.”

WCIJ was one of those newsrooms.

Having launched in 2009, WCIJ is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that receives approximately 85 percent of its funding from donations from foundations and individuals.

This model of funding presents some obvious ethical challenges: How does an organization maintain independence when it is almost completely dependent on financial support from donors?

WCIJ, Hall said, confronts this concern head on. The fundraising policy of the organization makes it abundantly clear that it maintains editorial independence from those who want to support their work financially. And as a second level of assurance, WCIJ’s board of directors has the final say on whether or not the organization will accept a contribution.

Additionally, those looking to donate must do so publicly, as WCIJ lists the names of all organizations and individuals who provide funds to the Center on their website, no matter the size of the contribution. Hall stated that he has torn up donations that did not have a name attached to them and has returned others that came from elected officials or other parties that might have resulted in a conflict of interest. Transparency is key to earning the trust of readers.

Launching with cyptocurrency

Maintaining editorial independence from financial supporters is not a challenge unique to nonprofit newsrooms. It’s also an issue for media companies that are adopting brand-new funding models.

Take, for example, The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned, Denver-based news organization that began publishing in September.

The Sun is supported financially in three primary ways: Donations from companies and individuals, memberships — subscriptions — to The Sun and grants from Civil, an organization interested in using blockchain technology to build a sustainable model of local journalism.

The organization takes a similar approach to WCIJ in its handling of donations. The Sun publicly lists the names of its sponsors on its website and also includes the names of members who have contributed more than $1,000 in support on the same page.

Larry Ryckman, editor of The Colorado Sun, said the decision to share this information publicly is a commitment to being transparent to The Sun’s readers.

“We feel it’s critically important for us to be transparent with our community and for people to know where we get our significant money,” he said.

Ryckman also said The Sun is clear with sponsors that it maintains editorial independence, and that if they do write a story about a sponsor, the sponsor’s support of The Sun is noted in the story.

Support from Civil, though, is what makes The Sun’s funding model unique. Civil has provided the Denver-based publication with several grants to help it get started, Ryckman said, but the ultimate goal is to eventually be sustainably funded through memberships, sponsors and, potentially, investors. Journalists, though, would always maintain a majority stake in the company, according to Ryckman.

“The whole notion of Civil was … to give us a fighting chance to make our case to the people of Colorado. And that’s exactly what Civil has done,” Ryckman said. “We are adding more paying members every day. The [future] funding model to me is not unclear at all.”

Ryckman further explained that while the idea of being financially sustained by blockchain-traded cryptocurrencies is intriguing, The Colorado Sun is “about great local journalism. Not about tokens.”

“The only way The Colorado Sun can be successful and sustainable is for the people of Colorado to support it,” he said.

The Colorado Sun is advertisement-free and stories are available to anyone, not just members.

Tapping investors instead of advertisers

This advertisement-free model has also been adopted by The Athletic, a sports journalism outlet that has seen rapid growth since its launch in January 2016. Fueled by venture capital, the site, which requires a subscription to access stories, has been able to expand into nearly 50 markets in just two years, and has added some of the biggest names in sports writing to its staff.

However, venture capital-backed journalism and paywalls introduce ethical concerns. Adam Hansmann, co-founder and chief operating officer of The Athletic, said the sports journalism company has addressed these concerns straight on.

“Investors have zero involvement in any kind of editorial decision making,” Hansmann said. He also reported that there are “multiple filters” between investors and the editorial team, and that he and CEO Alex Mather, his co-founder, “rarely” have any involvement in the editorial side of The Athletic. Instead, they prefer to leave those decisions to the editorial team they have hired and to focus on growing the business.

Hansmann also acknowledged that ethical questions about the site’s paywalls, and whom they provide access to, are valid. In response, he pointed out that 30 years ago the majority of American households received a newspaper on their doorstep every morning, and that The Athletic believes a market in which people are willing to pay for the news they want still exists.

And based on the subscriber-retention rates of The Athletic, it appears the company is having success creating those markets. Hansmann said that more than 90 percent of users renew their subscriptions each year.

Additionally, Hansmann said The Athletic unlocks stories when it is in the public’s best interest, and referenced the media organization’s free coverage of the trial of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

In an era of real uncertainty about news media revenue, funding models for new organizations are changing. Whether this transition back to reader-oriented and supported local journalism will help return Americans’ trust to news organizations remains to be seen.


Additional reading:

Ira Basen on Brand Journalism


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Playing it straight in polarized times: A Q&A with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert

Craig Gilbert – Washington Bureau Chief, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In less than a month, a highly divided American electorate will head to the polls for the U.S. midterm elections. Craig Gilbert, Washington Bureau Chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has covered every presidential election since 1988 and written extensively about the significant partisan divide now separating Republicans and Democrats. The Center for Journalism Ethics recently spoke with Gilbert about the ethical challenges of covering politics and the upcoming midterm elections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You’ve covered numerous presidential campaigns, midterm elections and everything in between. What do you think the biggest shift has been in politics from when you first started covering them to today?

