And this growing sphere of opinion has become more varied and vibrant in some respects: Townsley’s research shows that as there has been an enormous proliferation of opinion formats, there has also been an increasing diversity of the speakers opining in them—in terms of profession. In the past professional writers and journalists used produce a far greater share of opinion content; now op-eds and punditry come increasingly from experts in particular fields like government, science and economics.
Yet, these changes have failed to translate to demographic diversity at the top in the nation’s most influential opinion space; instead they have ushered in the gender gaps that exist in other elite segments of society: among the tenured faculty, politicians, business executives, and think tank types who write opinion pieces. In other words, more than becoming less white or less male in recent decades, the pundit class has become more diverse only in the sense of being less journalist.
What kind of diversity really matters?
This picture of the pundit’s new prominence in American media raises broader questions than about the rate at which women’s thoughts appear on the LA Times op-ed page. It’s a matter of which ideas and whose voices are driving debate and shaping public opinion.
“The OpEd section should make you think, challenge your assumptions, be well written, well argued, but beyond that it should make the reader feel that their opinions are represented there,” says Richard Prince, Diversity Committee chair of the Association of Opinion
Journalists, who also writes a diversity column for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “All those reasons are reasons for diversity.”
Every editor I talked with told me diversity matters, the question of how to achieve diversity and what that really means on op-ed pages remains an open question.
Editors told me that though they hope for a gender- and ethnically-balanced page, most said that achieving this is secondary to having an original, provocative and topically-diverse page. Almost all the editors I spoke with bristled at the notion of any sort of diversity ‘quota,’ or the sort of rigid prescription for the op-ed pages like that once applied to USA Today’s front page (For many years, the paper mandated the mention of at least one woman and one person of color above the paper’s fold; and indeed, USA Today has long led newspapers in diversity statistics.)
“It’s not just that you want men and women, you want really different people with really different backgrounds. Aiming at varieties of experience is just as important,” says Trish Hall, the op-ed editor at The New York Times. Hall’s section gets 1500 submissions per week, and she receives many more sent to her personal inbox, but they’re not often from the sort of unheard voices she wants more of; they’re largely from the opinion industry. “The hardest thing to find in this deluge of opinions is something that you haven’t actually read before. There’s not that much original thinking going on.”
That’s a worthy priority; it’s also one we’ll bet is easier to achieve with more voices of women and members of minority groups in the mix.
Correction: The original version of this piece mentioned that Richard Prince was a columnist at USA Today. Prince is not a columnist at USA Today, but is Diversity Committee chair of the Association of Opinion Journalists. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.