CNN Digital has more women in leadership and on staff than ever, and their perspective is changing video storytelling.
“The best ideas come from people who don’t think like everybody else,” says Wendy Brundige, vice president of global video for CNN Digital. “So, it’s been really important to me to build a team of people who represent different kinds of backgrounds, who’ve had different kinds of experiences.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by four other women in leadership at the network when they talked to Fast Company in the run-up to covering the midterm elections, which had an unprecedented number of female candidates at the federal, state, and local levels.
Election coverage itself is just a flash in the news pan for these women who are collectively responsible for the creation and promotion of a massive amount of video reporting. CNN is just behind YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, and ESPN, yet still reaches over 2.2 billion people across the globe every month. The network asserts that they experience over 500 million starts a day, which they claim is more than any other news brand. Doing this work is a global staff of 660. Although they weren’t able to disclose actual specifics of the breakdown, CNN Digital currently has more women than men on staff.
This is significant. The news business has long suffered from a lack of female representation. Women make up just 32% of U.S. newsrooms (and women of color represent just 7.95% of U.S. print newsroom staff, 6.2% of local radio staff, and 12.6% of local TV news staff), while men get 62% of bylines and other credits in print, online, TV, and wire news, according to the most recent Status of Women in the U.S. Media study. The media industry has also faced criticism for a lack of racial diversity. Data from a 2016 survey by the American Society of News Editors found that underrepresented minorities represent less than 16.94% of newsroom personnel at traditional print and online news publications overall. CNN declined to disclose the racial and ethnic breakdown of its news staff.
In an industry that reaches people of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and is supposed to prize objectivity, lack of diversity is a potentially huge stumbling block.
Cullen Daly, executive producer for CNN Digital Productions, says there are a lot of different factors that determine what gets covered. Some of it is based on the calendar, other times it’s news that’s bubbling at the moment, but deserves a more comprehensive look. “I’d say a lot of it has to do with innovation,” Daly says, “stories that we think could be told in new and different ways.” Chris James, who did the story on the trade war, told it through a different lens, she says. “He told it through what’s going to happen to people in the middle of the country.”
Brundige takes a somewhat controversial stance when she says she believes that for too long, people have thought about diversity as mostly about race. While experts like Scott Page, the author of The Diversity Bonus, argues in favor of cognitive diversity (which occurs naturally among people of different backgrounds, regardless of race, gender, or other factors), it wasn’t that long ago that Apple’s former vice president of diversity and inclusion Denise Young Smith came under fire for stating that a room of “12 white, blue-eyed, blonde men” could be diverse.
“We have a lot of racial diversity in particular in my team in New York,” Brundige asserts, “but it’s most important to me to have geographic diversity and not just have a bunch of people who grew up in the Northeast and went to Ivy League schools.” Still, she’s quick to add that there’s room for improvement.
Taking another tack, S. Mitra Kalita, the senior vice president for news, opinion, and programming for CNN Digital, observes that sometimes differences can illuminate common ground, too. She grew up in northeast India. “It’s a very rural region, but Wendy’s family and my family both had cows,” Kalita says. “We look nothing alike, and you would never put the girl from Kentucky next to the girl from Assam, and yet our families are actually very surprisingly similar.”
The mission of CNN Digital, according to Kalita, is to find some common factor with your audience. “So, I don’t think your background can be divorced from that process of storytelling,” she says. As the mother of two, Kalita recalls how she felt when Brundige brought a story idea about a woman in Chicago who was on a quest to find out how her son died because he was left with marks all over his body. It was called “Beneath the Skin,” says Kalita, and remembers Brundige talking about the period between the death and the funeral and what that’s like for a mother. “That just haunted me for days,” she confesses. “I would argue that she probably had a similar reaction,” says Kalita, noting that the creators of the piece were also women. “So on projects like that, it’s wonderful to be able to bring yourself to the work, and have it enhance the work,” she says.
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