Credit: Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

It is no secret that the UK news industry is not diverse enough. Recent research has confirmed this: around 90 per cent of the industry is white and holds a university degree, while three quarters of British journalists have parents in high-profile jobs like academics or directors. Long story short, the journalism industry is posher than the general workforce.

It is not great progress for a sector with no shortage of diversity schemes from the likes of PA Media/The Evening Standard, ITV News, BBC News and Reuters. Plus, many news organisations this year have backed the long-established Journalism Diversity Fund (JDF), run by the National Council for the Training for Journalism (NCTJ).

"If the journalism industry can’t get its own house in order, it’s a problem," says Jo Adetunji, the newly appointed editor of The Conversation, an online news and analysis commentary website, speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast.

"It's a reminder to journalists as a profession that we should be opening our eyes to this: we are actually worse than the general workforce, it's a bit of an awakener."

Adetunji herself was a recipient of the JDF back in 2007 and she later held reporter and editor roles at The Guardian and also wrote for The Independent and The Times. She also volunteers on the JDF in shortlisting and interviewing candidates, she sat on the panel for the Cairncross Review into a sustainable future for high-quality journalism in 2019, is a trustee of the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) and a board member of the British Journalism Review.

You will not find many better examples in the UK news industry that diversity schemes do work and can help journalists from diverse backgrounds find their place in the media. There is an appetite for change but diversity schemes are only one tool to make it happen.

An age-old issue

The problem in the pipeline, in Adetunji's view, is that newsrooms historically hire in their own image.

However, there are tools out there that can cut down on biased thinking. In her work with PINF, she is using a recruitment platform called Applied which anonymises the application process to help recruiters hire empirically on merit, skills and experience.

While this can help, it does not resolve the issue of getting diverse candidates to apply in the first place.

Lighting the fuse earlier

One of the main takeaways of the research by the NCTJ is that news organisations are too reliant on university graduate hires.

In recent times, organisations like The Student View and Media Cubs have sought to inspire younger generation of journalists. Adetunji urges the industry to work more closely with schools and colleges to get younger people more interested in journalism as a career path.

She recognised that local newsrooms face significant challenges but also identified that there should be more opportunities for younger people to learn the ropes directly with newsrooms on their doorstops.

A wealth of options

Unfortunately, local news is historically not well paid and this can lead many aspiring journalists to think London is the only place to have a viable career. But it does not have to be that way.

The online space is carving out independent publishers like gal-dem and the Unedited podcast. Adetunji says these are quickly becoming valuable sources of experience for journalists struggling to break into the industry.

Grassroots media is gaining momentum, she adds, but the UK news industry must find a way to make journalism a more sustainable career choice. After all, many candidates are priced out of unpaid work experience.

Assess the state of play

The unique part of The Conversation - besides being a registered charity - is that its writers are all researchers and academics. UK universities have their own issues around diversity of staff and as they are sourcing and commissioning writers from that pool, diverse bylines are hard to come by.

Adetunji is working on a first audit to understand the diversity makeup of the academics The Conversation sources for its stories. The team will then come up with a plan on how to attract more women, BAME and LGBT academics to write for them.

"This will give us the impetus to know how much we at least need to do and build a strategy around what we do next," she says, adding that they will need to think carefully about concerns people from these groups might have about becoming exposed to the public and offering the right levels of support.

Fire in the belly

As we continue to see news organisations hiring amid the coronavirus pandemic, there is an important question to ask: how can candidates from underrepresented backgrounds stand out?

Adetunji says that two things helped her to break into the industry. One was a high work ethic - she would do 16-hour transcription stints to get the experience she needed. But she also needed mentorship and guidance from industry pros that she gained during her early years. That will often give you the push you need to be bolder.

Fledgling reporters need to have the experience they can sell to the editor. But better than that, ideas and evidence they can think for themselves can open the doors.

Pester and pester again

Editors like Adetunj want to, in fact, see more proactivity. She does not get as many DMs and emails as she would like from young reporters. Taking the plunge to hit send can make all the difference, though do not expect everyone to reply.

"When someone is proactive, you want to help. Whether that’s pointing them in the right direction or keeping them on file for a job.

"I would love to see more approaches even if I can’t help at that point. [I want to be] able to spot those people and think about them in the future."

Do not miss our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired, with four days of panels and workshops from 19 October 2021. Check out the full agenda and tickets

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