Reality Checks Software: Ensuring Diversity in Journalism

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Reality Checks is a Web-based diagnostic tool that allows news organizations to quickly and easily assess the diversity of its sources and the completeness of its coverage.

Plug in the information of the demographics, placement and story type for each article, and the Reality Checks software crunches the numbers and generates the reports.

Reports include:

* The demographic makeup of the news organization's sources along the five fault lines of race, class, gender, generation, geography.
* Topic and story-type analysis of where the sources appear.
* Section, placement and page of where the story appears

Each content audit gives the news organization a snapshot of its coverage at a particular time. The ease of the software allows companies to update its information and track its progress on a regular basis.

Organizations can conduct annual or semi-annual content audits of their overall news coverage. That analysis can be augmented with reviews of individual departments on a rotating monthly basis.

Reality Checks can be used by all types of news organizations, including those aimed at a single fault lines segment. For those news organizations aimed at certain audiences, the flexibility of the software allows it to determine which of the other fault lines are at work.

For more information, e-mail Woody Lewis at wlewis@maynardije.org.


Maynard Launches Web-based Content Audit Service

By Mydria Clark

Mike Burbach

Mike Burbach, managing editor of Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal, chuckled as he recalled the first content audit he participated in.

"There were big stacks of paper everywhere," said Burbach, who conducted the audit about four years before, while he was editor of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia.

Burbach's staff spent three full days counting a week's worth of newspapers. They read random stories from all sections of the paper and wrote down specific information about sources on printed forms. Then, they took this information and keyed the data to a computer spreadsheet program.

This tedious process may soon become a thing of the past. Today, content audits have entered the technology era, thanks to the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Streamlined Process

The Maynard Institute has launched the Reality Checks Content Audit, a new Web-based service that accelerates the content audit by allowing newsroom staffers to enter story information into an online database in one simple step.

"The old way was labor intensive. Why do things twice?" said Woody Lewis, the software consultant for Maynard who developed Reality Checks.

Content audits traditionally have been used to assess a media outlet's coverage of particular issues and subject matters during a given time. In recent years, content audits have proved to be a valuable tool for looking at racial coverage as papers strive to provide a diverse mix of people in the news.

Fault Lines Driven

Reality Checks will be the first of its kind on the market, incorporating into content audits the Maynard Institute's Fault Lines, filters to examine whether a newspaper's stories, subjects, sources and images come close to reflecting the demographics of the communities they serve.

During the audit, the news organizations tag stories for race, class, gender, generation and geography, among other categories. This data is fed into a centralized server using a Web-based interface. Reality Checks can then generate reports immediately about the newspaper's coverage.

The goal is to find the gaps and improve coverage, said Erna Smith, a San Francisco State University journalism professor and former Maynard Institute staff person, who has been conducting various types of content audits for more than 10 years.

"The Maynard audits were far more complex, and I thought they gave people a whole lot more useful information," said Smith, referring to the use of the Fault Lines filters.

Self-Discovery

Smith also said that having an audit conducted by the newsroom staff rather than by an outside party made a big difference.

In the past, Smith found that newspaper managers would get defensive when an outsider told them their coverage did not reflect the community. However, now that content audits are done in-house, the managers trust the results and their awareness goes up, Smith said.

"It's a way to discover the problems for themselves," she said.

Star-Telegram Beta Test

A beta-version was introduced to news managers at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' "Time Out for Diversity" event in the spring of 2003. Several newspapers signed up to test it out, such as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which paid $1,000 a month to use the software over a six-month period.

At the Star-Telegram, everyone in the newsroom used the Reality Checks software and signed on with a user name and password. Instead of going through stacks of old papers, reporters were able to enter their story information as soon as it was published.

After clicking the "Enter a Story" link, reporters started the auditing by entering information about a particular story, such as what city it took place in, what section of the paper it was featured in and on what page.

Then, they used different pull-down menus to choose the attributes, such as race, age and gender, of each source in the story. This information was added to a database full of stories from the same paper.

The whole process takes about five minutes, Lewis said, about half the time spent entering story information the old way.

Instantaneous ResultsJean Marie Brown

Speed is not the only benefit of the new system. For subscribers of the service, it also allows reports to be generated with the click of a button, giving news managers a chance to review the results of the audit instantaneously.

"I think it's great. It gives you a sense of your coverage in real time," said Jean Marie Brown, in charge of the content audit at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the first paying customer to use the test version of Reality Checks in 2003.

"Once you do the audit, you can look at your results immediately," Brown said.

Changing Old Habits

Burbach said conducting the audits helped show where the paper was lacking in coverage. The result, he said, was that reporters changed the way they went after sources, and now the Ledger-Enquirer reflects its community more accurately than in the past.

"The process of doing the audit and the conversations that happen because of the audit are pretty useful, even if you have a good idea of what you'll find in the audit," said Burbach.

Brown said everyone in the newsroom at the Star-Telegram used the software and reporters entered their own stories into the server. Overall, they entered about 700 stories per month into the server.

"I think it answers the question of who you're really talking to," Brown said, whether the sources are the usual suspects or stakeholders in issues. "Ideally, we want to be talking to the stakeholders," she said.

Conducting a content audit following the Maynard Institute's five Fault Lines is only the first step in diversifying coverage. Smith thinks journalists need to look at how they organize themselves to gather information in order to get to the root of the problem.

"It has to do with the whole culture of journalism and how we go about doing things," Smith said.

Smith said it has nothing to do with hiring minorities in the newsroom. Instead, reporters should have a diverse Rolodex of experts and sources and a news diet that contains media outside of the mainstream, such as ethnic publications. Then, newspapers may have a better shot at reaching parity in its coverage.

For information on subscribing to Reality Check Content Audit service, contact Dori Maynard at djm@maynardije.org or by phone at (510) 891-9202.