Reckoning with multiple, diverse journalisms

“He made so many of them”

Journalists try to seek truth and report it, and many would like to do it on behalf of the public, ideally the whole public.

Something like that sentiment, I think, is behind the inscription on the old Daily News building in New York, a beautiful bas relief with the paper’s title on top and at the bottom the inscription “he made so many of them”, invoking a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people; he made so many of them.”

Journalists who have never lived in New York often associate the city with the New York Times and may not know that the Times, for all its qualities, was long primarily an upmarket Manhattan newspaper and well behind the more popular Daily News in terms of audience reach and circulation. When I moved to New York in 2005, the News, while much diminished, was still the most widely read print newspaper in the city, a title that, far more than august elite organs like the Times and the Wall Street Journal, tried to reach the whole, diverse, and often poor local public, and made doing that the basis of both its journalism and its business.

Of course, even the popular Daily News never reached everyone, just as journalism as a profession has always fallen short of the aspiration to serve the whole public.

Political pressures, economic realities, practical constraints and more have always limited journalism’s ability to really, fully, deliver on that ambition. As have professional routines, like the privileging of elite sources, and perhaps sometimes also cultural values that leave some journalists far moved from many people’s lived experience and worldview.

Many of these obstacles remain as relevant as ever. The “war on journalism” waged by authoritarian governments and powerful people across the globe, the severe disruption of the business of news driven in large part by the move to digital media and the rise of platform companies, necessarily limited resources in even the biggest newsrooms, compounded by structural inequalities internationally, between rich and poor countries, and nationally, between rich and poor communities. The obstacles to serving the whole public are many.

But the aspiration remains, and it is important in itself.

And yet, despite the aspiration, even in cases where these constraints are least present, in countries where media are largely free and the business of news still relatively robust, where there are still significant numbers of professional journalists and most of the public have unprecedentedly easy and cheap access to news, journalism falls short, often far short, of the aspiration to serve the whole public.

This is clear when we look at almost every kind of structural inequality, whether around class, gender, ethnicity, (some) religions, sexuality, and more, and of course especially where they intersect. Such structural inequalities influence both news coverage and news use. This is not a new observation, but it is an important observation.

These often long-standing forms of inequality are central to what Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young in an important recent book call “the reckoning”, a reckoning that, as they write, “starts with the audience – journalism’s multiple, diverse publics”. It is not about who journalism serves, and often serves quite well, but about who actually-existing journalism isn’t serving. Callison and Young highlight how many people are actively resisting what they call “prior journalisms” by “using social media and other forms of digital media to reflect, resist, talk back, counter, and refuse to participate in legacy media or journalism conversations.” It’s important to note that it is not that people can’t engage with the news on offer. It is that they often don’t, and sometimes actively turn their back on news that they find disappointing, irrelevant, or even harmful to them and people they care about.

I want to use some of our Reuters Institute audience research to illustrate a few aspects of how central the challenge Callison and Young highlight is, even in very privileged countries, because I think it imperils the “public connection” between journalism and various audiences that both the public purpose of journalism as a profession and the practical sustainability of news as an institution is based on.

I also want to offer a few thoughts about how we, at the Reuters Institute, are reckoning with structural inequalities and trying to make sure we serve a diverse and varied community of journalists across the world.

Structural inequalities threatens journalism’s public connection 

The public connection first, and how structural inequalities threaten it. I’ll focus on the UK here because it is a diverse and unequal society and thus while very privileged in a global perspective less of an extreme fairy tale outlier than, say, my native Denmark. The UK also has a diverse and comparatively well-resourced set of very different news media across local and national media, popular papers and upmarket papers, public service media, and various digital-born new entrants, so a varied and substantial supply of news.

Who aren’t been served, then?

First, overall, among UK adults with internet access, 80% say they access news once a day or more (which we in our survey describe to respondents as “national, international, regional/local news and other topical events accessed via any platform (radio, TV, newspaper or online)”).

But the figure is significantly lower among young people, among women, among those with limited formal education and lower social grade, and among those who are alienated from the conventional politics of left and right.

