April 26, 2021 (Updated )
The media has a problem pigeonholing journalists of colour. My research has found that 90 percent of Black, Asian and other minority journalists have at least one article they published based on race – and these numbers are just the start.
After the killing of George Floyd in May last year and the media’s heightened interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, the number of editors asking for contributions from Black writers and people of colour was astounding.
Investigating these calls for pitches on Twitter, I compared tweets featuring the popular phrases “calls for pitches” and “looking for pitches” both before and during when the Black Lives Matter movement was reignited.
In the 67 day period that followed George Floyd’s death to the end of July, the percentage of editors using “calls for pitches” to ask for stories from journalists of colour rose from five percent of the total to 25 percent compared to the previous 67 day period. In the case of “looking for pitches” this rose from 10 percent of total, to 55 percent of the total.
In both cases, however, more than half of these callouts exclusively asked for pitches relating to race and lived experiences, with most giving little to no space for journalists to explore other topics.
I also spoke to 77 journalists from BAME communities in the UK, as part of an open call out with 70 saying that their portfolio contains at least one commission relating to their race or the fact that they are a person of colour. While some said they enjoyed writing about their lived experiences, others said they found it “tokenising” and “frustrating”.
The Continuous Problem Of A Homogenous Media
Starting a career in journalism isn’t easy for anyone. And, for people of colour, getting in can be even more of a minefield, with a range of extra barriers and challenges on the way – being pigeonholed is just one of them.
It’s a problem also illustrated by research carried out by Women in Journalism (WiJ) last September. As well as a lack of diversity within the UK’s newsrooms, they also saw this spilling into the covers and content of newspapers and websites. For one week in mid-July last year, WiJ’s researchers monitored the front pages of every major newspaper, listened to more than 100 hours of prime-time radio news coverage, and watched the main programmes of several popular TV news channels. Their findings were alarming.
“It’s hard to feel like editors want op-eds outside of your experiences of trauma and acculturation.”
Seven out of 11 major newspapers did not feature a single Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) reporter on the front page – and only four out of 723 prime-time radio reporters were Black women. Out of the 111 people quoted on front pages, only 16 percent were women – and just one of these was a Black woman: Jen Reid, who was interviewed about her activism within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. The report also found that the majority of BAME experts asked to appear on prime-time TV or radio were only featured to discuss issues relating to race.
Though this data is unsettling, it is by no means surprising. Journalists of colour have often had a difficult time in this industry and many of us feel pigeonholed into writing solely about our experiences, racial identities, and trauma. As one journalist told me: “It’s hard to feel like editors want op-eds outside of your experiences of trauma and acculturation.”
‘I Enjoy Drawing From Themes That Have Happened In My Lived Experiences’
For some respondents in my research, writing about lived experiences is something they like doing. As London-based freelance journalist Genéa Saunders told me: “I enjoy drawing from themes that have happened in my lived experiences, as I feel the deeper connection that I have with those areas, allows me to explore the subject more closely.
“I feel it resonates a lot with the reader, as I’m continually probing and placing myself more into the reader’s shoes. I also feel because of this connection, I need to do it justice. I felt this particularly when I wrote a piece about Brixton, regeneration and the Windrush. This felt like such a personal piece, as I myself am a third-generation Windrush.”
“I enjoy drawing from themes that have happened in my lived experiences, as I feel the deeper connection that I have with those areas.”
Genéa Saunders, freelance journalist
Like Genéa, many others said they enjoy writing about race-related topics and feel as though they owe it to themselves to represent these experiences in the mainstream. But one writer, who wished to remain anonymous, told me they felt writing about being a marginalised person “tokenises you and [you] will still be pigeonholed and underpaid”.
Many of the people I spoke to expressed frustration and said that it was difficult for them to get pitches commissioned on topics unrelated to race. “When I pitch other topics they tend to not get picked up, as opposed to when I’m pitching about lived experiences,” one person explained.
Another journalist added: “I have a wide range of knowledge and interests and it’s frustrating to only be asked to write about race-related things.”
The Psychological Impact Of Repeatedly Writing About Race
Constantly being assigned the race or culture beat can also be emotionally exhausting. Many respondents said they used their lived experiences to secure their first commissions and a few bylines, before using these to break into national or more mainstream publications.
Yet, for some respondents, these experiences were deeply uncomfortable and traumatic and, as one writer explained, acted as “an obstacle between me becoming a professional news journalist”.
Writing about personal topics is never easy and, especially in today’s climate, journalists of colour often face criticism and harassment online for sharing their experiences in major publications. The worry of writing about one’s own experiences, and the subsequent online backlash, is often solely placed on the writer. Publications need to do a lot more to protect the writers whose experiences they are exploiting.
“Publications that commission personal stories need to provide more support, even if it’s just a Word document that details what they expect from you and what you may face when the piece is published.”
As one journalist told us: “[My family] always taught me to keep my business private, and it has been a hard line to manage. I have just been commissioned by a major publication for a piece I am half comfortable writing, however two rounds of edits asked me to disclose more details of my personal traumas, which is fine from a journalism standpoint (it needs to be an interesting piece), but from a personal perspective it feels a bit icky.
“I think that publications that commission personal stories need to provide more support, even if it’s just a Word document that details what they expect from you and what you may face when the piece is published, as I am a bit worried about how it may be received by the public. I also believe that young people of colour writers need to be told that you don’t have to mine your personal experiences for content.”
For those hoping to use their personal pieces to leverage their way into bigger publications, this road is bumpy and can often backfire, especially on young writers. Having a portfolio full of opinion pieces, personal essays and race-related stories can limit your how editors perceive your ability – they may consider you a ‘one-trick pony’. For those who enjoy writing about their culture and personal experiences, finding publications that will take those pitches – and pay what writers deserve – is a huge challenge.
Smaller Publications Changing The Narrative
Smaller publications created by people of colour, such as Gal-dem, take a more positive approach and feature writers of colour without pigeonholing them or expecting writers to pitch about a certain topic just because of their race or background. It’s also part of the ethos behind Black Ballad. Founder Tobi Oredein explains on the site that it’s a place for “Black women to talk about the issues that are important to them. Black Ballad has covered a varied range of topics that include mental health, beauty, careers, politics, disability, dating and higher education.”
However, the majority of these publications tend to be outside of the mainstream, and speak to a readership that is mostly made up of people of colour. Though writing for such platforms is a more comfortable experience for many writers, as one survey respondent said, writing exclusively for these platforms “limits our exposure to breaking into the mainstream”.
“I don’t view my work as reductive in scope because there are so many intersections of Black, queer, radical, and immigrant narratives.”
The fact remains that the industry is still saturated with white voices. Meanwhile, mainstream publications seem to have little interest in featuring non-white voices outside of hard-hitting, global events, such as George Floyd’s killing. As freelance writer Prince Shakur told me: “There have been times where I’ve felt like editors wanted to cannibalise a topic I wanted to write about, but for the most part, my writing difficulties as a queer, Black writer has arisen from gatekeeping and fighting for better pay.
“I don’t view my work as reductive in scope because there are so many intersections and unexplored [areas] of Black, queer, radical, and immigrant narratives. There is so much that white supremacy and white-washing is afraid to explore, so it’s my job to fight for my people and their histories.”
Journalists of colour deserve to be well-paid for writing about race and other topics. Whether the media acknowledges it or not, we are all different people with different experiences, and writing about our own lives affects us all in multiple ways.
Mainstream publications need to ensure they are following in the footsteps of people-of-colour-led publications to ethically commission stories from journalists of colour and protect their personal narratives. Because, whether or not we write about them, our stories and opinions deserve to be treated with respect.