“After eight weeks of talking-head analysis and expert opinion about the world, post-Sept. 11, here’s one sure thing you can learn from watching TV,” wrote Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi in early November. “Almost all of the people who seem to know anything are men.”
Farhi was referring to the near absence of women in the pantheon of war commentators on TV news programs. With the exception of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, almost all of the war and terrorism experts featured on Sunday morning public affairs shows and nightly news programs are white and male, Farhi reported.
Such lack of diversity isn’t by design, he writes—it’s the nature of the news business, where time is precious and producers tend to go with sources they know well. Bookers would probably welcome sources outside of the white-male-military axis, but they usually are too busy to expand their Rolodexes.
By all accounts, this is a great time to pitch “alternative” sources—provided you can get the attention of harried guest bookers.
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, believes that TV newsroom staff truly want to broaden their rosters of experts, but they’ll be looking for sources that come to them, not the other way around. “War expertise is developed more at the network level than at the local level,” says Cochran. Yet, it’s local broadcast news departments that are most in need of diverse sources, she points out.
“They’re very conscious of their demographics, and that women sources are desirable,” Cochran says. This is particularly true for programming that typically has heavy female viewership, like morning and late-afternoon shows.
Cochran believes it’s a smart PR move to pitch women experts now, as bookers continue to scramble for guests to comment on breaking news. “It’s always useful to jog their memories about the availability of these sources—otherwise, they’ll continue to pick people who are just like all the other experts.”
Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school and a co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, says PR people with interesting sources to pitch must battle the broadcast media’s hesitation to try new experts. “They want to break news, but they don’t want to take the chance on a new source,” Sreenivasan says. “They’re afraid that a new source might be unreliable, or might be terrible on TV.”
To soothe bookers who are skittish about using a source they haven’t worked with before, Sreenivasan advises listing every previous interview, no matter how small you think it is. “A quote anywhere—even in a small ethnic paper or a free weekly—is worth mentioning,” he says.
Media relations people tell MRR that women or minority experts on the war and terrorism are finding a place on TV news shows, and most say there is an opportunity for sources that aren’t white males. Phillip Sprayberry, media relations coordinator at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., has successfully placed political science professor Maya Chadda (an Indian-American) on MSNBC and the Fox network’s Bill O’Reilly show.
“It certainly helps that Chadda has done original research in Pakistan,” says Sprayberry. “She can talk firsthand” about subjects like the plight of women under oppressive regimes. As to whether Chadda’s being female has helped her win placements, Sprayberry says he can’t tell—but of course, the professor has outstanding credentials, which makes her an easier pitch, he explains.
At Syracuse University, communications manager Nicci Brown has been able to place Joan Deppa, a professor in the Newhouse School of Public Communications, on CBS Radio, NPR, MSNBC, and network TV affiliates in New York and Chicago. Deppa is an expert on the relationship between terrorism and communications.
“I think the media is starting to look for new angles—there are a lot more open doors to new sources right now,” Brown says. Despite her success with Deppa, however, “I agree there is a lack of female and minority experts in broadcasting,” Brown says. Syracuse University broadcast journalism professor Hubert Brown, who’s studied minority representation in the media for several years, says the situation probably won’t change drastically in the near future.
“If you’re female, you’re not as sought after as a source. If you’re an ethnic minority, the chances are even less,” Brown says. “You hear a lot of the same excuses as to why this occurs,” such as the fact that white males are in positions of leadership, and therefore are the logical sources, Brown explains.
At busy news times like this, “producers start out with small Rolodexes that get narrower,” because they rely more and more on tried-and-true sources, Brown says. “This problem will only get worse, as newsrooms make do with less.”
American University media relations director Todd Sedmak has placed Professor Akbar Ahmed, chair of the school’s Islamic Studies department, on The Oprah Show and CNN. Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat, has the credentials the media needs—but Sedmak has also stressed Ahmed’s ability to provide thoughtful perspectives, as opposed to picking fights.
“Many people who are experts on this issue are attacking, not dialoguing,” Sedmak says. “The media’s nervous—they don’t want someone who’ll just spout politics.”
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