In fact, these social inequalities in news use are more pronounced, often far more pronounced, than differences between the political left and those on the political right. Pundits frequently worry about political polarization in news use, but rarely about social inequalities in news use that are often bigger than political differences.

Second, in a diverse country, with a competitive media market, and different publishers aiming to serve different audiences, no publisher can be expected to reach everybody, or everybody equally. But consider a few observations about individual brands.

Take the BBC, tasked with acting in the public interest and “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”, and provided with £3.6bn in licence fee funding to deliver on this mission in 2018-19. The BBC is by far the most widely used source of online news in the UK, and remains both highly and widely trusted. But online, its weekly reach for news according to our survey data is 45%. This is far short of “all audiences”, and furthermore, the BBC’s online reach is significantly lower among women , young people, those with low levels of formal education and lower social grade, and those who answer “don’t know” when asked to indicate their political leaning.

Or take the Guardian, which unlike some other prominent UK newspapers remains free online, and is the second most widely used source of online news in the UK, with 18% weekly reach. Unlike the BBC, the Guardian is under no obligation to serve all audiences, and it doesn’t get billions in public funding every year to do so. But it is freely accessible, privileged with the Scott Trust as its owner, and has for years aggressively invested in digital to grow its audience far beyond its limited print circulation. Yet, like the BBC, it has lower online reach among women, among those with low levels of formal education, of lower social grade, and among those who say “don’t know” about their political leaning – lower among the latter than among those on the political right. (In contrast to the BBC, though, the Guardian has significantly higher online reach among young people than in the population at large.)

All our survey respondents are internet users. They all have access to the BBC and the Guardian, news media that many journalists admire, for free. But most of them don’t access them, and use is significantly lower among many less privileged groups.

And it is not just the BBC and the Guardian (and I don’t want to pick on them, I focus on them here because they are important and because I, like many others, admire both of them in different ways). Across the more than thirty news brands we have survey data on in the UK, only one (1), the Sun, has significantly higher online reach among people with lower social grade than among more privileged parts of the population.

Nor is it only news media. Aggregators and search engines too are more widely used to access online news by those of higher social grade. Social media in fact represents the only type of platform with a different profile, equally widely used as a way of accessing news online across social grades. And unlike for example BBC News online, social media are more frequently used to access news by women and young people than the public at large. (This way, especially incidental exposure to news may at least partially counter some inequalities common across how people access news more directly online, though as Kjerstin Thorson argues, the question of who attracts the news on platforms, and what kind of news they attract, remains complex.)

And these inequalities have been pronounced during the coronavirus crisis too. Not only has the news coverage sometimes seemed more interested in how the pandemic was playing out on college campuses and cruise ships than meatpacking plants and prisons, despite the distribution of cases. (Though I of course only know this because of reporting on it.) We also see pronounced information inequalities by age, gender, household income, as well as education, as news media have been more successful in reaching older, more affluent men with higher education than any other groups throughout the crisis.

I want to be clear: a mass audience is not necessarily in itself always the same as delivering massive public value, or a necessary precondition for delivering public value – the audience reach of BuzzFeed News and the Economist, HuffPost and the Financial Times in the UK is limited, but they often do important journalism.

But it matters greatly whether journalism and news overall reach a wide public. And I think it matters greatly if there are systematic, structural inequalities in who are served by the news, with almost all brands skewed towards more privileged audiences. And if many people, and perhaps an increasing number of people, in particular people who face various forms of structural inequality, see the news as at best disappointing and irrelevant, and at worst harmful or hostile, they are arguably right to turn to other alternatives—like the forms of digital media witnessing that Allissa V. Richardson identifies among Black US Americans, embraced in part, as Meredith Clark has pointed out, because many are tired of seeing mainstream journalists get it wrong. In such cases, journalism is diminished and weakened as an institution in part because it has fallen short of its own purpose and aspirations.

