Do we need a Bechdel test for news?

Clinton press conference

I’ve been a tad obsessed with how media organizations could better foster transparency and make progress on the representation of women, people of color and other underrepresented groups in their ranks — and in their news.

How can we better structure ourselves, and our work, to tell the full story?

The zigs and zags of this mild obsession have led me to consider the power of the Bechdel test. It’s a simple three-question assessment of whether works of fiction, most often movies, have an active presence of women. The test was named after Alison Bechdel, the American cartoonist and creator of the Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home.” (Bechdel credits the idea to her friend Liz Wallace, and says it was inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf.)

To conduct the test, all you have to do is ask yourself if a piece of media:

1. Has at least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About anything at all, besides a man

Some people have pledged to no longer see movies that fail the test. And that eliminates a lot of movies — about half of all films.

Here are a few popular movies that don’t pass:

  • The Social Network
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II
  • Avatar
  • The original Star Wars trilogy
  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Run Lola Run

There are numerous running lists of movies that pass and fail. This crowd-sourced intelligence sharing is powerful and allows people to make informed choices. It makes people more conscious and fosters transparency, helping them decide whether they want to spend the time or money to see a film.

So what could be the right test for news? The obvious challenges are that news sources generate tens, hundreds and even thousands of stories each day on many different topics and events. It can be difficult for consumers to grasp what they are consuming in this constant flow of information. How could a consumer know whether an outlet was striving to tell the full story?  Successful “testing” also requires a broader definition of diversity, beyond gender, to include racial and ethnic diversity and other underrepresented groups.

How could news providers better signal what our content is made of, in aggregate, to help consumers know our commitment and record?

We can find a partial solution in technology. All kinds of algorithms can help us create data. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media announced recently that it will launch a tool that calculates how long a female actor is on screen.

But is there a marker we could use to identify organizations taking responsibility for solving a problem — like LEED certification for energy-efficient buildings, or fair trade seals on food? These concepts mean something to the user as they make choices about what they eat and where they work or live.

Across the industry, the representation and presence of women, people of color and other underrepresented groups is not very encouraging. The news media consistently lags behind its growth-potential consumer base.

The United States is more racially and ethnically diverse than it has ever been. It’s now approximately 62 percent white and 38 percent people of color. By 2043, estimates say the country will shift from being majority white to majority people of color. Women are 51 percent of the population and 57 percent the US workforce. And 40 percent of the population is first- or second-generation Americans.

Responding to these growing markets is the smart thing to do — for our news to have impact, and for media companies to stay financially sound.

Compare and contrast these figures: US population vs. aggregate newsroom stats


Source: US Census Bureau



Source: Women's Media Center



Source: International Women's Media Foundation



Source: ASNE 2016

On average, our newsrooms do not come close to reflecting the diversity of the United States. Our leadership and our staffs do not look like the market audience. Even more acutely, we lack racial/ethnic and gender diversity in our sources — the experts and people featured in our stories.

So what could a Bechdel test for news look like?

I humbly propose the Full Story Test as a concept for consideration to help bridge these gaps and better serve the public. To take the Full Story Test as an organization, ask three questions:

  1. Are our content priorities committing us to be more inclusive and to tell stories that aren’t being told?
  2. Are we tracking the diversity of staff, leadership and our board? How do we measure up?
  3. Do we regularly measure the diversity of bylines and sources? Do we have goals?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you are on the way to passing the Full Story Test.

Ultimately, organizations could trigger the flywheel of Bechdel Test-style engagement by releasing their results and commitments, giving people additional information to make choices about the news they consume.

The Full Story test is based in part on PRI’s learnings and a philosophy of what we call “ambitious inclusiveness.” For PRI, that means our staff, national board, and our journalism better reflect the diversity of the United States and our world. It’s a holistic approach by design.

Today, we are releasing an important tool in our efforts: PRI’s Inclusiveness Report 2016, which describes where we’ve made strides and also areas for improved representation in our staffing, leadership and content. This first report provides top-line statistics on our organization and examines gender, racial and ethnic representation in our sources. In essence, we’re taking the Full Story Test and sharing the results.

We plan to update our Inclusiveness Report at least annually. We see it as fundamental to our organization’s future. You’ll find a link to the report on PRI’s about section homepage, right next to FAQs, our annual reports and financial results.

PRI began a more intentional quest for more representative coverage about four years ago, when we launched the Global Nation initiative followed by Across Women’s Lives two years later.  

Global Nation addresses the fact that media stories about immigrants are overwhelming told from a negative perspective. The real-world stories we feature are nuanced and often told by immigrants themselves. We’ve also created a thriving community around this coverage that fosters discussion and informs our reporting.

Across Women’s Lives is our effort to address major imbalances in the coverage and presence of women in news. This initiative has taken us around the world, from Indiana to India, to tell hundreds of stories about women and by women. It has pushed us to forge new partnerships, including with hundreds of individual women who served as catalysts for reaching millions more people.

Answering “Yes” to the first Full Story Test question about content priorities was critical for PRI to begin to transform, one story at a time. And that adds up. We’re seeing impacts, no matter the topic, on our sources, bylines and conversations. We are growing reach and revenue. These commitments are also attracting more diverse talent to our newsroom, because people can tell we mean it when we say we are working at this and committed.

I hope the Full Story Test can add something to the conversation among people and organizations who seek a vibrant future for journalism and an informed public. More than ever before, media organizations need to reflect the diversity of our country and our world to effectively and credibly tell the most important stories. We owe this to the people-formerly-known-as-the-audience. 

As the year progresses, we plan to host conversations to talk more about Ambitious Inclusiveness, the Full Story Test and what we’re learning. We’d like to talk more and partner with media leaders who care about these issues and want to create more signals of their commitment to tell the full story. If you’re interested, please email me at

Alisa Miller is PRI's president and chief executive officer.

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