Our podcast: Why class still matters in UK newsrooms

We look at how class prejudice affects journalists and journalism in the UK and how we can create more representative newsrooms
Staff at The Overtake

Staff at independent news outlet The Overtake. Credit: Robyn Vinter

The issue

British newsrooms are some of the least representative workplaces when it comes to class. A recent report found that 75% of journalists have a parent in one of the three highest occupational groups, one indicator of social class, compared to 45% of all UK workers. In this episode of our podcast we look at how class divisions impact newsrooms and the journalism they produce. We discuss why journalists from working-class backgrounds are so under-represented in British newsrooms and the types of prejudice and micro-aggressions they face. We discuss complexities in measuring progress and how newsroom managers can create a better environment for a more diverse workforce.

The speakers

Our guest is Robyn Vinter, an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for national newspapers in the UK, including The ObserverThe Guardian, the i newspaper and the Sunday Mirror. She was formerly a reporter at the Yorkshire Post and previously ran The Overtake, an investigative news website for young people. Robyn is a Journalist Fellow at the Reuters Institute.

Our host Caithlin Mercer is the Associate Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme. Caithlin was previously Managing Editor at Yahoo UK. She spearheaded their move into audio over two years and created eight podcasts across news, sport, entertainment and finance.

The podcast

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The transcript

The lack of working-class people in newsrooms 

Caithlin: We’re tackling a huge elephant in British newsrooms today – the under-representation of working-class people. We’ll share some facts and figures, some real-life stories, and we’ll look at whether there are any concrete steps you could take to make your organisation a more welcoming environment for working-class journalists and contributors. This is not a problem to tackle instead of diversity and inclusion. This is part and parcel of the diversity and inclusion problem. And if you have any lingering doubts about why this matters, it’s because representation is not just a moral imperative.

A 2018 report by Deloitte suggests that organisations with inclusive cultures are six times more innovative and agile, eight times as likely to achieve better business results. And twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets than organisations with less diversity in the workplace. And the bonus journalism benefit, you get better access to the communities you’re tasked with reporting on. The Diversity in Journalism Report, based on 2021 Labour Force Survey data and published by the National Council for the Training of Journalists found that 80% of people working in British newsrooms come from the top social classes. That figure was up from 75% in 2020.

How does that compare to the population? Only 42% of all UK workers had a parent in one of the three highest occupational groups, which is one of the key determinants of social class. Only 2% of journalists have a parent in the lowest two occupational groups, compared to 20% of all workers. And only 5% of journalists have parents in the skilled trades occupations, compared to 21%. So there is a real representation problem. But what you don’t get from the numbers is the human impact, and that’s why we’ve invited Robyn to have a conversation about what those numbers translate to in real life. You’ve started a WhatsApp group for working-class journalists. Can you tell me when you started it and why?

Robyn: I think I might have started it maybe four years ago, which seems like a long time, but I think that’s probably about accurate. I think something might have sent me off that day. I can’t remember what it was. It was maybe a column in a newspaper or something. So I messaged all the working-class journalists that I know and I also posted on Twitter, just asking, you know – because that’s the other thing as well. It’s alright for me to add the working class people that I know, but when you don’t have any kind of networks, like networks from school or university, sometimes you end up kind of excluded from this kind of thing. So I posted on Twitter and had a few responses and added people that I didn’t know to it, and we’ve become like fairly good friends.

Sometimes we’ll send each other links to things that have been written and we go, ‘oh my God, have you seen this?’ And sometimes we do a long voice note where we blow off steam about something that’s happened in the office we’re not happy about. So it’s quite a good forum for support and discussion, really.

Class-based micro-aggressions 

Caithlin: In preparation for this podcast, you asked some of them if they’d be willing, anonymously, to share some examples of why British newsrooms sometimes do not feel inclusive of working-class people. Would you mind sharing some of those?

