Reporting race: Time to reassess editorial standards on discrimination?

What does ‘good’ look like when it comes to reporting on race, ethnicity and religion and what difference does it make? What does ‘bad’ look like and what impact does it have? How can editorial standards be improved to keep up with the times we live in?


[This session was part of DAY 1 of the Trust in Journalism Conference, which took place on 23 November 2020 online; the following are extracts from that session.]


Reflecting on a year that put the discrimination faced by black people at the centre of our news coverage and concerns about anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic reporting in the media and hate speech more widely, Marc Wadsworth (Chair of the NUJ Black Members Council), Cierra Hinton (Scalawag & Press On) and Rizwana Hamid (Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring), joined Chair Shelina Janmohamed (Author & IMPRESS Board Member) to discuss the main challenges involved in reporting responsibly on race and ethnicity.

On the current temperature of reporting and the key issues of today's moment:


Cierra Hinton reflected on the US perspective:


“Reconciliation is a process; it’s not just the act of saying ‘we are having a reckoning’. You actually have to acknowledge what you have done, you have to apologise and work towards building trust with the community", she explained.


Asked about the main challenges and objects of this "reckoning", she highlighted:

How do we diversify media in the US, (and) how do we build a better relationship with communities of colour and get them the news and information that they need, not just serving the privileged?” Cierra Hinton, Scalawag, Press On.

Marc Wadsworth, chair of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Black Members Council, raised the issue of not only who is in front of the camera so to speak, but also who is behind it, acting as the decision makers:


“Of the 111 voices who were quoted on the front pages on the covers of British newspapers during a week chosen at random this summer, after the murder of George Floyd, just one belonged to a Black person, activist Jen Reed. Of the 174 bylines of the stories featured that week not a single one was black and only 6 were written by reporters of a minority ethnic background. This is print journalism in Britain in 2020."

"Yes, there are more black faces on television and people of colour; but that’s the window dressing. I’m interested to know what is happening in the engine room and who runs the engine. Because it isn’t us.” Marc Wadsworth, NUJ Black Members Council.

Reporting on Muslims within a conflict paradigm:


Rizwana Hamid, Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring, described what the situation is like in terms of media coverage of Muslims and Islam: “Negative would be the first word that comes to mind. Othering is another word. But really the biggest one is reporting on Muslims within a conflict paradigm." She quoted from the most recent quarterly report by the Centre for Media Monitoring, which analyses over 60,000 articles and broadcast clips. Research shows that 55% of the articles associated Muslims with negative aspects of behaviour and didn’t highlight anything that was positive about Muslims. "Over one third either misrepresented or generalised about Muslims and (...) the reccurring theme was terrorism."


Reporting on terrorism:


Rizwana also reflected on how "the media is consistently inconsistent" when it comes to reporting on terrorism depending on who the perpetrator is. She expalined that words like ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’, ‘terrorist’ appear nine times more frequently alongside Muslims than when the perpetrator of an attack is from the far right, a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi which, she adds, goes against the evidence. According to the global terrorism index of 2019, far-right terrorist groups accounted for 17.2% of terrorist incidents in the West, while 'Islamist groups' represented 8.6% . "The media is out of tune with what is going on on the ground", added Rizwana.

Why is bad reporting a problem, and what are the implications?


Rizwana Hamid highlighted that the biggest impact is hate crimes: “Home office figures show that almost half of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2017-18 were against Muslims – there is enough evidence to show that what the media reports has an impact on public perception.”


Marc Wadsworth added on the real world consequences of misleading and inaccurate reporting on race: “Look at the pandemic (...) we have seen in Britain a spike in attacks on people who look Chinese as a result of irresponsible journalism. A very practical example of the effect that bad reporting has.”

How can standards and regulation help? What is the response of regulators and media organisations?


A shift in terminology?


Rizwana Hamid stated that “regulators need to be a lot more strict and enforce fines and penalties which aren’t currently happening … We need to now acknowledge that there is racism and have it as a given ... Yes, it exists, how are we going to tackle it?". She also mentioned that the Centre for Media Monitoring have been having constructive engagement and were seeing a shift in terms of how people are using certain terminology: "There is a willingness on the part of most organisations now to try and tackle this and do something about it. We’re beginning to influence journalists and editors, we are beginning to influence institutions. It is through pressure and engagement that we are getting some form of change.”


The importance of addressing individual bias:


Cierra Hinton argued that while policies and standards have their place, it is important to address individual bias. It is important to do the “individual people work to support [guidelines and standards work]." She mentioned how there needs to be a "shared understanding of what the outcome or endpoint is, or how outside of the policies or guidelines individual bias negates the larger goal."

"Making sure that the folks who are in your newsroom are actually going through their own process of becoming anti-racist is just as important as making sure that there are standards in place.” Cierra Hinton.

Lack of representation within organisations and regulators as barrier to effectiveness:


Marc Wadsworth: “I think it’s a fair point that we need to be represented on these regulatory bodies and we are not. They are dominated by white, male, middle-class editors”.

So, what can organisations and the public do differently to improve the current state of reporting on race?


Upholding the standards of journalism


Rizwana Hamid recommended: “Uphold the standards of journalism, be accurate, be responsible, be accountable, tackle the unconscious bias or prejudice within newsrooms. Go beyond presenting people who are the so-called ‘other’ as one, reflect nuances.”.


Turning to independent news and organisations who represent people's needs:


Cierra Hinton suggested an alternative: that the public should divest from news organisations that aren’t serving their needs and instead should turn to and support independent journalism produced by marginalised and oppressed people to improve the media landscape and quality of race reporting. Or better yet, that individuals can create their own media organisations from the ground up as citizen journalists to fill the gap.


Taking responsibility as readers and utilise accountability mechanisms:


Finally, Marc Wadsworth suggested that the public should take responsibility, that individuals should actively monitor news coverage, make complaints where necessary and utilise accountability mechanisms.


Further resources: