Underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in British press

For a group of people who are so often the chosen subject for columnists and reporters covering such hot-button topics as integration, immigration and terrorism, surprisingly few ethnic minority voices appear on the other end of the pen or camera.

Recent months have seen a growing buzz around the problem of unequal media representation. There’s just no getting away from the fact that the small circles of mainstream newspapers output in the UK remain dominated by white men, however clichéd or repetitive recognising the fact may feel.

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It seems easy to think of ethnic minority figures at first: Sir Trevor McDonald, Moira Stewart, Zeinab Badawi, Rageh Omaar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Mehdi Hasan are just some of the best known ethnic minority voices to feature in the mainstream national media. But dig a little deeper and the overwhelming dominance of a group of people lacking diversity, tackling minority-related issues without the experience to back up their ‘insights’, becomes plain. Though 9/11 may have drawn attention to those Muslim journalists willing to take on a public religious identity, ethnic minority journalists remain a relatively rare breed in the media, irrespective of religion.

In a survey of the comment pages of major national newspapers, prime journalistic real estate, The New Statesman monitored the ethnicity of writers featured over the course of a week.

The three newspapers which failed to feature a single non-white writer amongst over twenty writers for the week in total were, perhaps predictably, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Express.

The best-performing newspaper was The Guardian, which ran four pieces by non-white writers out of a total of 48.

To put the numbers in context a little better, ethnic minorities make up 16.7% of the population of England and Wales, or one in six people. To reflect this within their pool of comment writers for the week, The Guardian would have had to feature eight minority writers, The Telegraph should have had at least seven, and The Daily Mail and The Express should have featured three each.

It’s a problem which reaches beyond the comment pages. The media is often accused of over-representing minorities, with the high ratio of ethnic minorities in the BBC’s intake often singled out for criticism alongside the positive action schemes run by The Guardian and the Pearson Group.

Yet it remains a fact that fewer than 7% of journalists and editors come from ethnic minority backgrounds according to the PPA (Professional Publishers Association), less than half the number that should exist proportional to the population.

It is important to bear in mind amidst these demands for better minority representation in the media, that an opinion piece from an ethnic minority writer does not require that they tackle a race-related subject. Some have argued in response to The New Statesman’s figures that there simply aren’t enough people from ethnic minority backgrounds with sufficient authority and experience to write comment pieces on the Eurozone crisis, or domestic violence, or indeed, much beyond race and religion. It is impossible to accept that ethnic minorities fail to produce people competent in these areas, given figures such as The Guardian’s economics writer, Aditya Chakrabortty, features writer, Homa Khaleeli, and Channel 4’s Economics Editor, Faisal Islam.

But perhaps this indicates a wider problem, pointing to the fact that there are simply fewer people from minority backgrounds, lacking the necessary socio-economic background to equip them with the skills and unpaid experience necessary in a young journalist. A 2007 study conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the poverty rate for Britain’s minority ethnic groups stood at 40%, double the 20% found amongst white Brits.

It’s a problem that reaches beyond journalism, into the very structure of our society. This does not, however, excuse white male editors of their responsibility to provide representative coverage. Whilst they’re at it, they may also want to do something about the fact that only a quarter of national news journalists are women.






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