Transforming the media – one step at a time
Jonathan Heawood learns some inspiring and challenging lessons from the PINF Transformation Programme. Download the programme report
At PINF, we believe that everyone should benefit from public interest news that speaks to them, for them and with them. But we can’t achieve this unless everyone feels truly represented by the news industry.
The latest research reveals just how unrepresentative the industry has become. Joanne Butcher, Chief Executive of the NCTJ has said that this research shows the continuing ‘under-representation of diverse groups in journalism’.
At the same time, trust in journalism is flatlining. The latest Edelman trust survey shows that seven out of ten people around the world think that journalists might be lying to them – and 56% think that the media is a divisive force in society.
In the UK, many journalists, editors and publishers are working incredibly hard to build a news media that is more trusted. But how can we expect people to engage with the news when they feel it doesn’t represent them?
In the words of Robyn Vinter, we need to put ‘two very obvious things together’: the ‘crisis of trust’ in journalism and ‘the fact that journalism is almost all made up of people who are from privileged backgrounds.’ I think we also need to accept that the independent sector, whilst striving to have a positive social impact, still suffers from a lack of diversity.
In November 2020, we hosted a conversation about this at the IMPRESS Trust in Journalism conference, when Robyn shared the (virtual) stage with Shirish Kulkarni, and Marcus Ryder of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity. They talked about the need for the news industry to give a truer and deeper picture of contemporary Britain, and they weren’t impressed by the kind of internships and work experience schemes that bring people in at the bottom of the industry, only to kick them out when they start demanding change.
So, we got together to dream up a new programme, where people from under-represented backgrounds would get the opportunity to take meaningful control over newsrooms, if only for a couple of weeks – setting the editorial agenda, commissioning new voices and telling stories that might be missed or messed up by more privileged editors. We called it the Transformation Programme, secured funding from the Lankelly Chase Foundation, and got to work.
We partnered up with a national tabloid, a national broadsheet and a local independent online publication: the Mirror; the Independent; and the Bedford Independent. In each newsroom, journalists and editors opened their doors to ‘Transformation Editors’ (TEs) from underrepresented communities.
Some of the TEs wanted to get into journalism; others were just curious to see how it works. They were all a bit like anthropologists, venturing into a strange and potentially hostile environment. It takes courage to go into a newspaper office when your community has been treated with disrespect or contempt by the newspaper industry for generations.
The TEs came away from the experience feeling more confident and more likely to engage with news media in the future. They described the value of learning how newsrooms work, and seeing editors make difficult decisions about how to report the news. Their trust in journalism increased, and they urged their host publications to be more transparent about how the industry works – for example, by posting explainer videos on news websites.
Two TEs said that they had seen considerable change in how their host newsrooms understood the issues facing their communities, and one TE described the programme as an important ‘foot in the door’, without which they wouldn’t have been able to engage with news media on the issues that matter to their community.
However, there were also challenges. This was a small, pilot programme, and we found that it took a lot more time than we expected to organise the placements. Some publications were more open to this than others, and even when editors really wanted to take part, they still found it difficult to accommodate a TE in their newsroom. The editors who did take part said that they were proud of the TEs’ written work, and they want to continue engaging with underrepresented communities.
We worked with an amazing group of people on this. Shirish, Marcus and Robyn helped to design and launch the programme, and they were joined in the delivery and evaluation phase by Jo Reynolds and Hazel Sheffield. We were also supported by a range of charities and community groups who helped us recruit Transformation Editors, and by our funders at Lankelly Chase. We’re particularly grateful to the editors and TEs who gave up so much time and energy to get involved in the programme. It has been a fascinating, inspiring and sometimes challenging experience for all of us.
Jo and Hazel have written a detailed report that evaluates the programme and sets out their recommendations for the future. We’re now reflecting on their findings, and deciding how PINF can best take this work forwards.
We’re not the only people who care about these things – far from it – and we hope to work in partnership with others who want to build a more diverse, more representative media. This programme is a small but – I hope – significant step in the right direction.
Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation.
DOWLOAD THE TRANSFORMATION PROGRAMME REPORT 👇