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Will events become more diverse post-Covid? Don’t hold your breath

The shift to online was supposed to make events more geographically inclusive. So far, not much has happened

[Editor’s note: Telling the untold stories of European media (especially from non-English speaking countries or undercovered regions like Central and Eastern Europe) was part of The Fix’s founding mission. International events are a key platform where media stories are shared. But that collection of stories is dominated by a few countries, often despite organizers’ best efforts. Over the coming weeks, we will try to understand the state of landscape and what can be done to improve representation.]

A silver lining of the pandemic is how it accelerated the shift to digital. While regulatory barriers to travel or gatherings were going up, the world became more connected in cyberspace. 

Few areas were arguably as affected as events. These went from being overwhelmingly in-person to hybrid or fully digital. In turn, the new format made them much more accessible internationally, both for speakers and audiences. 

As Maarten Vanneste, the founder of Belgium-based ABBIT Meeting Innovators put it, international events went from “complicated, risky and expensive”, to the opposite. Preliminary studies forecast that digital interactions between geographical distant groups will become a regular fixture in the academic world.

This is an opportunity for international media events, whose agendas have historically been dominated by western countries (see graph below). But while a slight shift is happening, it is unlikely to meaningfully change the underlying factors responsible for the imbalance.

More from The Fix: Media events go digital, and not just for the short-term

International events – the West and the rest

Diversity of international events has been a big topic for a while already. For years now the “All Male Panels” tumblr account has ridiculed, well, all-men-panels by placing a smiling, “thumbs up photo” of man’s man David Hasselhoff on event photos. 

But while gender representation is being (relatively) seriously addressed (as is, increasingly, diversity of ethnic backgrounds), the question of geography is mostly overlooked. 

This is not just a conference issue. Coverage of the media sector is overwhelmingly tilted toward North America. Next are English-speaking countries and Western Europe, albeit to a lesser extent. (The dominance of English has led to unusual results, like London leading in EU coverage even post-Brexit, as recently highlighted in a column by Nieman’s Joshua Benton).

Yet it shows up quite clearly in media events. One of the biggest international conferences, the Journalism Festival, had 70% of its 2019 speakers hail from Western Europe (see graph above). Based in Perugia, Italy, it is easier to access from neighbouring countries. But with another 16% of speakers from North America, the end result is much less international than one could hope.

Will the post-COVID shift to digital and hybrid events result in more diverse events? In a way, it is already doing so.

For example, the recent 2021 International Symposium on Online Journalism saw the share of United States-based speakers drop from 82% to 77% (see graph below). Still high, but lower. 

This was mostly due to an influx of United Kingdom-based speakers. Not exactly the first thought when you say “diversity”, but an indicator that the ability to just “zoom in” made it easier to include people from beyond national boundaries.

[Editor’s note: ISOJ organizers did not respond to multiple requests for comment or to share information on countries where speakers were based. Data was collected from the ISOJ website. Journalism Festival organizers similarly did not comment or provide data, which was collected from the website.]

More from The Fix: Splice Low-Res takes media gatherings online, countering COVID-19 cancellations

The long-term game of organizing inclusive events

Ensuring diverse geographical representation is much harder than it sounds. In fact, one could argue that it is surprising we have as much diversity on conference panels as is. 

Event organizers have a tough job trying to put together a well-run, exciting and informative experience. Geographical diversity presents three distinct challenges.

Firstly, non-native speakers are often a risk in terms of audience experience. Yes, it’s unfair, but not being extremely comfortable in a given language can take a toll on the quality of a presentation – especially given the high-stress situation of presenting in front of large crowds. Vetting speakers is an awkward, time-consuming and imprecise process.

Secondly, the very Western-dominated coverage of the media sector is self-perpetuating. The stories have a greater digital footprint, it is easier to learn about the background of a media… Even if you’re able to find a speaker or media that looks interesting, you run the risk of, say, inviting a pro-government or oligarchic outlet.

Finally, audiences themselves want to hear from media leaders of big Western organizations. They are bigger, freer, have more resources to innovate… An editor from The Guardian will draw bigger crowds than an editor from often smaller and less known emerging market peers. Organizers need to strike a balance on speaker lists.

Perhaps the shift to more digital events post-COVID will provide more opportunities. More international audiences (the other side of the accessibility equation), may create demand for more international speakers. 

But it’s a long road – and a lot of hard work building partnerships and visibility – before we can achieve meaningful representation of all corners of the media world.

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Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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