The Only Way is Ethics: Our newsrooms must become more diverse, but even white men can understand this

Fundamental to the proper practice of good news journalism is the ability to understand all sides of a complex story

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The Independent Online

Newsrooms are, generally, insufficiently diverse. They are disproportionately male and non-white minorities are poorly represented. New entrants into journalism often come from fairly well-to-do backgrounds. Initiatives that aim to redress this imbalance are important, particularly as our audience, especially online, is ever more diverse.

I was reminded of this last week when we received a complaint about our report that Chris Bryant MP had criticised the Baftas for being dominated by white faces. In a headline, we summarised this as him “taking aim at black-free Baftas”. The term “black-free” had not been used by Bryant (although, mysteriously, we put it in quotation marks) but it captured the unrepresentative nature of the event.

Dissent came in an email which argued that because freedom is generally regarded as a good thing, the expression “black-free” had intrinsically positive connotations. The writer made a comparison with “child-free” in an effort to prove the point.

I just don’t buy this. Expressions such as “child-free”, “sugar-free”, “fun-free” and even “black-free” are surely just factual. We understand from the context whether positive or negative inferences are to be drawn. And, in the headline in question, it seemed beyond doubt that The Independent was ascribing to the term a condemnatory meaning because that was the sense of Bryant’s comment on the awards.

And then I began to doubt myself. Was I making this judgement as a relatively advantaged white man? Should I, to use that ghastly phrase, “check my privilege”? Well, maybe, and we amended the headline online.

Yet I have always thought it rather trite when it is said that a person cannot understand something because they do not have direct experience of it or because their cultural background precludes the possibility. That isn’t to say that there is no merit in this notion. But it is simplistic, denying the very facilities that mark humans out from so many other animals: imagination and empathy.

Fundamental to the proper practice of good news journalism is the ability to understand all sides of a complex story. That may not be easy but it marks out the best reporters.

It is imperative that our newsrooms become more truly representative of the society we live in. However, it would be wise to avoid lazy assumptions that individuals are incapable of engaging in a genuine, rigorous and empathetic way with topics that are beyond their own experience.

Critique of a charade

Last week’s suggestion that an aide of Ed Miliband’s had described the Labour leader’s run-in with Lord Fink as a “Milly Dowler moment” caused a kerfuffle.

I struggle to see, had those words been said, quite why they would be so awful. But that is by the by. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, who reported the comparison, subsequently clarified that he was not quoting anyone directly.

This raises an interesting question for journalists. When reporting an off-the-record discussion, how much latitude can there be to interpreting what was said? In other words, can a journalist use his or her own words to summarise the position of others?

Surely the answer must be yes, in which case any criticism of those words would have to be directed at the journalist; except, of course, that he or she would not be using them for the same purpose. Thus, as in this instance, there can be no criticism attached to anyone – aside from those who have attempted to make political capital out of the whole charade.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore