Not an anomaly: on diversifying data journalism

Aasma Day, Lancashire Post investigative reporter, on why we should diversify stories and the newsroom

Data journalism should not only reflect the diversity of the society it is writing about, it also needs to consider the diversity of the journalists who are hunting, gathering and processing that data, argues Aasma Day, investigative reporter and Lifestyle Editor at the Lancashire Post.

This chapter was commissioned by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and appears in the forthcoming book Data Journalism: Past, Present and Future (Abramis, 2017). It is also published on the Media Diversified website. 

Like all forms of journalism, data journalism and the processing and analysing of information aims to bring important information to light and to be a voice for the voiceless. Data journalism is often deployed in the coverage of issues such as health, crime and education.

As such, data journalists need to utilise information that reflects the ethnic diversity of the country. But data journalism still has storytelling at its heart and talking to the people behind the data is imperative. Editors also need to consider the diversity of data journalists; indeed, we need to shatter the stereotypical image many hold of data journalists being white males.

There are many examples of great work in data journalism. For instance, data collected by the Guardian in its “Counted” project was used by a US government pilot programme to count killings by police. They revealed the numbers were much higher than previously thought with the new method of counting “arrest related deaths”. The controversy over the government’s dearth of official data on killings by police followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, which led to riots across the US in August 2014.

Significantly, the Guardian’s data revealed that black males aged 15-34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers in 2016. They were also killed at four times the rate of young white men.

Data gathered from police forces in the UK has also revealed that hate crimes involving racial and religious discrimination have risen at an unprecedented rate since the Brexit referendum. According to a report in the Independent, the number of [some forms of] hate crimes recorded by regional police forces rose by up to 100 per cent in the months following the Brexit vote in June 2016.

The Grenfell Tower blaze on 14 June 2017 shocked the nation and controversy still surrounds the actual death toll. Many of the tenants killed and affected by the inferno were from black and ethnic minority groups and it is feared unaccounted-for migrants may also be among the dead. According to Labour MP David Lammy, the true figure of the numbers killed in the inferno may have been covered-up due to fears of riots. Data journalists will certainly be at the heart of media operations documenting and displaying the true figures – once they come to light.

There are many other areas where data journalism plays its part in focusing on injustice, unfairness and discrimination against people from minorities. For instance, statistics recently emerged showing how massively under-represented ethnic minorities are in television commercials with black, Asian and other minority group actors appearing in only five per cent of almost 35,000 advertisements in a year. Actors from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were mostly likely to feature in government campaigns. Jabeer Butt, chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation, commented: “No one would want to stifle creativity by suggesting that we have to have a certain percentage of black and minority ethnic people portrayed in ads. However, these statistics suggest that advertisers are missing an opportunity to reach a growing segment of consumers.”

Moreover, data from the Organ Donation and Transplantation Activity Report, published by NHS Blood and Transplant, revealed that three out of ten patients on the UK’s active kidney transplant waiting list were from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. However, only 23 per cent of patients who received a kidney transplant were from these communities and, on average, they had to wait a year longer for a transplant than a white patient. [The report blamed the delay on a shortage of BAME donors, saying: “As only a small percentage (5%) of deceased donors are from BAME communities, this can delay a suitably matched organ being found for BAME patients.”]

While issues relating to race and discrimination are important and must be reported on, data journalists of all races, ethnicities, religions and backgrounds should be able to report on them and shed a light on them. The whole ethos of being a journalist means being able to dig into any topic, research it and then report on it in a balanced and accurate way regardless of your own personal viewpoint or background or whether these issues have personally affected you.

Aasma Day Aasma Day

The gaps and what we are losing

Homogeneity is a huge issue in an industry which aims to inform an increasingly diverse society. Having different viewpoints and voices is valuable for newsroom diversity and reflects the world we live in better. Simultaneously, the more diverse an organisation, the more creative it is and, in my view, newsrooms are definitely losing out by strangling all those different voices.

I firmly believe there is a need for greater diversity in journalism, but it shouldn’t just be restricted to ethnicity or faith beliefs. Diversity is more than skin colour or religion and should emulate society by incorporating gender, age, social background, sexual orientation and disability. Newsrooms should aim to reflect the world they report about and the audiences they serve – while still retaining the values of hiring the best person for the job.

It may be this means those hiring need to change their mind-set and, instead of looking for journalists identical to those they already employ, take a risk by hiring someone talented yet different. The mainstream media at present fail to reflect accurately the diversity of the community and if the role of journalists is to hold the powerful to account, expose corruption and give a voice to the voiceless, how can they do that with only a limited viewpoint?

Front page story by Aasma Day via the Lancashire Evening Post

Lack of diversity in newsrooms: the data

When I first entered the journalism profession at the age of 21, not only was I a fresh-faced graduate, I was the only brown-faced journalist in the newsroom with one black reporter who left about a year after I joined. Fast forward almost 19 years and while I have seen many journalists come and go, not one has been from a black or ethnic minority background and I remain the sole Asian journalist at my newspaper.

Does this make me feel singled out or bereft in any way? Does it affect my day-to-day work or am I ingrained with an overwhelming desire to be surrounded by colleagues with the same colour face as me? Absolutely not, as I judge people on their personalities and the way they treat me, not by the colour of their skin. Nor do I believe there is any conspiracy at play as I know very few numbers of people from these communities, if any, have applied for vacancies over this passage of time.

