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July 9, 2020updated 02 Nov 2021 10:42am

‘Culture of fear and cliquiness’ in UK newsrooms must end to move diversity conversation forward

By Charlotte Tobitt

Young black journalists are leaving journalism after just a few years because of bullying in newsrooms, an academic and broadcaster with her own “horror stories” of racism has claimed.

Despite progress getting young and diverse talent into the news industry, Press Gazette heard how there is still “a lot of work to do” to change newsroom culture at all levels.

We asked Press Gazette readers between 22 June and 5 July if they think the news industry is sufficiently diverse, prompted by discussions which have arisen once again because of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Of 1,940 readers who responded, 1,109(57%) said more needs to be done to make the news industry more diverse while 626 (32%) said the diversity of the UK is sufficiently represented. Some 205 people said they didn’t know.

But research from the US has suggested that people in dominant groups – such as white men – are likely to deem a workplace as sufficiently diverse at a lower threshold.

Marverine Duffy (nee Cole), a journalist, broadcaster and academic who is currently head of undergraduate journalism at Birmingham City University, spoke to Press Gazette about experiences she has had since she moved into broadcast journalism 17 years ago.

“I believe I’ve been driven out of jobs because of racism because audiences have gone ‘we don’t like her’ and bosses have taken that on board or there’s been this culture of ‘she’s not very good’ and it just permeates,” she said.

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Duffy recalled an incident in about 2005 when, after screen testing for a BBC breakfast bulletin, she was told by the editor it was good “but you can’t go on the air with your hair like that”.

She was the only black woman in the newsroom when she started as a trainee at ITV in Birmingham and said that even though newsrooms can be unwelcome places for any newcomer, she was “ignored for weeks”.

When she was eventually allowed to produce a story she’d suggested, she recalled that the news editor said: “I don’t understand why we’re doing this story.”

‘Stifled by racist attitudes’

In other news organisations she has worked for she felt there was a “culture of suspicion” with people asking if she was just the diversity hire. “I’ve been damned by people’s perceptions of me being a low achiever when I’ve been accepted into a high-profile job – so why…?”

Duffy said she has heard from black journalists who have been in the industry three to five years and then left because they had enough. “That’s horrible to hear. It shouldn’t be happening to people.

“People come into this industry to try and thrive and are stifled and my own career was stifled by racist attitudes.”

She added: “I’ve been on various Zoom calls over the Black Lives Matter stuff with black media professionals and some have cried explaining their experiences of being bullied in newsrooms – sometimes way worse than what I’ve experienced. It’s outrageous.

“It makes me feel really sad and also makes me feel very conflicted about my own job. I’m an academic teaching young people how to be journalists – [I feel] very, very conflicted about my own job.”

Last month 50 black, Asian and minority ethnic journalists accused UK newsrooms of repeatedly failing to improve diversity in the industry in an open letter calling for faster action.

‘Stamp out culture of fear’

So what should editors and other newsroom leaders be doing now?

Duffy urged them to stamp out the “culture of fear and cliquiness” that exists in some newsrooms and have a willingness to learn about things they don’t understand.

“They need to give stories a chance that are beyond their sphere of understanding because… if an editor doesn’t understand a cultural community they just don’t think it’s right for their audiences.

“I think they need to understand how their own audiences are changing – we know that they’re changing because some people are deserting newspapers and media organisations in their droves and going where they can find the diverse content.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to reach people and engage people and get them to share content and if you don’t have diverse newsrooms where the people who are telling the stories are representative of our society you’re just not going to be able to reach far and wide.”

In terms of hiring, Duffy said editors must be willing to nurture people, especially if they come through one of the numerous trainee schemes that have been launched across the industry.

“I don’t mean handling them with kid gloves but give them proper training and if something’s not quite right then sit down and explain it to them in detail so they can get it done properly the next time,” she said, adding that people in the middle stages of their career also need attention instead of being sidelined in this process.

‘Significant’ problem in UK media

A Reuters Institute report from 2015 found that UK journalism has a “significant” diversity problem.

It said black Britons, for example, are under-represented by a factor of more than ten while despite a “strong flow” of women into the industry they are still “very much a minority” in senior roles.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists’ latest Diversity in Journalism report from 2017 found that around 94 per cent of journalists are white compared to 91 per cent of the UK workforce.

But it said the “lack of diversity in journalism is less positive than even this would suggest” as the fact many titles are based in London, the south east or other urban centres where there are more BAME communities “suggests that they are significantly under-represented in the media”.

The 2011 census suggested that 60% of the London population was white, 19% was Asian/Asian British and 13% was black.

Meanwhile Birmingham, where Duffy said she has been the only black woman in a newsroom, was 53% white.

However Marcus Ryder, executive producer at Chinese business news group Caixin Global and acting chairman of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, told Press Gazette he believes the issue should be thought of not just in terms of headcount but also in terms of power, influence and editorial control.

Power imbalance

As well as looking at the percentage of black or Asian people or women in newsrooms, for example, he said another useful metric would be to look at the proportion of salary spend on each demographic.

“That shows you where the power imbalance is,” he said.

Another metric would be to look at how long on average people from different backgrounds are given to work on stories.

“How much time on average does your white heterosexual male take to write a story and if you find that he is given two days to write a story versus the disabled person who’s given half a day to write a story on average then there’s a power imbalance,” he said.

Because the current conversation has been restarted by Black Lives Matter, Ryder said it is important to remember that racism is a combination of prejudice and power and that simply giving certain journalists more commissions and stories to write does not increase their power in the industry.

“All the things which I’m seeing people talk about and the issues people want to address, address prejudice. Very, very few are addressing power,” he said.

“If we want to address racism, if we want to address sexism, ableism, we can’t just address the manifestations of the prejudice. We also have to address the power.”

Also important to make sure a diversity of perspectives is heard, Ryder said, is ensuring journalists from different demographics can produce a wide range of stories so they aren’t just reporting on issues that are traditionally seen to affect their own community.

“In a really simplistic way we think if there’s more women we’ll do something on the tampon tax, if there’s more black people we’ll do something on more racial attacks or if there’s more gay people we can do something on homophobia,” he said.

“While all of that is true, it’s actually looking at every aspect of our lives and seeing how it affects it. It’s making sure that when you’re looking at the ageing demographic we shouldn’t just take how it’s going to affect white heterosexual people as the norm.”

This week The Cricketer magazine has teamed up with black newspaper The Voice to share content and ideas during the England versus West Indies Test series which got underway on Wednesday.

The Cricketer’s digital editor Sam Morshead said: “As an industry, cricket journalism can and should do more to represent our diverse community: both in terms of readership and employment opportunities.

“In teaming up with The Voice, we hope to start to address the first of these issues – giving a new audience an insight into our coverage of the England-West Indies series and beyond. We aim to learn more about how different audiences consume cricket, and what more can be done to engage them with our game.

“This is a small first step of our active plan to do our bit to address the diversity imbalance within our sport and our industry.”

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