2/3/2012

Inside the Academy: L.A. Times investigates the demographics of Oscars’ voters

 

The Los Angeles Times dived into an investigation to identify the age, gender and race of the members making up the famous Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The results portrayed "an elitist group with no concern or regard for the minority community and industry," as academy member Bill Duke defined it.

Major findings

The research question that sits at the core of the L.A. Times project is: "Who cast the votes?," which translates into: "Who determines the winners of the Oscars?" The publication's Data Desk team unleashed the investigative skills of more than 20 reporters and researchers to identify the composition of the Academy in terms of age, gender and race of its members. The aim was to verify the claim that the organisation is an old, monolithic institution and to understand how its composition might influence voting behaviour. 

In a short video introduction to the project, reporters John Horn and Nicole Sperling explain that the outcome of the demographics analysis shows that 94% of the Academy members are white, with a median age of 62. 77% are male. "I think the Academy was a little surprised by the findings of the study, but again they say their hands are tied. They can only recognise people who are getting jobs in Hollywood," says Horn in the video, which also addreses the question of whether the organisation is doing all it can to make its membership as diverse as it can be. 

Founded in 1927, the Academy introduced the prestigious Oscar Awards two years later. The organisation has never published a complete members' list.

The preliminary research behind the study took about eight months. During these eight months Times' reporters confirmed the identities of more than 5,100 Oscar voters - more than 89% of all active voting members. The results are available on the L.A. Times' Data Desk website as charts, graphs and maps showing the age, gender, race and geographical location of actors, directors, producers, writers, public relations officers, cinematographers, documentarists and other categories making up the 16 branches of the Academy. 

 

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Predominantly male, old and white: the composition of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences according to the L.A. Times' study

Method

According to the methodology overview, the documents used in the study are two undated lists of presumed academy members obtained from industry sources. The Times combined these sources into a master list of more than 6,200 names. The study looked only at active voting members. The research team then started confirming the identities of the members through in-person, telephone and e-mail interviews; confirmation also came from members' publicity and talent agencies and managers, media reports, personal biographies, social networking profiles and resumes, lists of academy members who participated in academy fundraising and academy publications. Public records, commercial databases, guild publications, the oscars.org website and individual interviews were used to determine the basic demographics and the win history of each member.

Lack of openness of the Academy officials as to who is an active voting member, made it impossible for the project team to resolve discrepancies between the numbers of active voting members coming from all the different industry sources and thus constitutes a limitation of the study.

A note on how the statistics were derived explains how the team dealt with this limitation:

"To calculate percentages, The Times assumed that the small fraction of those who could not be confirmed as members or whose demographics were not obtainable were, in fact, very much like the academy as a whole. Thus, in each branch The Times divided the number of people whose demographics were known by the total on its list of confirmed and presumed members, a denominator that was usually higher than the academy's reported membership."

A second round of calculations was carried out for the sake of transparency:

"The Times made a secondary calculation assuming that every potential member who could not be accounted for was a non-white woman in her 30s. In this calculation, those whose demographics were known were divided by the academy's reported membership. In addition, if The Times' list was greater than the academy's, the difference was subtracted from the white and male members and the oldest prior to the calculation."

The results are illustrated in the tables below: 

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The percentages calculated by the Data Desk team 

The full overview of the study results together with the maps, charts and tables created by the L.A. Times are available on the L.A. Times Data Desk's website

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