Does BBC News training hold women to a different standard?

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Almut Rochowanski with Nani Jansen Reventlow  – WNN Commentary

The training hub of the BBC, BBC Academy, sends out a tweet to announce the Expert Women 2017 training initiative. Image: BBC Academy Twitter

(WNN) LONDON, UK: In February 2017 the instructional hub of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), BBC Academy, held its second series of trainings with the BBC Expert Women’s Day. The event brought together “female experts who’d like to appear on air as contributors to BBC programmes”.

Choosing 24 women professionals for the program BBC Academy outlined, “The BBC Expert Women class of 2017 included lawyers, scientists, political analysts, entrepreneurs, coders, cultural leaders and sex educators – all women with particular expertise, all keen to share their knowledge on TV, radio or online as contributors or presenters”.

Selected from a pool of 450 applicants for what was coined by BBC Academy as a ‘media familiarisation day”, the women were given tips on how to sound natural on the air, along with an opportunity to know what it’s like to experience appearing on camera in a BBC news studio.

Seemingly this was a well-intentioned effort to diversify expert sources on news panels. However the way the BBC is going about it has made the process seem more like an awkward beauty contest.

This is the latest edition of a programme the BBC launched in 2013. At first glance the BBC Academy Expert Women’s Day might look like an earnest attempt to overcome the notorious ‘all-male’ news panel problem. And it may be something the BBC should be applauded for, even though in 2012 the BBC was the only major UK news broadcaster to refuse to sign a pledge to get more women on the screen.

On closer inspection there are a number of deeply problematic aspects to the initiative. In fact this initiative is a spot-on illustration of why media organizations suffer from the all-male panel problem to begin with. The BBC Academy call for applications asked applicant women experts to send in their CV, along with a letter explaining their interest in being on air and a two-minute video of themselves talking about their area of expertise.

By having women experts compete to be acknowledged for what they already are–experts–this competition puts the onus on the women not only to correct and overcome the discrimination that holds them back.

The competition is based on the ignorant assumption that women are underrepresented as experts in broadcast media because they have not tried hard enough or because they just do not shine as brightly as their male colleagues. These are the males whom the media somehow manages to find without them having to answer to a casting call.

The same argument is routinely employed to rationalise the low numbers of women on corporate boards and among tenured professors or in government. With these rationalisations we know that women are underrepresented in roles of power and prestige only because they are overlooked, dismissed, ignored, excluded and discriminated against.

Once again women are expected to jump through extra hoops to prove that they are good enough, to do what men routinely get to do, with no questions asked.

The screen test that forms part of the BBC Academy application is particularly troubling. In contrast it doesn’t look like the BBC requires screen tests of the male climate scientists, business experts or lawyers they invite on their programs.

Women experts speak on panel in the ECOSOC chamber at UN headquarters New York on 22 September 2016 in an atmosphere where women expert panelists most often make up a much higher percentage than women experts in civil society broadcast news panels. Image: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Women need to not only have the talent and put in the work to become experts on topics like Brexit, terrorism or classical music, but must also submit to a screen test and mentoring in order to be recognized as authoritative voices in their field of expertise.

And while the instructions in the video for candidate applications does not mention looks, women are judged on their appearance much more than men. This is nowhere more so than inside the media.

Imagine a female expert on development aid or the music industry considering, even for a split second, whether she should or should not put on lipstick before recording her video. It immediately becomes clear how this initiative perpetuates gender discrimination and is self-defeating in its stated purpose.

This critique isn’t directed at the women who took part in this year’s BBC Expert Women’s Day, or the many more women who applied and were not invited. Quite the contrary. These women are obviously very good at what they do, and the fact that they’re ready to put in the extra work and face new challenges illustrates why they have become leaders in their fields.

Our point is that they shouldn’t have had to go through a competition like this to be recognised for their expertise to get a chance to contribute to a public discourse.

If the BBC concludes that they have too few female experts on the air, they ought to first take a good, hard look at themselves and figure out where they went wrong. Have they sufficiently questioned their own habits and assumptions? Have they probed their organization’s practices for hidden biases and discrimination? Do terrorism experts always look male in the imagination of the editorial staff? Have they given proper research a try?

It is not really difficult to find women experts out there. We are literally everywhere.

We are at universities, hospitals, research centers and think tanks. We publish books. We blog posts and articles. We are on LinkedIn and social media. We win prizes and fellowships. We are part of professional networks.

In addition numerous databases have been set up to assist researchers who might be at a loss in identifying women experts for their news coverage. There is The Women’s Room, SheSource an ongoing project of the Women’s Media Center and The OpEd Project to name but a few.

Having women compete to have their voices heard in a space where their opinions should be sought out as often as those of their male counterparts is not a solution. By failing to acknowledge and reject the systematic inequalities that women face this casting call for women experts perpetuates the problem as much as it ostensibly tries to solve it.

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In January 2014 the National Press Club (NPC), located in Washington, D.C., discussed the important need for visiting and on staff women experts to be part of the conversation as analysts inside today’s broadcast news.

Here’s what they said about this important event: “What are we missing when our reporting doesn’t adequately include women experts and women subjects? Why should we care and how can we increase women’s voices in the news?…”

Panelists outlined and mentioned in this video include: Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief Bloomberg News, Sally Buzbee, AP Washington bureau chief, Ken Strickland, NBC Washington bureau chief, Ruth Marcus, Washington Post op-ed columnist, Anna Palmer, Politico senior Washington correspondent, and Jill Zuckman, managing director SKDKnickerbocker. Linda Kramer Jenning, Georgetown University journalism instructor and Washington editor with Glamour magazine, was the moderator for this event.

In 2017 the National Press Club has taken an active, direct and transparent stand to support ‘Freedom of the Press’.

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Almut Rochowanski is the co-founder and coordinator of the Chechnya Advocacy Network.

Nani Jansen Reventlow is a human rights lawyer with Doughty Street Chambers and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
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Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” Women News Network (WNN) began in 2005 as a solo blogger’s project by WNN founder Lys Anzia. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.

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