The barriers preventing those from diverse and poorer backgrounds pursuing a career in journalism appear to remain high in the UK. Many believe that there is a lack of diversity in newsrooms, as they are socially exclusive and vastly unrepresentative of the UK’s population.
Research conducted by Press Gazette in July of this year revealed that of the 1,940 readers surveyed, 57% said that they believe more needs to be done to make the news industry more diverse.
A study conducted by City University London concluded that the make-up of the British journalism industry is 94% white, 86% university-educated and 55% male. The findings also showed that women in the newsroom are generally underpaid and under-promoted whilst those from minority groups are considerably underrepresented.
As such research underlines the glaring lack of diversity in the UK’s newsrooms, it points to important and pivotal question. Is the seeming underrepresentation in the newsroom a discouragement to those who aspire to careers in the journalism industry?
Financial Barriers – A Preserve for the Elite?
“A career in journalism is most likely out of reach for many people from working class backgrounds”, Lara, a postgraduate journalism student from London, told Unsaid.
“To get onto a prestigious postgraduate journalism course, I’ve ended up in around 50k worth of student debt. Most entry-level journalism jobs require a degree now – from a well-respected university – and, to get on the job ladder, a postgraduate course is the most popular route.
“To build up my portfolio, I had to work for free for a few publications and I completed an unpaid internship last summer. I was also lucky enough to attend private school which gave me some opportunities and contacts in the industry”.
According to research conducted by The Sutton Trust, over half of the country’s leading journalists went to private school – which is more than 7 times the UK national average.
In order to gain paid work in written journalism, most major publications will request examples of previously published material before commissioning.
For most aspiring journalists, the only way to begin building a portfolio is initially working for free, either on a freelance basis or completing an unpaid internship.
Research conducted by the Sutton Trust showed that over a quarter of graduates took on an unpaid internship in 2018.
High costs of unpaid internships can often mean a reliance on parents for financial support. A recent Durham graduate told Unsaid that her parents decided to support her financially during a five-week internship at a small publishing house last summer in order for her to gain relevant experience for a journalism career.
“I was lucky enough to be able to complete my internship because my parents were willing to financially support me during that time.
“Had this not been the case, then I would have had to find a paid role rather than spending the time advancing my skills in the industry that I am interested in.”
Lack of diversity in newsrooms
In addition to financial barriers, underrepresentation can be a potential discouragement to many aspiring journalists from diverse backgrounds.
Gender inequality within journalism remains a significant issue. With around 45% of UK journalists being female, a 2016 Reuters Institute/Worlds of Journalism study found that female journalists are ‘less well remunerated than men and are under-represented in senior positions’.
Indeed, City University research revealed that almost 50% of female journalists earn £2,400 or less a month compared to just a third of men working in the industry.
“The gender pay gap within journalism still does surprise me a little when a large number of the journalists I see reporting on TV are women”, aspiring broadcaster Katie told Unsaid.
“The gender pay gap is the same in many careers though – which of course doesn’t make it right – but it isn’t enough to put me off a career in broadcast journalism.”
Lack of disability representation also remains a problem within UK newsrooms. According to Ofcom’s latest report (September 2019), representation of disabled people across the industry in the UK stands at only 6%, compared to the UK population (aged 16-64) at 18%.
The report also stated:
“There has been little to no change in the representation of disabled people at the BBC, or across the BBC.”
It was recorded by Ofcom that the representation of disabled people at the BBC is 10% and, by job role, on-screen talent makes up the lowest proportion of disabled employees at only 6%.
The report continued:
“Employees from minority ethnic backgrounds make-up 13% of employees, which is in line with the UK workforce average of just over 12% but below the BBC’s 2020 target of 15”.
Research by City University London reported that just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim, and 2% are Black, compared with 5% and 3% of the UK population respectively.
Bringing Diversity in the Newsrooms
The BBC has committed to making diversity and inclusion ‘a top priority’ in its Annual Plan. The BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity, June Sarpong, said at the announcement of the statement in July that the BBC aims to ‘lead the way on diversity’. She said:
“My vision is for the work, insight and application of the BBC’s Creative Diversity team to flow through the veins of the entire industry.”
The series of initiatives include changing the way in which the BBC’s creative teams source talent in order to reach out to those from less represented groups as well as valuing and celebrating diversity.
The BBC has also committed to investing £100 million over a three-year period to produce more ‘diverse and inclusive content’.
Matthew, a student from Bolton with epilepsy, spoke to Unsaid about his recent two-week work experience placement at the BBC and said that he felt encouraged by the ‘mix of backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences’ in the newsroom.
“The BBC is very focused on promoting people from protected and disadvantaged backgrounds into the newsroom.
“Being disabled felt like a normal, everyday, and accommodating experience, where my needs were met (I was asked about epilepsy emergency procedures, for example, but in a private conversation away from my colleagues in case I wanted it to remain confidential) – I’ve had many experiences much worse than this.”
As a result of the killing of George Floyd in the US in May, the group of journalists, including Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Sky News correspondent Asish Joshi and Mirror football writer Darren Lewis, wrote a letter to the Society of Editors to urge action to be taken.
The letter explained:
“For those of us of a certain age, we started off as one of the few, if not the only minority journalists and it saddens us to say that over the years, this has not significantly changed.”
The letter asked editors to consider using positive recruitment campaigns and offer paid internships in order to offer encouragement to BAME journalists.
The Society of Editors agreed that encouraging diversity in the industry had ‘never been more imperative’ and added that, whilst there are several scholarships and traineeships available for aspiring journalists from diverse and unrepresented backgrounds, ‘the speed of change is not rapid enough’.
In their response, the Society committed to helping to create newsrooms which ‘represent our society as a whole’.
It is hoped that such initiatives and schemes will make a considerable impact on diversity in the newsroom, encouraging more aspiring journalists to feel represented and welcomed by the journalism industry.