Cookie-cutter Correspondents

21st November 2017

Have you ever noticed that you rarely see anyone with your accent on the news? In fact, if you look closely at the people who control which stories we read and watch, do you see many people like you? There’s a reason for that.

There’s plenty of evidence out there that bemoans the lack of diversity in journalism as a profession. Findings from as far back as the 2009 Alan Milburn report have pointed out that most journalists are not only from middle-class backgrounds, but are also privately educated.

It’s a well-known fact that journalism is one of the most middle-class professions in the 21st Century: only 3% of journalists come from working-class backgrounds, according to a 2012 National Council for the Training of Journalists report.

In 2016, a survey by City University London revealed that the British journalism industry is 94% white, 86% university-educated and 55% male, with women paid much less than their male counterparts and journalists from ethnic minority backgrounds woefully under-represented in every aspect of the field.

It’s apparent in almost all the news media we watch and read. From the panelists and interviewees on TV and radio news, to the columns we consume in national media – it means anyone who isn’t middle-class, white and straight struggles to see themselves reflected in the media.

One of the reasons for the huge class disparity in journalism is, without a doubt, money – it’s no secret that middle-class aspiring journalists are far more likely to be able to afford to complete a masters in journalism with professional accreditation or to be able to take up unpaid internships in central London, because they have parents who can bankroll their living expenses whilst they get their foot in the right door.

British journalism’s London-centric world doesn’t allow for working class graduates and students to pursue the same opportunities. Living expenses in London are far too high for savings and part-time work on top of a full-time unpaid internship to cover, for most journalism hopefuls. There are always a few young working-class journalists who manage to buck the trend, but they are the exception that proves the rule, and often have to work themselves into the ground to make it onto the first rung of a career ladder.

But it’s not just money that widens the gap between middle class and working class students and graduates. Middle-class graduates often also have access to professional networks in journalism that those from a working-class background simply do not.

There’s nothing wrong with middle-class graduates and journalism students making use of the opportunities available to them. After all, if someone your mum knew from university is now an editor at a national newspaper who can give you a couple of weeks’ worth of work experience, you’d be mad not to take advantage of that, wouldn’t you?

Working class journalism students and graduates find themselves in the unenviable position of having to create their own networks from scratch, which can be a long, arduous and often fruitless task.

Building these networks often revolves around attending workshops, conferences and talks, in the hope of meeting a professional who is willing to direct a newcomer to the right people to pitch to, the best way to get an editor’s attention, and how to get hands-on elusive paid work.

Bridget Hamilton, founder of blogging site Verbal Remedy, spoke about the difficulties facing young working class people trying to break into media: “A couple of years ago I went to a workshop at where an Observer writer, Elizabeth Day, taught a group of young people to review books. Elizabeth gave loads of great advice and even a year or so later, when I emailed her for some more tips she remembered the course and offered some great help, but unfortunately nothing ever came out of the subsequent emails I sent to editors.”

It seems that some aren’t as lucky when it comes to finding useful advice, especially those without formal journalism qualifications. A young science graduate (who wishes to remain anonymous) shared her frustrations about trying to break into the world of science journalism. “I went to loads of talks given by women in media jobs, and I quickly realised they all had one thing in common: they were happy to tell us to be persistent, and to bother the right people, but none of them wanted to give us any real advice about who to bother, or how to go about it.”

Often, those from working-class backgrounds who manage to catch an editor’s eye with a pitch are enticed by the thought of having a national byline under their belts, and agree to write articles for free, believing that one or two articles on the site of a well-known news outlet should help to secure future paid work, but this simply isn’t the case.

I thought that getting one thing published would mean it was going to get easier

Bridget, who has written for both The Huffington Post and The Independent previously, spoke about her experiences: “When I’ve been successful, like with The Independent, it was unpaid. I thought that getting one thing published would mean it was going to get easier.” Bridget went on to pitch regularly to the same editor after her article was published and she received positive feedback on her writing, but further pitches received no replies.

It seems that between unpaid internships and unpaid articles, aspiring journalists are at risk of being exploited by huge national and international news organisations who can safely avoid paying for labour. Due to the sheer number of young graduates looking for a break in their chosen field, they’re never short of people willing to write the odd piece for free.

Aspiring journalists from working-class backgrounds are often told by those around them that it’s too difficult to break into the industry without money or connections, and that they face being “priced out” by their more affluent peers.

Helen Daly, a young TV journalist from County Durham, mentioned that “a lot of difficulties come from people surrounding me saying that I will never break into journalism because of my background. When actually, employers don’t really care”.

I sent out genuinely over 150 emails before I got a work experience break with TV Times

For Helen, it took a while to get the right kind of experience. “I sent out genuinely over 150 emails before I got a work experience break with TV Times.” This break helped her land her current job, and once she began writing regularly, she found that the opportunities available to her improved dramatically. “I’m now getting invites on mad press trips and getting my own invites to press screenings. It’s nice that once you start to make your mark, you get noticed a bit more.”

But she has seen instances of others walking into jobs because of the right connections. “I went to an interview at a broadsheet years ago,” she explained. “Within five mins of being there, relatives of [other] candidates were coming down to greet them. It was so disheartening because you just knew they would get the job.”

It’s dire out there for those of us from lower-income backgrounds. It seems that the working class candidates are effectively being frozen out of journalism due to a variety of factors, none of which seem likely to change in the near future.

This is bad news for those who want to get a job in journalism, of course, but it could have much wider implications. It’s time to start asking questions about what effect the lack of diversity is having on what the media produces and what we all consume.

21st November 2017