Riptide’s white, male history of journalism

Excluding women and people of color may be an inattentional blindness problem

There’s a concept in psychology called “inattentional blindness.” In study after study, if people are focused on one task, they will literally not see something else right in front of them—like someone in a gorilla suit beating her chest in the middle of a group of people who are throwing a ball around.

I wonder if inattentional blindness is what happened with the Riptide project, released this week.

The study, from Harvard’s Nieman Lab and Shorenstein Center, was authored by three white men—John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz, and Paul Sagan—and is an oral history of what happened when journalism met digital technology “from 1980 to the present.” As Poynter notes, however, of the 61 people interviewed, only five were women. And only two were non-white, both of them men.


The authors don’t see why this is a problem. They told Poynter in an email:

We started by identifying the institutions that we believed were central to the Riptide story—the change of news through the rise of digital technology, beginning around 1980. Then we sought to interview many of the key people at those institutions. At the time they were, regrettably, overwhelmingly white and male.

That they are unapologetic says to me that they have a metaphorical kind of inattentional blindness; they were so focused on trying to describe one aspect of the industry that they didn’t see what was right in front of their faces: women and people of color are part of the story, too.

In fact, as the Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson says:

It appears that the project misses a key aspect of how the digital age disrupted traditional journalism: Digital advances, particularly the spread of the Internet and the rise of blogging, gave a powerful new way for voices marginalized in the elite journalism sphere to spread their stories … . it would have been a perfect example of how upstart online empires [like Jezebel, she notes] harnessed interest from audiences sometimes left behind by major legacy news sources to great effect.

In other words, more inclusivity would not have diluted the study, but enriched it.

But this is not just about missing narratives. It’s also, simply, about missing people. Almost every photo over 15 chapters is of white men, from a shot of bloggers at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to a man’s hand holding an iPad. Those stock photos could easily have been substituted by ones including women. A photo celebrating the early days of Yahoo doesn’t include co-founder Jerry Yang. These are simple fixes of inclusivity that would have helped remind readers of this important study that the movers and shakers and consumers of journalism and tech are not just white men, but women and people of color, too.

In fact, after the report was released Monday, Twitter came alive with suggestions of others that could have (should have) been interviewed. One media journalist, Rachel Sklar—the founder of Change the Ratio, which promotes the careers of women in new media and tech; former media editor at Huffington Post, where she launched their media page; editor at large for Mediaite; and former editor of FishbowlNY, a media industry blog—tweeted that she had spoken AT Harvard on the very same subject last year. (Read her great response to the Riptide study here.)

But she wasn’t interviewed.

Nor was Dori J. Maynard, the president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism. Or Gregory L. Moore, the editor of the Denver Post, who has been in journalism for 30 years. Or Alphonso Van Marsh, a CNN correspondent who was an early pioneer of digital newsgathering. Or Katharine Weymouth, who revived the Washington Post’s website when she took over as publisher in 2008—though her uncle, WaPo chairman Donald Graham, was interviewed. And Anna Holmes, the founder of the groundbreaking feminist website Jezebel wasn’t among those selected—instead, the authors of the study chose blogger Andrew Sullivan. A white man.

It’s not that these journalists—and others—were excluded because they weren’t important. They weren’t interviewed because they weren’t thought of. And they weren’t thought of most likely because the authors of the study are using their own frames of reference as white men to interview other people like them. That’s inattentional blindness.

After all, one could imagine a similar study coming out of a women’s college, a traditionally black college, or a minority journalism organization—and I bet you that if it did, people of color and women would have been more fully represented. Because researchers in those institutions are using a different frame. They are paying attention to different things.

As Slate’s XX Factor blog points out, this makes Riptide “a particularly stunning example of how neglecting the full range of human perspectives fundamentally undermines the project at hand. Riptide claims to present stories from across the ‘hierarchy’ of the digital disruption, from ‘the mighty’ to ‘the eyewitnesses.’ Really, it reflects perspectives ranging from ‘the chairman’ to ‘the CEO.’”

Any overview purportedly surveying the confluence of two giant industries while barely including women and other social minorities just isn’t accurate. The three white, male authors of the study should be apologetic. They should explain how they’re going to include more diverse sources in the future in this continuing project in order to tell the whole story.

Because the truth is, there are women and men missing from their piece—and not because they aren’t part of the history being recounted. They are missing because, to the authors of Riptide and others like them, those missing people are invisible—even though they are there in the center of the action, beating their chests, trying to get noticed.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: ,