Besides reporting on the protests that erupted globally after the death of George Floyd, the media has also had to consider its own role in fostering positive societal change. Peter Houston rounds up the year in diversity as part of our Media Moments 2020 report.

Covid-19 dominated the media agenda globally in 2020, both as the biggest story of the year and as a huge disruption across the business of media. But there has been another global phenomenon impacting media, again as a major story but also as a dramatic driver of change.

The Black Lives Matter movement shot to international prominence in 2020, receiving headline coverage worldwide after half a dozen years of uneven media attention. Social media footage of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer at the end of May sparked more than 450 demonstrations, first in the United States and then internationally.

The upswelling of anti-racist sentiment that followed the summer’s BLM protest led to widespread calls for action to improve diversity and inclusion across all layers of society, not least the media. With, at best, a patchy record on representation, many media organisations have responded positively to calls to do better when it comes to race and broader issues of diversity and inclusion. But, of course, there’s a lot of work still to be done.

What happened in 2020?

Although just the latest in a long list of Black people killed unlawfully by the police, the death of George Floyd in May 2020 seemed different. Captured in an agonising three-minute phone video, the incident went viral on social media, sparking protests first in America and then internationally.

Under the banner of the longstanding ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, a global social justice movement spread from the pages of social media to the streets of most major international cities and the boardrooms of most major media organisations. Management practises at several US publishers came under close scrutiny forcing high-profile resignations at organisations including The New York Times, Conde Nast, Refinery29 and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Concern initially focused on previous bad behaviour by individuals, but moved quickly to include organisational issues, from pay equality to representation and discrimination. Attempts by management boards to keep criticism behind closed doors failed as staff took to social media to express their frustrations.

Following a very public Twitter outpouring, more than 40 staff on the Philadelphia Enquirer took a ‘sick and tired’ day to protest a tone-deaf frontpage headline that said ‘Buildings Matter Too’ in response to damage done during BLM protests.

Inside some leading publishing organisations, the result of public and private criticism has been a welcome focus on increased staff consultation. Conde Nast CEO Roger Lynch promised a “diversity and inclusion report” and an internal analysis of pay equity to be shared with staff by the end of the year.

In an apology to staff, long-time Editor in Chief Anna Wintour said she knew Vogue had not “found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators”. She went on to say she was listening and would like to hear feedback and advice “if you would like to share either.”

“There is a conversation amongst black female journalists that publications only reach out to them when they want a race issue. And not nearly as many that need to be are in the offices. It is so telling that we’re still having to do diversity schemes to get black and brown people through the door of newsrooms.”

Tobi Oredein, Co-Founder, Black Ballad

Looking outwards, many publishers have been doing the work required to improve coverage of Black issues and coverage of Black people in their publications. From the New Yorker to Men’s Health, Black people were featured on the covers of magazines in greater numbers than ever before.

Mr Magazine, Samir Husni, shared an image of 106 magazine covers at the end of September. He wrote that Black people on magazine covers were ‘few and far between’ but ‘in the last few months’ he was able to buy more than 100 magazines featuring Black people and/or BLM statements on their covers. “Magazines are celebrating Blackness. My only hope is that one day we don’t need to ask the question, is this the new normal?”

Beyond outward representation, efforts to feature the work and opinions of Black people and people of colour have been, arguably, even more important. Projects like the takeover of HuffPost by the team at Black women’s lifestyle website Black Ballad, Glamour magazine’s long-read reporting on the work of Black women journalists reporting BLM 2020, and the ongoing ‘State of Racism’ series in the Metro paper reporting on what it means to be a person of colour in the UK in 2020.

In an interview for Media Voices, Gary Rayneau, former Dennis commercial MD and co-founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy Project 23, said BLM 2020 had ‘definitely given a greater platform for marginalised people to be heard’.

“Coverage within the media, within mainstream channels, has been much more pronounced,” he said. “Because of that, it’s created a bit of a groundswell of support and understanding, it’s meant organisations have leaned into the conversation more.”

Where are we now?

Racism has been a sad fact of life across the world for too long. From the outside, it maybe felt like our society was progressing, but the BLM protests of 2020 pulled back the veil on the sort of institutional racism that right-minded people hoped had gone away.

The encouraging thing is that there has been a widespread acceptance of the idea that individuals and organisations must work to do better. Organisations have promised to make changes. Medium has appointed ‘take the knee’ activist Colin Kaepernick to its board and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has stepped down as CEO to make room for a Black board member.

The worry for campaigners and regular human beings alike is that the flurry of promises to improve diversity and inclusion that followed the summer’s protests come to nothing. Charges that commitments made mid-2020 are not being carried out have already surfaced, with staff at media companies asking if the pledges made were just paying lip service.

“The protests are working. Societal opinions of Black Lives Matter have flipped to majority-positive for the first time.”

Chi Ossé, Warriors in the Garden

What will happen in the future?

Hiring freezes instituted in response to the commercial challenges of Covid-19 provide cover for a lack of action on bringing Black staff in at senior levels. “We still have no Black VPs,” an employee at a large media company told Digiday in September. It can be argued that it’s still early days, but if the same holds true 12 months in, staff will become increasingly frustrated.

That said, Gary Rayneau is optimistic that positive change will come. His business exploded because of the ‘jolt’ BLM 2020 gave our society. He says focusing on diversity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do, it should be a business priority. “It should be treated with the same business rigour as you treat your product or commercial strategy.”

Companies that don’t accept that fact will disappear: “The world is becoming more diverse and the world is becoming more educated on these matters. If you don’t move with the times, eventually you’ll just ebb away and not be relevant,” Rayneau cautioned.

This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, download it here.

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