Diversity of Sources in Times of Crisis

We talk about diversity of sources. But who is called in times of crisis?

By: Eline Jeanné

In times of crisis many turn to the news for information and clarity, but who does the news turn to?

Expert sources are key to media reporting and it is these voices which the public trusts. Research done by the Expert Women Project found that in March 2020, at the heigh of the COVID-19 pandemic, media coverage of the virus saw 2.7 men for every 1 woman expert. This disparity is the highest it has been in three years and while more women experts were used in the following month, it begs the question: why do news sources lack in diversity during times of crisis?

We spoke to Dr. Elizabeth Radin, a lecturer in epidemiology at Columbia, about her thoughts on the study and its relevance within the sector. Noting that empirical data on this topic is so important, Dr. Radin shares how studies like the one conducted by the Expert Women Project allow us to quantify what many of us note when consuming media content on a daily basis. Such research should also be happening in-house:

“It’s an important thing for writers and journalists themselves to be looking at their own sources. Who are they quoting and how does that break down, as well as editors and publications overall. Really the only way we are going to fully get to grips with this is if we have that empirical approach.”

COVID-19 has seen science and medicine-based media at the forefront of news coverage. There has been a greater appetite for such content, Dr. Radin shares, and so now is a opportune time to advocate for more diversity in expert sources on the topic. But one barrier to achieving that greater diversity lies in the science sector itself: “We know that diversity can be underrepresented in the sciences,” shares Dr. Radin, “and then among people who are in the sciences in the media who actually gets reflected can double down on that.” It is clear that achieving greater diversity in the media requires action on all sides; not only media organisations themselves, but also the sectors which use the media to amplify their voice.

A recent report from Public Health England notes how ethnic minorities are at higher risk of coronavirus fatality in the UK. It is individuals from these groups who need to be given a platform in the media in order to give an accurate picture of COVID-19 and how it is impacting society. This epidemic has shown just why this diversity in the media is so important, Dr. Radin explains:

“I think that’s particularly important for all the reasons it’s always important to have diverse perspectives in the media, but also because we know that COVID-19 is affecting groups like women, people of colour and people from different socio-economic backgrounds and neighbourhoods with different income levels so differentially that it’s so important to get that experience and those unique challenges and unique impacts to the groups known so that we don’t fall into the fallacy of thinking that this is a unifying experience affecting all of us, of course it is, but in different ways and certainly with some increased burdens on groups which are already vulnerable.”

The Expert Women Project study noted that editors who had their coverage monitored for the research explained that the majority of the predominantly male sources used were put forward by the government, and that this put editors in a frustrating position. While this is understandable it is not an excuse for not striving for a more diverse expert database as Dr. Radin explains:

“One, you want to be quoting sources outside the government of course and representing civil society and different groups of affected people. And two, I think it’s possible to push back, to get creative, to look for other voices: clearly media doesn’t work if everyone just takes the sources that they are given. So, while acknowledging that there is work to be done on the part of the PR department who is only putting forward one voice, and they should be called to task on that, there’s also a burden on journalists and publications to fill in those gaps elsewhere.”

The need for a more diverse expert database is clear, and there are some organisations which have been working to advocate for this for years. Foreign Policy Interrupted works to amplify the voices of women working in foreign policy, national security and international relations and provide a platform for media professionals to find foreign policy experts. During the COVID-19 epidemic, they collated a list of female experts on the topic of global health. Resources like this are there for editors and journalists to use and are essential for creating a more diverse media.

Initiatives like BBC’s 50:50 show that there is willingness from the media sector to improve in their representation of minorities; however, when a crisis like COVID-19 hits it seems that initiatives like these are forgotten. Not only does this halt progression of these important changes, but it fails to represent minorities when it counts most.