by Daniel on July 6, 2013

So a while ago on Twitter, I saw this storify by @KateDaddie, talking about ethnic minority representation in the British media, in the context of this article by Joseph Harker in the British Journalism Review. As I am a notorious stats pedant and practically compulsive mansplainer, my initial reaction was to fire up the Pedantoscope and start nitpicking. On the face of it, it is not difficult to think up Devastating Critiques[1] of the idea of counting “#AllWhiteFrontPages” as an indicator of more or less anything. But if I’ve learned one thing from a working life dealing with numbers (and from reading all those Nassim Taleb and Anthony Stafford Beer books), it’s that the central limit theorem will not be denied, and that simple, robust metrics with a broad-brush correlation to the thing you’re trying to measure are usually better management tools than fragile customised metrics which look like they might in principle be better. Anyway, Kate asked me to come up with a simple probability model to give an idea of what sort of frequency of #AllWhiteFrontPages might be considered odd, and this is the way I went about it. This is being crossposted to the new Media Diversity UK blog.

Calculating a few simple descriptive statistics gives you an idea of what I’m on about. We’re talking about six national newspapers here – the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Mail and Express. I’m not including the red-top tabloids or the “i” cut-down version of the Indy, not out of any general prejudice against them as news sources (though I have that too), but because they seem to have a slightly different design grid for front page photos, which I don’t want to deal with for reasons set out below.

To a reasonable approximation, the United Kingdom is a country that is 90% white. So if every newspaper were to take a completely random choice of British people[2] to put on its front page, then you’d expect to see a “clean sweep” of #AllWhiteFrontPages – ie, a day with no non-white people in the main page 1 photo, roughly 0.9 ^ 6 = 0.53, so about half the time. Sometimes the big photo is not of a person at all, of course – allowing 20% for these would say that each newspaper would have a 0.8 x 0.1 = 0.08 chance of a non-white subject, and 0.92 ^ 6 = 0.6. So out of twenty weekdays per month, you would expect to see about 12 clean sweeps. If the average is 12, then the 95% confidence level – ie, the point at which you start saying with a reasonable degree of confidence that the selection is being made from a pool which is not racially representative of the UK – is going to be pretty high [3]. Even a few months of nearly all clean sweeps is not going to refute it. Which starts looking a bit bleak for the #AllWhiteFrontPages count as an indicator.

But for all the papers discussed above, the main splash photo is only one of three or four pictures of people that you get on the front page – the rest of them are illustrating minor news stories or, more usually, feature articles. And of course, the more throws of the coin to take, the less likely you are to get an all-heads distribution. Assuming an average of four pictures per front page, the chance of an “All White Grand Slam” would be 0.92 ^ 24 = 13% (roughly 1 in 7), you would expect somewhat less than three Grand Slams per month, and if you were regularly seeing ten or twelve, you would pretty quickly smell a rat.

At this point, my fellow pedants will be pretty much bursting a blood vessel at the fact that I’m assuming that the front page picture choices are independent. Of course they aren’t – they’re driven by the same news! When Princess Kate has her baby, for example, the chance of #AllWhiteFrontPages is pretty close to 1 (maybe a little bit less than 1, as there’s a chance that the Guardian or Indy would put a global story on the front page just to make a point).

There are all sorts of ways you could choose to deal with this correlation, but to keep it at the level of finger exercises, I’d use a model where a random process called “the news” selects a picture at random and then each newspaper decides to use it (90% chance) or pick its own random draw (10% chance). Your chances of a clean sweep of front pages would then be:

In the case where “the news” picked a white picture, each paper has a 1% chance of picking a nonwhite (10% chance of not going with the flow, 10% chance of picking a nonwhite person if they don’t), so the chance of a clean sweep is (0.99^6)

In the case where “the news” picked a nonwhite picture, each paper has a 91% chance of going with a nonwhite front page, so the chance of a clean sweep all white is (0.09^6)

So allowing for correlation with this model, you would expect to see clean sweeps (0.9 x (0.99^6)) + (0.1 x (0.09^6), which is about 85% of the time. That would mean about 16 clean sweeps per month, which is rather closer to what we actually do see, and would mean that entire months with all white front pages shouldn’t be that uncommon.

