Credit: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

When covering the antisemitic rant of the grime artist Wiley last month, the Guardian has published the piece with a picture of a different black man, rapper Kano. The mix-up was quickly spotted by the readers and the news organisation, which often criticises other newspapers for being racist, has promptly issued an apology.

This episode was one of many in which UK newsrooms that are 94 per cent white were struggling to cover BAME issues or personalities correctly. From BBC memorably confusing two Pakistani cricketers to the Irish newspaper that has mistaken Stormzy for a Manchester United player, journalists are often wrestling with diversity. And sometimes, their conscious or unconscious biases get better of them.

But whether we are talking about race, religion, sexual orientation or disabilities, diversity is about talent management.

"It’s about leveraging the collective wisdom and expertise of the newsroom to be able to produce the best news content that you could wish for," Tamala Chirwa, director of Africa, Women In News (WIN) at the Asian American Journalism Association's N3Con last weekend (29 August 2020).

Although WIN focuses on supporting and amplifying women’s voices in newsrooms on the continent, for Chirwa, diversity is a much broader topic.

Catching mistakes

Although most journalists would be appaled if anyone considered them anything else but objective, the truth is that we all have biases and there is not much we can do about it.

So the next best thing is to create tools and systems that allow newsrooms to include a diverse range of voices to produce the best possible journalism.

Take, for example, this piece by The New York Times on how avocados became a global trade written in 2018.

The publisher has a Slack channel dedicated to diversity where the editorial team can get a second opinion on content from those best placed to comment.

This allowed Carlos Tejada, deputy Asia editor, The New York Times, to flag up that some of the illustrations played too close to Mexican stereotypes. Because of that mechanism and staff awareness, the illustrations teams have since committed to improved standards.

Unearthing gems

The value of diversity is also gaining access to stories and perspectives that would otherwise be missed. For Tejada, a good example is The Times’ 1619 Project, a collection of works which retell American history through the eyes of American slaves. He said that the project would have not been possible without seeking out other viewpoints that are not traditionally represented in the mainstream media.

Although sometimes the lack of diverse voices can be corrected by hiring a range of reporters, covering countries like China is more challenging. The Chinese government places limits on foreign news organisations and their ability to hire domestic correspondents.

That risks creating "blind spots" in news coverage, unless organisations proactively hire journalists with family ties to China, according to Joanna Chiu, reporter for Toronto Star.

In cities like Vancouver which has a substantial Asian demographic, newsrooms are equipped to pick up important stories relevant to different communities by, for example, translating politicians’ WeChat messages to expose racial tensions.

Challenging power structures

As a Canadian reporter with Chinese heritage, Chiu started her career in Hong Kong. During her time there she experienced sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace from foreign correspondents, and has written about it too.

"I felt like foreign correspondents needed to have a #MeToo moment," she says about her experience.

Chiu later founded NüVoices, a directory of more than 600 Chinese women and non-binary experts. Through better representation in media coverage and conference events, she hopes to sustain a broader discussion about this topic.

Breaking the status quo

In 2018, South China Morning Post (SCMP) also recognised that gender representation in its coverage was insufficient. Natalie Koh, news editor, SCMP put together a business plan for equality.

"It’s not fixed but we’re making progress," she says, admitting that while it was the first Asian media company to take such action, it came late in the context of the #MeToo movement a year previous and that western organisations had already put in place similar initiatives.

An audit of the company’s coverage then revealed a troubling state of play: women accounted for 30 per cent of readers. A closer look at editorial practices also revealed that only one in five experts in splash stories and one in six opinon columnists was a woman.

To address the imbalance, SCMP introduced a newsletter inspired by NYT In Her Words and a women expert database much like the NüVoices.

Gender equality was also helped by some big house style changes. For instance, the publisher introduced gender-neutral language: gone are relic terms like 'chairman', now the company uses 'chairperson'. All these changes resulted in female readership rising to 40 per cent.

"It showed the company was willing to break the status quo, which really gave reporters hope not just for gender representation but other minority rights too," she says.

Making a difference

On the other side of the diversity discussion is privilege which many associate with being white, male and straight. In some parts of the world, however, it has other meanings.

India, for instance, is very diverse; it has more than 3,000 caste groups. Yet, the upper castes - which represent a fraction of society - account for the majority of newsroom jobs in English- and Hindi-speaking news organisations.

"The industry has been ignoring it for a long time," says Vinod Jose, executive editor, The Caravan.

The magazine has dedicated positions filled only by people from specific castes, not just to promote "social justice" - though that is the primary reason - but also to improve coverage of its neighbourhoods.

Breaking into journalism

With global audiences now interested in a range of topics, every newsroom needs diverse voices to tell accurate stories.

"If you are interested in issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and different voices, there has never been a better time to be in journalism," concludes Tejada.

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