2020 has pulled stories about race into the spotlight, from coverage around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to racially motivated attacks surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
But even in a year with so many important stories about race, the British media has a poor track record of getting it right, as heard at IMPRESS' Trust in Journalism conference this week.
The problem starts with the lack of diversity in the newsrooms as highlighted in recent studies by Women In Journalism (WIJ). For one week in July this year - at the high of BLM protests - WIJ scoured every major British newspaper, prime-time TV news show and prime time news coverage. Its findings were telling.
Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (under)representation in British media
The study found that diversity was missing from both the reporting and sourcing of news stories: not a single black reporter was featured on the front page of any of the newspapers, and out of 111 people quoted on the front pages, just one was a black woman (Jen Reid, quoted in The Guardian after a statue of her was erected in the place of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol).
Now that is the reality of British newspapers but other news formats have not fared much better. Newsnight failed to include single non-white expert guest and every prime-time presenter on LBC was white.
Another problem is that when diverse voices are featured, it is largely for specific stories: out of all BAME expert guest appearances on TV, more than half were in the context of coverage either directly related to race, such as for topics involving colonialism and Black Lives Matter, or during coverage of black and BAME communities.
For Marc Wadsworth, journalist and chair of the National Union of Journalists' Black Members Council, progress around on-screen representation (around 30 per cent diversity), does not make up for wider failings in the media.
"That's the window dressing, I'm interested to know what's happening in the engine room and who runs the engine," he says.
A US perspective on reporting on racial injustice
The death of George Floyd at the hands of US police dominated the news this year. Cierra Hinton, is the executive director-publisher of non-profit media organisation Scalawag and co-director of media collective Press On. She provided a US perspective on how the media covered this story.
The US is in a process of reconciliation, Hinton said, acknowledging and apologising for where its coverage has gone awry in an attempt to rebuild trust with communities. But the tone and priorities changed once journalists started getting arrested. The narrative deviated from the core issue of police brutality to mass calls for journalists protection.
"Why were we not calling for this with same level of gumption when it was regular people? Why does our title as journalists set us apart? That epitomised the vibe and the gap we have between journalists and the community," she explains.
Inflammatory reporting that affects human lives
"The media is responsible for formulating public opinions," says Rizwana Hamid, director at The Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM).
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, hate crimes towards Chinese people have soared in the UK.
The media, the panel agreed, needs to be held to higher and stricter standards.
Hamid said that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) needs to re-evaluate code 12 (discrimination) and called for better scrutiny of comment and opinion pieces run by media organisations.
Wadsworth agreed and added that regulatory bodies themselves need to be more inclusive to advance this conversation further and make it a priority.
"They’re dominated by white, male, middle-class editors and their friends," he says.
What else can be done?
Solutions can come from within, Hinton said. Diverse newsrooms can push for better internal standards, so long as there are collectively agreed practices in place.
"A smart starting point is aligning on shared language, if you're talking about equity or anti-racism, what are we talking about?" she asks.
"Those words have become buzzwords lately: do people know what they mean in practice? Take [people on] their own development journey so that [they do not carry biases] when it is time to come around on process, policy and standards."
Wadsworth encouraged anyone, including journalists, to be proactive about vocalising issues within media standards towards racial topics.
"I would like to see a mass movement of civil insurgency of people complaining and using the mechanisms that exist," he says.
But Hamid added there is individual responsibility to contend with. Ultimately, journalists should uphold the true standards of accurate and responsible journalism.
"Go beyond presenting the so-called 'other'. Black, Asian or any minority person is not black and white, they have nuances. Normalise people with all their shades, include people beyond who you identify them with," she concludes.
Join us at our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired from 1 December 2020 for four days of industry expert panel discussions and workshops. Visit newsrewired.com for event agenda and tickets.
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