One of the first things I do when I walk into a room full of people is start counting. How many women? How many people of color? I calculate percentages in my head. I adjust my behavior accordingly.
It’s a habit I share with a lot of women of color that I know. It’s a piece of the armor. Not that this knowledge protects any of us from the silencing or microagressions or straight-up disrespect that might be heading our way, but there’s comfort in quantification.
In the past few months, as I’ve transitioned out of working in the labor movement and into freelance journalism, I’ve spent less time in meetings counting faces, and more time in front of the computer, counting bylines. I count people on mastheads. I count the subjects of feature articles.
And so, in honor of the launch today of Nate Silver’s data journalism venture, FiveThirtyEight.com, I’ve decided to inaugurate my guest blog here at The Nation with a data point of my own: based on the 2010 US Census count of the non-Hispanic white population, divided by two, white men account for about 31.85 percent of the US population.
You wouldn’t guess the minority status of white men from their representation in the media. White men are everywhere! Studies abound showing the overwhelming prevalence of white men in the media:
• People of color make up only 12.37 percent of newsrooms in the US.
• In a study of evening cable news appearances in April 2013, Media Matters found that out of 1,677 total guests, 62 percent on CNN, 60 percent on Fox News, and 54 percent on MSNBC were white men.
• The annual report on the Status of Women in the US Media from the Women’s Media Center shows that men are quoted 3.4 times more often than women in front-page stories in The New York Times, and there are four times as many men as women opinion writers at the major papers.
• According to the annual VIDA Count, more than 75 percent of 2013 bylines in The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker were men.
All of these statistics add up to an abject failure on the part of our media to reflect our society as it actually is. Voices of white men are privileged to such a degree that the white male experience is presumed to be the default, and every other experience becomes somehow other. The inherent bias that must result from existing at the intersection of racial, gender, class and every other conceivable privilege is erased. The rest of us are biased, we are told, by virtue of not being white, or male or middle class. The voices that we need to hear, if we are to adequately understand the lives of the other 68 percent, are drowned out, marginalized and ignored.
FiveThirtyEight is just one of several new media ventures launching this year that we are told will change the media as we know it today. Yet, as Emily Bell and others have pointed out, so far FiveThirtyEight, Vox and First Look Media appear to be replicating the same structural problems that produced the white-male dominated media we already have. Silver’s initial editorial hires are 31.5 percent women. As far as I can tell, almost all of the male hires are white.
Silver justified the gender balance by pointing out that 85 percent of the applicants were men. When I reached out to ask for an interview, I received the following comment: “Diverse viewpoints benefit a newsroom in myriad ways. As we’ve hired staff for FiveThirtyEight we’ve sought to assemble varied viewpoints and continue to make diversity a priority as we move forward.”
I’m no stats expert, but I am a baseball fan, and I have to say, Nate, that this isn’t baseball. You’re not in the running for the batting title because you’re hitting above 300. Your numbers suck.
Over the next two weeks, I plan to look more deeply into the question of representation in the media. I hope to bring you interviews with some of these new media moguls, an appraisal of diversity initiatives being undertaken by some media outlets, a discussion about how money plays into all of this, and looks at how the media are messing up the stories of the 68 percent. We need to figure out how to bring about a true revolution in our media, because when a white man with his own media venture can get away with describing his clubhouse by saying, “We’re outsiders, basically,” the guy we trust to explain the data is just not reading the numbers right.