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Culture

How a new survey on journalism diversity told us what we already knew

Research from Women in Journalism has found that Black voices and stories are still not seen as important by the mainstream media.

The conversation around diversity in the newsroom has been happening for quite some time – but this year it has intensified. Catalysed by devastating events happening across the globe with the death of George Floyd, there is a clear acknowledgement that much more needs to be done to increase diversity. However, despite a widespread agreement that the newsroom is “pale, male and stale”, there has historically been very little data kept on racial diversity in the media landscape. 

A new survey from Women In Journalism (WIJ) which monitored racial and gender diversity in the newsroom over the course of a week in mid-July, has revealed that not a single report by a Black writer made the front page of a UK newspaper and that Black women are not only missing from front-page bylines but they are not being heard as experts quoted in stories either. In the week monitored, just one Black woman was quoted on a front-page report out of 111 interviewees. 

While the research in itself is not exhaustive (a week-long data set has its limits), what sets it apart from other surveys is that it looks across all forms of mainstream journalism – print, TV and radio. WIJ hopes the research will stimulate media organisations to monitor diversity more closely and to use their findings as a baseline to dramatically increase representation.

“The report highlights the worrying invisibility of Black women, both as journalists and as expert voices, in the mainstream press,” says Vivienne Francis, a member of the committee at WiJ and senior lecturer at the LCC. “It also strengthens the argument that we need to move away from terms like BAME and adopt more nuanced terminology. By lumping all diverse groups together, actions fail to target the areas where they are most needed.” The WIJ survey does delineate Black people – who make up just 0.2% of those in journalism in the UK – from the “BAME” categorisation, but does not provide a full breakdown of racial categories.

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“The report highlights the worrying invisibility of Black women, both as journalists and as expert voices, in the mainstream press”

Vivienne Francis

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Newspapers in particular were identified as struggling to keep up with the ever-changing demographics of our society. Of the 174 reporters published by newspapers monitored, 97% were white. The worst newspapers during the week ranged from The Times to the Daily Mirror, who had no reporters who were people of colour featured on their front pages. The most “diverse” newspapers out of the 11 monitored, the Daily Express and the Daily Star, had 14% of their front pages featuring stories written by reporters who were people of colour, but no stories by Black reporters specifically.

Out of 111 people quoted in front page stories over the course of the monitored week, just one was a Black woman. She was Jen Reid, the Black protester who was cast in metal and erected instead of slave trader Edward Colston on the empty plinth in Bristol. Jen was quoted in the Guardian.

“The newspapers which were ridiculous. The bylines were mainly by white people and men and this was with almost all the newspapers, even the Guardian, which had maybe one or two Asian men writing on the front page,” says Ashleigh Swan, one of the chief researchers for the project.

The situation on TV wasn’t encouraging either. During the week that the research was conducted, big and important stories were being covered, ranging from Black Lives Matter to Huawei’s 5G block, yet the racial diversity and gender balance of presenters, reporters and experts were underwhelming. The experts they called were likely to be men – out of 877 experts featured during the week, just 30% were women. 

More than half of the experts who were people of colour were interviewed in the context of coverage directly related to race. There were just seven instances where a black woman was featured as a guest on a story that wasn’t directly related to race or based in a predominantly black country. To cap it off, the research also found that out of a total of 877 times an expert guest was featured on the news, 64 were women of colour and just 17 were black women. That’s less than one in 50.

The worst radio channel by far when it came to diversity was LBC, who had no reporters or presenters who were people of colour. Apart from Shelagh Fogarty and Rachel Johnson, every single one of LBC’s 27 prime-time presenter slots were filled by white men. Ultimately, out of a total of 723 presenters on primetime radio slots, only 7% were people of colour, with black people making up just 2% of the presenters. The statistics for experts and reporters were not far off either. 

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At the beginning of August, the BBC received over 18,000 complaints after a television news report on a racially aggravated hit-and-run attack on an NHS worker in Bristol featured a BBC journalist repeating the racist language allegedly shouted at the victim. Before the mistake was acknowledged and an apology was issued, the BBC defended its actions, calling it “editorially justified”. It begs the question, if more editorial positions by those from black backgrounds, would this have even happened? 

“For things to change, more must be done to improve representation at the highest levels. It is imperative that we have more Black executives, senior editors, and board members,” says Vivienne. The same sentiment was also strongly echoed by Gary Younge, the former Guardian editor-at-large. “Representation can’t just be what I call ‘front of house staff’… diversity has to run through the workplace like a stick of rock. It can’t just be more diverse where people are seen, not least because an awful lot of power in journalism comes from people who aren’t seen.”

We live in a country where multiculturalism is a crucial cornerstone of society. It is a source of strength and pride. For people from many different backgrounds, particularly the younger generations, it’s important to see themselves represented on all levels, yet they are not. “There has always been a big gap between what the country actually is and how it sees itself,” says journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who has worked as an advisor on diversity. “The media is one of those mirrors which looks into itself – yet the mirror is very distorted. They are misrepresenting Britain to itself.”

“Journalism can’t just be more diverse where people are seen, not least because an awful lot of power in journalism comes from people who aren’t seen”

Gary Younge

So what has this research shown? 

The time has come for the British media to have yet another frank conversation. In 2016 it was revealed that journalism is 94% white, with 55% of journalists being men. Similar figures were reported by the NCTJ in terms of racial diversity in 2017. This study suggests that even if there has been a change in the numbers over the past few years, little has changed in terms of power structures.

As Vivienne points out, “For journalism to thrive it needs to command the trust and respect of the audiences it purports to serve. The UK’s demographics are shifting and if the media fails to keep up and reflect these changes through the stories it covers and the diversity of its workforce, trust and audiences will be lost.”

This was only one week in a lifetime of journalism. Despite it being a quick snapshot of diversity, the alarming report has exposed the deep-rooted reluctance of the mainstream press when it comes to increasing racial and gender representation. When the media doesn’t represent the diverse communities it serves, it can fall into the trap of becoming an unwelcoming distortion of the truth rather than an accurate reflection of it. There is no doubt that this report demands real action – not just another round of hollow press releases of solidarity. If those with real power in such an influential industry don’t reflect on this report, learn from its findings and change, they are at grave risk of alienating whole communities from their work.

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