But then we also have the minor front page photos, and since these will be driven more by features than news, I wouldn’t expect them to be more than say 30% correlated. By a similar argument, each minor photo position on the grid would show a nonwhite person with probability 7% when the underlying process picked a white person and 37% chance otherwise, giving the probability of a clean sweep for that grid position of

(0.9 x (0.93^6)) + (0.1 x (0.63^6)) = about 0.59.

So, the probability of a “Grand Slam”, assuming a main picture and three minors, would be about

0.85 x (0.59 ^3) = about 17%

That would say that it would be something that would happen by chance roughly once a week, and again, I would be looking at 12-14 on a 30 day rolling count as the level at which I would be saying with a fairly high degree of confidence that the process by which front page news went onto the front pages was one which wasn’t representative of the racial makeup of the country.

And this matters, I think, for the reasons that Joseph Harker sets out in his essay. His example of the Bangladesh flood was really convincing to me – this was clearly a very important world news event, and nearly everything I ever learned about it, I learned from non-traditional news sources (mainly charity fund raisers via my friends). Something has gone wrong somewhere in the process by which the news is shaped.
Kate and her friends are apparently going to be keeping the rolling count of #AllWhiteFrontPages and recording it on their blog, and I’ll be following it with interest. People tend to roll their eyes a bit when business school grads like me start saying things about “management is measurement” and so on, but the fact is that a) if you don’t measure something, how are you going to find out whether it’s changed or not? and b) if you don’t want to find out whether something’s changing or not, in what sense can you actually claim to care about it? Obviously, the wider project of ethnic minority representation in newsrooms isn’t all about all white front pages, but the simple count is actually a pretty important metric in itself.

[1] the phrase “Devastating Critique” should be read here as if pronounced with heavy sarcasm. The phrase originates, I believe, with notorious “sound science” hack Steven Milloy, and is generally used as prelude to an absurd piece of nitpicking, usually based on caveats included in the paper itself.
[2] In fact, the assumption that the selection is from the UK population as a whole is both problematic, and overly generous. One of the things we know about UK news media is that they have a strong London bias, and so the relevant population ought to be substantially more nonwhite. It does rather trouble me that a policy of increasing nonwhite representation is de facto a policy of further worsening non-London representation, but I think this is a different debate.
[3] I am not really interested in calculating precise distributions and 95% confidence intervals, because we are clearly oversimplifying the process here, and a precise parameterisation of an imprecise function is what is known in the literature as “a waste of time”. The rule of thumb that a deviation of three times the mean is not something that can be successfully yaddayaddaed is a good way to do robust statistics.



Tom 07.06.13 at 7:31 pm

The missing dimension is each how non-white groups are represented on the dyas they appear on the front pages. What % of non-white front pages are positive stories, compared with the norm for all white grand slam days?


GroverPete 07.06.13 at 8:14 pm

Those interested in doing their own research can check out a site that archives each day’s UK front pages; I poked around a bit and it did seem to be a lot of white people, but the photos seemed to be at least 20% the royals, which throws off the stats. Looking at four or five random days the only non-white people I saw were Serena Williams (winning the French Open) and Hamid Karzai (looking put-upon.)


Anderson 07.06.13 at 9:57 pm

Somewhat OT, I’m reading this just after mocking the WSJ for its wistful hankering after the days of all-white swimming pools. Though in their case, someone’s selecting stock photos, not reporting the news.


Palindrome 07.06.13 at 10:09 pm

The royal family’s lack of diversity continues to disappoint. When will we have a monarch that looks like the rest of us?


Witt 07.07.13 at 12:08 am

This is a neat idea. Thanks for doing it.

I think it also points up how the use of “news judgment” or “editorial judgment” defines what is and is not news. Choosing whose picture gets put on the front page of the paper is also about whose activities are considered newsworthy.

