February 2, 2021 (Updated )
You are sitting in the editor’s office, smiling nervously. Maybe you will soon be one of the journalists typing away on the other side of the glass wall. The editor behind the desk lifts their eyes up from your CV, and asks: “And, where are you from?”
In theory, the law in the UK protects applicants from discrimination based on race including colour, nationality and ethnicity. However, field studies show that, in general, migrant applicants receive fewer call-backs for interviews than UK-born White British applicants.
There is no specific data about media and journalism recruitment but, during September last year, we found 23 journalism related adverts on leading UK job websites looking for ‘native speakers’. While there isn’t any data on the nationalities of the journalists within our newsrooms, the lack of diversity among UK journalists has been a growing concern for some time. For example, an NCTJ report from 2018 found that some 90 percent of journalists in the UK are white.
Obstacles In The Way
Dr Idrees Ahmad, the director of the International Journalism Programme at the University of Stirling, agrees that journalists born outside of Britain face additional barriers in the UK media. “There are always disadvantages for outsiders, sometimes very subtle, sometimes bigger,” he explains. “It’s like a 100-metre sprint where you are starting 20 metres behind. Which means you have to run a lot faster than others.”
Idrees, who is also contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, is originally from Pakistan. He has written for several international publications but admits that getting into journalism can be challenging. Often good contacts are more important than talent or education. When he was applying for jobs, he used to add his photo onto his CV because he knew that there were harsh stereotypes attached to names like his. The photo was to show that he was just a normal guy.
“There are always disadvantages for outsiders, sometimes very subtle, sometimes bigger. It’s like a 100 metre sprint where you are starting 20 metres behind.”
Dr Idrees Ahmad
Often the name or language skills on an applicant’s CV show the recruiter that they are not from the UK. “I feel like I have to get past some obstacles to not just to get a job but to get to the interview stage,” says Alexandros Theodoropoulos, who finished his journalism studies in the UK but had to return to his home country Greece because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He’s noticed that sending applications from another country can put off potential employers as it can be difficult to attend an interview, although he hopes that the current situation might make it easier to arrange online interviews in the future.
Alexandros has gained work experience and published articles in Greece. However, he finds it difficult to demonstrate his journalistic skills to British employers. “I cannot use my articles written in Greek to get a job in the UK,” Alexandros says. “I feel like my Greek work is sort of downgraded.”
Work experience gained in a different country seems useless because he cannot present examples to employers who cannot read the articles written in a foreign language. “I don’t know if employers pay attention to whether you are bilingual. Maybe they don’t even see that. They just want the English language to be at its best.”
Having a portfolio in English is essential when applying for jobs in the UK because it shows that you can use English in a professional capacity. Moreover, it shows that you can write well. However, as Idrees points out, writing well is not the same as speaking the language – and even native speakers could often be reminded of the power of simplicity. “It is not about big words,” he says. “This is something native speakers have to learn as well.”
Discriminatory Requirements Within Job Descriptions
In September last year, I researched several job search platforms, looking for adverts that required applicants to be ‘native English speakers’ or ‘near-native speakers’. While the data is just a small snapshot, it was revealing. Across six journalism job platforms – Arts Council, Cision Jobs, Hold the Front Page, Indeed.co.uk, Journalism.co.uk and Totaljobs – I discovered a total of 23 jobs using across three platforms.
Of the 23 adverts with ‘native speaker’ requirements, 18 were found on Indeed.co.uk, four on Totaljobs, and a single advert on Cision Jobs. The platforms acknowledge that such advertisements are inappropriate.
While a small percentage of all the journalism jobs advertised, such job adverts can be discriminatory, explains Lucy Richards, a trainee solicitor in employment law at Howells Solicitors. “The connotation of a ‘native’ English speaker is more than likely going to give rise to a discrimination claim as this requires an applicant to be born in a specified place where English is the native language,” she says.
“The connotation of a ‘native’ English speaker is more than likely going to give rise to a discrimination claim as this requires an applicant to be born in a specified place where English is the native language.”
Lucy Richards, trainee solicitor at Howells Solicitors
Lucy adds that phrases such as “native-standard English” and “English speaker to native level” can be discriminatory, too. “By using this wording, you are indirectly discriminating against those who are not native English speakers and less likely to be able to comply with this requirement,” she continues.
