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by Neil Thurman

Does British Journalism Have a Diversity Problem?

How diverse is the UK journalistic workforce in terms of gender, education, religion and ethnicity? In May 2016, together with Alessio Cornia and Jessica Kunert, I published the results of a survey of journalists in the UK and discovered that while diversity has improved in some respects, there‘s still a long way to go, and there are some worrying trends for the future.

We used a relatively large sample – 700 journalists – that we believe is representative of UK journalists in general.

When we talk about diversity in journalism there‘s both the make-up of the workforce to consider and whether news output reflects the diversity of its audience. Our survey mainly measured the former, though we also discovered the importance that journalists attach to promoting cultural diversity in their work.

So: diversity in newsrooms. Let’s start with gender equality.

Source: Thurman et al. (2016), Journalists in the UK

Gender diversity

Our survey shows that there are relatively equal numbers of men and women in UK journalism. There’s certainly more gender balance in journalism than there is within some other professional groups, such as medical consultants and barristers. And the trend, as I’ll discuss later, is towards a higher proportion of women in newsrooms. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. We also need to look at the levels of influence and recognition that women in journalism have.

In terms of employment status, male and female journalists are close to being equal, with only a slight difference in part-time and full-time working. However, when we look at earnings and seniority, the picture changes. We were interested in the salaries being paid by employers rather than individuals’ total income, some of which might come from work outside journalism. So when we analysed what men and women earned we looked only at full-time journalists. And we also excluded journalists who had other paid jobs.

We found around a quarter of journalists in the UK do other paid work outside journalism. This is a much higher figure than for the UK labour force as a whole. And one likely reason is that, irrespective of gender, journalists are relatively poorly paid.

Almost all the journalists in our survey who are 24 or younger are earning less than £1,600 a month, which is about the level of the ‘living wage’. And those in their mid- to late-twenties are earning no more than the average graduate starting salary, and certainly not enough to be getting on the property ladder without some other financial help.

But coming back to the earnings of male and female journalists, we found that, on average, women’s salaries are weighted towards the bottom of the pay scale, while men’s are more evenly spread across the entire range. There may be a number of explanations for this difference, some innocent. For example, male journalists are, on average, five years older, and therefore likely to be earning a little more. However, this small age difference isn’t, we believe, the only explanation for the pay gap. Another reason is that women are less likely to be promoted to senior positions.

Source: Thurman et al. (2016), Journalists in the UK

We don’t make this claim lightly. We wanted to make sure that, when we looked at levels of seniority by gender, we took into account years of experience in the profession. So we divided journalists into three bands depending on their years of work experience: 6–10 years, 11–20 years, and 21–29 years. We found that women with the same number of years of experience as men are less likely to be promoted to senior positions. These differences in rank may explain the fact that men felt that they had a little more freedom in selecting and framing the news stories they worked on.

So what of the future then for gender equality in journalism? Well, the trends show that more women than men are now entering the profession.

Our survey shows that 65% of journalists whose career started within the previous two years were women. This is almost exactly a reverse of the proportions of male and female journalists who have been working for 30 years or more.

One reason for this trend is the fact that entry into journalism has become almost entirely dependent on a university education, which brings us on to educational diversity in the profession.

Our survey shows that 98% of journalists with three or fewer years in the profession now have a bachelor’s degree and 36% a master’s. And women outnumber men on journalism degree courses, both at undergraduate level and, particularly, at postgraduate level. Although this ‘academisation’ of journalism seems to be helping correct the historic gender imbalance, it may be having other, undesirable, consequences for the socio-economic diversity of journalism.

This is because students from disadvantaged backgrounds are up to three and a half times less likely to enter university. There are complex reasons for this, not least the level of debt facing graduates. And the relatively low salaries paid to journalists make this debt an even greater disincentive to study journalism for those from poorer backgrounds.

Religious diversity

What of religious diversity? It’s no surprise, perhaps, that UK journalists are less likely to be affiliated to a particular faith than the population in general. 61% say they have no religious affiliation compared with 28% of the general population. In spite of some notable exceptions, Muslims are the most under-represented group, by a factor of 12, followed by Hindus and Christians.

These results may help explain one of the more surprising findings of our survey, that UK journalists actually trust religious leaders less than they do the military, the police, and Parliament.

Interestingly, although Hindus are under-represented in newsrooms, the Hindu Council said they were heartened by journalists’ lack of religious belief, feeling that it would allow them to report more accurately, without prejudice.

Ethnic Diversity

When it comes to ethnic diversity, our survey shows that 94% of UK journalists are white, which is a very similar figure to earlier surveys in 2001 and 2012. For comparison, 87% of the UK population was white at the time of the last census, and the same proportion of the UK labour force is white at the current time.

However, the under-representation of ethnic minority groups is even greater when we consider that more than a third of journalists are based in London, and London has a much larger non-white workforce.

Source: Thurman et al. (2016), Journalists in the UK

If we look at ethnic diversity in more detail, black Britons are under-represented by a factor of 15 and Asians Britons by more than two and a half times. When we spoke to two Asian journalists who completed our survey, one reported experiencing discrimination directly, based on his ethnicity.

However, both felt that cultural factors might also come into play. Asian families, they said, can see journalism as a “2nd tier career” and have a lack of contacts in the media to draw on.

Promoting diversity

As I’ve said, our survey mostly measured diversity in the workplace, rather than diversity in news output. However, we did ask how important journalists thought promoting tolerance and diversity was in their work, and discovered there were big differences by beat. It’s relatively hard to promote diversity if you’re reporting about the economy. However, even if you are a journalist reporting about a topic – like culture – where promoting diversity has relevance, you are still working within a system and your work is influenced in numerous ways. Other factors may inhibit your aspirations to promote diversity. For example, resource limitations may mean it is easier to fall back on regular sources than to develop new ones. And there may be commercial pressures to give audiences more of what they like.

Our survey asked journalists about the influences on their work. About two-thirds thought the influence of public relations activity and advertising considerations had strengthened over the previous five years.

And more than two-thirds of journalists believed that the influence of audience research and metrics had strengthened over the previous five years too.

These changes provide some explanation for why over 40% of journalists in our survey believed that their freedom to make editorial decisions had decreased over time, which could have a negative impact on the diversity of news coverage.

Summing up

Does British journalism, then, have a diversity problem? In terms of workplace diversity, the picture is mixed. There are some positive trends in terms of righting the historic gender imbalance. However, ethnic minorities are significantly under-represented, and there are some concerns about journalism’s future socio-economic diversity.

In terms of diversity in news output, while a majority of journalists see promoting diversity as important, they are part of a system. With journalists feeling increasingly influenced by audience data, we have a responsibility in the choices we make as consumers. And the strengthening influence of PR activity and advertising considerations on journalists’ work means that advertisers and marketers must also take some responsibility for media content.

Find out more

You can find the full results from the survey in Journalists in the UK, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

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