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Pale, male, and stale – the need for more diversity on our airwaves

Discussions about the pandemic on TV and radio demonstrate we could do with more of the right experts at the right time

This is not a column about Covid-19, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear. I am personally well and truly sick of it by now and can’t wait until the day that we never have to think about social distancing or restrictions or lockdowns ever again.

So although this is not a column about Covid, it has made me wonder about how this all-encompassing world event is being discussed in the media. The last eight months or so has seen far more medical and scientific experts and commentators on our screens and airwaves than ever before, much like the proliferation of economists during the financial booms and busts.

However, who exactly are these so-called experts on TV and radio? We are now hearing from the same small group of people over and over again speaking on all manner of topics, regardless of whether it’s any way related to their field of expertise at all.

Don’t get me wrong, this band of commentators are usually highly intelligent, charismatic and engaging, and speak in simple, digestible ways that are easily understood by the general public, which is probably why they’re booked so often by TV and radio producers. One thing that these commentators perhaps may possibly be forgetting is that although they may be experts in their particular field, this does not give them the green light to speak upon any topic that they’re asked to.

Just because you may know how Covid acts under lab conditions does not mean you have the expertise to speak on the management of an outbreak in a school or how society should open up around the festive season.

An intensivist managing patients on a ventilator in ICU generally wouldn’t claim to have the experience of or speak on behalf of a GP managing cases in the community or vice versa, yet some commentators seem to be more than happy to give their two cents on how everything and anything should be done.

And yes, I am going to bring gender into it; these experts happy to chat away on whatever topic they’re asked about are usually men. Although some people switch off at the mere mention of the term ‘gender balance’, this really does speak to the lack of representation of women in the media. Radio and TV producers often say that although they make real efforts to try to get women to speak, they often will not volunteer or turn down opportunities when approached.

There is the adage that men apply for jobs when they think they are 60 per cent qualified for it whereas women will only apply when they feel 90 per cent qualified; perhaps this confidence gap also goes some way to explain why we are currently seeing so few women in our media. Organisations like Women On Air try to combat this by providing media training and databases of women who are happy to speak in different fields, but media in Ireland still remains very pale, male and stale.

I’m definitely not one of those flat-earth Trump supporters or Brexiteers saying that we’ve had quite enough of experts thank you, but I am suggesting that we could do with more of the right experts at the right time.

If we can’t rely on the same old faces to say ‘hang on, this isn’t my field of expertise, perhaps you should get someone else and here is this person that you haven’t seen before who has dedicated their life work to it’, perhaps we can ask those who decide who goes on our airwaves to really consider who they’re booking.

I completely understand that producers have to fill their slots, often at short notice, and it is often easier just to book the same old reliables. But it would be more interesting and valuable for the public to hear a more wide variety of voices and expertise. All of us as a society also have a responsibility when we’re consuming media to look at who is speaking and ask ‘does this person really know what they’re talking about here, or are they just very good at saying it?’.

As doctors we have practice in critically appraising what we are hearing and this is a skill everyone should cultivate. As we hopefully move into a new phase of Covid where we’re thinking about developments such as vaccines, it is important that we all develop the scientific and media literacy to really understand what we are being told and who is doing the telling. Getting the right people to speak at the right time can only be a good thing in working towards this goal.

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