Journo Resources Fellow

February 16, 2023 (Updated )

“Thrives in a fast-paced environment; a keen eye for detail; strong spelling and grammatical skills.” While these are common requirements in journalism job adverts, it can be an overwhelming list for for many neurodivergent journalists, and even put some off applying altogether.

The tough demands sought after in the newsroom can often feel exclusionary — but does this really reflect the needs of the job, or are we missing out on talented candidates?

Despite disproportionate numbers of neurodiverse people being unemployed or underemployed, demand for their skills is rising. Ever since McKinsey’s influential 2020 report showed that diverse companies are more likely to outperform financially, industries from tech to consultancy have pushed for increased neurodiversity in their teams.

However, the journalism industry lags behind. The term ‘neurodiversity’ — an umbrella term which includes autism, dyspraxia, and ADHD, amongst other diagnoses — doesn’t appear at all in the latest Diversity in Journalism report by the NCTJ. While this may come from an umbrella approach towards tracking disabilities, these perspectives often result in a lack of adequate accommodations. It starts from the very beginning, manifesting in the job applications we read.

Improving Job Ads And Requirements

Freelance journalist Rochelle Hounslow, who describes herself as “both neurospicy and chronically ill”, shares that she was forced to “start [her] own pathway” as she couldn’t “commit to [the listed] requirements” of newsroom jobs.

In fact, she’s also found herself “fired soon after [she] was hired” due to fixations on outdated tropes in job descriptions. It’s time for hiring managers to reassess what’s really necessary in the newsroom — and recognise the strengths brought by neurodiverse talent.

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Rochelle Hounslow (L) and Saidata Sesay (R)

At a base level, companies must stop seeing a diversity pledge at the very bottom of their job adverts as the answer. Creative Access, an organisation working to increase diversity in the creative industries, stresses in their own guidance that ads are a “first touch point” between potential candidates and employers. The whole advert — tone, skills, language, and more — is a “critical window into how inclusive your organisation may be”.

They advise employers to avoid corporate language or jargon, use accessible sans-serif fonts such as Ariel or Verdana, and set out the stages of the recruitment process clearly. They also suggest a critical eye on requirements — points should be kept brief, and skills “which are not necessary for the role or can be taught through training” should be removed.

For me, it is the listed responsibilities that speak more accurately as to whether a company is inclusive. As someone who is dyspraxic, I often feel they exclude the multitude of strengths neurodivergent people have to offer.

One skill that often comes up is the ability to work, or even thrive, “under pressure” and in “fast-paced environments.” A recent search on Cision Jobs found that more than one a third of jobs currently live included these terms. None included any possible accommodations.

While Hounslow agrees that there are “factors in freelance and journalism that you can’t keep stress away from”, she believes that there are ways publications can support and empower their employees to thrive.

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For example, flexible working arrangements can help with better focus and concentration. Despite this, research from Press Gazette found that only 18 percent of journalism jobs listed their location as remote this year, while only another nine percent said the job would offer a hybrid working arrangement. Hounslow feels this shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how commuting could take up “mental, emotional and physical energy that can easily lead to burnout” for people who are neurodivergent.

Similarly, many entry-level roles include the need for editing as well as writing work. Frequently listed requirements include “eye for detail”, strong “spelling and grammar”, and “proofreading” skills — all things that could be accommodated for with a proper editorial process.

Accommodating Neurodiversity In Newsrooms

Ebony Montague, founder of inclusive HR agency HR Said That, says it’s essential for employers to “create and ensure a psychologically safe environment for employees to share their needs”. She emphasises that the most important part of this process is that “anything that is raised is welcomed and without retribution.”

Managers also need to take care to avoid micromanaging team members who do ask for adjustments, trusting their autonomy and that they understand their own needs.

Saidata Sesay, a broadcast journalist at the BBC, is dyslexic and has ADHD. She describes past experiences where she’s felt “targeted” after adjustments were made, and recalls situations where colleagues “always needed to change [my work because] they didn’t think [it] was good enough”.

