The Final #WhoTalks Report and What It Says About Top-Rated Cable News Shows

Every Sunday during the presidential campaign, FOX and CNN news shows did some navel-gazing about how much and what kind of coverage was given to the presidential campaign. Guests talked about how the media was treating candidates and their messages. After the campaign, they talked about whether they should have paid so much attention to this or that. Now, they talk about whether to spend more time on presidential tweets or executive orders.

Neither during the campaign, nor since, did they notice the gender imbalance of the commentators. But GenderAvenger did.

Today we release the final write-up about the Who Talks? project, which, in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, sought to monitor and analyze gender balance on top-rated morning and evening cable news shows. The Who Talks? report can be read in full here, but we want to give you a few highlights from our 8-month journey of daily gender balance tallies:

1. Shows only did a little better with regard to gender balance when the conversation was “about woman-things”.

Every show increased the appearances of women when gender was at the center of the conversation. Most dramatically Fox & Friends and The Kelly File more than doubled their overall averages. New Day and The Rachel Maddow Show had significant increases from 32% to 49% and from 34% to 55% respectively. On either end of the spectrum, Anderson Cooper 360, already with good representation, increased by 15% to a whopping 61% when women were invited to discuss gender issues, while Morning Joe at the low end overall (23%) had only a marginal increase to 32% when gender issues arose.

This shows us that shows are able to be more gender inclusive, but they only do so when they feel they must. Women commentators were not included at other times when the topics of conversation were deemed more serious or academic.

2. Even when the shows did have the opportunity to do better, they still failed to do so.

The choice networks made at the beginning of the election season made their climb out of a failure to include women particularly tough. The paid “regulars” and the network-identified “analysts” dominated the conversations. So, the table was set. However, when extra chairs were added — by choice — apparently little, if any, consideration was made to improve gender balance. These outside analysts are most often “experts” in their field. The numbers tell the tale. The Rachel Maddow Show and New Day top the list with 28 individual women out of 81 (35%) and 79 out of 276 (29%) respectively, and it goes down from there. Despite overall strong numbers by appearance, Anderson Cooper 360 falls to just under 30% when it comes to individual outside analysts. Morning Joe comes in at 20% and The Kelly File lags the field at 16%.

This speaks to a point that GenderAvenger often makes: gender balance happens long before panelists or guests make it onto a stage or TV show. It happens in the initial planning stages. Once a deck is stacked with mostly men, even if the shows had tried to course correct throughout the season, playing catch-up never quite works. Gender balance needs to be built into the way a structured from the beginning regardless of that topics are being discussed.

All in all, the results are, as we suspected, disappointing. They do, however, point to clear opportunities for improvement. Read the final Who Talks? report and GenderAvenger’s recommendations for a cable news experience that, with a little more effort and intentionality, could make the necessary room for women’s voices to be heard.