Credit: Knight Foundation, via Flickr

When Hannah Ajala, journalist and founder of We Are Black Journos, was a rookie reporter covering the Nigerian election for a BBC radio programme, she was asked to interview a Nigerian commentator "without a strong Nigerian accent". When she asked what that actually meant - Ajala herself is a Nigerian - her (white) editor turned bright red and gasped: "Oh, do you think I’m a racist?"

You will be hard-pressed to find a black journalist in the UK who has not got a similar story to share. It is hardly a surprise as for decades, rules around the news events we cover, stories we tell and voices we listen to have been shaped by white journalists.

The death of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a long-overdue debate about racism not outside but inside our newsrooms. With British journalism being overwhelmingly white - 94 per cent according to an oft-cited NCTJ report - the conversation is uncomfortable, upsetting and difficult. But we owe it to our audiences and to our colleagues.

Our traditional and sometimes outdated news values are shaping our reporting and determine how we serve our audiences. The UK media is still reckoning with systemic racism, as demonstrated recently when TV presenter Fiona Lamdin used the n-word twice in recent BBC broadcast.

In a recent event held by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Hannah Ajala was joined by broadcaster and academic Marverine Duffy and co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education Martin Reynolds, to speak about the reality of racism in the newsroom.

Not racist vs. anti-racist

Most journalists would be appalled if anyone called them racists. We pride ourselves on being impartial, objective, and holding the powerful to account. But what happens when the roles are reversed? When we are the ones in the position of privilege, failing to see what is going on around us because we are looking in a different direction?

"I’ve had my own awakening around the work that we do," says Reynolds. "The systems that we often report on but don’t necessarily challenge have seeped into our journalism institutions and we are now having that explicit conversation and saying that in a way that hasn’t been said in the American mainstream press in my entire two decades in this work."

When you belong, you can feel it in your bones.Martin Reynolds, Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

Many organisations are now striving for diversity, especially on screen. But bringing non-white journalists into our newsroom is not the same thing as including them in our teams on an equal footing - most non-white journalists feel tolerated but not welcome. Reynolds called for creating “institutions of belonging” besides the aspiration of inclusion, equity and diversity.

"When you belong, you can feel it in your bones, you can feel it when you look around and see that you have the ability to influence change, help make decisions, that you are not the only one and that the gaze has shifted. It’s not merely a gaze of the dominant group, but it’s a kaleidoscope of gazes that reflect our diverse world."

The move from non-racist to anti-racist means moving on from merely witnessing inequality to being allies. In plain terms, we commit to supporting journalists who are in a less privileged position as it is not only a decent thing to do but it also allows us to better serve our audiences.

Performative diversity

Marverine Duffy, journalist, broadcaster and director of undergraduate journalism courses at Birmingham City University stressed the importance of acceptance, acknowledgement and willingness to understand and report on race, perspectives and narratives, and appreciate the intersection of those stories rather than ticking diversity boxes.

This also includes diversity internships that proliferated in recent years. Except for a few, most schemes have had a questionable impact as interns are often underpaid and newsrooms lack senior staffers who can - and are willing to - mentor the younger generation.

This does not only reflect poorly on the organisations themselves, funders of these media diversity programmes should also be held to account and examine their impact and outcome. Hiring black journalists is the least an organisation can do - not the most - and this "performative diversity" ultimately does not help cultivate young talent.

Changing the media’s role in stereotyping

Reporting on heavily loaded subjects that affect black people without perpetuating racial stereotypes can still feel like a minefield.

"I think it’s historic," says Duffy. "We can take it back to all the descriptions of black people from the African continent being inhuman, being treated as slaves, as chattels."

Since the 1970s and 1980s, she went on, the media has not really changed the vocabulary that reinforces these ingrained stereotypes. "We are the troublemakers, we are the violent criminals, we are the people living in poverty."

So why are we still stuck in the past? Duffy said that some media simply have not got the incentive to change as perpetuating racial stereotypes is rather in line with the preferences of their right-leaning audiences.

So what is the role of objectivity?

When the protests began in the US, a number of black journalists were pulled off a story because of the perception that their reporting on civil rights may be biased, said Reynolds. Ironically, few white reporters have encountered the same treatment.

He added that journalistic objectivity probably never existed, by the logic that if black journalists are biased when reporting on news about black communities, white journalists would never be able to cover anything since reporting has historically been done through their gaze.

"Stop telling your students to be objective based on how they align across the social fault lines of race, class, gender, generation, geography, sexual orientation; those fault lines shape how we see the world. This is why two people can look at the same thing and come away with very different perceptions of what they just saw."

What we can manage, though, is our subjectivity. Our lived experience shapes what we see and it can help us bring context to a story, to provide nuances and see angles that others may not pay attention to. We can become better - not worse - storytellers.

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Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakingly mentioned that Lucy Worsley recently used the n-word in a BBC programme twice. This was in fact a separate incident that took place in 2019.

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