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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.
Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Sylvia Stead

Public Editor: Why are women absent from the pages of The Globe? Add to ...

Images can be more powerful than even a thousand words.

I often hear from readers about photos in The Globe and Mail: from those who believe that some photos show too much violence or too much of the same old thing; from unhappy readers who note when the Sports section is all men for too many days in a row; from happy readers when they see women on a Sports front. I myself wonder, sometimes, why a photo accompanying a story about something like the unemployment rate couldn’t have been of a woman rather than a man.

So, prodded by the fact that International Women’s Day falls in March, I decided to tally the number of photos for the past month by gender, to see whether Globe coverage is reflecting the role of women in society – and, if not, what the paper could do better. I found, on a daily average, including Saturday, that there are 19 photos of men or groups of mostly men in the paper; there are 7 of women. The Saturday Globe, taken alone, is much more equitable: The average is 41 photos of men, and 34 of women. (All such numbers exclude head shots of our columnists.)

One major reason for the weekday/weekend split: Sports skews the Monday-to-Friday numbers. (On Saturdays, because there are more – and bigger – sections throughout the paper, Sports has less influence on the total mix.) A highly visual section, Sports includes lots of photos of professional games and male athletes. On an average day in Sports, there are seven photos of men and just 0.5 of women.

It can be a challenge to better balance the photos and news coverage of women. But it’s not insurmountable, and the situation should be much better than it is. There were clearly efforts to do better with coverage of women through photos on several days in March. On International Women’s Day itself, and in the days before and after, The Globe featured front-page and section-front photos of women, including young women leaders in Parliament; an all-women Air India flight crew; mostly women admiring the statue of the young girl facing the bull on Wall Street.

A few weeks ago, a front-page photo showed a group of Yazidi women taking part in a knitting session at a camp for displaced persons. It helped to give a face to Canada’s pledge to accept such refugees this year, and in my view, put a decidedly human face on the issue.

Early this month, our front-page main photo was of human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney with Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who had been enslaved by the Islamic State in 2014, speaking about the plight of Yazidis to a United Nations hearing – with not a word about what either woman’s husband did for a living (that was not the case with many other media).

Also in the mix this month have been daily stories from our series Unfounded, which has explored how Canadian police are handling sexual-assault allegations – and those stories and accompanying photos have focused on women.

One Monday saw women on every section front – including Sports, with a photo of the victorious and gleeful women’s McGill University basketball team winning a gold-medal match. A good day. But that kind of day shouldn’t be so remarkable.

And yet, it is. Let’s go back to that very low average daily number: 19 photos of men, and 7 of women. Clearly that does not reflect the numbers in Canadian society or, for that matter, in the world.

Some of this imbalance comes from missed opportunities. One recent Saturday Focus section ran a great profile of Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, which included four pictures of the minister – but with only one woman constituent, who was easily outnumbered by four men in the photos. There was a much better balance in the online version of the story, which included many more photos showing women constituents and colleagues of the minister, including one shot of Mr. Hussen’s wife, Ebyan, and his young children.

That example aside, why does the Saturday paper do so much better when it comes to photo equity? The additional sections of Style, Focus, and a larger Arts section help. But the Saturday Globe also covers the issues more, and the news of the day less. The depth of those issues and that coverage allows for greater balance and a more meticulous analysis of how all people are affected – women and men. As well, the Saturday photos are more often assigned by Globe photo editors, and so deliberately include a better gender balance – in contrast to the daily news photos, often from wire services, which tend to be taken, transferred and chosen on tight deadlines.

Many foreign stories are about conflict; and many countries’ leaders, military and police, not to mention those who protest in the streets, overwhelmingly tend to be male. There is a lot of coverage and interest in the United States leadership right now, a group – from the White House to the Senate to the House – that includes significantly more men than women. (In fact, I’ve heard from a few readers who say: Please don’t run so many pictures of Donald Trump; we know by now what he looks like, and don’t need a daily diet.) In these cases, though, there’s no requirement to run photos of men: Not every story even needs to include an image. As well, The Globe could be making a greater effort to think outside the box, and run photos of people more peripheral to the story; or photos of images other than people.

There’s one final reason men’s images outnumber women’s, and it stems from the lack of gender diversity among our columnists. The weekday paper is heavily male in that regard, and, so, are the head shots that sit atop those columns: There’s an average of 11 such shots of men, and three of women. Saturdays, on average, see 10 men and six women columnists. In most news organizations in Canada and North America, columnists tend to be older and male. While there are high-profile women writing general-interest Globe and Mail columns in News, Opinion, Style, Focus, and Life and Arts, there is only one in the very large section of Report on Business; there are no women columnists in Sports. Perhaps that is something the media need to be mulling more seriously. Another thing to consider would be running photos of women and men who write major features in the paper.

So the lesson I take away is this: There isn’t enough diversity of photos – and not just of women – in The Globe. But that gap can be narrowed with more issues-oriented coverage during the week (such as the Unfounded stories); increased attention to amateur sports and women in sports; and, all week long, a conscious effort to offer a better balance of Canadian diversity and gender (as in, for example, showing more women in the profile of Mr. Hussen).

Photos, after all, can be as powerful as the words they serve to illustrate.

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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