Why is there such a lack of ethnic minority journalists?

Getting ethnic minorities through the door in the media in the first place is not the only problem.

Last month, the NUJ’s Black Members Council (BMC) had its last meeting of 2012. As one of the two student representatives, I had been looking forward it. I joined the BMC to push for a campaign that would encourage students from ethnic minorities into journalism and, after deciding on the first steps of our plan, we seemed to be making some progress. I should have expected disappointment. The union’s equality officer had to deliver the news that after three attempts she still had not been able to contact anyone at the NUS who wanted to help us, though they never failed in finding someone else to pass her onto. The battle-hardened campaigners in the room showed disappointment but little surprise, after all, the BMC was set up precisely because the issues of minorities in the media were too readily sidelined.

The BMC has faced the same type of criticism as similar organisations, such as the Society of Black Lawyers - that they discriminate against white people. I also experienced something similar after getting my first internship, with the Guardian on their Positive Action Scheme. Many of my colleagues in student media did not like the idea because it was an opportunity that was not offered to them based on the colour of their skin. A few of the other people on the scheme had a similar experience, one even had a full blown argument with one of the newspaper's editors. What those others students could not see was that the exclusion they bemoaned is one that affects non-white journalists in the industry as a whole. Their hostility, I assume, was the result of a lack of awareness of an issue which is, after all, hardly treated as important. The New Statesman’s survey of newspapers received nowhere near the amount of attention as the Guardian’s study on the lack of female writers and there’s barely any available data regarding the employment of ethnic minorities; ask most newspapers and broadcasters for some information and they’ll either refuse or conjure up an excuse. We know that there is a general lack of ethnic minority journalists and an even greater paucity of those working specifically in news and politics - as opposed to entertainment and culture - but while only the most deluded of journalists could cast an eye around their newsroom and believe it fairly represents the various elements of British society, it is hard to prove that this is the case.

Facing hostility from other students might seem a trivial matter but it is significant. For one, it definitely dents your confidence to be essentially told that you did not deserve an opportunity but it is also symptomatic of a culture of denial when it comes to dealing with equality in the media. There has been very little direct action taken to encourage ethnic minorities into journalism. The diversity schemes run by the Guardian and the FT automatically become fairer because they are organised internships rather than the more common, arbitrary method of emailing an editor and hoping you will be lucky enough to get a week or two working on their desk, which leaves the door open for nepotism. I worked hard for every bit of experience I have, with no uncle or family friend to get me into placements and a school whose idea of career guidance was to do a google search; the same cannot be said for many of the more privileged students who like to play the victim when they see ethnic minorities given a chance.

But getting ethnic minorities through the door in the first place is not the only problem. Connie St Louis, a fellow member of the BMC and director of City University’s Science Journalism MA, has recently highlighted the problem that the BBC, in particular, have had with retaining ethnic minority journalists. Her report, published in the journal Ethical Space, showed that a total of 75 per cent of ethnic minority staff recruited into BBC news journalism leave during their first five years at the broadcaster. This was something Greg Dyke, the BBC’s former Director General, admitted in 2001, suggesting: “Maybe they don’t feel at home. Maybe they don’t feel welcome.”

His suggestions could actually be confirmed or denied by the BBC if they shared the responses given by departing employees during the exit interviews the organisation conducts however, that information is unfortunately beyond the obligations of a Freedom of Information request. Another example of how we are left guessing instead of being given the information that could be used to build productive solutions.

In the same issue of Ethical Space Bob Satchwell, Director of the Society of Editors, made the point that diversity needed to be prioritised, not simply because there was little progress being made but because, he warned, journalism seems to be “becoming more white, more metropolitan and more middle class.” Very promising.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.