5 small steps a BBC anchor used make a big change

December 20, 2018 11:00

Our newsrooms do not yet reflect the diversity of our communities, and neither do our news stories. One anchor, BBC host Ros Atkins, decided to try to solve a representation problem on his show.

Here’s what Poynter’s Al Tompkins said about Atkin’s efforts:
BBC anchor Ros Atkins wondered why his organization set such high standards for production, accuracy and political balance but had no enforced standard for how many women appeared on BBC programs.

In 2017 on his own program, only 39 percent of the guests and experts were women. But today, 346 BBC content teams online, on TV and on the radio — involving 3,000 BBC staff — have committed to being certain that half of all contributors are women.

A year and a half later, every program that committed to increasing the percentage of women who appear as commentators, analysts and experts produced measurable results. The movement that Atkins started has spread from his program across the news division, to documentaries, children's and science programs, and music shows. 

And it happened without any boss demanding it, without diversity consultants recommending it or without an uprising from the public.

The problem: fewer women than men utilized as on air experts. It’s a problem not exclusive to the BBC, but what Atkins has been able to achieve shows just how much of a difference one person can make.

You can put his problem solving strategy to work in your own newsroom, to matter your role, to start making something better, too.

Pick one number to focus on
Atkins noticed that fewer women than men were appearing on his show. In looking at our own work, we’re likely to notice the same thing, but we could just as well notice that people of color are underrepresented, or that people from a particular geographic or socioeconomic sector of our viewing audience are underrepresented. You could probably make a daunting list of things you wish were better about your coverage or in your newsroom, but that quickly becomes overwhelming. Instead, Atkins picked one measurement to focus on. That doesn’t mean to ignore opportunities to address other problems. But breaking down a big issue – representation – into smaller questions can make us more likely to address them.

Work within what you can control
Another way problems can be daunting is that there’s so much we can’t control. If you’re trying to increase the representation of women in your stories, but all the public officials on your beat are men, it is tempting to think it’s out of your hands. But Atkin’s team accounted for this challenge by measuring only what they could control: the experts they invited on air. Even if some aspects of a challenge are out of your control, there’s likely some part that you can influence, regardless of your role in your newsroom. Find it!

Establish a habit
Much like many of us start the year with New Year’s resolutions that are often forgotten by February, changing or establishing habits can be tough. But, having broken down the problem into one measurable question, Atkin’s team was able to make measurement a daily habit and reporting a monthly one. Incorporating one measurement into an existing reporting habit was a relatively small change that could easily become a habit. Once measurement was a habit, it was natural to want to improve that number. Remember, we can’t get better if we don’t know where we are starting.

Make it part of the culture
Rather than forcing mandatory participation, getting other programs to commit to the goal started with making reporting part of the daily routine at Atkin’s program. Once it was the norm there, and its success could be clearly demonstrated, it was a no-brainer for other programs to try it too.

If there’s something you’d like to change in your newsroom, start by changing it in a small way, for one program or beat, demonstrating the success and gradually introducing the new norm to the newsroom as a whole.

Identify and solve the underlying problem
Sometimes when we run into walls solving challenges in the newsroom, it’s because we’re trying to solve the wrong problem. In the case of lack of representation of women on air, it wasn’t that there aren’t enough women who are experts, but that women experts were less comfortable going on air. Once realizing that, Atkin’s team could put together resources to help those experts get more confident about coming on the program.

If you run into a problem that you think is too daunting to solve, ask why it’s occurring. You may find it’s something you can address after all.

What’s something you wish were different about your newsroom or coverage? Where are you falling short? How can you use these five problem solving steps to address it in the coming year?


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