Articles - 21st May 2019

A Diversity Crisis: The state of newspaper journalism today

Words by Salma Haidrani
Illustration by Haley Tippmann

You’d think that when Professor Adrian Bingham alleged in Tabloid Century: The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the present that the modern press is unable to represent the diversity of modern Britain back in 2005, much would have changed a decade onwards. But the radical overhaul of the modern British press is yet to happen: a cursory glance of the average magazine cover today – of the ones that have survived – rarely reflects the diversity of contemporary Britain. The same can be said for the average writer in the mainstream journalism industry: there are few voices that are trans, Muslim or of working-class backgrounds. Though the likes of The Guardian and i newspaper respectively have made much-needed strides to diversify its newsrooms, columnists, and writers, this is by no means reflective of the mainstream press at present, especially the right-wing press.

Conversely, the digital media landscape – in particular the seemingly unstoppable rise of digital women’s media in the mid 2010s – was significantly more accessible, providing myself and countless other journalists with unrivalled opportunities to write on areas of interest at best reserved for senior staff at newspapers and at worst, entirely erased from mainstream discourse.

In October 2015, The Evening Standard ran an article introducing the women behind what they dubbed ‘the slickest new feminist websites’: The Pool, The Debrief and Broadly. At the time of going freelance during April 2016, it was seemingly a golden time to pitch unashamedly feminist, female-focused articles. Articles on these sites ranged from how Islamophobia can hurt Muslim women the most to a feminist take on British housing policy.

These sites provided me with a platform to pen articles that the mainstream press – in particular newspapers – might have been reluctant to commission or considered too ‘controversial’ to publish. In January 2016, I wrote an exclusive on the UK’s first halal sex shop for Broadly. Several months later, I wrote about the challenges Muslim women with eating disorders face the world over during the Islamic holy month of fasting. That same year, I penned pieces for The Debrief on the realities of being young, British and Muslim in the aftermath of a terror attack and an investigation of female survivors of honour-based violence from the UK’s South Asian community, some of whom live in anonymity in Britain. The latter was awarded ‘Best Feature’ at the End Violence Against Women Media Awards in November 2016.

It’s disheartening then that The Pool and The Debrief have since closed down, not least because these publications offered me opportunities to make a living from journalism entirely from my bedroom despite having limited contacts in the industry at the time. Perhaps more pertinently, its closure has come to signify that identical opportunities don’t exist for WoC, working-class Muslim women like me today. Access to journalism seems as exclusive as it ever was: after all, the profession was found to be 94% white, 55% male and overwhelmingly dominated by journalists who are privately educated.

Though Cosmopolitan, for one, has defied the expectations in an era that’s seen the women’s weekly market circulation slump year-on-year  – the publication saw a 60% circulation boost in 2016, its success story remains in the minority. There’s no doubt that digital women’s media’s heyday seems to be relegated to the mid-2010s. Digital media might seem like it’s at its peak but there are few opportunities to write for publications as more digital titles shut down. (Who remembers the now much-maligned xoJane?)

Freelancers too have to contend with significantly lower incomes than their full-time counterparts and consequently have to rely on state benefits. Is the journalism industry as out of reach as it was a decade ago? It seems so.

It’s optimistic though that a number of sites like Amaliah and gal-dem have set up their own spaces to serve their respective communities. The latter, written by WoC and non-binary people, publishes a weekly ‘Race Review’, an in-depth insight into stories that might have passed readers by over the last week. Its output, too, is centred on PoC, from its news articles and features centring on the implications Brexit could have on their audience, for one.

Amaliah, a media platform that amplifies the voices of Muslim women founded by businesswoman and sisters Nafisa and Selina Bakkar, also reflects the needs of its audience across the UK, from pieces as far-ranging as travelling abroad while visibly Muslim, colourism to halal dating and heartbreak.

But while the likes of Amaliah and gal-dem provide a place for journalists of diverse colours, classes and faiths to have a stake in journalism, is this the way forward? Must the onus entirely be on women and PoC to set up their own spaces as the mainstream won’t accommodate us? Or will segregated spaces online remain the only option? Perhaps the answer lies in an industry-wide shift and radical overhaul of the industry. Paid internships, for one, and trainee schemes beyond postgraduate programmes could do much to encourage PoC, faith groups and those from working-class backgrounds that journalism can be – and is – within their reach.

It’s this that Cosmopolitan has recognised: the magazine launched a paid four-month-long internships on the publication’s features, beauty, art and fashion teams in partnership with the app Spare Room. At the time of its announcement, editor Farrah Storr said: “We believe that everyone, no matter where they live or what their background, deserves a fair chance to follow their dream career. Four outstanding individuals…will each be personally mentored by senior editors while living in central London rent-free for the whole month.” Though it’s an applaudable initiative and could play a significant role in ensuring journalism becomes more democratic, depressingly, it seems to be one of the only opportunities available.

The harmful rhetoric the mainstream press continues to disseminate in a socio-turbulent political climate could also do much to improve its standing in the public eye. At present, the UK news media is the least trusted in Europe to ‘get the facts rights’ and ‘cover important stories of the day’. The recent report also found that only 48% trust our press, closely followed by Spain at 55%.

Transphobia, for one, has run rampant in the UK media and sees no signs of abating. 2018 saw newspapers running full page-ads blasting trans rights reforms at the time of the public consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. As cis writers took to mainstream platforms expressing fear and scaremongering, transpeople’s voices – the group whose views are rarely, if ever, consulted – were entirely erased from the debate. This week too saw The Times’ front page accompanied with the headline: “Calls to end transgender ‘experiment on children’”. Meanwhile, its online counterpart writes “It feels like conversion therapy for gay children, say clinicians”.

Islamophobia, too, has been an uncomfortable and ever-present feature of the mainstream press, made even more insidious in a climate that’s seen anti-Muslim hate crimes skyrocketing in the aftermath of terror attacks. One headline of a right-wing newspaper ran ‘UK mosques fundraising for terror’. Another ran ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’. On both occasions, IPSO ruled that these were significantly misleading – but there are innumerable more stories that remain unaccounted for and are a routine part of scrolling through Twitter or the average Brit’s early morning commute.

It’s unsurprising that a press that represents so little of the UK – cis, middle-class, Caucasian – has seen its circulation and significance dwindling. When the UK is seeing greater diversity in terms of gender, sexual and racial identities while its hateful rhetoric alienates allies, what could remotely incentivise us to purchase its weekend edition or a year-long subscription if we’re inevitably going to be confronted by ‘othering’ and scare-mongering?

Fortunately, the likes of Broadly have recently counteracted hysterical transphobia. The site has championed its trans and non-binary readers since its formation and a month ago launched The Gender Spectrum Collection, a gender-inclusive stock photo library available to the public. This marks the first publication of any kind to create a free photo library featuring trans and non-binary models that seek to better represent members of these communities.

Can newspapers’ future be saved if transpeople and Muslims are actively sought out to become part of their workforce? (Less than 0.5% of journalists in the UK are Muslim, which could account for why Islamophobic headlines can go unchallenged.) Or refusing to hire or commission journalists and columnists renowned for being actively hateful towards these respective communities? Or commissioning stories from those that belong to vulnerable communities in Britain that reflect and take into account their lived experiences? That remains unclear, but I’d wager it could to some extent contribute to the longevity of the British newspaper industry.

Fourteen years on since Bingham’s scathing appraisal of the modern British press, we might be seeing – and have seen – change but it remains slow. If the modern press no longer becomes a byword for hateful rhetoric, otherizes already vulnerable communities in the UK and employs a more diverse workforce, perhaps then there could be longevity. I’m not entirely convinced.

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