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The Difficulties Of Breaking The Mould As A Black Person In Journalism

Journo Resources Fellow

At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the media faced a reckoning as the need to diversify writers, editors, broadcasters, and presenters came under the spotlight.

It was certainly a welcoming conversation, given that the NCTJ previously found that 94 percent of British journalists are white. But since all the chatter, have the call-outs, pledges, and initiatives for more Black talent actually materialised into a more diverse media? 

The Stats Don’t Lie

Marverine Cole has witnessed lack of development and training schemes first hand.

It’s no secret that when it comes to race there is much to be done across the industry as Black representation specifically has lacked in the mainstream press. An extensive report by Women in Journalism (WIJ) found that during just a week of monitoring in the newsroom, not one Black writer had a story on the front page of a UK newspaper, and out of the 111 people quoted on the front pages, only one was a Black woman.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s annual report revealed that they had not met their own target of having 15 percent of leadership positions held by staff from minority ethnic backgrounds. If the national broadcaster is not more representative of the nation – the concerns and interests of those groups can be largely ignored. 

“People have looked at me like ‘what are you doing’, ‘where are you from’… It’s demoralising because you doubt yourself and that’s horrific.”

Marverine Cole, radio and TV presenter

Historically, Black writers, editors, and broadcasters have had a hard time getting opportunities in journalism and, once they do, they seldom receive the recognition they deserve for their work. When positions are given to Black people, they may be treated differently to their white colleagues. 

British radio, television presenter and news reporter Marverine Cole has experienced this. She says: “People have looked at me like ‘what are you doing?’, ‘where are you from?’, ‘who are you’, ‘should you be here?’ It’s demoralising because then you doubt yourself and that’s horrific.”

Opportunities for progression are also fewer for ethnic minorities in media (and other professions). Job prospects for ethnic minorities continued to lag behind opportunities for white people due to ‘persistent racism at a societal level’, found one major study last year. And when they do get over the barrier of access, minority writers are often not nurtured or favoured the same way as white reporters. This is done in various ways such as a lack of development and training schemes, something Marverine has witnessed first hand.

“I’ve seen it and been on the brunt end of it,” Marverine explains. “But the difference is, I spoke up.”  

Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

Tobi is the founder of Black Ballad, a site she founded to elevate the voices of Black women.

Founder of Black Ballad, Tobi Oredein, echoes this sentiment. She adds: “When I was a junior journalist in 2011, people didn’t even care to have one Black person to speak on behalf of Black people.” 

Getting your foot in the door of the industry is an obstacle in itself, so much so that Tobi decided to take matters into her own hands. She created Black Ballad, a publication that empowers Black women across Britain, in 2014. Tobi adds: “Seeing people who look like me in leadership positions is not likely to become a norm any time soon unless Black people and ethnic minorities start their own publications.”

Kemi Alemoru, culture editor for Gal-dem – a publication committed to telling the stories of people of colour from marginalised genders – agrees, saying there is “no other office in media like the Gal-dem office.” 

She says: “It’s just such a success story because it’s what we all dreamed of the media looking like and we all have this shared goal of making it work for us, making media how we want it to look so that we can be the journalists that we want to be. It’s kind of moulded around the people who work there.”

“There is no other office in media like the Gal-dem office. It’s just such a success story because it’s what we all dreamed of the media looking like.”

Kemi Alemoru

Having previously advocated for herself in white-dominated spaces, Kemi explains that being in an inclusive space like Gal-dem, she no longer questions the types of opportunities she’s receiving.

“I don’t have to think ‘am I not getting this opportunity because I’m not white?’ I don’t have to have all of that noise in my head. My ideas are just my ideas, my progress is just my progress.”

The Ghost Of The Black Square

(Image Credit: Solen Feyissa / Unsplash)

Last June, we saw a wave of collective action when organisations posted a Black square accompanied by the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday, which was covered and commented on by numerous publications.

From issuing callouts for more Black journalists to be commissioned to pledging an increase in the inclusion and diversity makeup of their staff, it was looking hopeful that journalism would see some real change. 

However, the question still remains: how do we ensure this will happen? There is a wide pool of Black freelance journalists – and documents that list them available online – but it’s extremely rare to see them holding full-time staff writer and editor positions.

“I know a lot of Black, especially Black female journalists, who are freelancers. I only know one person who’s a staff writer,” Tobi tells me. “I think that’s very telling of an industry, people are just getting comfortable in having a Black person write the content, but I don’t think they’re comfortable enough in actually having us in their offices.”

“People are just getting comfortable in having a Black person write the content, I don’t think they’re comfortable enough in actually having us in their offices.”

Tobi Oredein

Black writers are often pigeonholed to become race writers – but even at the pinnacle of movements that centre them, they seldom get the opportunity to take the lead.

Even during the height of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, across a single week in July, the UK’s 11 biggest newspapers failed to feature a single bylined Black journalist on their front pages. 

While the coverage of stories about Black people and ethnic minorities by ethnic minorities is crucial – editors might also want to rethink leaving race conversations only to their Black freelance writers – the weight of this is heavy for them.

Marverine says that there needs to be more concrete action within the industry to change it up: “I don’t know what the answer is but the industry is still so wildly elite and not diverse. It has serious implications for the future of quality journalism telling in this country.”

The posting of a black square by media companies did not have the level of impact some may have thought it did. As Kemi puts it: “We just need to be bolder at thinking of how to bring people in and it goes beyond one post.”

So, What’s Next?

Corrective options are plenty – but they’re not being used to their full benefit. (Image Credit: Brandy Kennedy)

Understanding that there is a diversity issue in journalism and broadcasting is only scratching the surface of the magnitude of change that needs to happen. Having a more representative media does not mean having a few people of colour becoming the spokesperson and flag-bearer of the burdens of racism – editors need to allow writers of colour opportunity to write beyond this. 

Kemi suggests that there needs to be a more inclusive application process for those breaking into the industry. She says: “Unpaid internships can only happen if you’re being supported by somebody or you’ve got others doing a masters which cost near £10,000 or more!

“This funnels people out, and if we really want a representative media, the mechanisms that are locking people out have to be tackled first.”

“If we really want a representative media, the mechanisms that are locking people out have to be tackled first”

Kemi Alemoru

Corrective options are plenty – paid working opportunities and internships could be carried out as well as actively seeking minorities in important roles. Blind-recruiting may also be an option. “Taking off names from applications to avoid name discrimination or giving applicants tests instead of looking at previous educations could really help those who did not attend a grammar school or university,” Kemi explains.

Despite many call outs from editors in order to expand and diversify their writer pool, the question remains whether this is still a priority and if these writers are now being utilised, a year after the protests happened. 

Once a job within the industry is obtained, Marverine suggests regular accountability checks. “There needs to be more concrete action, it’s probably going to take something like the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to force organisations to do better and continually report.”

Tobi suggests we wait and see whether real change will be implemented: “I think this is a question that needs to be asked next August maybe to see how much change has been made. Time will only tell.”

Main Image Credit: Brandy Kennedy / Unsplash