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How the women in charge of programming at CNN are changing the news we see

CNN Digital has more women in leadership and on staff than ever, and their perspective is changing video storytelling.

How the women in charge of programming at CNN are changing the news we see
[Photo: Willian Bayreuther/Unsplash]

“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.”

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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.

From left: Cullen Daly, S. Mitra Kalita, Courtney Coupe, Ashley Codianni, Wendy Brundige

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.

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“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.

For Courtney Coupe, the president of content and executive producer at Great Big Story, who’s been with the company since its launch three years ago, it’s also become critical to find stories that resonate with the audience by way of common ground.

The thread that runs through the over 2,000 stories from over 100 countries is emotion. “We are not sugarcoating reality,” she says, “and I don’t think we’re trying to say that the world is perfect. We recognize that it’s not. But we really are trying to also recognize that flowers have the ability to grow out of cracks in the sidewalk.”

Although it’s not straight news, Coupe insists that the untold, underrepresented, unexpected stories are very much intended to show the audience something they’ve never seen to spark hope, curiosity, and wonder. “We really want to create deep connections with our audience, and so making them feel something, introducing them to characters who feel very passionately about their own lives,” she asserts. “We want to go beyond just the facts, the who, the what, and really dig into the why.” So far, that’s meant cutting across geographic, racial, cultural, and language barriers. “Some of our best performing content is stories that are not in our own backyard,” she says.

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Because of the directive to find such diverse stories from around the world, Coupe says it’s necessary to have a team that has different backgrounds, professionally, personally, culturally, etc. “We trend higher on staff in women than men, which is a rarity in this industry,” she says.

Having that many women decision makers plays out in a variety of ways across the network. “I think there’s also an inherent support that we have for each other, to speak up, to back each other up, to understand,” says Kalita. As the relentless news cycle continues, she asks, “Are we taking care of ourselves? How are we taking care of our staff?” noting that she doesn’t believe that those are questions that are not only pertinent to women. “But I do think that they are questions that we try to address at CNN all the time.”

As Ashley Codianni, executive producer of social and emerging media at CNN Worldwide, sees it, the arsenal of support among female staff has offered some important lessons over the four years she’s been with the company. “I think that the biggest thing that I learned is that I can really push boundaries in traditional storytelling, and I can really experiment on new platforms and in a new way,” she says. “I have been in places previously that have always supported that innovation, of course, but it’s been really special here,” she says. “And I think that sets us apart.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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