Robyn: Yeah. So actually we talked for a few hours about this, once I started asking. I started off with an example. Sometimes you might get sent to do a food bank story. That might be because you’re a very good journalist and you’re very good with people. Or it might be because, somehow, you seem to fit in a food bank environment in a way that a posh journalist doesn’t. And then the other end of the scale as well, a job might come up that’s interviewing the Home Secretary, for example, and it might seem more appropriate to send a posher person. And that starts from kind of intern level or junior reporter level or trainee level sometimes.

And you can’t prove any of this and you can’t necessarily even put your finger on it sometimes. But it’s just, like a lot of elements of discrimination, it’s very difficult to really be able to concretely say, ‘this is classism’. But my friends responded with their own stories. One of them said he’s written a book and he gets comments from middle-class people, middle-class colleagues, surprised that he’s written a book, for example. And he said that one very middle-class co-worker said, “You wrote a book?” in such a way that she was shocked. And then proceeded to explain over me to someone else exactly what my book was about. And again, he wasn’t exactly sure that it was classism, but he said she’s the kind of person whose eyes glaze over if anything ever comes up that’s related to class.

One person said that they’ve been asked to do risky things in the name of journalism, because – and I quote, ‘we came to you because you’re from a Scouse family so are used to getting up to no good with the law’, which is really bad. And now, interestingly, she works in an international newsroom now and said that she's kind of free of that. And actually, she’s considered the posh one, which is quite nice. And that is something that I’ve felt while I’ve been here at the Reuters Institute, because everybody else is not from the UK. It’s just quite a nice break from it and from second-guessing yourself. And if someone makes a comment, I’m not thinking, ‘is that a classist comment? Was that about my background?’ Because it’s not. Because the class system is not really such an issue in other countries, or at least, not in the same way as in Britain.

So somebody said that in a newsroom that she worked in, there was a real gap in knowledge about what ordinary people would know and understand. So when writing articles, they’d refer to things and expect the readers to already know who these people were. So it might be like a literary reference or something like that. And she felt like she was constantly going mad, because she would have to explain that, no, not everybody will have heard of this person.

Caithlin: I think you’ve said a couple of times now, yourself not being sure and feeling like you’re going mad. And it sounds like there’s a lot of psychological pressure within the wheelhouse of what might be called ‘gaslighting’, because you’re just not sure the conversations aren’t being had.

Robyn: Yeah. It’s interesting, actually. A lot of working-class journalists mention to me about having impostor syndrome and feeling like they don’t belong, and I think that’s probably a very natural reaction. I had the opposite reaction, really, when I started working in journalism, and especially going into the national newsrooms. I’ve worked for a lot of different national newspapers. But I had, I guess, like reverse impostor syndrome where it was like, I couldn’t believe that I had worked so hard for so long and sacrificed so much, and been so thankful to have finally broke into journalism. And expected that, looking around in the newsroom, everyone would be incredible and super-smart and super-on it, and super-hardworking and amazing people. And actually, a lot of the people weren’t like that at all.

They were never even that enthusiastic. And maybe that’s how I survived in the industry, perhaps, because I didn’t actually feel like I was not meant to be there. I had other people with imposter syndrome.

Caithlin: I think I know what you mean.

Robyn: That’s the problem with me trying to articulate this. It’s like, I want to talk about it, but I don’t want to talk about it, if that makes sense. Because the real problems with classism and the lack of working-class people in the media, I wouldn’t actually know about them, because I’m here. And the real stories to be told are the people who aren’t able to tell them because they don’t have a platform, because they didn’t make it.

Measuring the problem 

Caithlin: You touched on the problem of the definition of working-class people, and I wanted to talk a little bit more with you about that. Because one in five Britons who earn over £100,000 a month, when asked to self-classify, said they were working-class. So in other words, people earning in the top 6% of all households are self-identifying as working-class. How are we ever going to measure how many working-class people are in a newsroom if people are self-defining in that way?

