Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Tina: Our book ‘Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism‘ is a collaborative effort. The organization I work for is called Hostwriter, and we basically sent out a call for pitches for people from all over the world asking them what are the sort of barriers that they face in the newsroom.
And we took our favorites, and they’re truly from everywhere. I mean we have authors from Tajikistan, Egypt, Zimbabwe, United States, Costa Rica, all over the place, and we asked them to basically just expand on what their pitch was. And we had people editing in multiple different languages, and we put them all together in this book.
So, it’s about 30 different pieces, and each one addresses a different issue that exists in the field of journalism that can be a barrier to getting the most accurate version of the news.
So, that is the focus of the book basically, a push for more diversity. A push for thinking about the news in a different way and being aware of our blind spots.
Esther: There must be some translation challenges with that.
Tina: Yeah. So, we didn’t want to just get English speaking people because in fact we realised that is already bias in itself.
Esther: Yeah that already narrows the field!
Tina: Exactly. So our organisation…we are a huge network basically of cross-border journalists, 4,000 people in 150 different countries, and we have this thing called Ambassadors. So if you’re a Hostwriter Ambassador, you’re basically just a cross-border enthusiast, and you help us spread the word about our projects, and we also have events where we come together and stuff like that. Our Ambassadors are from all over the world. So we asked them to help us put this project to translate our call for pitches into multiple different languages.
So I think at the end we had about seven different languages – of course, optimally we’d have many many more, but that was what we could get, and that already covered the main spoken languages in the world. And in that way we wanted to counter the linguistic bias, but we also wanted to counter the bias of, depending on what region you’re from, you might think one issue is more important.
So I mean I’m not from the Middle East, so I wouldn’t be able…I might have this view that something that’s really interesting to me is a really big issue in the Middle East. But maybe it’s not.
Esther: And how did the idea for Unbias the News actually come about?
Tina: So we try to promote people to work together and to collaborate. And as you probably know, journalism is a field that tends to favor lone wolves, and has a lot of competition. Now that always depends on who you’re working with, of course everyone is always sort of collaborating a bit, right. I mean if you’re in a newsroom, if you’re getting tips from other people, you have to be a people person if you want to work in the field of journalism. However, there is this sort of traditional barrier to collaboration, especially across country lines.
So, what you’ll often see is that people go from one country to another, let’s say to report on something going on in Gambia, and let’s say the tomato trade or something like that just to use an example I’ve used before. So, a journalist that goes from Italy to Gambia is not going to have trouble getting a visa. They’re not going to have trouble to go and talk to different people, but there might be a lot of Gambian journalists working on this issue too.
So we would say, ‘Why don’t you guys work together, and you could publish in your separate newspapers in Gambia and in Italy, but you could have the same story in Italian and in different languages, and as a result get a much richer story, which might even be more accurate.’ Because people are so used to working with fixers, or to just pop in somewhere – I mean what we call parachute journalism – over a couple of days, so that inhibits you from getting really the deeper, best story. And so we want people to work together across country lines in order to stop that kind of parachute journalism.
But once we started realising that the only issue is not just that people don’t spend enough time places, or that they don’t want to collaborate with other people, sometimes people do want to collaborate with other people but they can’t because, for example they can’t get a visa. Or sometimes they want to collaborate with other people but they can’t because they don’t speak the same language, or because there’s a hostility to working from someone from a different background, or to working with women, or whatever.
So, we realised that this idea of collaboration still faces a lot of the same issues that exist whenever people work together. Things like racism, sexism, abelism, colonialism, all these horrible isms, get in the way of human interactions in regular society, right. British media, it’s still 94 percent white and 50 percent men, which is crazy because Britain is so much more diverse than that.
And if you want to know why it looks like that, and why it doesn’t look like British society does, maybe one of the questions to ask is what’s holding people from different backgrounds back? Why aren’t there more women? Why aren’t there more people of colour? Why aren’t there more different kinds of people in British media? And is it just because British white men just happened to be like much better at it? So what is actually holding people back?
