17 men have had articles featured on the homepage of the New York Times this Wednesday, five more than the number of women who can say the same. When you finish reading this, that number's bound to have shifted in one direction or another. At least, that's according to WhoWritesFor, a website designed by developer Andrew Briggs for the purpose of seeing if the Times is actually going to do anything about the noted gap between the number of bylines they feature by women as compared to men.
Briggs told The First Bound that he was inspired to start the site a few years ago, after reading a study done by the organization VIDA about the strikingly bad gender byline parity count that showed how many more men were writing for major publications than women:
"I think that was really the first time the idea of an imbalance in voice occurred to me. I don't think [The New York Times has] deliberately imbalanced voices, but rather this is the kind of thing that happens when the people in charge aren't really paying attention."
If you're into the tech side of how this site works, WhoWritesFor is set up so that it "scrapes the NYT front page" every five minutes. This means it essentially combs through every available byline, notes whether the name is male or female based off of census data, and categorizes the articles, adding them to a running tally of male versus female names.
The launch of WhoWritesFor is particularly timely, and a nice data-based addition to the work of Tumblrs like LadyJournos or Journos of Color. A study published in Poynter recently pointed out how the gender of bylines contributes to the diversity of sources those reporters use, and it used the Times as a test case. Over a period of two months at the beginning of this year, Alexi Layton and Alicia Shepard found that the homepage of the Times featured more than twice the number of male bylines as female ones (the only area women dominated was in Health). This number was directly proportional to the gender of the sources they used; male reporters used twice the number of male sources in their stories than female reporters used.
When the Poynter study first came out, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan talked to multiple people in the newsroom about what, if anything, they'd do to combat the inequalities seen among sourcing. Susan Chira, an assistant managing editor, called the numbers "not optimal" but said that setting some sort of sourcing quota – an affirmative action of sorts for how many women should be talked to during the reporting of a story – would lead to “tokenism that sets us all back":
“The answer has to come from awareness. This is a consciousness issue. How do you get reporters to ask themselves if they have made a stringent enough effort to include women in this story? How do reporters expand their bank of go-to people that they rely on as sources?”
Chira and the higher-ups diplomatically said that they'd bring the study to the attention of desk heads (the people who run each section of the paper) who would then hopefully "encourage assigning editors and reporters to widen their scope to include more women." Which sounds like a very nice idea that probably hasn't gone anywhere. As Sullivan wrote:
Talking about it may cause some resistance – and some eye rolling. “Your story quotes only men – go find a couple of women,” is a conversation that’s hard to imagine going over too well at The Times or in any newsroom.
Diversity for the sake of improving numbers is meaningless, an empty piece of political correctness. But diversity for the sake of including sources beyond the usual suspects – who bring different experiences and points of view – is well worth the effort.
It's sort of embarrassing to say that if it was brought to the attention of a reporter that they were repeatedly not using diverse sources that they'd roll their eyes; it'd be nicer to think that they'd look to improve whatever they were doing that was, inadvertently or otherwise, revealing their own biases and also making them less good at their job.
A project like WhoWritesFor and the research done by Poynter throw a lot of attention at the Times, implying that it should be held to a higher standard than other publications. While that's not the case, it makes sense that it's being targeted. It's a notably liberal publication, which means that it should hypothetically be more sensitive to issues of equal representation and diversity. And whatever problems it's had over the past several years and will continue to have going forward in terms of long-term financial viability, for right now, they're The Paper of Record, and in the words of their current executive editor, consider themselves "the prettiest girl at the party."
One last thing worth paying attention to is the difference between a project like WhoWritesFor using the constantly changing homepage of the Times versus keeping track of the hard copy paper that comes out everyday. While the homepage is a better reflection of the stories that are being valued every minute, the hard copy of the paper – for however long it lasts – is a better reflection of what the organization as a whole values and wants to put out as an example of it's best and most important work. The web might make things more equal opportunity, but remembering the dinosaur that is print draws attention to the fact that old media organizations are, to some degree, dinosaurs in themselves; they're always going to be resistant to change unless someone – or some website – is constantly reminding them they've got to do better. It's sort of nice that instead of just a general conversation about how reporters should source better or how wouldn't it be nice if major media organizations hired more women or we should really remember that women can do good journalistic work too, there is a daily reminder for everyone at a publication like the Times of exactly how good a job they're doing.