Facing such often long-standing structural inequalities and the reckoning that Callison and Young call for while also dealing with political attacks, disrupted business models, and the power of platforms is a big additional challenge for journalists and news media who have a lot on. But I think it is urgent for the public purpose of journalism as a profession and for the news media as an institution. And while not made easier by other challenges, I don’t think these challenges are the same. Would existing news media really serve underprivileged communities better if newspapers made more money and didn’t have to worry about Facebook? Writing in 1979, a time that those with selective memories, little real interest in history, and a tendency to romanticize the past may look back at as part of some mythical “golden age” of American journalism, Herbert J. Gans noted that “news reflects the white male social order” and is often suffused with paraideological assumptions that valorize moderatism, order, and responsible capitalism. I think it still largely does. This challenge, of examining such assumptions and of overcoming structural inequalities in who journalism serves and ensuring it is more diverse and inclusive in terms of who it represents and what it covers, is distinct from other challenges, and I think it has to be faced on its own terms.

The reckoning in journalism – and at the Reuters Institute 

How do we face this challenge? I don’t know. And even if I was arrogant enough to think I did, I’d have no right to tell journalists, editors, media executives (or anybody else really) how to do their jobs. Instead, what I try to do is to work with my colleagues to offer journalists and news leaders opportunities for discussing their challenges with peers, connect them with other interesting people, and provide independent, evidence-based relevant research, so that they can develop the responses they think are right for each of them, on the basis of their aspirations, their context, and their values.

There won’t be one way ahead. As with many of the other challenges and opportunities that journalism and journalists face, I think we need to recognize the fundamental reality of conflict inside journalism itself as we discuss how to face this challenge. Journalists will disagree over this too, they will have different priorities, different interests, different values, and we will never simply agree on one consensual one-size-fits-all solution. There will be fights. There will be winners and losers. Addressing diversity and inclusion in some areas won’t always go hand-in-hand with addressing them in others (popular papers have often been great at reaching less privileged white men, some of them have also been rather racist and sexist). People are getting hurt by the status quo, and other people will feel they get hurt if we change the status quo.

But I want to say a few things about how I think about structural inequalities in my own work as I enter my third year as Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and about our way ahead.

I am a privileged, affluent, highly educated white man leading a privileged institution at a privileged university in a privileged part of the world. We carry the Reuters name, which we are extremely proud of, even as we are also conscious of its history of imperial entanglements. We are part of the University of Oxford, which has its own multitude of issues to face. We have the privilege of working with loads and loads of other privileged people, organizations, and institutions across news media, governments, and the technology sector. We need to reckon with who we at the institute do and do not serve, just as the profession and industry we engage with needs to face its own reckoning. If “the public”, in James Carey’s parlance, is journalism’s god-term, I suppose “journalism” is our god-term. And just as any mention of how journalism serves the public should prompt the question “what public?”, our invocation of journalism prompts the question “which journalists?”

I want to be very clear, I am very proud of the work we do, and of the legacy we build on. But I also know there is always room for improvement, and that improvement requires self-examination and new priorities. So here are some notes on how I think about how our work can serve multiple, diverse journalisms.

We do three things at the institute, we run programs for mid-career journalists, we offer leadership programs for editors and news media executives, and we run research programs. Beyond this we work hard to communicate our work and deliver on the debate and engagement parts of our mission.

To better understand how we are doing in terms of serving multiple, diverse journalisms, we are introducing a set of internal diversity trackers at the institute across these starting this term, inspired in our own small way by the important 50:50 project founded by Ros Atkins at the BBC and now adopted by many different news media. We have adapted their three core principles – collect data to effect change, measure what you control, and never compromise on quality – to create our own simple and flexible self-monitoring system across our activities. The tracking is partial and limited because it has to be practical, and what we track vary by area, but broadly, we are tracking gender (like the 50:50 project) as well as geography (because our mission is global), and for speakers we feature in our seminars, a basic white/non-white coding. We are missing out on many important things (class, religion, sexuality, etc.) but I hope this will be useful nonetheless.

Because we are conscious that our existing programmes are limited in various ways, and will remain so even as we monitor how we run them and aim to ensure they are diverse and inclusive, we are also pursuing a range of new priorities.

In terms of our journalist programs (led by Meera Selva), we aim to develop additional short courses that can be more accessible for journalists who for personal or professional reasons are not able to join a three- or six-month fully funded fellowship. While we remain very committed to the distinct value of in-person, on-site, private programs (journalists face hard challenges and need to be able to discuss them in confidence among their peers), we are also looking at ways in which we can replicate the particular qualities of private, off-the-record conversations in small groups in a safe space can be delivered online. We hope these initiatives will, over time, help us serve more, and more diverse, range of journalists from across the world.

