Ed Yong on Fixing the Gender Imbalance in News Stories... and Journalism
In the sixth episode of our “Peer-to-Peer” series, the award-winning science journalist and author tells about the steps he’s taken to make his stories more inclusive, and how that fundamentally changed his reporting over the past eight years. He also shares some of what he has learned telling the stories of women amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before becoming a writer, Ed Yong studied zoology then biochemistry, but realized that he’d rather explain science to others than be a scientist. Today, he’s an award-winning journalist and author, notably known for his writing on the world of animals and the Covid-19 pandemic (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 2021).
In 2018, Ed published an article titled “I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories.” More than five years later, we wanted to check in with him.
What process did he put in place? How did it change his reporting? And is this something that stuck with him over the years? In a brand new episode of our podcast Peer-to-Peer, he tells us about all of that, and shares some of the things he wishes he had known before he started writing health stories in which women are the protagonists, and calls on other male journalists to strive for more diversity in their own reporting.
“It’s not just that people are interviewing predominately white men, it’s that the industry itself is dominated by white men. (…) You can’t leave the problem of gender bias in sourcing down to women journalists alone. People like me have a responsibility to do something, too.” — Ed Yong in Peer-to-Peer, episode 6
In this conversation, we talk about — you guessed it — data, but also the lack of it when it comes to women’s and girls’ lives, or what is called the gender data gap. Shreya Raman also shares some of the things she has learned while working with data, which might be useful especially to journalists who aren’t data specialists (so… most of us).
Ahlem Khattab (Towards Equality) — I was introduced to your work through Francesca Donner, who talked about you in our very first episode of Peer-to-Peer — the work that you did, between 2016 and 2018, on your own reporting, your own stories, and the steps you started taking to make it more inclusive, because you noticed… that it wasn’t.
Ed Yong — Yeah, yeah, totally.
How was that? And how did it feel to notice that in the first place?
It was kind of… shocking, I think. I was surprised at how skewed things were. So let me tell the story. I think this began with my colleague, Adrienne La France, who did this analysis of the gender bias in her sources. So she worked out how many of the people she was quoting in her pieces were men, how many were women, and she found that women made up only 25% of her sources. And I looked at this and I thought, “okay, this is a good exercise to be doing.” And I think I really assumed when I started doing it, that it would… maybe not be 50%, but not far off. I felt I care about equality, I thought that I was doing a pretty good job in trying to give an equal voice to women in science and tech in the areas that I cover. And actually, when I did this analysis of my stories, it ended up being exactly the same as what Adrienne found. So 25%. So men outnumbered women as quoted experts in my pieces by a ratio of three to one. And actually, from everything I’ve heard since then, this seems to be quite a general pattern for people who start doing this. I’ve talked to lots of other journalists and friends who’ve done the same exercise, and 25% seems to be just a kind of industry-wide standard. And obviously, there are exceptions who were doing a good job of this from the get-go. But yeah, I was surprised and I was disappointed. And I think it just reaffirms the need to do something about that.
And do you think it has to do with a fact that men are more present in certain types of, I’m going to say, leadership roles, but that can be understood in different ways? Or is it because they are just more ready to speak? Or maybe because most of the contacts in the media are already men?
Yeah, I think all of the above and more, right? I think there are lots of different factors for why this happens. I think that implicit or sometimes explicit biases are clearly important here. In the analysis I did, I was looking at not only the number of people who made it to the stories, but the number of people I also reached out to. And I was clearly reaching out to more men for comment than women. So let’s ignore the “do people respond to you?” part of the equation. I was getting more male sources in part because I was asking more male sources, period. And that was the case, even though I thought of myself as a decent ally, and I thought that that ratio would be more equal — it absolutely wasn’t. And I think that that’s pretty common, right? Part of the reason these skews exist is that even well-meaning people have these biases that affect their decisions in quite small ways that they might not even perceive. And then of course, you have a lot of explicit biases. A lot of people might never actually say it in an interview, but it’s pretty clear. I’ve reached a lot of journalists who clearly only ever interview men. So there’s that.