Lack of media diversity looks different in different places. I was in India, and there of course it’s not dominated by white men, but it is still dominated by men. It is still dominated by people from high castes. So even though it would look diverse in comparison to if you’re just looking on the charter of race or something, it would look more diverse than a British newsroom does, but they’re still lacking the diversity…I mean India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. So if it’s still mostly people from high castes and mostly men, they’re really lacking a lot of diversity there as well. And I think that’s true for many countries.
But we didn’t know exactly which issues are holding people back, and we thought, OK we can guess, but we don’t know for sure. So why not ask people and have them write a book about it?
Esther: From the book did that issue come across as a hiring level, or does it go even further back? When you’re in school, and perhaps you’re thinking about those choices you make?
Tina: Well we got a lot of pitches actually, interestingly enough, when we first put out the call for pitches, a huge number of pitches that we got were from white men actually saying that they felt that because of their class they had a barrier to getting into the media and being represented there. Especially from Britain and the United States.
And while we do think that that is also an interesting story, I personally wanted to tell different stories here. I still think that this classism versus racism debate is a really interesting one. We wanted to talk about more diversity other than just class. I think it goes back to hiring practices but it’s also a question of who feels welcome.
So, for instance one of our authors is named Amber Dodd, and she is a sports journalist, United States. She’s black and she’s a woman. And between these two things she really felt pushed out of sports journalism in the Southern University that she was a student in, where she wanted to follow the football team. And between being black and a woman, those two kind of intersectional identities that both were not really welcome to male college football team’s locker room, where she was try to go back behind the stadium, and the security guards were like, ‘You can’t go back there. Autographs are over now.’ And she’s like, ‘But I’m a journalist!’ And the guys are like, ‘But you don’t look like a journalist,’ because we have an idea in our head of what a sports journalist looks like, right? And so yeah, that would be something that starts in terms of already at the school level.
But if you look at for instance, one of our articles is also about internet accessibility. So, we have a journalist, Priscilla Pacheco who lives in Brazil, and Sao Paulo is a huge city, but on the outskirts of the city, the outside areas of it, 18 million people live. And there’s very few people doing journalism about this entire large outskirts of the city, because the internet is so bad. They can’t send stories in, they can’t upload videos, they can’t email back and forth. If they want to do a piece, they basically have to do all the work and then ride the public transportation into the city where they have a good internet connection at a cafe.
Esther: That’s insane.
Tina: It’s something I have never thought about as a barrier to diversity. So what kind of stories are being told in Brazil when only people who have proper internet access can actually tell them, right? So that’s something….that’s what I mean, highlighting our own inability to see things, because that’s just something you just can’t see until you see it, right?
Until someone who’s experienced it says ‘Hi, that’s an issue for me,’ maybe you would never think about that because you think of internet being as this great equaliser for who can tell stories.
Esther: And some people, I mean again this is especially a Western problem, will level the accusation that diversifying newsrooms is ticking the political correctness box. So those things you’re talking about, how do you counteract that view, especially when it comes to things like privilege and the different worldviews that people experience?
Tina: Yeah absolutely. I think it’s interesting because this viewpoint that diversity is about political correctness, I mean we were explicitly saying that’s not about political correctness in our book. Because we think that that is sort of…it’s wrong for a couple of reasons.
I mean often when you hear about diversity, you hear about how it is a benefit for white people, right? When you think about diversity and integration in schools, the way it’s described and advocated is that it’s good for white students to have exposure to kids from other backgrounds because that will give them a more rich educational experience. So this is just totally backwards because it suggests basically that some kids have a right to be in school, and the other kids are there to enrich their experience for them.
So we think of the same thing in the newsroom. The concept that it will be politically correct, it will be a way to make white people feel better about themselves. Suggesting that the people from different backgrounds, that they’re tools for political correctness which should help whom? Help some kind of political group? But actually they just have a right to exist and be in society, like people who are not from the dominant group just already exist and have a right to exist, and we shouldn’t have to prove why it’s worthwhile to let them exist like that.
But second of all, it’s not about political correctness, it’s about accuracy.
I was reading something from the American LGBT organization of journalists, I think it’s called NLGA, and they were saying, ‘Look, if you were a sports reporter covering a sports match, you wouldn’t go in there and just expect to be able to pick it up on the fly, right? You would go and look up all the terminology, you would read a little bit of the history, you would try to figure it out. But when people write about LGBT issues, they don’t do this basic research sometimes.’