I’m thinking in particular right now of a major news story in the Hispanic press in my community, which was near-completely ignored by the so-called mainstream media (save for our local NPR affiliate, which to their credit did an article and an interview). I am quite sure that if you asked the editors, they would say in all honest that the story was nice, it was interesting, but in the end it was a niche story competing with a hundred other potential stories.

Lack of coverage isn’t just about people not seeing themselves reflected in the newspaper. It’s because — since newspapers still are the de facto community archive in many places — writing people out of history.

So, yeah. Thanks for doing this.


Witt 07.07.13 at 12:10 am

Argh. My kingdom for comment preview!

honest s/b honesty

and “It’s because — since newspapers still are the de facto community archive in many places — writing people out of history.”

should be “It’s about — since newspapers still are the de facto community archive in many places — writing people out of history.”


Doug M. 07.07.13 at 7:08 am

“The royal family’s lack of diversity continues to disappoint. When will we have a monarch that looks like the rest of us?”

According to Doctor Who, sometime between now and the Fifty-First Century.

Doug M.


Chaz 07.07.13 at 7:29 am

Aren’t you being too generous by using the demographics of the UK as the basis for your ratios? These newspapers ought to be including some international stories, and the world is a lot less than 90% white.


chris 07.07.13 at 6:06 pm

@8: yeah, but most of the UK stories are going to be about people who are important in the UK — royals, the PM, ministers, MPs, CEOs of important businesses/organizations, etc. — who are presumably *even whiter* than the general population. (And for those of us observing from across the pond, the UK is indeed really really white.) Footballers and other athletes may be more representative (I haven’t checked) but they’re probably not front-page material very often; unless they do something REALLY surprising, that’s what the sports section is for.

The super-whiteness of movers and shakers is *somebody’s* fault, in a sense, but not the newspaper’s. That would be shooting the messenger.

Also there are some counting issues — does a crowd shot of Tahrir Square (to take a recent example) count as nonwhite presence on the front page? You may not be able to see any individual faces on it, but if you could, probably most of them would be nonwhite. Do you count crowds according to the approximate whiteness of the crowd, or not at all, or what? And sometimes the pictures are going to be disaster scenes or something else without human beings in it at all.

And that’s even before you get into issues of which “ethnics” count as white — are Jews white in England now? If so, are Israeli Jews white too, or do they have to speak English to be white? You can keep this up all day, and the answers keep changing.

OP: I’d use a model where a random process called “the news” selects a picture at random

But it doesn’t (or, at least, the random selection is not unbiased). Important people make more news and white people are more likely to be in positions of importance. None of that should be surprising (although maybe drawing attention to the latter part is the point, but in that case it seems odd to focus on the news organizations, as if *they* were the only ones deciding that the royals or the PM are more newsworthy that some random member of the public).

#4: The royal family’s lack of diversity continues to disappoint. When will we have a monarch that looks like the rest of us?

Well, it probably won’t happen this generation, unless the current royals break up (which could happen, I guess, but IDK how to estimate the probability). By the time their eventual children are old enough to date, I doubt if *too* many people would freak out if their relationships were interracial (although I’m sure there would be some), but there are still few enough opportunities per generation that it could take quite a while. Longer if they have a bias toward socializing with the upper crust, which is whiter than the nation as a whole (probably true on both counts).


ajay 07.08.13 at 1:58 pm

The royal family’s lack of diversity continues to disappoint. When will we have a monarch that looks like the rest of us?

Oh, come on, the dad’s a foreign immigrant, the kids haven’t got any proper jobs, and they live in state-supported housing.

Couple of points on the rather good OP:
1) As chris points out, some of the time there isn’t a person in the photo at all; looking at the last few days of front pages, there are ships at sea, museum exhibits and so on.

2) Should we be looking for nonwhite people on the front pages, or nonwhite Brits on the front pages? Why? A lot of the time The News is going to decide that Barack Obama (say) is the news for that day. Is putting his picture on the front page a blow for equal representation or not? I bet there are a lot more white people on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun than there are white Japanese people.

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