I think that you could argue that some of this just comes from a combination of time pressure, and existing skews and representation feeding off themselves. So if you’re a journalist on a tight deadline, and you need to find someone to talk to, one easy way is to look at previous coverage of the same topic, and then look at the people who are interviewed there. And if those people are disproportionately men, then so will the people who are quoted in whatever new pieces out there. And then that cycle just reinforces itself. So that’s one of those mechanisms.
And then there’s the fact that, as I think a lot of people who’ve tried to correct the skew have found, it is a little harder to get women sources to speak on the record than male sources. And I think there’s a bunch of different reasons for that, too. Some of it is just — let’s be honest, there’s a lot of overconfident, mediocre men out there who will happily talk about anything you ask them to talk about, regardless of whether they have expertise on it. Whereas I think women that are more acculturated to downplay their own expertise. So there is a gender divide in like, how people value their own expertise and whether they are likely to overplay or underplay their own expertise. There’s also the fact that in fields where women are already underrepresented — and the fields I cover, so science, health and technology, absolutely fall into that category — women in those fields are going to have more on their plate. They’re going to have more tasks, they’re going to have more requests of their time, they might have a higher teaching load. This is very common in STEM fields. Because of societal biases, they might have to deal with home care and childcare on top of, like, all their other stuff. So if all else being equal, I think if you take a man and a woman in the same position in the fields that I cover, the woman is just going to have less time. And that will also contribute to like their willingness or their ability to say yes to an interview. And there are a lot of women who might be more reticent to say yes to an interview because being in public and being a public voice, especially in controversial issues, is much more likely to turn them into a target of harassment and so on.
On social media?
Totally, yeah. So there is a cost to saying yes to an interview that women and especially women of colour or anyone non-binary or trans might experience that, you know, a male source would not. There are lots of reasons why this skew exists then. And I think you can react to that in two ways. One common way that I’ve seen is people saying, “well, it’s not the journalist’s fault. You know, there’s all these reasons out there. I’m just doing my best and trying to pick quote unquote, the best people and here is what I get.” And my view is, well, no. Like, it’s our job to try and adjust for these factors. Like if it is true — and I have found this a little bit in my work that on average — it is harder to get a female source to say yes to an interview than a male source, then the solution to that is… you just ask more women, right? Like you then overweight your requests, knowing that this is the case. Because otherwise, you’re just like throwing your hands up and capitulating to the same social dynamics that landed us in this unenviable position in the first place.
And that’s something I wanted really to ask you about. What are the actual concrete steps that you started taking to make your reporting more representative and to manage to have these voices?
The most important step was just tracking the data. Like in a very regular, frequent, rigorous way. And that makes it sound like, you know, more complicated than it actually was, I just had a very, very, very simple Excel spreadsheet. Like every story, I wrote down the number of men and women who I contacted for a comment or for a quote, the number of people who got back to me and were featured in the actual story. I think I also had a column for what proportion were people of colour. Like, I’ve seen a lot of like outfits do this in a much, much better and systematic way. You know, that also includes like, you know, whether people are disabled, gender identification, sexual orientation… There’s a lot of lots of axes you can do this for. But mine was just super simple. And all that did was give me a huge amount of accountability. Like I could see, am I actually still like hovering at 25%? Or am I making progress? And if I’m making progress, am I losing progress from month to month? Or am I stable? And like, I think if you do this for a few, like for me, I think at least a year and maybe more, then it just becomes automatic. I ended up stopping the tally like midway through my pandemic reporting, just because I like I ran out of time and energy. But I can tell you I know what the stats were at the start of the pandemic reporting, I can tell you that this stayed the same for the rest of it, because like, I now know what it feels like to have more equitable reporting.
So that’s one thing, just like actually keeping an eye on the numbers. But then the other was just simple, which was just trying to find more people, find more women, find more people of colour. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it takes a little bit more work. You know, there are very niche subfields that I write about sometimes where there actually aren’t that many women who work in the space. But like all the techniques that I use to find sources are the same. You know, I’m just deploying them. I’m just doing the same search, but a little more. You know, I’m not just like doing a Google search and contacting everyone who turns up on the first page, I’m going to go to like, the third page or the fourth page. But it was interesting to me how that it definitely took more time. But it didn’t take like that much more time. You know, it was the matter of spending like an extra half an hour on a piece. And I think the results are well worth it.
