Francesca Donner on How to Start Including Gender in Your Reporting

02/11/2022     1 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Francesca Donner

For our first episode of “Peer-to-Peer,” we sat down with former gender director at the New York Times Francesca Donner for tips on how to produce more layered stories.

She has been in the world of news for over 20 years. Francesca Donner has worked as an editor for Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and more recently The New York Times, where she also served as a gender director and edited the column “In Her Words,” covering all beats through the gender lens.

To kick off our podcast Peer-to-Peer, we thought we’d have a conversation with her on what gender-sensitive reporting can bring to journalism. She told us how she started questioning her work for a more accurate representation of women, and shared a few tips for any journalist out there who wants to produce richer, better-layered stories.

“If we don’t make a deliberate conscious effort to cover women, women will not show up in those pages. (…) Of course, if there’s a male president, you write about a man, that’s fine. But there are other things that you can do as a journalist to kind of reframe the story and make sure that those perspectives are heard.” — Francesca Donner in Peer-to-Peer, episode 1


Ahlem Khattab (Towards Equality) — What was that spark that made you realize you had to focus on gender in your work?

Francesca Donner — Well, I think, for me, this began many, many years ago, because I’ve been thinking about women for a very long time. So probably back in, I don’t know, even 2006-7 or something, when I was at the Wall Street Journal and one of my mentors said, “we’re going to do this thing.” Her name is Carol Hymowitz. “We’re going to do this thing. We’re going to really focus on women.” And I kind of thought, “oh, yeah, OK, that sounds nice.” And then as I started thinking about it, why do we focus on women? What’s the purpose of focusing on women? You know, aren’t we already doing that? And as you ask those questions and you start turning the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you realize, oh, my goodness, it’s one story after another about about men, which is not wrong. But if we don’t make a deliberate conscious effort to cover women, women will not show up in those pages.

And, you know, to some extent you can control it, and to some extent you can’t. Of course, if there’s a male president or whatever, you write about a man, that’s fine. But there are other things that you can do as a journalist to kind of reframe the story and make sure that those perspectives are heard. And I think about it a lot from a women perspective, but also, you know, are people of color represented in the story? Is LGBTQ represented in the story?

And you can’t do that for every single story. It would be a ridiculous ask. But we can do that for a lot of stories as we ask the questions and we think about the framing and we think about— you know, journalists have a have a lot of choices. Should we tell this story or that story? And as you ask those questions, you can really look critically at what you’re doing and say, “whose stories are we telling? Have we have we told a different perspective? Are we giving another perspective? Are we listening to that and looking out for that?”

And I think for me, it really showed up at The Wall Street Journal when I just started looking at the pages and thinking, oh, my gosh, wow. Now that I think about it and it shows up, the more you look, the more you realize that we don’t do a very good job of getting a multiplicity of voices in the paper. We tend to quote people who have already been quoted in other good sources.

I know this for a fact because we did a lot of analysis on this in The New York Times, we tend to quote men about 75 percent of the time, male experts. Again, I’m talking about moments where you have a choice about who you quote. If you’re doing a story about the male CEO of XYZ company, of course, you’re going to quote a man. But a lot of experts that you bring in, you have a choice. Should I bring in the head of this group? Should I bring in this expert on the economy? Should I, you know, bring in this professor or that professor? And I really, really feel that different people have different framings on the world. Of course they do.

And there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t see the world through someone else’s eyes. All you have is your own vision and your own outlook. But I do think it’s a problem if you don’t ask the question about how other people might be seeing the world or including those viewpoints in your work, because then your work will be as narrow as your own vision. And even the most fantastically broad-minded reporter is going to have their vision. You have your vision. I have my vision. But I don’t know what it’s like to be a 22 year old queer black woman living in Alabama today. I don’t. But I can ask and I can make sure that her voice is brought into my story if that’s what I’m focusing on. So I think that’s my point there.

And for journalists who want to start doing that in their reporting, what are the things, the small steps they can take?

I’m so happy to say that this is there are small things you can do and there are ways that you can change it. So I think the first thing is looking critically at your own work and saying, have I done a good job or as good a job as I can possibly do on representing as many voices as I possibly can? Have I fallen into any traps that might be a little bit embarrassing?

So here’s an example. It was from The New York Times. It was just a totally small piece. There was nothing major in it, but it was a piece about women’s birth control. And I don’t even remember what the news was, but three or four experts were quoted in the story and they were all men. Really? I’m sure they have great opinions on it and not that they shouldn’t, but we really couldn’t find a single woman to comment on this news or change or whatever it was with women’s birth control? Seriously.

