Three media outlets in northern Sweden, in the small town of Umeå, have found the way to balance out gender representation in the media. It is no magic pill; their prescription is hard work: measuring results and finding a woman in every story.
The Swedish local paper Västerbottens-Kuriren succeeded in increasing female representation in local news stories from 23 percent to 49 percent since its efforts began in 2002.“We started using the structure of the paper to achieve our goal: If it was a day when it was hard to find the women in the news, we used our feature stories to balance the paper,” said Gunnar Falck, managing editor of Västerbottens-Kuriren.
Falck describes how this was an everyday task. “We made sure there was an equal number of men and women in the pictures and in the stories we chose to highlight, on the front page, every day.”
Sweden is in many ways a pioneering country in gender issues. It was the first country to award a seat in the European Parliament to a feminist party, and since 2009 its own national parliament has held an almost equal gender ratio, with 45 percent of its members being females.
Nordic countries, however, did not fare too well in the latest report on gender equality in the media. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), in 2010 the female presence in Sweden and Norway ranked highest of the Nordic countries, with 32 percent and 31 percent, respectively, and yet Norway and Sweden also have a low share of female experts in the news: More than half of the characters presented on TV are men.
According to a 2011 paper by Maria Edström from Gothemburg University in Medijske Studije, “Is There a Nordic way?,” the Swedish portion of the GMMP data report indicates that the presence of more female reporters does not result in more gender equality in news content. Västerbottens-Kurirenknew that focusing on the gender of the staff would not achieve the results it was hoping for. “We quickly realized that if we were to achieve gender equality in our news content, we had to work differently,” Falck said.
In 2002 Västerbottens-Kurirentook part in a collaborative research project called the Editorial Balance Report with the University of Gothenburg and found out that only 23 percent of the main characters in the news coverage were women, while 51 percent of the readers were female. Men outnumbered women by 3-to-1 in the local news, and reports in the sports section were even more male-dominated, with only 18 percent of the main characters being women.
Given that women were half of the paper’s readers, Falck thought it was important that the newspaper content reflected that part of the audience, so he and his newsroom team started working toward more gender-balanced reporting. “We wanted to find women in the news because our readers deserved it,” he said.
The newsroom was enthusiastic and supportive of the project, and all the journalists started looking for more female experts to talk to for their news stories. But looking for female experts in male-dominated fields such as politics and business proved to be a difficult task. This effort forced them to take things a step further and find women in every event and every story. Journalists had to ask themselves where to find a woman to be represented in their stories. As a way to find more female experts, the paper turned to Umeå University, compiling a list of female experts and using it regularly.
The newspaper’s most visible success in balancing gender in its content was registered in the sports section, where coverage of female increased 41 percent, despite continuing difficulties in finding female reporters to cover sports. Falck said the overall readership for the sports section increased drastically with that change.
In fact, Falck said an increased representation of women leads to better journalism and more financial stability. “If 51 percent of our readers are women and they are never shown in the paper, we are not useful for them and they will stop reading the paper.”
Västerbottens-Kurirenis only one among other successful stories coming from Umeå. TV channel Västerbottensnytt reached a goal set by its company, SVT (Swedish public service television): a gender balance of 40/60in every program category. Recently, it had the only regional news program to reach 46 percent female representation in the news.
Its model was based on achievable goals and periodic monitoring of its work, where ensuring gender equality was an everyday task, “like doing the dishes,” researcher Maria Edström explained in her paper. The strategy also included an ongoingdiscussion on achieving goals and seeing gender equality as a management issue, as well as coaching everyone on the importance of finding women to interview.
Besides the newspaper and the TV channel, the local public service radio station in Umeå, Sveriges Radio Västerbotten, has had success in achieving gender diversity in the news. For the past four years, it has ensured that 43 percent of its news subjects are women. This almost doubled the global average recorded in the year 2010 by the GMMP, as female representation in the news was 24 percent.
Falck said there was not a cooperative project between the media outlets in Umeå. “When we started our work, we did not know about other companies doing this work too, and we did not cooperate at all. But once we did learn about it, it made us more determined to continue.”
Yetthese three outlets show that equal gender representation in the media is possible, if serious efforts are invested toward achieving this goal. Their determination proved successful, and while it seems to be a pure coincidence that all three outlets were located in the same town, other media environments hopefully will try their own models for improving gender balance.