2 weeks ago

Do Journalists Really Need Lived Experience Of What They Report On?

The journalism industry routinely comes under attack for not being representative enough – and for good reason. Statistics show that LGBTQIA+ groups, people of colour, disabled people, and working-class journalists are all underrepresented in UK newsrooms. With more pressure on news companies to recruit reporters from diverse backgrounds, there is concern that too few journalists share the lived experience of the communities they report on. 

Lived experience means the knowledge you’ve gained from your first-hand experiences and choices. We all gain personal knowledge about the world through our first-hand involvement in everyday events, but our experiences are also affected by a range of factors, including race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, and class. 

For example, the way someone with a disability navigates the world is very different from the way a non-disabled person does, even if they are doing the same job. Worries that marginalised groups are being misreported by journalists with no shared lived experiences are compounded by the poor diversity in British newsrooms.

The statistics make it clear: there is a serious lack of accurate representation in British journalism. With more than 94 percent of journalists identifying as ‘white’, and with just 11 percent coming from working-class backgrounds, newsrooms are clearly not reflective of the communities they are supposed to serve. 

“Over 94% of journalists identify as ‘white’ and just 11% come from working-class backgrounds.”

National Council of Training Journalists

These figures also link directly to the way marginalised communities are reported – there’s an observable link between poor representation and negative reportage. For example, just 0.4 percent of British journalists are Muslim, while analysis by the Muslim Council of Britain last year found that 59 percent of stories in the mainstream media featuring Muslims had negative themes.

In another similarly damning piece of research, Women in Journalism found that during the immediate aftermath of the global Black Lives Matter protests in July 2020, not a single story by a Black reporter appeared on the front page of a UK newspaper.

How Can Lived Experience Improve The Quality Of The Journalism?

Ashley Okwuosa, the founder of Maternal Figures says lived experience will enhance your writing.

Ashley Okwuosa, a journalist and founder of Maternal Figures, a research project looking at maternal health in Nigeria, believes that when you have lived experience of what and who you are reporting on, you’re able to write “from a place of first-hand knowledge of a particular community” – something which enhances your writing. 

Ashley feels that the closer you are to the story, the more you’re able to report it with nuance and understanding. She adds: “Journalism should be about willing to understand more, and [as a journalist] you should be able to admit that sometimes you don’t know [everything], and to not go in with preconceived notions.”

“Journalism should be about willing to understand more, and [as a journalist] you should be able to admit that sometimes you don’t know [everything].”

Ashley Okwuosa

However, she also says that it is still possible to do a good job as a reporter without lived experience. She continues: “The key is to root yourself respectfully in the community by making it clear that you’re not trying to take or extract from the community but rather add to the community with respect, nuance, and knowledge.”

How Much Experience Should Foreign Correspondents Have?

Dina Aboughazala says the media can misrepresent an entire country in some cases.

Dina Aboughazala, founder of Egab and former BBC journalist, says lived experience is also an asset in the field of foreign reporting. Looking at Egypt in particular, she says that by neglecting to prioritise knowledgable local journalists, the international media amplifies the “so-called dominant views” in Cairo, as opposed to platforming a range of voices that properly represent the real diversity of Egypt.

“The media are misrepresenting and misreporting the entire country,” she continues. “The other side [that doesn’t feel represented] loses faith in the media when the same narratives and the same views are being reported. This risks polarisation.”

In foreign reporting, she says: “Sensitivity is even more important since, when you produce a piece of journalism that is not properly researched and lacking in evidence, you put your subjects at risk, and you put your colleagues at risk.” What’s more, she believes the problem reaches out far wider than just Egypt.

“If you have a gold standard of journalism that simply does not apply to other parts of the globe, that is racism.”

Dina Aboughazala

What troubles Dina the most is the laissez-faire approach to journalism that some western reporters take when reporting in other parts of the globe. She says: “If you have a gold standard of journalism that simply does not apply to other parts of the globe, that is racism. It’s an excuse for lazy journalism. The same standards have to apply everywhere.

“If you only speak English, and not the main language, you will [only] be able to speak to a very marginal segment of society. Also, reporters that rely on fixers (local translators and guides) are just beholden to the biases of the fixers.”

For journalists that have little, if any, lived experience of what they’re reporting, Dina advises “investing your time and effort into knowing and understanding [the] culture – otherwise, be very upfront about admitting what you don’t know.”

Can You Write Well Without Any Lived Experience Of What You’re Reporting?