So to me, look critically at your work, because we don’t really notice a lot of it until we ask the question and then you say, gosh, I’m writing a story about women’s birth control. “Who have I quoted?” And then you might ask, “OK, well, great, I’ve quoted all these women, but are they all white women from elite academia? Is that representing the women, the woman who might not have access to birth control or can’t afford it or has sort of double bias because she’s a woman of color trying to seek it out and harder for her to get an appointment with a physician?”

You know, so you really have to think about if you can— like all of these layers that, as you start sort of opening your mind, as you start opening your eyes to it, you start seeing all the ways that you might have kind of been blinkered. Does that make sense?

So I will point you to a really wonderful article by a guy named Ed Yong. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Atlantic. He’s a science reporter and he is also an absolutely lovely and wonderful person. And he’s very big on, you know, elevating people. But he took a look at his work and kind of thought, am I doing a good job actually sort of representing things the way they are? Or is it sort of getting skewed to kind of just looking at, you know, the males who happen to be at the top of the foundation or the company or whatever? And he, and I think we can look at the article together, but I think what really kind of sparked him off was he’d written a piece about a gene editing technique called CRISPR. OK, we don’t need to know what that is, but the point this piece about CRISPR, he quoted a whole bunch of people in it. And if you read the article, you would be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR is a really male-dominated field. But in fact, it’s a female-dominated field. And he said, I had just quoted all these guys and I kind of realized it was sort of skewing the story in a way that he was really uncomfortable with.

And so what he decided was really simple, like I’m going to start making sure that I quote women as much as I quote men, assuming, of course, that everyone is, you know, of a fantastic level that we want to quote. We’re not going to quote people who aren’t experts or whatever. And he said he estimated, I believe, that it added about 15 minutes of work to his week finding someone who wasn’t the obvious guy to quote. And I start with men and women, but actually it’s the same thing with people of color or, you know, whatever other thing, you know, older people, younger people — ageism is another form of discrimination. So, you know, I think able-bodied, not able-bodied, LGBTQ, like what are we sort of trying to represent here? But I think, you know, you can start with gender. It’s just kind of a place to begin.

And anyway, so he estimated he spent about 15 minutes a week total actually doing the work to possibly find an alternate source if there was one. He’s a science reporter, so he might bring up the, I don’t know, the CDC or something or perhaps he’s, like, following up on a on a science paper or something and, you know, the guy who’s the lead writer. And he said, “all I would do is I would go to the lead writer or I would go to the CEO or I would go to whoever and say, ‘oh, thank you so much. But do you have someone else on your team? Do you have a second in command? Do you have, you know, the second writer?’” Or whomever, the deputy who perhaps is a woman or a person of color or whatever else he’s looking for. And usually they do. There’s usually someone in the background who, then, starts getting that visibility. And then you sort of you stop a little bit that cycle of quoting the same people over and over again.

And then, you know, they’re quoted in The Atlantic. And so a reporter at The Washington Post sees that and thinks, “oh, that’s probably a good guy to quote. So I’ll quote him again.” And then, you know, someone who’s reporting for Slate sees that. And so then they quote that guy. And so, you sort of stop that cycle of kind of quoting the same voices over and again.

And I think the most important thing is it makes your journalism better because it’s richer, it’s broader, it’s bringing in these other perspectives that you just might not have seen or thought about. So basically, everybody wins with this change of way. I think everyone wins. I think the readers absolutely win because they’re looking at a more interesting story. They’ve got more viewpoints in it. Yeah.

And then I do think as a journalist, you have to kind of think about how you frame the story. You know, is the woman always presented as the victim? Do we do we do we interview women in conjunction with their husbands somehow? You know, at The Times, we looked at some of our kind of, like, our hurricane coverage. And we often kind of fell into the trap of saying— You know, we would have, Mr. So-and-So says, you know,“our house has been lost and we need better government oversight.” And then they would interview Mrs. So-and-so and she would say, “yes, we were so worried. We’re really scared, you know.” And so there’s like this sort of gendered kind of discrepancy in how people were even responding to those kinds of questions or the types of questions that we ask. Right.

So were you saying to Mr., you know, “are you angry? What do you think the government should do? ”And are you saying to Mrs., “oh, how are you coping with the children?” or something. You know, and again, we’re so deep in these kind of patterns that it’s hard to see it unless you catch yourself.