The biggest shift has certainly been the level of partisan division and the disappearance of political differences within parties, as the parties grow more homogenous internally, and they grow farther apart. I don’t know if that’s the biggest change, but that’s one that comes to mind. For example, in Wisconsin, you had some Republicans that were more liberal than Democrats. And some Democrats that were more conservative than some Republicans. You had people with different views, for example, on an issue like abortion within each party. So you had Democratic congressmen who were pro-life on abortion, and you had voters who were in one party routinely crossing over to vote for candidates in the other party. It was more unpredictable in many ways and took a bit of heat out of partisan conflicts. And so that’s been a massive change in our politics.


How do you think reporters have adapted to this new, hyper-polarized political climate?

I think it has made it more challenging to talk to people across that divide. And it’s not just true of journalism, but of lots of institutions. There’s always been an element of that, and there’s always been perceptions of bias, there’s always been partisan push back on journalism. But to the degree that you have people organizing in these camps, then you have more people seeing stories through a partisan filter. In many cases, on the same story, you’ll get flack from people on both sides because they’re reading the story differently. So the challenge is finding a way to write your stories that doesn’t pull any punches but can be read by both sides as straightforward. That’s always part of your job as a journalist, to try to see things from multiple sides, and try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and imagine how they might be perceiving an issue. But I think that task is even more important today, because you have to do all the things you’ve always done as a journalist, in terms of pursuing the truth, but you have to be careful to play it straight and be dispassionate as well.


So the most important thing for reporters to do is tell it how it is?

Absolutely, you have to be true to the fundamentals. When I say play it straight, I mean use simple, factual language. You don’t have to load up your stories with a lot of modifiers. You just need to tell it like it is. A lot of it is the way you tell those stories, and I think it actually enhances the credibility of your writing, the more restrained you are in your language. I think a lot of it is kind of the way you communicate, not just the substance of what you’re communicating in the story.


What are some best practices for reporters when using anonymous sources in stories?

We’re pretty conservative about that [at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]. I’m very conservative about that. A lot of times people use anonymous sources when it’s not that hard to get somebody on the record. One of the problems in Washington is that it’s become somewhat routine, as an example, for staff members on Capitol Hill to ask to never be quoted. Which is fine, but one option is just to say, “If you want to be part of this story, and want to express your point of view, you have to go on the record. Or if you don’t want to go on the record, then your boss has to go on the record.”

So it’s very rare that you are actually in a situation where you’re faced with an actual choice between having a vital piece of information where the source won’t go on the record and having to decide whether or not to use it. Now, I’m talking about the kind of reporting I do. I think it’s probably different for White House reporters. I’m not a White House reporter. It may be different for some kind of quasi-investigative, Washington reporting. Look at the kind of stuff Bob Woodward does. Obviously, he uses a different set of rules when it comes to that, but most of the time in the reporting I do – political reporting, congressional reporting – there’s just no reason you need to do it. If somebody doesn’t want to go on the record, fine. But a lot of times when people want to go off the record, it’s just to say things that are very scripted anyway. So what’s the point?


In early September The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed written by someone in the Trump Administration. What are the ethics surrounding this kind of piece?

I think the biggest problem with a story like that is you’re asking everybody to trust you. And that’s certainly not the way we would normally operate. You want to operate with transparency. So [through publishing the piece], you’re saying, “You’re going to have to trust us about everything.” And I’m not questioning them or doubting them, but you’re saying to your readers, “You have to trust us.” A lot of the speculation is about how prominent is this person? And that’s a huge thing. If it turns out it was, and I don’t think it is, Mike Pence, that would be a very different thing than if it’s an undersecretary of state. Or if it’s the chief of staff, that would be a very different thing than if it were somebody at a lower staff level. That’s huge. And we don’t know. So they’re saying, “Trust us that this is a ‘senior official,'” but we don’t know what senior means. That’s one big set of concerns.


Finally, let’s transition to a topic that you, especially in your Wisconsin Voter blog, spend a lot of time on: polls. What are some things that reporters need to keep in mind when citing polls, given that they can sometimes be misleading?

I think polls are generally valid instruments. It’s how you use them. It’s just like anything else, any other piece of data. Take, for example, sports statistics. They can be totally misunderstood, they can be completely misread and misused and used selectively, it’s all about how you use them. I just think it’s so important that when you’re writing about polling that A, you consider the data and where it’s coming from. And you have to have faith in the in the survey data that you’re using. And B, you never want to put too much faith in a single poll or single data point. You just have to have some basic statistical understanding so you’re not writing a whole story based on a finding from a sample of 50 people.

When I write about polls, I try to check them in lots of different ways. I try not to get too hung up on one data point. I try not to get too hung up on the horse race part of the polls. I’m more interested in the trends in public opinion and finding the patterns behind the polls. I try, when I’m looking at one really interesting result, to go back and see if there’s evidence for that in polls by other pollsters, or in previous polls by the same pollster. If I’m trying to drill down in any detail I’ll aggregate a lot of polls so that I have a more reliable set of data to trust. It’s all about how you use polls.