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A ‘culture of fear’ - the scourge of racism in UK newsrooms

Always ready to expose prejudice and hypocrisy within political and social elites, the bosses of Britain’s newsrooms have completely failed to address their own

 

In the UK, nothing makes headlines like the hypocrisy of the great and the good. Whether it’s racism in the police force, sexism in the fire department or corruption in politics, stories about the failings of people in public life never fail to excite people in the newsroom.

But there’s another story that journalists and news media are reluctant to tell. It’s the one about how newsrooms themselves are just as bad, if not worse, when it comes to racism.

This week, the Ethical Journalism Network issued a report exposing how structural racism is at work in many if not all the major news organisations in the UK.  

The report makes grim reading for anyone concerned about media coverage of diversity and inclusion in Britain today. 

The EJN report concludes that mainstream UK newsrooms are unwelcoming for Black journalists and that prejudice is so ingrained in the culture of newsgathering that racist attitudes shape and distort coverage of race and the Black community.

To make matters worse, the report highlights a lack of will within the leadership of news organisations, so often lacerating in their criticism of others, to confront their own problems.

The report has its roots in the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement. The EJN was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to examine the issue of structural racism in UK journalism.

There’s a realisation that you’re going to have to be twice as good as anyone else to succeed, and that quickly turns into imposter syndrome

 

The report’s author, journalist and academic Dr Aida Al Kaisy, provides a detailed and thorough-going analysis of the problem based upon 27 interviews with Black journalists and stakeholders across the British broadcast and broadsheet media.

Her findings are bleak - Black journalists face enormous barriers to entry and then may struggle to get onto a career and promotion path. Once they arrive in the newsroom, they face racial microaggressions and obstacles that lead, ultimately, to the exclusion of their own voices and those of other Black people within and outside Britain.

As one interviewee put it: “When you walk into a newsroom it is like apartheid. You are instantly categorised by the colour of your skin.” 

Dr Kaisy says a “culture of fear” surrounds Black journalism. 

“I noticed this throughout the research in the way journalists did or did not want to be included,” she says. “Fear over identities being revealed speaks to the enormity of the culture of fear within newsrooms.” 

Speaking at a panel discussion to launch the report hosted by the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, she said that Black journalists feel “marginalised and judged, they feel excluded from internal processes” and she noted how there were striking differences in the experiences of working in a Black team or working in a white team.

As a result, Black journalists are susceptible to mental health problems and many just didn’t want to continue because of their experience with white management.

Another panellist - Keme Nzerem, a news presenter with Channel 4 News - described his own experience of “imposter syndrome” which, because of systemic racism, undermines self-confidence and leads some Black journalists to believe that their own success is not truly deserved.

“There’s a realisation that you’re going to have to be twice as good as anyone else to succeed, and that quickly turns into imposter syndrome,” he said.

On his first day at Channel 4, he said a fellow Nigerian journalist sought him out and told him: “I’ll be here for you”. It was a tremendous boost. 

Being black in the media “is like living on a knife-edge”, he said. “It takes just one insult, or one overheard comment to make you realise that this is not for you.”

Over the years the situation has improved. “We have a pretty thriving people-of-colour network,” he said. “I can speak up now, probably not in the same way as I could 20 years ago.”

Being black in the media is like living on a knife-edge. It takes just one insult, or one overheard comment to make you realise that this is not for you

 

The report notes that after the death of George Floyd, journalists detected a change in language used in the newsroom, in news story selection and improvement in their own interactions with senior colleagues and editors.

But there is now a widespread sense that momentum for change is waning amongst those who might be considered to be allies, and concludes with a number of recommendations, particularly to support Black journalists now entering journalism.

The report says media need to work more closely with other organisations that are campaigning for Black rights; human resources departments in media need to change their policies and newsrooms should develop a mechanism for reporting acts of racism.

There are also calls for more training and support, not just to overcome the problem of “unconscious bias” within a predominantly white workforce, but also to give targeted support to Black journalists facing newsroom discrimination.

There is a thorny debate over whether there is a need for employment quotas to improve the situation. Increasingly, the evidence is that setting “targets” for diversity in employment is well-meaning but ineffective.

Major change will not come anytime soon, says Dr Kaisy, but “current approaches are not working either in dealing with racism inside newsrooms or challenging barriers to advancement”. She says that more research is needed to fully understand the broad nature of the problem.

For now there needs to be more entry level opportunities, more talent spotting to encourage young Black talent and, above all, a change of mind-set among bosses and media leaders to better understand the conditions in which their staff work.

This may yet be the biggest challenge. Few people in the higher reaches of media management are ready to face up to the reality of racism in the news. Even evidence of bias in content and testimony from their own Black journalists may not get them to change their ways. As one panelist remarked, racism is a toxic term and “media are terrified of the word”. 

Aidan White is President of the Ethical Journalism Network

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

 

 

 

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