Forbes’ Flawed Report on NPR and Sourcing by Gender

Back when bias in media was naked

Cover, Nugget magazine c. 1963 via Flickr — back when media bias was naked

Today saw a bumper crop of weak content masquerading as journalism. I’m really perturbed about one article in particular.

Forbes—the business magazine led by zillionaire libertarian CEO and editor-in-chief Steve Forbespublished an article noting that NPR’s reporting had a gender bias in its sourcing. The report was written by contributor Michael Howe, whose bio at Forbes characterizes him as the “lead shepherd of the 4th Estate Project.” The 4th Estate Project released several interesting studies, including one last June detailing the media’s overall gender bias in using women as news sources for election coverage. It was a laudable effort in concept to encourage awareness of diversity in media.

The 4th Estate Project continued to follow NPR’s coverage through the election season to watch for gender bias. In a nutshell, the bias noted across other commercial outlets in frequency of quoting males over females also appears in NPR’s coverage. Not a good thing, on the face of it.

But there are problems with this particular report in Forbes and 4th Estate Project:

1)  The magazine has an inherent gender bias of its own, not spelled out clearly by contributor Howe. With the overwhelming majority of medium-to-large corporations in this country lacking female board members and even fewer CEOs, Forbes’ own sourcing for business news is automatically biased by the current structure of this country’s businesses.

[Which begs the question: Is it at all possible that reporting on elections is similarly biased, because there are too few women in government or in politics? 4th Estate Project may have screened out statements by candidates, but did they screen out statements from past office holders, or prospective candidates who were assisting then-prospective candidates?]

2)  Forbes’ editor-in-chief has a known bias as a libertarian conservative (though he once ran for president under the GOP); his ideological bent against taxes may manifest in a bias against NPR as a publicly-funded news outlet. Howe’s piece does not disclose Forbes’ ideology or the possibility that the magazine has a similar bias; he doesn’t appear to question why Forbes magazine would be so interested in coverage of this single outlet’s continued performance up through the November election after the 4th Estate Project’s June 2012 report.

3) NPR is a competitor to Forbes; they may not operate in exactly the same market niche, but they both do reporting on business and politics. In this particular piece by Howe, Forbes questions the diversity of a single competitor, yet we can only assume that Howe and Forbes both believe their readers fully understand this relationship.

4)  There’s nothing under the About Us page at the 4th Estate Project’s website in terms of funding disclosure. It’s not clear if this is a privately-funded, corporate-funded, or public grant-funded project. How can we tell if this entity has an agenda of its own? The widely disseminated graphic based on the June 2012 gender bias report cites major newspapers, media companies, and news shows, but nowhere among them is Forbes magazine listed. Is it at all possible that Forbes is a funder of 4th Estate Project — or at arm’s length, through any related entity? We can’t rule it out based on the dearth of information.

This isn’t a little matter when many races across the country during this last general election hinged on women’s issues. The June 2012 report questioned the credibility of all election reporting based on possible bias; who was funding this report and why?

5)  Lastly, the term “sourcing”—as tackled by 4th Estate Project’s June 2012 report and the article in Forbes magazine—is used in reference to persons quoted in news reports. However  sourcing can mean something much broader. As a former managing editor it meant something different to me; my standard for vetting a news story required at a minimum one source on the record, and an unimpeachable source off the record. An unimpeachable source might have been a woman reluctant to go on record—and I know for a fact this happens frequently. Did 4th Estate Project’s June 2012 report and Howe’s article in Forbes fully explain and differentiate this to readers?

And is it possible the real story that women in the U.S. may not feel safe being publicly quoted?

Unfortunately we can’t tell that from either the 4th Estate Project’s previous work, or from the article in Forbes. Howe doesn’t question whether women quoted more frequently by NPR’s Mara Liasson might have felt more secure talking with another woman than with Ari Shapiro because he’s a man. (No slight to Shapiro who seems like a nice chap, but some women may feel reluctant talking openly to any man, or being quoted and named publicly by a man.)

While we ponder these challenges, Forbes magazine readers continue to think NPR is gender biased, their perceptions poisoned once again about publicly-funded news outlets.

That’s a two-fer for Steve Forbes: knock a taxpayer program and a competitor at the same time. What a bargain.

5 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    But Rayne, surely Forbes’ strong reporting over the years on gender issues in the corporate workplace counts for something.

    Oh, wait . . .

    [BTW, did you get that image from Bmaz? I see the cover article’s title is listed is “The Cult of Speed: Auto Racing’s New Religion”, which sounds right up his alley.]

  2. Rayne says:

    @Peterr: Uh, yeah. Forbes has done such a tremendous job over the last decade spotlighting and educating readers about gender inequity in Corporate America that the percentage of female CEOs and board members across the largest firms now reflects the ratio of women-to-men college students (that’s roughly 58-42 female to male).

    Bwa-hahahahah! Not.

