Legendary journalist Barbara Walters has died at age 93. In hundreds of statements and media interviews, top industry leaders and influential colleagues swiftly reacted to the news of her passing with fond reflections on how she impacted them, their industry, and the world through expert reporting and interviewing. Those who knew Walters best are consistently describing her perfectionism and meticulous approach, her ambition and competitiveness, and her unmatched ability to secure interviews with world leaders, U.S. presidents, and celebrities.
Above all, they’re consistently highlighting and celebrating Walters’ contributions to the advancement of women in journalism throughout an extraordinary career that spanned more than five decades. Sustaining her legacy requires an ongoing, more serious commitment to addressing gender inequities in newsrooms.
“Barbara Walters opened doors for us and led the way with skill, courage, and tenacity,” says Willow Bay, the first woman to serve as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Prior to becoming a leader in academia, Bay served in reporting and anchoring roles on ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN’s Moneyline, and NBC’s Today Show. “While there may never be another Barbara Walters, to honor her legacy means we must demand that all positions of authority are not just opened to women, but also filled by them,” she adds.
Walters began her national broadcast career in 1961 as a writer and segment producer on NBC’s Today Show; she was promoted to co-host 13 years later. In 1976, she transitioned to ABC, where she became the first woman to anchor an evening news program. Walters later became host and chief correspondent of 20/20.
The New York Times dubbed an ABC daytime program that Walters created in 1997, “the most important political TV show in America.” Showcasing the expertise of women is what continues to make The View so special now more than 25 years later. Walters was a panel member on the show through her retirement in 2014.
The Television Academy presented an Emmy Award to Walters in 1983 for The Barbara Walters Specials and inducted her into its Hall of Fame six years after that. She also scored an impressive volume of additional primetime and daytime Emmy nominations and wins. Walters was also honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. Temple, Ohio State, and several other universities awarded her honorary degrees. ABC, the network that was her professional home for the majority of her career, named its New York City news headquarters ‘The Barbara Walters Building’ in 2014. These are just a few of her numerous honors.
“I hope that I’ve played a small role in paving the way for so many of you fabulous women,” Walters said at a 2014 event. “I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me when some smiling young woman comes up to me and tells me of her achievements. That’s my legacy.”
Beyond publishing beautiful biographical articles and producing tribute packages and television specials, there’s a much more important set of actions that journalism leaders can take to sustain Walters’ legacy: hire more women, value their expertise and gendered viewpoints, ensure they have equitable opportunities to tell stories, create and enforce policies that protect them from sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and equitably promote them to leadership roles in newsrooms and executive positions in media organizations.
Results from the 2018 American Society of News Editors (ASNE) Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey show that women comprised 41.7% of newsroom employees. ASNE’s interactive diversity data visualization tool reveals that not much progress was made between 2001 and 2018. On average, there was only a 3.7% increase in women employees over that time period. The representation of women declined in nearly one-fifth of news organizations surveyed.
The ASNE survey results also show a disappointing mismatch between the number of women in newsroom staff positions and the representation of women in leadership roles. Among major news outlets in the survey, The Washington Post came closest to gender equity with women representing 52% of staff members and 50% of leaders.
“It’s no longer a pipeline issue,” Bay notes. “Journalism schools today are majority female, producing talented, intellectually rigorous, and ethical young journalists who are well equipped to walk through the doors Barbara Walters helped to open. We must insist that the path is clear, that opportunities are accessible, and that women are supported effectively throughout their careers.”
The gender equity that Walters, Bay, and other journalism leaders have long called for has to be met with racial equity. Some years ago, I consulted with a very large organization that had fewer than 10 Black newsroom employees; only three were women and none were in editorial or leadership roles. Surely, Walters would’ve deemed this inexcusable.
As newsroom leaders attempt to improve the workplace experiences and representation of women across all levels, they must do so in a way that pays honest attention to intersectionality. Disaggregating data on composition, pay, promotion, and climate by race and gender is one way to do this. Asking women of color what can be done to achieve gender equity and then actually doing it with high levels of rigor, strategy, intentionality, financial resources, and transparency also would make a difference.
Walters did much to inspire and elevate women. It’s now up to the colleagues she leaves behind to uphold this legacy and deliver the gender equity she pursued with such fierce, enduring commitment.