Credit: Photo by GeoJango Maps on Unsplash

The UK press is still dominated by white, upper class, and university-qualified journalists, according to last week's NCTJ Diversity in Journalism report. The question next should be: what needs to change?

There has been some movement since last year's report. Based on a sample of 108k journalists in the 2021 Labour Force Survey (LFS) data, white journalists occupy 87 per cent of roles (down from 92 per cent last year, a figure that was 90 per cent in 2016). The NCTJ noted, however, that this was not too far from what is seen at a general UK economy level, which is 86 per cent white.

Ethnicity, as well as sex (53 per cent male versus 47 per cent female), age (nine per cent under 25, through to 35 per cent over 50), health and disability (19 per cent have limiting health problems) do not throw up many disparities compared to the general outlook.

However, stark differences are evident around the representation of class and educational background.

The UK press remains reliant on hiring university graduates. Twice as many journalists (32 per cent) hold level five qualifications as the UK general economy (15 per cent). Just 11 per cent of the news industry does not hold a university degree (level three or below), compared to the 51 per cent in the general economy.

The UK press also remains very upper class. Five per cent of journalists' parents work in the skilled trade sector, four times less (20 per cent) than what is seen in the country generally. Furthermore, 80 per cent of journalists' parents work within the top three professions, nearly twice as many (42 per cent) as the rest of the economy.

Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the NCTJ, told via email that most employers recruit new entrants from the graduate talent pool rather than school leavers who need support and training. Part of the problem is making journalism an appealing career choice; the other part of the problem is making it a viable one.

Butcher said that this is an issue the NCTJ needs to solve with universities, in order to simply get more students from lower social class backgrounds into their lecture halls and to become employable. Its Journalism Diversity Fund and Community News Project have aimed to do this. But employers also need to do their part and "examine their recruitment and career development practices".

Dr Rebecca Montacute, senior research and policy manager at the Sutton Trust, an educational charity to improve social mobility, said via email that the prevalence of unpaid internships in the media is likely a key issue here.

"Young people who cannot afford to work without pay are locked out of these crucial opportunities, which provide young people with the networks and experience that are increasingly needed to progress. Working as a freelance journalist can also be precarious and may act as a barrier for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may lack the financial and social safety nets required by unpredictable work," she says.

“Much more needs to be done to improve socioeconomic diversity in journalism and break down the barriers facing those from lower income homes."

Going above and beyond

Rhotic Media is a specialist business journalism agency serving the financial services, technology and media industries. It also has a varity of youth development schemes.

Rhotic, based in London, conducts outreach programmes with local schools and colleagues, such as Chelmsford College. During the pandemic, it provided videos on what a day in the newsroom looks like, and it has now restarted doing physical, one-hour seminars, showing soon-to-be school leavers how to break into the industry, what qualifications they need, the realities of the job and the competition for places.

For those who cannot - or do not - want to go full-time at university, it offers a three-year degree apprenticeship as a pay-while-you-learn scheme. It offers that through two universities, London Southbank University and University of Central Lancashire. Those on the course spend one day in college, one day studying and three days in the newsroom.

The course is focused on content creation, while the newsroom role teaches them on-the-job skills like article and feature writing, plus media law training through visiting experts.

The salary also exceeds the standard national apprenticeship wage (£6.83 for 18-to-20-year-olds). Apprentices get £20k per annum for the first year on the course, rising £1k per year until they graduate. Once they finish the course, they are automatically employed at £25k per year. Rhotic currently has two apprentices on the editorial side of the business, and three more on other departments under the same model.

Rhotic also offers paid internships. One of those who has come through the scheme is Fraser Harding, who now works with FT Strategies. Harding was on the national living wage during his final year of university, where he was doing one days' work a week for a six-month period. It has continued the internships now through the 1000 Black Internship Programme, a partnering scheme to get more diverse talent into a variety of industries, including the media.

Two of Rhotic's recent apprentices also never had university degrees, but hiring them was possible through the UK Government's Kickstart scheme (which refunds 25 hours of work at minimum wage if employers take on 16-to-24-year-olds on benefits; Rhotic chose to pay more than the necesary wage). One of those apprentices goes full-time next month and will be hired on a £25k salary, without prior work experience and working remotely.

"It just takes consideration," says Rhotic's founder Joe McGrath, adding that employers need to go above and beyond to make industry jobs viable for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

"From a journalism perspective, it’s really important we have an industry of journalists who are representative of society so that they understand what society’s problems are. With that, they have a natural tendency to question things that don’t seem right to them."

He adds that an important question remains which universities offer degree apprenticeships. Many employers will simply look to elite universities, which does nothing to address the socioeconomic disparities in journalism.

"There is this snobbery about institution types that still exist, the elite universities as they are so labelled, are the ones that employers tend to look at and certain employers still do to this today.

"It would be helpful if there was some kind of government mandate which urged all universities to offer a degree of tuition in that manner because, at this moment in time, that’s not the case."

Ethnicity in senior journalism roles

These are a few ideas to address socioeconomic disparity, but it is far from the only issue.

For the first time, the NCTJ's diversity in Journalism report broke down the difference in representation at an editor and journalist level.

A glaring issue that revealed is that ethnicity in senior journalism roles is at a worrying low: just 10 per cent of editor roles belong to non-white people (plus 14 per cent of journalists' roles are non-white). It means there is a real struggle to promote or retain ethnic representation internally within the industry.

For Lester Holloway, editor of The Voice, Britain's only Black newspaper, the report poses more questions than answers. A simple 'white versus non-white' criteria does not offer employers the roadmap they need to put in place a meaningful plan. He said, via email, that newsrooms everywhere need to stop and recognise how to take action - individually and collectively.

"It matters because these decisions determine which stories get "have legs" that get lots of follow-up day-after-day, and make their way up the political agenda, and which ones don't.

"Editors and news editors pick who gets a voice, and who gets opinion columns - and I'm not aware of a single regular African or Caribbean columnist in the nationals in Britain.

"As far as the 'how' is concerned, it's simple; hire the diverse talent that's out there. We know it's out there because of the sheer volume of BAME journalists emerging out of higher education or with NCTJs.

"On the basis that there is no talent deficit in any community (to believe there is, is racist) there is no excuse for BAME communities to be under-represented given how large the talent pool is. Journalism needs to stop hiring people in their own image, scrap the invisible criteria which can be laden with value-judgements that count against BAME talent like "likeability" and being a "good cultural fit".

Are these benchmarks even the best ones we could be using? Is it enough for journalism to simply be in line with what we see in other sectors and industries? Should journalism lead the way for change? The NCTJ report shows there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Network with your peers and learn from industry experts at our upcoming digital journalism conference Newsrewired, taking place on 24 May at News UK's stunning 17th-floor building in London. Do not miss our panel how can we best train and retain the journalists of the future? which will address many of the questions in this article. Grab your ticket today

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