Can high-resolution data and innovative technology help us create better representation of women in the news?

I believe so. Over the next year, my thesis project is to design a series of articles, artistic pieces, and technologies for gender equity. I’m going beyond mudslinging and hand wringing to apply technology in constructive ways that can make a difference. And I need your help.

In the Guardian Datablog, Lisa Evans recently shared some initial results from software I created to track gender in the news. This post explains my vision for the larger project, describes our research methods, and points to other resources on gender in the media.

Women’s Voices in the U.K. and U.S.

Women wrote less than a third of articles in the Daily Mail, Guardian, and Telegraph from July 2011 through June 2012, according to data analysis I carried out with Evans and Lynn Cherne. In the U.S. and U.K. alike, the overwhelming majority of public voices remain male, even though women are more likely to vote or sign petitions than men (U.K. PDF, U.S.). Less than 25% of British Parliament and only 16% of the U.S. Congress are women.

Opinion sections, which shape a society’s sphere of consensus and open opportunities for writers, are an important measure of women’s voices in society. Women are more prominent in U.K. opinion pages than they are in American newspapers. According to Taryn Yaeger of the Op Ed Project, women write 20% of op-eds in America’s newspapers. Across the U.K. papers we studied, the rate is 26%.

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The relative prominence of women’s voices in our U.K. data is entirely due to the Guardian. Articles by women constitute around 20% of opinion articles in the Telegraph and Daily Mail, the same proportion as U.S. newspapers. In one year, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section included 11,247 articles, around 60% of our dataset. The Guardian publishes so many women (33%) that Guardian opinion articles by women outnumber the Telegraph’s male op-eds, as far as my algorithm can determine.

And 3.5% of the Guardian’s opinion articles were written by a mixed gender team. I would love to see this category grow.

At this point, you probably have a lot of questions and concerns. How did we develop these numbers? Could there be errors in our approach? You might dispute our interpretation. Most damning of all, you might wonder what good this data really is. Are we trying to start a fight, or is there a real chance to use data to support constructive change?

Measuring Media Gender at High Resolution

Until now, anyone who wanted to measure gender in the news had to count articles by hand. This study by Kira Cochrane looks at 3,500 articles. The Global Media Monitoring Report covers around 16,000 news items across nearly 130 hundred countries. Human “coding” of the media allows for detailed analysis of content, but projects like the GMMP can take years to complete. The software I have developed takes a few seconds to label an entire year of three U.K. newspapers. I’m also working on multi-decade datasets that include millions of articles, potentially across hundreds of media sources.

High-resolution, real-time data on gender in the media creates new opportunities to take practical action beyond wringing hands and pointing fingers. Here are some ideas:

  • News organizations can be empowered with gender insights at the rate of decisionmaking rather than just facing an occasional, depressing report.
  • Integrating audience metrics with content demographics might highlight opportunities to find new markets.
  • Advertisers and advocacy groups could pressure apathetic newsrooms to acknowledge the business disadvantages of paying limited attention to women.

In case media justice doesn’t lead to a pot of gold, what are the alternatives? In this area, The Op Ed Project is my muse. As Erika Fry explains in the Columbia Journalism Review, The Op Ed Project sets aside finger-pointing and uses data to direct constructive interventions. In the U.S., not enough women are submitting op-eds. The Op Ed project finds and mentors awesome women in the topics where women are least represented. They offer support across the entire process of using a public voice in society, from opinion to opportunities and achievement.

With high resolution gender data, it’s possible to:

  • Track the effectiveness of journalist mentorship programs like the Op Ed Project.
  • Match new writers with experienced journalists based on publication history. (Here, I’m drawing inspiration from NYTWrites by Irene Ros.)

Here’s an idea for men: Bill Thompson at the BBC has a lovely personal rule for conference panels. If you ask him to speak at an event with few women, he will decline until you find more. He will also helpfully suggest women who are awesome speakers. We could do the same for journalism. Imagine that a site like Journalisted shared gender data on the subject and sources of articles. When someone asks me for a quote, I could check the last time the journalist quoted a woman (see my related work on source diversity in the Arab Spring).

Numbers have limited power to convince. My research assistant, Sophie Diehl, has been been developing emotive data art which conveys the human side of gender inequality in the media. While democratic ideals and the business case for gender equity are important, Sophie and I are trying to fill an important gap by using data to foster empathy.

How You Can Help

This initiative is my Master’s thesis, the major capstone project for my time at the MIT Media Lab. I’m actively looking for partners on this journey: newsrooms, advocacy organisations, digital artists, communications researchers, and data scientists. For updates, sign up for the project mailing list. If you want to partner with me, email me at natematias@gmail.com.

J. Nathan Matias develops technologies for media analytics, community information, and creative learning at the MIT Center for Civic Media, where he is a Research Assistant. Before MIT, Nathan worked in UK startups, developing technologies used by millions of people worldwide. He also helped start the Ministry of Stories, a creative writing center in East London. Nathan was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.