You said you later on, you knew how it felt to have that inclusion in your stories. How did it affect the quality of the pieces you were writing to have these voices that we weren’t hearing elsewhere?
I mean, I think immensely. So just take pandemic reporting. Women are much, much more likely than men to suffer from long term chronic illnesses, long COVID, ME/CFS, like a lot of those that are really important for our thinking about the pandemic right now. Women were much more likely than men to struggle with like childcare responsibilities in the early pandemic, like their professional lives were upended more. The women in science had a harder time getting recognised and finding the time to do their work for a variety of different reasons. So I think going for a more equitable stew of voices does several things. It gets you perspectives that are just missing, right? Like there are so many truly terrible long COVID pieces that like largely interview male doctors, and not patients — most of whom are women, most of whom are ignored, and most of whom have deep expertise about their conditions. So just in terms of like, how much of the people you’re talking to know about the thing you’re writing about? Just trying to get more women in the pieces increases the overall spread of knowledge that I’m tapping into. And I could argue the same for lots of different axes of diversity, right? Like, talking to people in the disability community has been absolutely crucial to my understanding of the pandemic. And those voices are often completely missing. You know, disability scholars, people who are immunocompromised, they’re often written about, but rarely like actually allowed to speak for themselves. So there’s that.
I think that it also just diversifies the source pool more generally. So there was a big problem, and still is, in COVID reporting, where like the same… I don’t know, 20 people, most of whom are men, get quoted again, and again, and again, in every piece. And that’s hugely problematic because it makes the industry as a whole incredibly vulnerable if any one of those people is actually full of shit… And some of them totally are. So I think going for part of the discipline of trying to get more equitable sourcing also forces me to do things like find new people who don’t get quoted in media stories, like reaching out to people who haven’t talked to the press a lot. I added a standard rule for all of my pandemic pieces that like, half of the people I talked to had to be someone I’ve never talked to before. And that, in addition to, you know, wanting to get a certain proportion of women, people of colour and all the rest, I think that diversity of sourcing massively strengthens the ideas in the actual pieces. I really cannot overstate how important that was.
And working on these stories with these voices during the pandemic actually led you to win a Pulitzer Prize. Do you feel like, with the importance of such an award for journalists in general, does it signal that, “oh, yeah, we need more of this kind of journalism where we hear these different voices and have just generally more representation”?
I don’t know. You know, I would hope it does. I’m not sure it quite works that way. But I do feel like — this feels much more in the mainstream conversation now than it was when I first did that analysis in 2015. And to be clear, I’m not taking credit for that. I think there’s like a huge movement of people who’ve been doing this kind of work in their respective organisations, and trying to really push for more diverse sourcing. And I think…. Like readers want this too. And a lot of readers are just now mad if they see a lack of diversity in sourcing and will call you out in it. You know, I think if you write a piece that only quotes men, you will get flack for it, and rightly so. I’ve seen a lot of people very willingly do this kind of work to try and diversify their pool of sources. And I think other people need to be pushed into doing that.
You know, the problem in our industry and in journalism is also that it’s not just that people are interviewing predominantly white men, it’s that the industry itself is dominated by white men. That’s part of the problem. It’s another reason why these skews exist. It’s like, it’s — you know, it’s like seeking like. As a result of that, the responsibility for fixing this problem falls upon people who are part of majority groups in journalism. You can’t leave the problem of gender bias in sourcing down to women journalists alone. People like me have a responsibility to do something about it too. And I feel that across all the axes of diversity that I’ve talked about. I think it requires individual journalists to push, it requires organisations as a whole to recognise that this is part of doing good work. You know, this isn’t just diversity for the sake of it. You don’t pay lip service to it. And if you do, like, you should rethink what you’re actually doing. You know, the point is: if we do this, our journalism becomes better. Like it’s a moral issue, but it’s also an issue about our craft. And I think that’s one another reason to take it seriously.
And do you have like specific tips for, for example, men journalists who want to start doing that to start including women’s stories and perspectives in their reporting?
I mean, so… just do it. It’s not that hard. For God’s sake, don’t make a big show of it. Like, don’t expect cookies and brownie points for doing this. Do not do things that I’ve seen people do like, you ask people for an interview, and say, like, you know, “because I’m trying to get more women in my pieces”. Right? Like, don’t do that. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do.
