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May 25, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:21am

Why UK journalism’s class problem matters, and what can be done about it

By Andrew Kersley

UK journalism has become dominated by those from middle and upper class backgrounds

Earlier this month, the latest NCTJ Diversity in Journalism report found that 80% of journalists come from professional and upper-class backgrounds – almost twice the rate of the overall workforce.

Social class was the only area surveyed in the report where journalism was found to have been getting less diverse over time. But why has journalism become so middle class?

How many journalists are middle and upper class?

It’s worth acknowledging that there are some complications to the data, which comes from the UK Government Labour Force Survey. It is based on a survey of 40,000 households, but because journalists make up a relatively small part of the workforce, the data is extrapolated from a small subset of answers to the survey. So there is a high margin of error in the data.

“With any survey data, you do get glitches, you get sort of jumps that aren’t really explainable in real life,” says NCTJ research consultant and the report’s author Mark Spilsbury. “But the [class] results are so stark – it’s 80%. If you get a glitch it only goes up or down by 5%… So you’ve definitely still got an issue there.”

It is also worth acknowledging that report looks at class rather than wealth. The Labour Force Survey data used by the NCTJ uses the Goldthorpe class scheme that categorises classes based on your parents’ job at age 14. Its levels of “lower”, “middle” and “higher” class jobs are based on the level of education and skill required to achieve them.

Some jobs such as nursing or teaching require a high level of qualifications but can be less well paid, while some non professional trades can be lucrative.

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While level of education is not an absolute indicator of wealth, there is a “clear correlation” between most of the jobs in “upper” or “higher” class categories and wealth, according to Spilsbury.

Why is journalism becoming more middle class?

The “pipeline” into journalism, as Spilsbury calls it, was more obvious in the past – most journalists would start as trainees on local newspapers and work their way up. Today routes into journalism come via mix of internships, graduate schemes, masters courses, freelance writing, apprenticeships and more

“The number of people working as a journalist just keeps increasing so they must be entering from somewhere,” says Spilsbury. “But we don’t fully understand where the engine for that is coming from.”

The decline of local newspapers could provide one reason why journalism is becoming more middle class.

“Part of it is the decimation of local newspapers,” says Robyn Vinter, a British Journalism Award-shortlisted journalist and fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.  “I was quite fortunate in that I did an NCTJ and got a job on a small publication then worked my way up into national newspapers from that.

“Historically, a lot of working-class people would have started at a local newspaper, because they didn’t have the connections or the money to go down to London… That just doesn’t seem to happen anymore,” she adds.

Some 98% of new entrants to journalism have an undergraduate degree and 36% have a masters, according to Reuters Institute research, and Oxford and Cambridge graduates appear to be more prevalent in journalism.

“Oxford and Cambridge function essentially as feeder schools for large tranches of the British media in London,” explains David Stenhouse, chief executive of The John Schofield Trust, a charity that pairs early-career reporters from disadvantaged backgrounds with mentors in the industry.

“To know that you are going to be working alongside peers who you were educated with at Oxford or Cambridge is something which is denied to a large number of people… And, sadly, in British journalism, these networks really, really matter.”

On top of that, there are issues with low wages, unpaid internships and centralisation in London, one of the UK’s most expensive places to live, leaving many aspiring working-class journalists unable to afford a career in journalism as they don’t have a safety net to fall back on.

Why has working-class representation been ignored in journalism?

“This is an issue that we’ve woken up to quite late,” explains Spilsbury. “We’ve been talking about issues of gender and ethnicity and disability for 25 years and that partly comes down to those are just visible things you can see [unlike class].

“The fact is that even the ONS only started collecting this data a few years ago.”

While some organisations have made changes in recent years – including the BBC which has committed to ensuring 25% of its newsroom comes from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds by 2027 – most don’t attempt to track working-class representation in their organisations.

Equality reporting for the likes of ITV, The Guardian, DMGT and News UK makes no reference to working-class representation in their companies.

“Journalists are quite resistant to talking about class. And I understand nobody wants to hear how everything they’ve worked for came easier to them but that’s not what anybody’s saying,” says Vinter. “But the smaller the minority of working-class journalists gets, the harder it is to have those conversations about class and deal with it.”

She went on to explain that the lack of focus on class has a knock-on effect on other forms of representation in the industry.

“Maybe the reason a lot of publications have struggled to attract people who are not white is that they’re hiring from a pool of posh people, while the truth is that people of colour are more likely to be working class than middle or upper class,” Vinter adds. “If they broaden their requirements for hiring anyway, they will get a much more diverse pool of people overall.”

What is it like being a working-class journalist?

But this lack of representation has an impact – both on working-class reporters themselves and on the industry at large.

“For the first few years of my career…  I was pretending to be a different person,” says Vinter, who adds that she has had to put on a fake accent different to her native Yorkshire one to help smooth her access into the industry.

“My dad worked in Asda on the cigarette booth. And if you ever mentioned your dad worked in Asda, other journalists wouldn’t understand why,” she goes on. “They would tilt their heads to one side and look like they’re trying to work out if it’s something he does to keep himself busy or if he is working on some big project. They just can’t work out why someone might just exist and work in a supermarket.”

But the issue goes beyond the personal experiences of journalists. All those Press Gazette spoke to said that the less a newsroom reflects the country and citizens it reports on the less likely it is that those newspapers will resonate with a broad range of readers.

Just 35% of UK citizens say they trust journalists, according to the most recent Edelman trust survey. It put the UK just 6% above bottom placed Russia, and the third least trusted of the 27 countries analysed.

“I don’t think the industry is quite prepared to put two very obvious things together,” says Vinter. “The growing crisis of trust, and the fact that journalism is almost all made up of people who are from privileged backgrounds.”

How do you increase working-class representation in journalism?

Spilsbury and Stenhouse  said increasing pay for entry-level reporters and ending unpaid internships would encourage more working class entrants to journalism. Vinter suggested implementing blind CVs, reducing reliance on hiring university graduates and changing the type of content newspapers write about to try to reflect more on the day-to-day issues of a broader range of people – even if at first it struggles to gain a huge audience.

“There is a huge danger for journalism if it carries on the way it is,” says Stenhouse. “The staff of the heritage titles in Fleet Street are talking to themselves, and missing real-life experiences on the ground. And that gulf isn’t healthy.”

Picture: Hannah Mckay / Reuters

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