Minority media students fight to get a foot in the door: 'I want my voice to be heard'
Julia Johnson isn’t your typical journalism trainee. She didn’t prepare for her career through stints at her local newspaper or writing a blog; she did it running pubs and clubs in Hackney. But she sees the experience as an asset: “You listen, and you hear gossip. Just like a good journalist.”
As a black, working-class woman, Johnson doesn’t conform to the journalist mould in other ways. It’s a notoriously homogenous profession.
Recent figures published by the National Council for the Training of Journalists show that journalists are more than twice as likely to come from the wealthiest socio-economic backgrounds than the overall population (39% compared to 15%). Just 5% of journalists working in the UK are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, compared to 9% in the wider economy.
And according to the Sutton Trust, 51% of top journalists in the country went to private schools - more than seven times the national average. This lack of diversity is partly fuelled by the fact that making it in the media relies on unpaid work experience and personal contacts. It’s easier for some budding journalists to secure these than others.
Johnson is a student at London Metropolitan University, where nearly all students (97%) attended state school, 68% are from the most deprived neighbourhoods, and 60% of its students are black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). According to her journalism lecturer, Wendy Sloane, lots of students on the university’s journalism course struggle to secure work experience for a mandatory module. “I heard how frustrating it is for them,” she says. “And I know how easy it is for people who have connections” Sloane decided something had to change, so last year she launched the Journalism Diversity Network.
For its inaugural year, she used her own contacts to negotiate five places at the BBC, which she matched to students showing strong potential.
One of these was Chanette Powell, who was spotted by a senior Newsnight producer, who became her mentor and asked her to apply for an eight-week paid summer internship. She had previously applied unsuccessfully the BBC five times, but beat 1,000 applicants to secure the place and has since continued to work part-time alongside her degree as a paid associate producer at the BBC. “Without opportunities such as this it might be harder for people like myself to get experience on a show like Newsnight.
Not because the BBC discriminates, but because of the networks surrounding it,” says Powell. “Being brought into an environment where they’re saying we want to have you here […] it makes you think, I can do this too, I don’t have to be middle class and white, I can be black and from Hackney and do just as well as anyone else here.” Not all students who get work experience will have the same success as Powell, but her story is an inspiration to other London Met students. Amal Al Tauqi also dreams of working for the BBC, but lacks contacts. “I feel I’d be a good candidate but unfortunately I don’t know anyone within that institution so I can’t get my foot in the way some people can,” she says.
This year, London Met’s diversity network will be expanded to all students on the course who meet the criteria of coming from a group underrepresented in the media.
Sloane is already busy negotiating new placements, having so far secured spots at the BBC, Grazia, Marie Claire and a beauty PR company. Johnson has already found a place at a video production company. Other media organisations, such as Bloomberg, have their own diversity schemes, but agree to help with events and visits.
Sloane has long watched her students battle the odds to find work. She recalls one student who was accepted from a poor-performing secondary school, with just one A-level, an A* in English. “I saw his blog and it was so amazing I had to accept him,” she says. Six months into his first year the New Statesman called and asked to publish two of his stories. “So you have that raw talent,” she says. “But if he were writing a cover letter, it probably wouldn’t be good enough because nobody had taught him to do that.”
Another student, Mame Sarr, who is French-Senegalese, sees the network as evidence of the better support for ethnic minorities she thinks exists in London compared to Paris. “The UK has a different mindset,” she says.
The helping hand is especially valuable for her: she works four eight-hour days per week to fund her degree, making hunting for work experience difficult.
Ironically, the media is one of the industries in which a diversity of voices matters most. Sloane recalls one graduate, who landed a job at a local London paper and discovered her upbringing on an estate made her one of the only reporters unafraid to cover social issues on a local estate.
This reminds her of Johnson, who returns from reporting assignments with “amazing, colourful quotes”, thanks to the “gift of the gab” she picked up as a pub landlady.