    Unfortunately, by the time students choose an MBA, it’s 2:1 male to female, and in spite of any efforts by Forbes or other business media to discuss gender inequity in business, the ratio is sticky and businesses still insist on MBAs.

    In short, Forbes’ efforts are ineffective–unless their real aim is ensuring the status quo.

    Pity, really, since businesses with higher diversity at upper echelons of management are more profitable.

    [Re: graphic — no, lucky find in Flickr. Sure looks like something I’d find tucked in a box in bmaz’ garage though, eh?]

  3. Michael Howe says:

    I would like to address a few points in this post. First off, being a contributor to Forbes minimally makes me a representative for the publication itself. I am an independent contractor for Forbes, not an employee of Forbes.

    The relationship is symbiotic in that Forbes provides a platform for me to publish content to a wider audience than I would have without the platform, and I provide regular content to Forbes so they have a diverse stream of interesting content at an affordable price.

    The 4th Estate Project is a project funded by Global NI, a company that provides enterprise media analysis services to large companies and other organizations such the U.S. Government and IOC. This information was in the previous version of the website (redone in February), and should probably be brought back. I will work on that. The 4th Estate Project firmly believes in the ‘transparency’ movement.

    The 4th Estate Project has never had any financial arrangement with Forbes. I write the posts as an individual. The 4th Estate Project did not track Forbes in our data because the focus of our Election 2012 project were daily medias that produced election stories on a daily basis. In this regard, in addition to tracking NPR, we tracked daily TV broadcasts focused on politics and daily print publications from around the country such as USA Today, Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Los Angeles Times, etc.

    Finally, I think the prime thrust of my story was completely lost in your analysis. In fact, my goal was not to pick on NPR by any means. In many ways, NPR’s coverage was not much different than most of the other media outlets in our data. However, there was one way in which NPR’s data was very different, and my goal was to report on this very revealing pattern. Essentially, the women and men journalists at NPR behaved very differently in their gender ‘sourcing’. The men NPR journalists quoted men at a 3-1 ratio while women NPR journalists quoted men and women almost equally. In our data on other media, we did not see this behavioral difference between men and women journalists. We saw gender sourcing patterns that were consistent across the gender of the journalists – meaning both men and women journalists quoted men and women in their stories at approximately the same disparate ratio.

    To me, this is fascinating, and if you believe that women should be quoted more in media, then it says that NPR women journalists are doing a great job, while their female journalist counterparts in print media are not doing as good a job as they could. I have no idea why this is the case. Is there something about the medium of radio that facilitates more equal gender sourcing patterns?

    Quite simply, I wrote the story because I thought this data point was fascinating, and I thought it might help (in some small way) the people and organizations who are working hard in improving the percentages of women who are quoted in the media – organizations such as the Women’s Media Center.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    But, but, but government’s job is to ensure oligopolists’ profits, not to fund competitors that are not motivated solely by the creed of maximizing their own and their sponsors’ profits. At least that’s the stereotyped attitude that Mr. Forbes’s businesses promote.

    As for that starry-eyed Rotarian ideology he also sells, about the grandeur of independent, forthright, upright, self-sustaining capitalism, uninfluenced by government, my response would be similar to that attributed to Mr. Gandhi, when asked his opinion about so-called western civilization: “It would be a good idea.”

  5. Rayne says:

    @Michael Howe: Thank you for taking the time to offer a response.

    Questions remain, though:

    — Why was NPR alone in being followed after June 2012?

    — Why was granularity of survey shallow, i.e., no survey of media outlets to determine if women were actually used as sources, but not quoted?

    Since writing the post here, I also have to ask why the granularity of NPR’s reporters–Ari Shapiro and Mara Liasson are named. Who were the reporters at the major commercial outlets? Why can’t we compare their reports side-by-side with the named NPR professionals?

    Which leads to more questions: is it possible the persons who are by-lined on articles may have used pool reports? Is it possible that other contributors not by-lined factor into any of the stories? Further, is it possible that the articles are not the final products of reporters, but content post-editing and therefore not attributable fully to reporters?

    Clearly there is a problem with gender equity in media of all kinds. We see this from book contracts to the makeup of the Academy Awards judges. It’s been documented for years, and it persists in spite of women’s increased presence in college education. Until the surface is broken, there’s no real solution.

    Finally, I’ll share some personal perspective as both a political activist and as a former managing editor.
    — I’ve been used as a source for stories; most of the time I ask that I am on background only. Two slashed tires convinced me that for my personal safety and that of my family I need to do this depending on the story.
    — One story that remains unreported haunts me to this day. Female sources were interviewed extensively by my former news team; they had evidence of shady business deals that may have been illegal, was tangentially related to high profile events. But they were absolutely terrified and refused to allow themselves to be named/quoted. We could not get enough material to do anything more than very shallow reporting because they were so afraid. And yes, the shallow piece ended up weighted towards male sources; we could not ethically burn the female sources. This chewed at me when I read that “sourcing” meant quoted or identified.

    Thanks again for your response.

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