A spokesperson from Totaljobs informed us that they have a screening system in place which flags inappropriate adverts. However, they said that the word “native” is accepted in some contexts, such as native app development, which is why the adverts including the word are not automatically removed from the site.
“We can confirm that for the reasons stated, the term ‘native’ in this instance was inappropriate and was removed,” Totaljobs spokesperson clarified. Similarly, a spokesperson from Indeed confirmed that they consider a request for native speakers to be a form of national origin discrimination and thus not allowed on the site. They added that while Indeed has a team that reviews troubling content, it is the responsibility of the employer to make sure their job postings do not contain illegal discrimination.
“From the point of expressing your ideas and what you want to communicate, it is very possible to be as good or even a better communicator in your second language.”
Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics
To put it simply, to protect applicants from discrimination, employers are not allowed to ask directly about an applicant’s nationality or native language during the recruitment process. However, sometimes they do. If you are asked such questions in your interview, you don’t have to answer. In fact, you might be able to bring a claim against the company for discrimination. During the interview you can avoid the question by directing the focus on the fact that you are eligible to work in the UK and speak English fluently. However, often the interviewers are simply curious, and you can talk about your background with them if you wish to.
Even though employers cannot cherry-pick applicants based on the country where they were born, they can require applicants to have excellent English speaking or communication skills. This doesn’t exclude bilinguals who have learned English as their second language.
Their skills depend on their experiences and effort they have put into learning the language, explains Dr Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics and the Director of Bilingualism Matters Research Centre. “From the point of expressing your ideas and what you want to communicate, it is very possible to be as good or even a better communicator in your second language,” Antonella says.
Bilingualism Benefits – How Languages Can Help You Get A Job
Bilingualism is often assumed to be an advantage in job search, but it seems to be difficult to sell that to employers. In Antonella’s opinion, the importance of foreign languages is not well understood or valued in the UK because of the status of English, which is the world’s most common spoken language. Because of the instrumental value of English, most people living in the UK never use other languages and assume that they don’t need to learn them.
However, studies have shown that there are potential benefits to being bilingual. No matter what languages a bilingual person speaks, their brain is always juggling between these languages. While using one language, the others have to be ignored.
“It leads to better ability to pay attention to relevant factors and ignore irrelevant factors.”
Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics
“The constant gymnastics is reflected outside the language. It leads to better ability to pay attention to relevant factors and ignore irrelevant factors,” Antonella explains. This does not automatically apply to everyone, but being able to pay attention to what matters is certainly a useful asset for journalists.
Non-natives can also bring new ideas and perspectives to the newsroom. And, they can be especially good at communicating with audiences from different backgrounds.
Studies show that people who are proficient in two or more languages tend to understand other people’s perspectives better. Because bilinguals are often bicultural, they are more sensitive to different ways of life and able to look at a situation from a different point of view. “That could be very useful from the point of journalism where being able to take the readership’s perspective is very important,” Antonella adds.
Although the employers are not allowed to bring up your nationality, you can choose to emphasise it if you wish. It can make you stand out and make your application memorable. Stela Gineva, a multimedia journalist from Bulgaria landed her first journalism job in a regional newspaper in England after sending an application in which she made a point of discussing her role as a non-native journalist and a first-generation immigrant.
“I think that it is important that newsrooms represent the society they serve,” Stela says. She thinks that employers advertising jobs that emphasise the nativeness of the applicants are pushing non-native applicants away. “I don’t think that ads like that are helpful. British society is very diverse, so it is important that the newsrooms reflect that,” adds Stela.
She wanted to highlight her background and make the employer see the benefits of having a diverse staff. “It was in my cover letter and the recruiters brought it up during the interview to talk about what that means for the newsroom,” she says. “I got lucky because the editor valued that.”
As challenging as it might feel to apply for media jobs in the UK as a non-native speaker, it is not impossible. Learning another language and using it professionally requires a lot of effort, but hopefully, it will be appreciated. Maybe your background can help you to introduce new perspectives to the workplace or your language skills help to cover unique stories.
“I thought that when people are going to hear me speak, they are going to see that I am not from the area and start asking questions,” Stela recalls worrying before starting at the newspaper. Instead, most people didn’t point it out at all. “Some people I interviewed were curious to know where I was from but they asked politely. Everyone was very accepting,” she says.
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