Much of the current debate around journalism and media coverage is dominated by the concept of fake news. While that may well be a fruitful area for research and discussion, I fear it may also serve to obscure the more fundamental issue of whose voices are heard in news stories and who is being left out.
I don’t want to repeat the argument that more inclusive reporting here and in the United States might have led to different outcomes in the European Referendum and the Presidential Election but I do believe that the news media share responsibility for many voters’ sense of alienation, which manifested itself in the results.
Instead, I want to be involved in a debate on ways forward that will ensure that the whole audience/readership of news gets to join in the debate. With my colleague Professor Diane Kemp FRSA, I have edited a free ebook that aims not just to examine the usual areas of difference and diversity – race, gender, class, sexuality, and the rest – but to offer some practical advice to journalism students on how to ensure their reporting and news coverage is inclusive.
We are fortunate that the book ‘Everybody In’ has the support of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council which accredits courses in universities around the country. Indeed its industry members, including the BBC and ITN, have written to course leaders recommending use of the book. We were equally fortunate in the quality of the journalists who agreed to contribute the thoughtful and thought-provoking essays which introduce each section of the book.
But before this blog begins to read like a bare-faced plug for the book, I want to raise two issues; one underpinning the importance and impact of ensuring under-represented groups are helped to get their share of media attention, and the other looking at the ‘academic’ value of e-publishing.
The thinking behind the publication has been a process of long gestation, beginning in encouraging our own students to think more widely about their sources and contacts. Some years ago we even experimented with ‘lending’ a group of postgraduate broadcast journalism students to an African-Caribbean community radio station in Birmingham to work as its newsroom for a few days. Student feedback indicated that the experience was valuable, albeit slightly unsettling for a couple of them. That desire to encourage thinking about diversity was based on our own experiences as media professionals (we both worked for the BBC, as did the other co-editor Marcus Ryder) and as teachers.
More recently, we were involved in the Speak for Yourself project which brought together ‘hard to reach’ young people from Birmingham, Coventry, and Walsall to help them develop the skills required to express their opinions in different ways and in different forums. The project was supported by West Midlands Police, based on their belief that young people who could articulate their views were less likely to turn to violence or be attracted to extremist groups. Our input was to give those taking part an insight into how to use the broadcast media. The whole project culminated in a series of filmed debates recorded in our university’s TV studios.
We all know the impossibility of proving a negative and we will never know if any of the 13-18 year olds we worked with were prevented from behaving in a particular way. In an evaluation of the project Professor Lynn Davies of the University of Birmingham concluded: “The confidence to speak out and be listened to will be crucial in ameliorating alienation and promoting active citizenship in young people, with the new feeling that they can make a difference.” While the success and full impact of the project will be fully understood only in the longer term we can point to one of the young people who took part now acting as a national spokesperson for a political party on LGBTQI issues.
Brining all that together, and wanting to share what we had learned, led to the idea of the book. We decided that an electronic publication, rather than the conventional academic route of peer-reviewed work, would offer a number of advantages. Firstly, speed – there is virtually no lag between writing and being ‘out there’; next was our desire, supported by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, that the work should be freely available. Finally, an e-publication with the opportunity for instant reader feedback means we will benefit from other people – teachers, students, and journalists – being able to contribute information, experience, and comments which can be included in regular updates and amendments online so that the book will be a continuously relevant resource.
Equally important now (though we hadn’t thought of this when we began the work) is the fact that the e-publishing format offers practitioners who teach (teachers who practice) a platform to share their knowledge and expertise and to use the kinds of networks that many of them have (such as the BJTC and the European Journalism Training Association in our case) to bring their knowledge to an audience outside their own institution.
With our book now online and being regularly downloaded and shared with teaching and other contacts in Europe and further afield, we are turning our attention to that aspect of our experience. We will be using an internal faculty staff development day to encourage other practitioners to think about how they could do something similar and we are already talking to the relevant people in the wider university about supporting those colleagues who want to explore this idea.
‘Everybody In’ was not conceived simply as a snappy title but as a statement of purpose and, while our principal hope is that it has some impact on the way that future journalists may work, perhaps it might, too, have a part to play in closing the perceived divide between theory and practice that persists in some subject areas in some universities.