May 25, 2021 (Updated )
If you work in a newsroom, look around – where are all the editors? What is their complexion? Chances are, the majority, if not all, are white. This isn’t unusual or shocking. Journalism is still 92 percent white according to the latest NCTJ figures – down just two percent on the previous statistics – and is the second most exclusive profession after medicine.
The higher-up you go in the journalism ladder, the whiter and straighter it gets. Journalists of colour are often in junior or freelance positions – for the latter, the career trajectory might be also be linear, as usually, you can’t promote yourself.
So, what do we about this? Could one way to truly diversify be that white senior staff put the onus on themselves to make more meaningful changes? This could look like white editors, who may have hoarded opportunities, voluntarily step out of the way, instead of trying to ‘amplify’ marginalised voices from the top? Or does this place power on individuals to simply ‘do the right thing’ which ignores the wider, systemic problems?
Why Should White People Give Up Anything?
In her personal essay Whites, on Race and Other Falsehoods, writer Otegha Uwagba says the onus is on white people to care and to do more in their efforts to be anti-racist. Speaking in the aftermath of the BLM protests of 2020, Otegha says beyond saying ‘check your privilege’ and reading the right kind of anti-racist literature, nothing was actually sacrificed by white people in the fight to change things.
A similar message is shared by Phoebe Unter in a mini podcast series Race Traitor. In it, she questions her own intergenerational white power and what she must give up to redress the privilege she enjoyed at the cost of the minorities around her. Her family home, for example, was developed by J.C Nichols whose deed restrictions didn’t allow for Black, Jewish and other minorities to live in his neighbourhoods. To address this, Phoebe says she would be giving up the home if she inherits it, to a Black family.
She says on the podcast: “We are not innocent in owning a home. Individual choices become part of larger patterns. I think it’s up to me and other white people to stop these patterns. I always tell my parents that if I do inherit the house, I’ll give it away, to attempt to drain the power and value imbued in the house by J.C Nichols’ racist policies, but I hope I don’t have to wait that long.”
If we apply the same radical approach to journalism then should white staff in positions of power reckon with their privileges and do something concrete to show their commitment to diversity and inclusion?
White people giving up powerful positions to make way for others is not unprecedented. Last year, a few leaders and CEOs of major brands stepped down in the wake of the BLM protestors, including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian who pledged his seat to a Black candidate (since then, Michael Seibel became the company’s first Black board member).
Is it inconceivable for journalism heads to do the same?
How Are Black, Asian And Other Minorities Disadvantaged?
It’s no secret that journalism has a diversity problem. There are plenty of stats and lived experiences to illustrate the glaring problem of homogeneity in newsrooms, which we’ve covered many times on Journo Resrouces.
There is also an opportunities gap in the UK. Research revealed that children from poor homes do worse educationally than their classmates, which may disadvantage them into employment.
Studies also show that ethnic minorities have fewer job opportunities due to ‘societal racism’. Compared to white grads, Black graduates earn 23.1 percent less on average, and young Black men have some of the highest unemployment rates in London. People from Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups are twice as likely to be in the bottom fifth of incomes, and have the lowest median household incomes.
Meritocracy – the idea that the best should get the job – is an ostensibly progressive idea but it doesn’t pay attention to these disadvantages and inequalities that seriously hinder minorities. It’s not as simple as being ‘the best’ when there are so many barriers in place. Even when minorities get their foot in the door in exclusive industries like journalism, they are treated differently to their white peers. Many have also been bullied out of jobs.
The Problem With How We Approach Newsroom Diversity
Marcus Ryder, MBE, author of Access All Areas – The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond, says that the problem isn’t just access, and that efforts to diversify are somewhat superficial.
“Diversifying the media” is not simply about getting a few more women, or people of colour into the media industry,” he explains. “True diversity is about creating an economic environment in which people from all underrepresented groups can flourish and their media organisations can also flourish. This means looking at the diversity of current organisations from entry level to appointing the CEO, but it is also about looking at market regulation and how media is funded.”
When meritocracy is so highly valued, it places the blame on minorities for simply not being ‘good enough’, says Marcus, which ignores systemic inequalities. “What we are currently getting wrong is too often we blame the victim – we say they need more training – as if the fault is with them for not being good enough. Or we think it is about getting more entry level positions, ignoring the fact that we have a serious retention problem.
“What we are currently getting wrong is too often we blame the victim – we say they need more training – as if the fault is with them for not being good enough.”