So, it’s not just about being politically correct. It’s also about covering things in an accurate way. If you don’t have people around that can say, ‘By the way, being transgender is not the same thing as being intersex, and you wrote that in your article, and that’s wrong,’ it’s not a matter of political correctness, it’s a matter of accuracy. You’re just mis-naming things.
Esther: I can think of so many examples in newsrooms where people have done that, and if there’d just been somebody of that race or gender or anything in the newsroom, it wouldn’t have got through.
Tina: I mean you can think of countless examples. I live here in Germany where I watched how the media responded to migrants coming from the Middle East, and just completely freaked out and acted…I mean they would use terminology like a wave, a tsunami. These are individual people. If your mother was an immigrant or if you yourself were an immigrant, do you think that you would describe a group of immigrants as a tsunami? As a natural event that’s not individuals?
Or the way that sex workers are talked about for example. If you had any experience with someone who was a sex worker, if you came from a background where you were exposed to sex workers, or you formerly were a sex worker yourself, would you write about a sex worker murderer in the same callous ways that people do write about it or just actually don’t even write about it.
The way that murders of women for example are written about, is that often the men are focused on – what drove them to this, what they were upset about, how they felt threatened, and you can’t help but think sometimes if a woman had written the story, I don’t think the headline would have been, ‘Man driven to edge of sanity by woman’s affair,’ or something like that. It would have been ‘A woman murdered by a murderer husband.’
So it’s this kind of thing where it’s not at all that we’re saying white men can’t do journalism. They certainly can. But there’s things that are missed when there’s only one group, whether it’s white men, whether it’s men period, whether it’s people from a high caste, they’re going to miss stuff. You just have to, because people’s own unconscious biases are formed by their own experiences, their own life, their set of life and lived experiences.
There’s no way that I can have the same lived experiences you have had for example, and to expect me to be able to write as the neutral observer of everyone in the world is just putting also way too much pressure on me. Let’s just share the burden a little bit!
Esther: Actually that leads really nicely into my next question, and I know the book’s introduction touched a little bit on this, that a lot people point out the issues of representative journalism, and it can sometimes come across as as ‘white man bashing’ – I’m not going to do a boohoo – but is there a way to get men on board with your mission?
Tina: That’s a good question. I mean we get it a lot. It’s interesting because in the one way this is a way to centre white men again, right, to bring them back. We’re talking about different people, and this question which we get a lot is a way to be like, ‘But let’s get back to the most important people.’
And we have an article in our book, which I think that touches on this a bit, which is about what happens after the #MeToo movement. And a lot of people felt like the #MeToo movement was divisive, and that it made men feel uncomfortable.
And so first of all it’s like, do you know what makes me feel uncomfortable? Being sexually assaulted and harassed in the newsroom. But I didn’t see a lot of people getting real revved up about that issue before the #MeToo movement.
The fact that you’re uncomfortable because I’m bringing this up, like if you’re a man and you feel uncomfortable because I’m bringing up sexism, I don’t see why we should now recenter you and go, ‘OK, so would it make you feel more comfortable if we would not bring this up, because we’ll just go back to normal.’ Things won’t change.
I mean I’m a white person. It’s uncomfortable to talk about race all the time. I don’t always feel like I speak at all perfectly correctly, and I can’t. But being able to deal with discomfort is the only that you can also change things.
Here’s the deal. It’s us versus sexism. It’s not women versus men. It’s not white people vs. everybody else. It’s us versus injustice, us versus sexism. And you can be on our side against that, men and women can fight together against sexism. We can all fight together against inequality in the newsroom and inequality in our field.
But if you’re standing on the side of injustice if you’re standing on the side of sexism, yeah we’re fighting against you.
Esther: And when you were putting together the book, you’ve obviously got your own biases when you’re editing. So, how did you work to counteract that?
Tina: Yeah it’s tricky. But we did think about that. And so, basically what we did is, so if you see our book, you’ll see that we have something called regional editors and then we also have the authors themselves. So we work together with a team of regional editors from Uganda, United States, Brazil, basically 10 different countries, and these 10 editors helped us, from India, from all over the place. And the idea was we didn’t want to miss something also because of our Western European / American bias. What I find interesting and a super important story is maybe not the same for everybody.