Shared experience sometimes means sources are more willing to open up. (Image Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash)

Dr Paul Lashmar, a senior journalism lecturer at City University London, says that the debate on the importance of journalists having lived experience is full of “how long is this piece of string” questions.

“[It] will depend on a whole range of variables,” he explains, “such as who is writing? Why are they writing, who are they writing for? What do they say about their agenda to the audience? How do they express their own interest? Is it a news report, analysis, or opinion?” In short, there is no easy answer.”

“It can be very beneficial to have first-hand knowledge of what you’re talking about.”

Grace Medford

He adds: “At one end of the spectrum, news reporters on a daily beat will often cover stories they have no prior knowledge of – and that is fine. On the other hand, there are journalists who are driven by passion over personal experience and, providing they make that clear, that is fine too.”

In short, there will be times when having lived experience is vital. There will also be times when it isn’t, but will still need to be rooted in respect and good journalistic practice. It’s down to you as a journalist to know the difference between the two.

Grace Medford, a culture journalist who has written for outlets such as VICE and Metro.co.uk, adds: “If the piece is well researched, then [having lived experience] isn’t necessary – but it can be very beneficial to have first-hand knowledge of what you’re talking about.”

But, if writers with no lived experience of the topics they’re writing about can still do a good job, why is there sometimes a backlash? Grace explains: “When we have conversations about ‘couldn’t you have got a Black person/trans person/woman/disabled person’ to write this, it usually comes from a place of those voices being underrepresented rather than whether the writer did a good job or not.” Often, she thinks it’s more of an ethics question than one of journalistic quality – which is also vital for reporters to bear in mind.

“If the goal of journalism is to seek truth, that truth can only be found when you’re willing to look between the lines at the real story.”

Ife Grillo

As Dina and Ashley explain, lived experiences can add a lot to a story. Ife Grillo, a writer and campaigner, agrees and stresses that they can add nuance to stories which you might not get otherwise. “If the goal of journalism is to seek truth, that truth can only be found when you’re willing to look between the lines at the real story,” he says. “This requires a nuance that only comes from lived experiences.”

This can be because people feel more comfortable opening up to journalists who might share some of their lived experiences. However, it’s also vital to make sure minorities aren’t only seen as useful in journalism “when they are talking about trauma and oppression.” Lived experiences “aren’t just relevant when talking about sad things,” says Ife, “it’s always relevant.”

“I’ve had too many experiences where I’m expected to contribute my lived experiences to a story for free and be grateful, in order to add authenticity to the journalist but they’re the ones that get paid.” This hinders the process, Ife emphasises, because there “isn’t an actual respect for the voices behind lived experiences, so they are reported on badly.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, where do we go from here? Journalists must take practical steps. (Image Credit: Kat Stokes / Unsplash)

The idea that journalists with lived experience can produce more empathetic reporting potentially clashes with age-old ideas around ‘objectivity’, Ashley says. She calls into question the understanding of objectivity in newsrooms, saying: “No nuance or empathy in your reporting is not objectivity. If you have a personal relation or lived experience, you are more likely to want to tell a fuller and complete story.”

Ashley believes it is the responsibility of journalists to recognise if someone else could do a better job and to step aside if so. However, she warns against editors simply selecting a journalist of colour to exclusively cover race. Ashley disagrees with the notion that it is inappropriate for journalists with no lived experience to write about certain topics, and says that they should “have an open mind, and a willingness to understand other points of view.”

“If you have a personal relation or lived experience, you are more likely to want to tell a fuller and complete story.

Ashley Okwuosa

On navigating pieces that she feels are “outside” her lane, Grace explains: “Nine out of ten times I’ll decline a commission, but on a couple of occasions I have donated the fee to a charity.” In short, it’s a personal consideration all journalists should be aware of, and there are a lot of factors that come into play. Lived experience is a vital part of telling better stories that represent our audiences – and it’s down to all of us to enable it.

Our Three Tips For Navigating Lived Experience as a Journalist:

• Consider if you are best placed to report on a sensitive issue if you have no lived experience of it. Perhaps you know someone who would potentially be able to do a better job?
• If you are covering a subject with no lived experience, ensure that you are not purely extracting information from marginalised communities. You should be looking to understand and learn from them. Always go in with an open mind – but don’t expect other people to do all the work for you.
• Don’t feel that you can only write about things you’ve lived through. Lived experience is important but not vital. It’s the approach to your reporting that matters.

Main Image Credit: Nijwam Swargiary / Unsplash