What journalism is and what it does has a profound effect on the society we aim to reflect and inform. Our discourse and decisions around immigration, inequality, crime – frankly everything – would be entirely different if they weren’t shaped by the “white gaze” of newsrooms.
That’s why it is no longer enough to cling to vague claims of being “non-racist”. If we want to give real meaning to our warm words about diversity and inclusion, we have to be explicitly and actively anti-racist. What’s more, we have to back that up with genuine commitment, resources and actions, and we need to do that now.
Those were the key messages from our Open Newsroom, “Decolonising News: Confronting Journalism’s Role in Systemic Racism”. The fact that more than 500 people engaged with the event shows that there is an appetite and a will for change and that we’re at a point where we have to turn words into deeds.
As panellist Martin Reynolds, from the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, puts it: “Are we going to be sustainers, creators, deniers, facilitators or dismantlers of systemic racism?” It’s clear that if we are not going to be dismantlers, then we’re complicit in, or authors of, the devastating harm caused by racism. It’s a moral choice and it is time to pick a side.
To do that, we need to transform the culture in our newsrooms and create what Reynolds calls “institutions of belonging”. We need to move from a situation where many journalists of colour feel like they’re tolerated, but not welcome, to one where they know they belong. “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, and that you are not the only one and 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.”
Marverine Duffy, TV presenter and reporter, and director of undergraduate journalism courses at Birmingham City University, explained what it feels like to not belong. “We’ve all sat in those meetings where you feel you can’t give anything of yourself or your own experience… and that experience is damaging.
“That comes from you having to crush your thoughts, your views, your perspectives… your brain is thinking about every story from a white-gaze perspective.”
That extent of the white gaze has led to racism being amplified or invoked even by the BBC. Hannah Ajala, journalist and founder of We Are Black Journos, says that she always asks who was in the room when she sees things like the “N word” being used on BBC News. If decision makers don’t reflect or represent the audience, then mistakes like that are almost inevitable. She also described casual and routine racism, such as requests for Nigerian contributors to not have a strong Nigerian accent.
When it came to ways in which some of those issues might be addressed, the panellists all expressed concerns about the focus on diversity internships as the go-to solution, while at the same time experienced journalists of colour are leaving the industry because they don’t feel valued, recognised or supported. Carla Murphy’s research on the experiences of journalists of colour who’ve left the industry lays the blame squarely at the door of journalism organisations for failing to provide a safe space. Until newsrooms can provide structured, supportive, non-extractive opportunities, then for Duffy these internships are nothing more than “performative diversity”.
It’s clear that we need change – and everyone in the industry needs to be part of that transformation. We should be under no illusions about who needs to do the work in this, though. White newsroom leaders need to commit to this change, understand the roles they and their organisations play in creating and sustaining racism, and work to change that. If we accept that there is racial inequality in newsrooms, then we must also accept that the only way that will change is for white people in leadership roles to share their power with journalists of colour.
At the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, we are committed to building a collaborative community and identifying meaningful actions we can all take as an industry. Among the key issues identified at our Open Newsroom were the following:
- We need to be explicitly anti-racist and back that up with genuine resources and commitment
- White newsroom leaders need to commit to the work and redress inequalities of power
- We need to create “institutions of belonging” where newsrooms are truly safe spaces for journalists of colour
- We need to focus on listening to, caring for and giving power to mid-career journalists of colour
- We need to amplify the voices of journalists of colour who have previously had to “press themselves down” to fit in
- We need more journalists of colour in both business and editorial decision-making roles
- We need to create and strengthen cross-newsroom networks to provide support for journalists of colour and ensure there is change
We hope that other newsrooms will sign up to these commitments and to encourage this we have published our own next steps as an organisation – you can read them in full here.
Additional actions we might take came up in the conversation or were suggested by attendees in feedback. These include:
- A cross-newsroom buddy system through which journalists of colour might support each other, and white journalists could “sense check” their reporting and approach
- Cross-newsroom reverse mentoring, in which journalists of colour would work with newsroom leaders to ensure they were building “institutions of belonging”
- A structured approach to making the morning meeting more constructive and less damaging
- Training in untangling the white gaze and better reporting of race
- Amplifying the work of journalists of colour, including those off-screen or in production roles
We have already started working on some of these, but would like to hear from you if you have more suggestions, or would like to collaborate with us on any of these initiatives. Let us know by filling in our Next Steps form.
You can also email us at [email protected]
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Illustration credit: undrey