Marcus Ryder MBE
“We need to change the culture. Ultimately we want better and more diverse journalism and that isn’t achieved if all the people of colour are in low positions or you only promote the ones who have similar views to yourself – defeating the whole point of increasing diversity.”
Despite the dire state of media representation, Marcus is still hopeful about the landscape changing, though more needs to be done to nurture their talent.
“We’ve seen amazing bright talent before who have not survived in the industry or whose careers have been sidelined. We need to make sure that we champion the new young journalists. But the real acid test would be making an environment in which the older journalists and media professionals who left the industry would want to return. Until we create an environment which people of colour see as attractive and believe they can flourish we will not achieve true diversity and inclusion.”
‘Editors Need To Make Sure They’re Doing As Much As Possible Within Their Roles’
On whether white senior staff should step down to make way for underrepresented candidates, Marcus says: “Diversity is ensuring there is a level playing field so talent irrespective of background can rise to the top. If fairness means you should “get out of the way” I would suggest you shouldn’t have been that position in the first place.”
Shahed Ezaydi a deputy editor at indie publication Aurelia Magazine, who has written on the media’s diversity problem, agrees with the idea of the onus being on white staff to take action in principle but fails to see it materialising.
She tells Journo Resources: “Expecting white editors to step down or give up their roles for diversity is probably a bit too optimistic, even though that’s one real way to actually force in change in a newsroom.
“But I do think there are other things white editors can do without giving up their jobs. If they’re a commissioning editor, widening their pool of freelance writers and not just approaching ‘diverse’ writers for ‘diverse’ stories, or for those who work with staffers (and freelancers), making sure they’re properly supporting and checking in with their staff, both in-house/in the workplace and also with any pieces that are sensitive or gain a lot of publicity and traction.”
“Expecting white editors to step down or give up their roles for diversity is probably a bit too optimistic, even though that’s one real way to actually force in change in a newsroom.”
Though we’ve seen more call-outs for Black and other minority writers than ever before in the past year, even this has its limitations – white seniors are still calling the shots and setting the agenda. Shahed reckons that an active effort from those at the top is all they can do right now.
“It would be great if white editors could step aside in the newsroom or not go for certain roles and let others in instead, but that’s pretty unlikely to happen or become a common feature of the industry. So, editors need to make sure they’re doing as much as possible within their roles to support diversity and inclusivity.”
“How can the recruitment process be made fairer before it gets to the offer stage? These are the things I think we should be focusing on.”
But expecting white staff to move out of the way causes its own problems, argues one journalist who works for a mainstream national news publication.
Tania*, who left a job in another national paper after being undervalued, says: “Having been in this situation before – where I’ve been passed up for promotion in favour of a white person who was far less qualified – I don’t think that person giving up the role is really the answer.
“For one, it would just breed resentment among both hiring managers who feel like their choices are being undermined and those who’ve been asked to give up their roles, not to mention even more accusations that we are just ‘diversity hires’ who don’t deserve the roles we do get. And, ultimately, this would be a superficial and short-term solution to the much deeper issue of unconscious bias in newsrooms.
“Why is it that people of colour (especially women of colour) aren’t seen as leadership material in the first place, despite consistently proving ourselves? How can the recruitment process be made fairer *before* it gets to the offer stage? These are the things I think we should be focusing on.”
What Does A White Editor Think About This?
Similarly, Dominic Ponsford, Editor-in-Chief of the Press Gazette, reckons it isn’t feasible in reality. “It would have to be down to individual choice but I think you would have to be very saintly to do it! Having worked extremely hard to be where I am in my job, would I step down to help even up diversity at a senior level in journalism? In a word, ‘no’.
“But there is a problem and it needs creative solutions. When it comes to gender diversity, more flexible working arrangements will be a huge factor in enabling women to progress in the industry.
“I think we need to ensure a good flow of junior people into the profession from all backgrounds and ensure they have a fair shout at the senior jobs.”
“When it comes to ethnic diversity, I think we need to ensure a good flow of junior people into the profession from all backgrounds and ensure they have a fair shout at the senior jobs. It is also very important that younger and more diverse voices are heard at the most senior level of companies because these are the people who will connect us with future readers/listeners.”
Of course, no one should be forced to give up a job when they don’t want to and allyship should come from a genuine place – but are we all trying, really trying, to make the industry the kind of place we want it to be? Could we be doing more?
*Some names have been changed to protect their identity.