As someone who’s been promised discussions about adjustments that never materialised, I understand firsthand the anxiety around advocating for myself. The onus should be on employers to create an open and welcoming environment and to schedule check-ins regularly, as the needs of an employee may change over time.

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While neurodiverse applicants might feel they’re asking for too much, Montague notes that the majority of adjustments are free, such as “extra time for completing tasks, having a later start time, [and] adjustments in the surrounding workplace in respect to lighting and noise.”

It’s also worth noting that the Equality Act 2010 legally requires employers to make reasonable adjustments. For employers looking to make a start, the BBC’s neurodiversity checklist and Shape Arts are both useful resources.

Viewing Neurodiversity In A Different Light

It is clear that some of these issues require wider, systematic change, but for neurodivergent applicants, it’s worth remembering that your skills also work to your advantage. While they could, of course, vary widely from individual to individual, certain traits can really set us apart from the typical journalist.

Naomi Rovnick, markets correspondent at Thomson Reuters, has tweeted often about working with dyspraxia. “Give me a task I can zone in to and I will tend to it, obsessively, until it’s more than done,” she wrote. Similarly, when given the freedom to just get on with and focus on a task, I can produce quality work in a matter of hours.

Equally, while an “eye for detail” might hint at flawless copy, it also includes people who can spot details that no one else might. This is something that resonates with Sesay. She often finds interesting article ideas from analysing trends and data from Google Analytics: “I’m very good at knowing what the target audience wants, just by simply observing what they’ve been talking about.”

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“You’ll sometimes find me being highly creative, strategic and fizzing with original ideas [..] Give me a task I can zone in to and I will tend to it, obsessively, until it’s more than done.”
Naomi Rovnick, Markets Correspondent at Thomson Reuters

Creativity is also a trait many neurodivergent people will recognise in themselves, with Rovnick tweeting that she is often “highly creative, strategic and fizzing with original ideas”. This is a skill that’s highly in demand, with Press Gazette research finding it in almost half of all journalism job adverts.

Even in job descriptions that might feel overwhelming, there is plenty that neurodiverse journalists can focus on. It is also important to remember that being overwhelmed by office spaces doesn’t equate to an inability to connect with people. High levels of empathy and emotional intelligence are also associated with neurodivergence.

ebony montague hr said that
Ebony Montague runs HR Said That (Image Credit: Supplied)

In fact, Sesay fell in love with “old-school journalism, where you go out into the street and speak to strangers.” She recalls being told more than once how she’s good at asking the right questions and “getting someone quite confessional”.

In an industry based on telling others’ stories, this ability to empathise and converse with people is perhaps one of the strongest skills needed in journalism. Neurodivergent journalists have a huge potential to achieve when provided with the opportunity and access.

Equally, with the right support and systems, even requirements like “fast-paced” can be reframed positively. Rovnick, for example, explains how she has built “systems within systems” to cope. This comprises a wall calendar, a paper diary, a Gmail calendar, time management apps, and an “electronic bird’s nest of alarms, buzzers, and pings.”

It’s clear that neurodiverse journalists have the skills and talents needed to thrive — but the onus shouldn’t be on them to mentally tailor job descriptions to suit their strengths. From job descriptions to office environments, ways of working to team interactions, we need proactive and systemic change across the industry.

It is time for news organisations to consider whether their workplaces are truly inclusive — or whether they’re just claiming to be.

Header image courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash. Data sourced from Cision Jobs on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.
Moneeka Thakur
Moneeka Thakur

Part of the Journo Resources fellowship class of 2022, Moneeka Thakur is a culture connoisseur who is passionate about all things literature-, film-, and television-related.

She focuses her writing on the urgent matter of diversifying the creative industries, and her work can be found published in Creativepool, Writers Make Worlds, and Cherwell.