In 2015, Ed Yong, a science writer for The Atlantic, wrote a story based on a conference he attended that quoted six men and one woman. The six men were “all quoted for their professional expertise,” while the woman’s quote “was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.” The disparities, he writes, “leapt out at me, but only after the piece was published. They felt all the more egregious because the CRISPR field [detailed in the story] is hardly short of excellent, prominent female scientists.”
Inspired by a critical analysis of her sources by his colleague, Adrienne LaFrance, who found that of the people she mentioned or quoted in her stories, only 22 percent were women, Yong analyzed his own work, and found a similar ratio.
“That surprised me,” he writes. “I knew it wasn’t going to be 50 percent, but I didn’t think it would be that low, either. I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”
He resolved to do something to change the ratio. And the first step in his process was simply “spending more time searching for women to interview.” He has a standard process for finding sources for any story; “To find more female sources, I just spend a little more time on all of [my standard steps]—ending the search only when I have a list that includes several women.”
To measure his progress, he writes, “I tracked how I was doing in a simple spreadsheet. I can’t overstate the importance of that: It is a vaccine against self-delusion. It prevents me from wrongly believing that all is well. I’ve been doing this for two years now. Four months after I started, the proportion of women who have a voice in my stories hit 50 percent, and has stayed roughly there ever since, varying between 42 and 61 percent from month to month.”
And while “Finding diverse sources, and tracking them, takes time, [it’s] not that much time. I reckon it adds 15 minutes per piece, or an hour or so of effort over a week. That seems like a trifling amount, and the bare minimum that journalists should strive for.”
Inspired by the progress he’s made, Yong is looking to make his work even more inclusive: “Since November 2015, I’ve also been tracking the number of people of color in my stories. That figure currently stands at 26 percent for the last year, ranging between 15 and 47 percent from month to month. I want to make it higher. I’m thinking about how to include more voices from LGBTQ, disabled, or immigrant communities. I’m thinking about the people who appear in the photos that accompany my pieces, rather than just those whose words appear within quote marks. Gender parity is a start, not an end point.”
Yong’s story illustrates several key points that are crucial to keep in mind when working toward greater inclusion:
An honest reckoning with the truth is essential, and honest reckoning starts with disaggregating the data. Yong was mindful enough to want to know the gender ratio in his stories, but even he thought the numbers of women quoted would be higher. Actually measuring the data helped him see that his best intentions weren’t enough if equity was his desired outcome.
Making a change means making an effort. Yong examined his own writing process, identified ways in which he could adjust that process to get the outcome he wanted, and then committed to the extra effort necessary to achieve that outcome. In the end, the effort wasn’t onerous — but he still had to decide to make that effort, and see it through.
Feeling like you’re doing better isn’t enough. Changing behavior without measuring outcomes might have made him feel better, but wouldn’t have helped him know if he’d actually made real progress — or ensured that he was actually helping to amplify underrepresented voices. Tracking his progress, in something as simple as a spreadsheet, clarified whether or not what he was doing was working.
The first step in the right direction leads to more steps. When he reached a 50 percent ratio of women’s voices, Yong didn’t sit back and relax. Instead, he realized that he now had a process for solving a problem, and could apply that process to other areas he wanted to address.
When you see inequity, take responsibility. No editor made him do this. No readers called him out on his work. But once he was aware of the inequity, he took responsibility, determined changes he could make within his sphere of influence, and took action. His new approach may not change journalism, or even the way things are done at The Atlantic. But based on the response to the article online, it’s a good bet other reporters are paying attention. Though he hasn’t explicitly called on other reporters to join him in this effort, when it comes to inclusive journalism, he’s raised the bar.
No matter our work, there’s a lot we can learn from this story.
This originally appeared in The Mouse and the Elephant Weekly. Read the full email, explore other resources, and subscribe at https://tinyletter.com/mouseandelephant/.