In which Laura Garcia, co-founder of PressPad, talks about how our journalism suffers if it doesn’t represent the community it covers.
Let me take you back to November 2014 – to a time 3 Prime Ministers ago, before we’d ever heard of the word “Backstop” and when Luis Suarez decided his best football strategy during the World Cup was to bite the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini. David Cameron was Prime Minister, and the new kids on the political block were Nigel Farage and his merry band of UKIPers who were feeling pretty great after a couple of successful local elections.
Mark Reckless, then the Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, resigned from the Conservative party and decided that the most honest thing to do was to trigger a by-election to try and get re-elected with his new party – UKIP.
It wasn’t such a risky strategy considering he’d be the second man to try the same move. A month before, Douglas Carswell had just won his own by-election as MP for Clacton standing for UKIP instead of the Conservatives.
This started to smell like a bigger story and the country’s media got ready to descend upon Medway. Could Mark Reckless be UKIP’s second MP and begin an avalanche of purple seats in Parliament?
Back then I was working as a journalist with Channel 5 News, and as we all sat in our London office my planning editor turned to me: “You live around there right? Where the hell is Rochester and Strood? It’s in Kent right? How do we get there?”
In a newsroom full of amazing, well intentioned journalists, I was the closest one to the place where the story was happening. I knew how to get there, where the pubs on the high street where (we were trying to guess where Nigel would stop for a pint photo op), what the politics of the area was like, that Medway Council is a unitary council unlike many others in the country, etc. The Mexican immigrant who had studied and lived in Medway for a couple of years suddenly had all the local knowledge. Not a Kentish Man/Woman or Man/Woman of Kent in sight to help us navigate the country’s biggest story.
On the day of the by-election results, apart from my excellent colleagues at the Kent Messenger and other local outlets, most of the journalists furiously vox-popping on Rochester High Street were discovering it for the first time.
But it’s not surprising if you consider how expensive it is to become a journalist. First of all, the most traditional route into journalism requires you to go to university. Multiply £9k a year plus living expenses.
Unpaid or low paid internships in expensive cities make things worse and become an inescapable catch-22 for young journos. To get a job in journalism you need work experience, but how do you get it if nobody will give you a job?
The Sutton Trust estimated in 2018 that it costs a young person £1,019 to do a month of unpaid work in London where some of the best opportunities are. A six-month internship in 2018 would have cost a young person £6,114. Shorter work experiences are also challenging for different reasons: short lets are hard to find, hotels are expensive, hostels aren’t always safe, sometimes they require greater deposits, or the cost of commuting is just too high.
This prices out talented, diverse people who cannot afford to work for free or who don’t have friends/family to stay with to lower the cost. We lose talented people before the process even starts because they’re ruled out by the sheer cost of taking up these opportunities.
Former social-mobility tsar Alan Milburn’s State of the Nation report found that only 11% of journalists were from working-class backgrounds, compared to 60% of the population. A report by City University in 2016 found that the British journalism industry is 94% white and 86% university-educated. Just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim. When newsrooms do not reflect the demographic and economic diversity of their communities, the distance between the journalist and the reader grows, and can diminish trust.
This problem is not exclusive to journalism. Standing for any public office and doing unpaid internships are surprisingly similar: for both you are basically paying out of pocket to audition for your possible future employers. Politicians audition first for their local association and then for the electorate.
In her book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, Isabel Hardman explains how in order to enter Parliament, “you need money, and a lot of it at that.. this excludes vast swathes of the population who could be excellent, compassionate parliamentarians but who just cannot afford the job interview”. Of the 532 Parliamentary Party Candidates she surveyed for her 2018 book, the average cost of standing was £11,118 – not including the endless hours knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, attending events and trying to get people to vote for you. Too many people who would be great in local councils, politics and journalism cannot afford the cost of auditioning for the role.
Since the Rochester and Strood by-election, there have been many other stories that we missed, that we should have seen coming.
- We wouldn’t have missed Grenfell, if newsrooms had more people understood the constant safety concerns residents have to try and address when you don’t own your own home.
- We wouldn’t have missed the intricacies of how changes to Universal Credit were going to affect people in their day to day lives.
- We wouldn’t have missed at a national level, the dire situation of cash-strapped local councils.
- National media would be more aware of the pressures that local councils are at to meet national house building targets if they lived around the Medway towns, where there’s very few GP surgeries and traffic is getting worse and worse.
At PressPad, we are trying to help trigger that change. We are a social enterprise that finds affordable accommodation and mentorship for people starting out in their journalism careers who have been offered a work placement or internship. Anybody who has a media placement can get in touch with us, and we will match them with an experienced journalist who has a spare room. Think of it like AirBnB for journalists with mentorship added as the cherry on top.
Like us, there are many other projects working hard to address different barriers of entry to journalism. If you’re a young person looking for advice on how to become a journalist, JournoResources is a fantastic place to look. If your dream is to work in broadcast, once you’ve started apply to the John Schofield Trust’s amazing mentoring scheme. Women in Journalism and SecondSource both have incredible mentorship schemes for women in the industry. And there are many more.
Journalism deserves more diverse storytellers because we owe it to the audiences we serve. We have to do better. So does politics. To echo Isabel Hardman’s words again, journalism, councils and Parliament “deserve to be fed by networks from across society, not just those connected to privilege” or London.
Laura Garcia’s work as a multimedia journalist started back in her home town of Mexico as a photographer for a newspaper. She also worked for newspapers and film production companies in the US before coming to the UK in September 2011. After that she was able to get into the world of broadcast because her lecturers and their friends allowed her to crash living rooms and bedrooms while she was getting work experience. Laura has worked in different newsrooms across the UK: ITV Meridian, BBC South East, BBC Radio Kent, NBC News, R4’s The World Tonight and Channel 5 News. Up until December last year she worked as a Lecturer in Television and Multimedia Journalism, and produced a politics show for KMTV. Currently she’s part of the training team at First Draft and is the London correspondent for Bloomberg Mexico and Estrella TV in Los Angeles.