On a daily basis, it isn’t even something that enters my thoughts. It is only when you stop and consider the statistics relating to the levels of diversity that you realise how troubling the figures are. My personal experience is not an anomaly. Nationwide, there is a real lack of diversity in newsrooms and journalists are less ethnically diverse than the workforce as a whole.

The Journalists at Work 2012 report, by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), revealed 95 per cent of journalists are white compared to 91 per cent of the UK workforce as a whole. However, the figures are even more disturbing when considering the large concentration of journalists based in London and the South East, some of the most diverse areas of the country. Compared to the 2002 Journalists at Work report, there had only been a drop of two per cent of journalists from a white ethnic background. The report states:

Journalists are less ethnically diverse than the workforce as a whole – 94 per cent are white compared to 91 per cent overall. This is particularly surprising, given that we might expect journalists to have a higher proportion of non-whites because they are predominantly located either in London or other urban centres where the proportion of people from ethnic minorities is much higher. For example, the 2011 census data suggests that 59.8 per cent of London’s population is white, with 18.5 per cent being Asian/Asian British and 13.3 per cent Black/African.

Social class also has a bearing on people becoming journalists. The [2012] Journalists at Work report states: ‘There remains concern that journalism is an occupation where social class impacts on the likelihood of entering the profession. As in 2002, young people entering journalism are likely to need financial support from their families.’ Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University and former editor of the Independent and New Statesman, who wrote the foreword for the report, stated:

“Ethnic diversity remains troublingly low, especially for an industry where more than half of those employed work in London and the south-east. The parents of journalists tend themselves to work in higher status jobs. Unpaid internships are common and levels of student debt are much higher than 10 years ago.”

The NCTJ report is not the only one highlighting a dearth in diversity in the profession. Journalists in the UK, published in 2016 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that “UK journalism has a significant diversity problem in terms of ethnicity with Black Britons, for example, under-represented by a factor of more than ten.”

The researchers compared their data with the 2011 census and discovered that, apart from Jews and Buddhists, people from all religious groups are under-represented amongst UK journalists.

Muslims are the most under-represented with just 0.4 per cent of British journalists of this religion even though almost 5 per cent of the UK population is Muslim. Hindus and Christians are the next most under-represented with 0.4 per cent of Hindu journalists compared to a 1.4 per cent Hindu population and 31.6 per cent Christian journalists in comparison to a 64.4 per cent Christian population in the UK. However, the research also stated 74 per cent of UK journalists felt religion was of little or no importance. [The report noted, furthermore, that 61 per cent of journalists do not have a religion, compared to 28 per cent of the general population.]

The same study, when looking at ethnicity, found black Britons made up just 0.2 per cent of UK journalists but represent around three per cent of the British population. In a similar vein, Asian Britons represent around seven per cent of the UK population but just 2.5 per cent of the report’s sample. All these statistics make shocking reading and even for those journalists like me, who have not experienced discrimination in the workplace, it begs the question: why aren’t more ethnically diverse journalists entering the profession?

Front page by Aasma Day via the Lancashire Evening Post

Not just a box-ticking exercise

In Journalists in the UK, published in 2016 by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, journalists from ethnic minority backgrounds completing a survey revealed how they felt that cultural expectations and social connections were part of what prevented more Asians going into journalism. The report states:

Traditional familial ambitions for children to go into ‘“respected professions” like “medicine, engineering and dentistry” make journalism a second-tier career and because journalism is highly competitive it requires “either a lot of luck or someone you know” and “Asian parents often don’t know anyone in the media”.

Let’s say you somehow manage to overcome all these mountains and accomplish your dream of becoming a journalist. Well done! But for some, the battle is far from over. No one wants to be the “token Asian or black journalist”, or part of a box-ticking exercise. Professional pride means we all want to be hired and promoted on merit. Nor should being black or from an ethnic minority background dictate the kind of stories you are expected to cover. I personally feel very strongly that I don’t want to be seen as an Asian journalist, but as a journalist who happens to be Asian.

It is about wanting your work, skills and talents to speak louder than the colour of your skin and not wanting what’s on the outside as being seen as your sole identity. It is certainly a fine balancing act between not wanting to be overlooked, but not asking for any special treatment or favours either.

Data journalism: Fixing on the positives

Thus, while it is right and critically important that data journalists draw attention to disparities, wrongdoings and prejudices, however uncomfortable, there is a danger that they focus on the differences rather than promoting inclusion: in other words, there is a risk of perpetually painting people from minorities as the victims, or further segregating them from society.

Instead of fixating on the negatives when it comes to diversity, data journalism needs to shine a spotlight on the positives too and be all-embracing. Future data projects, then, could look at the beneficial impact diversity and different voices make to society and communities and the human tales behind the numbers. The ultimate goal needs to be data journalism created by diverse journalists which is engaging and compelling enough to be consumed by diverse readerships from all walks of life. If data journalists are to lead the industry in innovation, they should be leading the trade to be inclusive and diverse.

This article was published with the social enterprise, Media Diversified

This article appears as a chapter in the book Data Journalism: Past, Present and Future (Abramis, 2017). You can buy the book on Amazon here and get tickets for the launch event on November 9, here.

Aasma Day is a multi-award winning journalist and investigative reporter and Lifestyle Editor at the Lancashire Post based in Preston. She is also a member of the Journalists’ Advisory Panel for the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).