So we basically work with these teams of regional editors to help us make the selection of what stories should be in there, to work really closely together with the author, and that also meant sometimes speaking in their own language together, or working on the original piece in their original language.
And then it got to the next step in the process, which was when it had already gone through this, then we did another round of editing with me more at the centre of it, also with proofreading with my co-workers as well, the whole team was involved.
And so that was how we hoped that we could avoid the trick of, first of all just selecting things that were interesting to us, second of all, selecting stuff where it was in English, which would of course be a bias.
By the way the book will also be in German, and we had a couple of articles that were originally submitted in German. But also to ensure that we weren’t missing out on things that were really important from different regions, which we just don’t know about, I mean the example of the Internet issue is a perfect one. We just didn’t know that that was a big deal. And that would fall through the cracks if you didn’t realise like, ‘Oh my god this affects millions of people.’
Esther: And you’ve already touched on there with issues that we might not be aware about. Are there common themes that come up in terms of the barriers people are facing in newsrooms around the world, or does it really depends on where you are?
Tina: No. I think there are some common themes. I mean one of them that’s a big one is sexism, but the way that sexism rears its head is different in different societies. If you’re working in a situation where there are very few women in the newsroom and you’re already sort of an individual that stands out because of that, then you might be more susceptible to workplace harassment if you’re vulnerable in any kind of way.
On the other hand, even if you work mostly online or you’re a freelance journalist, people from different places of the world, I think, have in common, something which is that they’re getting a lot of online harassment. That trolling that is targeted towards women can go so much further. I mean women get threatened with rape with murder, with being doxxed, with having naked pictures of them distributed.
So that theme, we got a lot of, and it took different forms in different places, but even in countries that have had a #MeToo movement where you think, ‘Oh they’re so far ahead because they’ve made all of these powerful men come to heel,’ actually it shows in many ways how far we have to go, because just firing the person was the first step.
There has to be structural change, if we’re not just going to allow the next group of people to come in and reproduce these same power dynamics that led to people being sexually harassed in the first place.
Another common theme is, you have people feeling kind of boxed in by their national identity. That someone who works as a fixer for example gets asked to tell the same kind of stories that are reductive or boring. But people from other countries may feel that you don’t get selected as foreign correspondents, for example. That we wouldn’t see someone from a certain part of the world as a proper foreign correspondent. That these are about these sort of national identity issues.
Or that someone from China, for example, one of our authors, Qian Sun, wrote about how her idea of privacy is different because of the different culture around privacy in China. But that doesn’t mean that she can’t write about tech issues, right?
There’s this bias especially here in Germany which is where she works, which is like ‘Oh my god China is so bad on privacy.’ So someone who’s Chinese can’t write good articles about privacy, because Chinese people don’t have a good view of privacy.
And she says, ‘Well look of course I have my cultural lens, but you guys do too. The reason you’re so obsessed with privacy in Germany is because of having a history of having spying during the GDR. That’s your cultural lens and it’s reasonable. My cultural lens is different. But can’t we both recognise that one is not the objective one, and one’s not neutral? They’re both not neutral!’
Esther: And this might be a difficult one to narrow down, but what do you hope the people reading the book will take away from it?
Tina: I hope that people will recognise their own blind spots, which is certainly what happened to me while I was reading it. And I hope that while people are reading it, they’ll go through the sort of emotional journey that I did in a way, which is that in some points I thought like, ‘Oh this is hilarious!’ I cried at some points, I was angry at some points, but ultimately I thought, these are fixable problems.
These are not issues that we can’t address. Plenty of these issues that we have are things that we actually can work together and fix. And these are sort of dumb barriers in a lot of cases that we could get around.
I want people to see their own gaps in what they take for granted, and I want people to start thinking about how we can change some of these things, and we have some solutions in the book, and there’s other things that are more tricky.
But I hope as editor, that people walk away from this book with the idea that these are not unsolvable issues. That we can solve these things if we work together, and that we should.
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