In terms of our leadership programs (led by Federica Cherubini), we also remain strongly committed to the distinct value of in-person, on-site private programs, but again, recognize that cost and geography limit who we can serve with that model. We are therefore looking at developing off-site offers specifically targeted on poor parts of the world where travelling to Oxford impose an additional barrier, and also examining the potential for developing private online programs for individual independent news media in the Global South so that we can work with them, learn from them, and perhaps be of use to them.

In terms of our research programs (led by Richard Fletcher), we are focused on expanding the number of countries we cover in our research (most recently adding Kenya and the Philippines to the 2020 Digital News Report with support from the Open Society Foundations), and plan to significantly expand further in 2021. We are also doing more research focused specifically on issues including social inequalities in news use and information inequality during the coronavirus crisis, gender and leadership in the news media, race and leadership in the news media, and how news media organizations are (or sometimes aren’t) facing up to their shortcomings around diversity and inclusion.

In terms of our communications (led by Eduardo Suarez), to ensure our work is accessible to multiple, diverse journalists, we are focused on developing out networks with journalist covering the media across the world, doing some of our communications in Spanish (and on occasion a few other languages), increasingly translating at least parts of our research into Spanish, and investing in expanded capacity to write about journalism in the Global South – the latter in part because it is intrinsically important and doesn’t get the same attention at least in English as journalism in more privileged parts of the world, in part because we believe journalists everywhere can all learn from the experience of peers who have long operated in the face of political attacks, precarious business models, deep inequality, and profound polarization. (This may be new to some, but it is arguably the global norm.)

All of these priorities are at least in part at the expense of other things we could have done, and often done more easily. Our resources are limited, as are the hours in the day. We are proud to be part of the conversation that journalists and news media have about themselves in privileged high income democracies, a conversation often dominated by voices from the UK and the US, and we want to continue to be part of it because it is important and we learn a lot from it. We could double down on that. It’s often easier to fund than global work. But we won’t. We take the “worldwide” part of our mission – exploring the future of journalism worldwide through debate, engagement, and research – very, very seriously, and prioritizing it while also systematically monitoring how diverse our work is across other dimensions I think it’s key that we at the Reuters Institute make sure that we serve multiple, diverse journalisms.

The journalisms we had and the journalisms we want 

We try to do this while remaining both respectful of the history and track record of actually existing journalism, what Candis and Young call “prior journalisms”, without being beholden to it or blind to its many limitations. As I wrote when I took over as Director of the Reuters Institute in 2018, we are not here to help people go back to the journalisms of yesterday, but to work with journalists from around the world as they build towards better journalisms for tomorrow, whether that is Adesola Akindele-Afolabi thinking about how financial journalism in Nigeria can serve poor people better, Camilla Marie Nielsen from Ekstra Bladet, a popular title akin to the Daily News of old, develop ways of reporting on sexual abuse to fatigued audiences, Tejas Harad analysing the barriers Bahujan journalists face in Indian newsrooms, or any of the many other journalists, editors, and news media leaders we work with.

We may be in Oxford, but we are not bound by the dead hand of tradition and we won’t let a romanticized picture of the past hold us captive. Much of journalism has, frankly, been classist, homophobic, racist, sexist, and xenophobic for far too long. Some of it still is, and journalism is demonstrably failing to reach many people who face various structural inequalities. Failing business models and new technologies may not make facing and addressing this any easier. But I think we have to. And I personally think we should.

As we do, I will think of the Daily News building and the “he made so many of them” inscription. It is important to seek truth and report all the news that’s fit to publish. It is also important to try to serve the whole public. And people, like journalists, are all different, and often want and need different things. We’ll try to keep that in mind at the Reuters Institute, and I hope journalists and news media will keep it in mind too. That is the only way we can confront the structural inequalities and issues arounds diversity and inclusion that are a distinct, and severe, threat to the purpose of journalism and the sustainability of news media.

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