By Tina Lee, editor-in-chief of Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism (2019)
When you think of diversity, do you think about race, gender and class?
When my organization – Hostwriter.org – sent out a call for pitches on the theme of bias and discrimination in the field of journalism, we thought we had a pretty good idea of what kind of ideas we would get.
After all, it’s becoming more widely understood that the field of journalism in most countries has a long way to go before becoming an accurate reflection of society. In the UK, white, university educated men dominate the field. In India, high caste males dominate the headlines, despite being a minority of the country. In Germany, we don’t even know how bad it is, because the country refuses to collect equality statistics (but we have substantial evidence of discrimination at every level).
But in the end, we were surprised by the submissions we received.
They went way beyond pointing out the effects of institutional racism, sexism and classism toward many more subtle forms of bias and intersectional discrimination that many of us had never considered but that encompass these issues and others – while multiplying the narrowness of viewpoints we most often see in journalism as it stands. In the resulting book, Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism, we found that most often the question for our authors boiled down to:
For instance, in a digitalized media environment that runs on the internet, how can we effectively report on areas with low internet access, like suburban Brazil? Priscila Pacheco points out in her article that, although the areas surrounding Sao Paulo are highly populated, low internet access means they are extremely underreported. These become journalistic no-go areas because of lack of Wi-Fi.
Similarly, there is massive interest (and misunderstanding) surrounding transgender and Non-Gender Binary people in the media (and by politicians looking for wedge issues), but these stories are rarely told by or informed by people who fit into either of these categories. As writer Bex vanKoot points out in their piece, “Non-Binary in the Newsroom,” having style guides that reflect a nuanced approach to gender identity and are informed by people with lived experience can ensure inclusive journalism that doesn’t perpetuate misunderstanding and prejudice.
Even in the tricky question of fixers, you can see this issue of the missing voice at stake; as Jelena Prtoric points out in her piece “Journalists: Trust your Fixers,” fixers are often brought in to help an already formed story, not to add local knowledge to the production. By ignoring this valuable input from locals, national stereotypes get reproduced and media consumers miss out on a chance to go deeper and get more accurate takes on issues outside of their own countries.
To change our media system, we are going to have to do two things simultaneously.
First, we must consider the historical effects of the disenfranchisement and subjugation of many different groups. But second, we must also consider the flip side of that: the fact that the idea of the neutral, objective observer is so embedded into our professional journalism culture that we scarcely notice that this standard actually reinforces the idea that certain groups cannot be trusted to tell their own stories.
The fact that we continue to accept the view of the male, older, (often) white or Westernized journalist as the neutral stand-in and protagonist for stories ranging from politics to conflict to environmental catastrophe reflects historical supremacy but also a lack of imagination and curiosity. We are missing countless stories because of a lack of representation in the field of journalism, and this can have effects ranging from losing the trust of our audiences, to missing out on major solutions to the complex problems facing our societies.
Considering diversity in the field of journalism is going to end up being a matter of dismantling the bias and discrimination that is endemic to our societies and general, while at the same time training ourselves to refocus on what we have been missing all along.
Tina Lee is the editor-in-chief of Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism (2019), published by Hostwriter and CORRECTIV, available for purchase now. She is also the head of the Ambassador Network at Hostwriter, an open network that helps journalists to easily collaborate across borders.