Inclusive journalism: what is it and why should you care?
The Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 reignited the call for newsroom representation, a debate that has been going on for several decades already. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism did research among one hundred major online and offline news outlets in five different markets across four continents. Only 15% of the 80 top editors across the UK, Brazil, Germany, the US, and South Africa are non-white, despite the fact that, on average, 42% of the general population across these countries are non-white. And behold the gap in representation between media and audience.
With a predominantly white newsroom comes a Western-centric, Euro – and US-centric view of the world and often a foreign correspondence model is known as ‘parachute journalism’, where reporters are placed into an area to tell stories of which they have little knowledge or experience. And the consequence drawn from that is described by Kevin D. Grant for Nieman Lab:
“The final story is then likely to present a distorted picture back to the community being covered, potentially inflaming existing fault lines within the community, while amplifying stereotypes and misconceptions to a larger audience.”
If journalists observe the world through a white gaze, the stories are also meant for a white heterosexual male audience, and that in itself creates a problem for the future of journalism. Media and journalism have an immense influence on how we perceive the world. But what if the gatekeepers’ coverage is biased and only one single story is presented? Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about the danger of a single story in her TED Talk in July 2009.
“The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
The need for better representation in the media is broadly understood (the why) but the way towards a solution isn’t always easy (the how).
What is inclusive journalism?
Inclusive journalism is often described as ‘shedding light on voices traditionally left out in news coverage’ (Verica Rupar, Auckland University of Technology) and is mentioned in one breath with the terms ‘diversity’, ‘equity’, ‘representation’ and more recently also ‘belonging’. Based on the different ways these terms get described I came to the following characterizations:
- Diversity is the full range of human and organizational differences and similarities. It is either there or not.
- Inclusion is the practice that needs to be done to make people feel they belong. Inclusion is a choice to change behavior and make an effort to foster a sense of empowerment. It is a commitment.
- Equity is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial. It is the foundation.
- Belonging is the outcome, a feeling that can not be enforced.
Some of the people I respect most in the representation-in-media space reject the word ‘inclusion’ for good reasons. Most of the time they explain how inclusion literally means ‘the act of being included’ which then also implies that there is someone who owns the space and holds a position to grant others access.
The Oxford dictionary describes inclusion as ‘being included within a group of structure’. Both meanings assume an existing reality or system which focuses on including people from outside. And in this way, I understand the criticism because didn’t we want to remove the structure altogether and build a new one? And especially the people in positions of power who hold back change, why would we trust them to create a more inclusive space when they’ve had the chance to do it but didn’t?
From my perspective though, as a white woman working in media for almost twenty years, it makes perfect sense to focus on inclusion. I have experienced and still see how much more privileged people can do to change the status quo. And that is the very purpose for which I founded Inclusive Journalism.
It is absolutely wonderful that Black colleagues, journalists of color, and people from marginalized communities are setting up their own media initiatives. Wendi Thomas is one of them and she explains in a panel at the International Journalism festival why she founded MLK50, a nonprofit newsroom in Memphis, the United States, reporting from the intersection of poverty, power, and policy:
“I didn’t want to have the same conversations with white men anymore, ever in my life.”
And that is exactly where I see the responsibility for Inclusive Journalism, to keep pushing the hard conversations among the privileged establishment and also bringing in a different perspective. A viewpoint from within the establishment, from people who have changed the way they think and act, who have been confronted with their blind spots and prejudices, and seen things differently since then. Who learned how to listen better, how to embrace change, how cultivate a beginner’s mind, and self-reflect. And most importantly, who bring their learnings into practice. Often, people who grow up in the norm are vulnerable once they discover the norm is violent. And they don’t want to be like that anymore.
The goal of Inclusive Journalism is not to continue the decades-long conversations about media diversity but to use the cracks in our existing system and make them bigger in order to build an inclusive and healthy future for journalism. If we don’t do this work, the next generation of privileged journalists will follow the same path as their predecessors.
Attempts to create better representation in journalism mainly focus on aspects outside of ourselves or our organizations. For example, by asking where to find people from misrepresented groups to work for us or to wonder who can guide us in finding more stories about inequality or systemic racism. Without making the necessary changes from the inside, these attempts will most likely fail.
An important shift in my own development came once I studied decoloniality at the Maria Lugones Summerschool in 2021. The experience of working in a multicultural media organization for ten years, combined with studying yoga, holistic lifestyle coaching, and practicing meditation throughout the years on the side, all came together in the concept of decoloniality. Our colonial past has created a foundation of inequality that we still experience in our societies today. Looking beyond Europe as the center of the world, realizing our current idea of progress doesn’t go without a dark side, and being ready to learn to unlearn what we know so far is the core of what decoloniality is about. Moving away from the belief in the universality of Western knowledge and opening up space for non-western knowledge, practices, and well-being. With the starting point that we are all equal because we are different, nobody has a special position, everyone has a valuable position and we have to heal from the colonial wound together.
Why should you care about Inclusive Journalism?
Let’s be clear about one thing: inclusive journalism isn’t a new way of journalism. Just like there are gazillions of styles of yoga, there are also different types of journalism and inclusive journalism isn’t one of them. Regardless of the style of journalism, we are practicing, be it investigative journalism, solutions journalism, broadcast journalism, sports journalism, entertainment journalism, column writing, and so on and so forth, when we focus on inclusion we are alert for the specific characteristics that are needed to report in a just and ethical way, and we feel confident to adapt the characteristics in order to create better stories and enjoy our work more fully.