You know, I had like, I had some reservations about writing the piece where I talked about my process of doing this and why I did it because I didn’t want it to sound like, you know, oh, here is another guy who’s just sweeping in and trying to pretend that he’s saving the day. I wrote the piece because I hoped it would inspire other journalists to do the same thing. I hoped that it would give, like, ammunition to people who are pushing for this in their newsrooms to say “here, this is why you should do it.” And also it’s not that hard. Like ultimately, I don’t care about the recognition for it. As I said, I am only one of many people who’ve pushed for the same thing. I just want it done. So like my advice to people is like, it really isn’t that hard. Just do it.
And you don’t have to be loud about it.
You don’t have to be loud about it. For God’s sake, don’t be loud about it. Like just do it quietly. Do it, feel happy that you’ve like made improvements to our industry. Don’t expect a pat on the back. I think, you know, the funny thing is, it says a lot about where we are that if you do this, like if you just like, even if the proportion is like 50%, it’s still shocking to me how often people notice because it’s not common. Like just just getting an equal number of men and women in big stories, people absolutely notice, especially in areas like science where there’s already a huge skew in the field.
Yeah. But then at the same time, like, it’s important that, for instance, male journalists kind of talk about these things. Because there’s that idea of representation: if you don’t see people also doing this thing, you won’t really try to do it yourself.
Yeah, I certainly think so. And that’s part of why I part of why I did that piece.
And that’s why we have you with us for this episode. You’re actually the very first male journalist we have on. And we weren’t really trying to like have it just for women journalists. It’s just that women journalists are mostly the people who are talking about these things. So we’re very happy to have you. We also wanted to have you specifically this month, because in our newsletter, we are focusing on women and health. And like it all started from this idea that when we talk about women’s health, it’s mostly like most people think about reproductive health, but there’s so much to it. And like you said, during the pandemic, it started being more and more visible that women weren’t living the same thing as men. And so with all the stories you did, and all these people you talked to, what are some things that you yourself learned about women and health?
So I started writing about long COVID in the middle of 2020 at a time when I think, you know, that most people, including most people in medicine, didn’t really know about it at all. People who had chronic illnesses did, they were already talking about it. People who had long COVID themselves were already talking about it. Those people were disproportionately women. I have learned a lot about that entire world of neglected chronic illness. I have learned a lot about the factors that mean that women who have such illnesses get dismissed by the medical profession, by their friends, by their family, by their employers, you know, the kinds of gaslighting that ensue, the toll it takes on their lives and their both physical and mental health. I think it’s a huge, huge problem that affects a substantial number of people. And that is not discussed nearly enough. I think the fact that these kinds of illnesses disproportionately affect women, and it is so much easier and so much more common for people to dismiss women’s pain contributes to the neglect of diseases that we really need to be taking a lot more seriously. So yeah, I think this is a whole sector of health that I think is crucial, that I didn’t know a lot about, until I started doing reporting on this. And you know, for anyone’s listening, if you want to know more about this, there are several books that I would recommend reading. Megan O’Rourke wrote The Invisible Kingdom that came out recently about these kinds of chronic illnesses. My dear friend Sarah Ramey wrote a book called The Lady’s Handbook to Her Mysterious Illness. Maya Dusenbery wrote a book called Doing Harm about medical gaslighting. These are all great starting places. I think all very important books.
And what would you give journalists who happen to cover health but not exclusively as, you know, advice simply to have their reporting more representative of the reality of women’s health?
One of the most important aspects to long COVID coverage for me has been to make people the protagonists of their own story.
Often I see long-haulers and people with other similar chronic illnesses, but they are the lead anecdote. Some, like, sad, gruesome details are given about their lives, you get an emotional reaction, and then we cut to doctors discussing their condition. In the pieces I’ve written, I’ve tried to make patients the centerpieces of their story, because they are deep wells of knowledge. They have agency over their own lives, even though those lives may be severely restricted by their illnesses. And they deserve to be treated with not only compassion, but also respect. So, you know, that belief and that value informs all of the work that I’ve done in this space. And I honestly think, again, this isn’t just a moral issue for me. It also, I think, makes the work stronger. It makes the journalism better.