Why mentoring is crucial when trying to diversify the media

Why mentoring is crucial when trying to diversify the media

Lydia Wilkins is a freelance journalist. She is also on the Autistic spectrum. In this blog post she explains why mentoring is the first step to diversify the media. 

Mentoring is a hot topic right now, given that we’ve all been stuck at home for the best part of this year. Conversations have also taken route to ask how we can create better, more inclusive newsrooms – and organisations like PressPad have been ahead of the curve with this, such as with the talk Nicola Slawson gave about mentoring a little while ago. 

As an Autistic female, I have yet to find my place in a newsroom that I feel like I belong in. Stereotypes remain. Often asked to provide a ‘crash course’ as to what Autism is, this falls on deaf ears – and it shouldn’t be my responsibility. The stereotypes are still in the copy, regardless. Job interviews are beyond silly and it’s rare to find any definitive policy about disclosure. (When I have disclosed “I am Autistic”, it’s like a screen comes down – and I know that, most of the time, I will not get the job.) Reasonable adjustments are rarely put in place, despite stipulations in the Equality Act. And this is just scratching the surface.

Until recently, I hadn’t realised how lucky I had been – not until a phone call with a source, who – when wondering off topic pointed something out to me which caught me off guard. “You have been mentored by some of the best journalists, Lydia – and you should cherish that.” Simply put, without (several) mentors, I wouldn’t be here – just add hard work and a lot of pitches along the way (!) But those who fit the category of ‘diverse’ should not have to rely on luck to get anywhere. It is beyond reasonable to expect this, because what if there is a barrier like socio-economic status? The next best award-winning reporter may never even realise their potential.

Lydia Wilkins' work for The Independent - Credit: independent.co.uk

There have been times where I have thought – even recently – that “I don’t want to do this anymore”. I am either “too much” or “too little” – a trope often deployed against Autistic people. (Are we “too sensitive”, or not “sensitive enough”? Showing enough empathy, or too much empathy? Repeat on loop.) Mentors are powerful – and that power, in some circumstances, is how we are going to create an environment of belonging.

Being in education is a time of my life I never want to particularly remember. There were few teachers who understood my ambition to become a journalist, and if they did notice, it was to my eternal shame. (At one point, I was obsessively tracking the phone hacking scandal – and was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome maybe two years after. How no one realised I was on the spectrum is something I am *still* questioning.)

 It would be lucky if a teacher properly understood – rather than reacting with stereotypes.

Books like The Book Thief were apparently ‘too challenging’ to read.  People with Aspergers are ‘cold’, ‘a bit weird’ – and unlikely to ever become a journalist. They should go to university instead! They can’t be journalists! And you aren’t supposed to ask so many questions! If you have been reading the PressPad blog posts, you’ll know by now how derailing particular comments can be. 

I found my first mentor while in secondary school; we keep in touch to this day. To know that there is someone stood in your corner, to realise that there is someone who actually believes in you, is your own kind of power. I was a reporter-in-waiting to her – not the sum of my label.

In a frank chat, I asked her about mentoring two years ago, and she put it in simple terms: she takes people under her wing, as she sees that senior journalists have a duty to ‘pass the baton on’. Others had done the same for her – so why shouldn’t she do the same? The ye olde printing presses will be left to us one day, after all.

A former editor has mentored me for the last two years and they ‘live’ journalism as much as the air they breathe. They make time. They make time for those who are a lot younger, never believing that a single question is ‘stupid’. They make time to impart their knowledge, to always answer questions fully. Their lesson was simple: why shouldn’t you be a part of proceedings, because you’re apparently ‘lower status’ in the immediate surroundings? ‘Lower status’ is but a myth – never mind the snobbery, we’ll laugh about that later! Your job is to ask the questions – and to be curious. You have as much a right to sit at the feet of our leaders as the next reporter. Woe betide trying any form of self-deprecation.

The way I thought about my profession had changed within seconds. That’s how we create a sense of belonging – because mentors are often older, wiser, and know the rules of the game.

To my eternal shame, *ahem*, ‘fan-girling’ found me another mentor. Having recognised one of my favourite writers, a woman I had been talking to offered to introduce us. The overly-enthusiastic, excitable interaction, when recalled, still means I visibly cringe. But since then, they have helped me – such as by sharing my work, offering up advice in private. I used to question why – because why would anyone do that, on the basis of an obnoxious first meeting? All I can do is to hope that one day I’ll be able to re-pay that ‘debt’.

‘Aunty’ is the nickname I have given to another – for being the cool aunt I never had. The cool aunt is the one person who won’t judge you, who you can ask for frank and fair advice, who’ll lend you a tenner when you’re skint.

She can see far more that the surface impression we all project, occasionally to my alarm. Expressing doubts in my capabilities as a journalist in January – there’d been an ‘incident’, I was out of my depth, feeling burnt out and I was tired – she took me aside for a heart to heart, having realised I was masking how upset I was. Acknowledging that it’s a skill to know when to give up, she gave me some of the most valuable advice I’d been given: If it is the right thing to do, you don’t necessarily have to give up, give in. Keep that close as a guiding principle – and don’t you dare let go, not even for a second.

When the world finally stops changing around us, I hope that we’ll be considering fundamental changes to the way our industry works. A diverse media is one that will reflect us all – and to create a media that we deserve will only happen when we all feel like we belong. We have a long way to go, especially when it comes to accessibility – but the first step is by harnessing the power a mentor can offer

Lydia Wilkins runs a newsletter for freelancers and other disabled creatives; having noticed how other Autistic people were being impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic, she set her newsletter up and plans to expand to pay other creatives. Each week she has pitch callouts, resources, and more. The premium version is two extra emails a month – with discounts, access to a resource library, and more.

Lydia has kindly given PressPad readers a 20% discount code on her yearly subscription if you follow this link: https://lydia.substack.com/presspadThis offer is valid until the 30th September.

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