Speaking of the classifications, based on my own experience of working in inclusive media, learning about the topic of representation in an international context, studying yoga, holistic lifestyle coaching and decoloniality, and practicing Vipassana meditation, these are the six characteristics of Inclusive Journalism:
1. Long-term commitment
Often in journalism, we focus on short-term success. The daily news cycle hardly gives us time to reflect on our stories or on ourselves, and instead wants us to immediately produce the next report, program, or article. And because of the pressure on performance, the seasonal contracts, and the lack of long-term strategies, we tend to keep doing things in the same way over and over again. This is how our brain works, in stressful times it falls back to what it is used to doing. In order to work inclusively we need to break this habit pattern and change our behavior.
The real change of behavior takes place when we involve the mind and body. Organizing another diversity training or just reading more about the topic of inclusion to understand it on a mental level, isn’t enough. Change is done by praxis, by doing. Small, repetitive actions over a longer period of time will lead to significant change.
2. Self-awareness (Conscious of unconscious bias)
Working inclusively can only be done when we become aware of our biases and prejudices. Everyone has them. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Self-awareness means getting to know ourselves well, and being aware of our position in this society along the lines of race, class, gender, ability, education, etc. Positionality directly relates to the concept of objectivity in journalism. As journalists, we tend to position ourselves outside of this world, as objective and neutral observers. We can strive to be as objective as possible, but it’s impossible to report completely neutral.
Self-awareness means to look inside and not outside for solutions. Once we consciously reflect on our life it will become easier to listen and stay curious. The goal of creating self-awareness is eventually to become better informed in our decisions and therefore more effective in what we are doing. Self-reflection is a skill that anyone who is willing to sit and observe the inner landscape can learn.
3. Community (engagement)
Building trust among communities is essential to inclusive journalism. In order to build trust, journalists shouldn’t only go to communities when things are going bad. It’s about connecting with people in good times and creating relationships for the long term. Listening is a key aspect of community building. Journalists are sometimes reluctant to become too friendly with communities out of fear that it could weaken their critical attitude towards issues. But we as journalists have a natural connection to our own communities already, the ones we grew up in, with the people who look like us. And building communities on a professional level means with all people, not just your own.
It will become easier to connect to the different communities in society if your newsroom is a reflection of society. If this isn’t the case yet, we need to make sure to diversify our network of sources and cherish the knowledge of the older generation colleagues. Mentoring can be a good tool to strengthen our skills and complement each other.
4. Enlighten not just inform
Enlightenment is often understood in a spiritual context where buddhas find enlightenment after lifelong meditation. In Asia, the word is more common than in the West and it means to give (someone) great knowledge and understanding about a subject or situation.
Why is this important for inclusion? Well, the 2022 Digital News Report by Reuters Institute shows growing news fatigue among news consumers which is partly related to the negativity of the news. If we want to keep people included, we need to change this.
Besides that, once you dive deeper into a story to really understand the root causes of a problem – which is what Solutions Journalism aims for – automatically more people will have a position in your story, not as victims but as credible voices. We don’t have to be the voice of the voiceless. The voiceless have a voice already. Rigorous reporting will strengthen these voices.
The data you use to show the evidence of reporting can contribute to more honesty and less bias. And experience shows how much benefit it is for our well-being to apply a constructive way of storytelling. It makes us feel less depleted and emphasizes the reason why we choose journalism in the first place, to tell stories that might cause a change.
We live in a time where the knowledge about the colonial past is growing, however, journalists can actively contribute by applying decoloniality in everything they do. Meaning, to give the context to how colonial powerstructures still work through to this day. Colonialism has made the West the center of the world, has created a system of capitalism that always comes with a dark side, and has used gender as a tool to dehumanize and oppress. How is that narrative still in play in our world today and what can we do to delink from it?
Decoloniality in journalism includes a fundamental reconsideration of who is reporting (positionality), how the location and identity of an author shaped their perspective and which sources are being used when creating a story. It looks at the subject matter and how it’s being brought on the news. Parachuting Western reporters into developing countries to report on matters of which they hardly know anything about, isn’t the way to go anymore.
Educating ourselves about the colonial past with the purpose of understanding the roots of our Western societies and values, can be done by learning from people outside of the West.
6. Holistic approach
A holistic approach means looking at the bigger picture. And here is where mental health comes in. If we don’t plan for the long term, we immediately create problems (and stress) when a short-term decision doesn’t turn out the way we hoped. If we’re not self-aware and understand our unconscious bias we will keep reporting on issues without getting to the root cause and so we will be left with an unfinished feeling. If we don’t connect to people in the community we will find ourselves isolated in our jobs. If we’re not aware of the colonial past or the dark sides of our current lives, we won’t be able to go forward in a different way.
A holistic view on journalism asks us to connect the dots. It also encapsulates welcoming other disciplines to the profession and a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. In the West, we are used to finding solutions to problems by isolating the problem. The Oxford English Dictionary defines holistic as “characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.”
In the context of inclusive journalism, it means focusing on the profession of journalism not isolated from the rest of the world.