Robyn: To me, it’s actually very feasible that you could be earning that kind of money and still consider yourself working class. Especially if you still live in the community that you grew up in, or you live in a working-class community, or your family and friends are working-class. I don’t actually think that’s too much of a crazy. I mean, people do take the term to mean whatever they want it to mean. So you get people who, because their granddad worked in a factory, they consider themselves working-class. I think when it comes down to actually measuring it on any real level, self-identifying might not be the best way to go. I think, broadly speaking, it’s the best approach, but there comes a point when you’ve got to look at, for example, what your parents did for a living.

Caithlin: So in terms of identifying what ‘working class’ means, so that we can track it, because you have to have the data before you can define the problem and then start implementing the solutions. Perhaps one way to do that then is to say to your staff, “This is how we’re defining it,” based on, for example, whatever the Labour Force Survey defines as these key markers, like the occupation of your parents. And then asking people to self-report, based on that.

Robyn: Yeah, giving a definition and asking people whether they fit the definition makes sense, or taking some data about parents’ occupation, or someone’s postcode at age 14. Because actually, in this country, we have data about levels of deprivation by postcode. It’s quite granular data. It’s not perfect, but that’s the kind of thing that can be quite useful.

Caithlin: You wouldn’t even need to bother people with ‘please fill out yet another survey for HR’.

Robyn: Exactly.

Caithlin: What are the assumptions that are made about you that are incorrect, based on things like your accent, your tracksuit? What are the biases that need to be addressed?

Robyn: So the Social Mobility Foundation has done a lot of work around the concept of polish, and often working-class people, they don’t make as much money or they might not be promoted because they lack polish. What’s defined as ‘polish’ is a middle-class way of being, and that’s the default, and anything that deviates from that is not. Is seen as wrong or not appropriate. So for example, wearing sportswear in the newsroom. That would be seen as something that’s not appropriate. I don’t know, actually. I don’t know the answer to that question because I am not a middle-class person. And I feel like maybe that’s something to ask middle-class people if I just don’t know.

Caithlin: Can I hazard a guess... as an outside observer, that it seems to me like you are – not you, personally – but one is being regarded as, at the most basic level, ‘you can’t be as intelligent as me, because you aren’t wearing the right clothes or sounding the right syllables’.

Robyn: Yeah, I would agree with that, or at least that’s the impression that I sometimes get. It’s so insidious, because I don’t even think people are aware that they think that. I mean, sometimes people are aware that they think that, but I think it’s so ingrained in society that it’s not even a thought that people might notice that they have.

Recruiting for a diverse newsroom 

Caithlin: I want to start talking a little bit about solutions. What would a working-class journalist need in a UK newsroom to feel a sense of fairness and respect?

Robyn: A lot of the problem happens before people even make it to the journalism industry. There are a lot of things we could do in terms of recruitment to improve working-class representation in newsrooms. Having 98% of new journalists having a degree is one way of filtering out a lot of working-class people who would be great journalists. Because you don’t need a degree, you don’t need to write a dissertation to be able to be a journalist. You need training to be a journalist. And I actually think we have it the opposite way around. There isn’t enough specific journalism training.

So for example, the NCTJ is specific journalism training and you can do it as an apprentice. You can leave school at 16 and you can train to be a journalist, and that system works really well for recruiting working-class people. What we’ve got at the moment is kind of the opposite of that where we have, the barrier to entry is, you have to complete a very expensive degree in which you do all these things. You have to support yourself, financially, to even get to that point and you have to write a big, long academic dissertation in most cases. And it’s not something that someone who is good at journalism would necessarily be good at.

Caithlin: Say a manager is ready to throw out the old system, right? So here, you’ve identified the blockers – they’re structural, stop looking at CVs for ‘what university did you go to and what degree did you get?’ What should you be looking for?

Robyn: Well, when I ran a start-up news organisation, it was very small but we were almost all working-class and I didn’t ask for a CV. In fact, I specifically requested ‘don’t send a CV’, and if they sent a CV, then I ignored their application. I gave them, basically a simple exercise. So I asked them to have a go at some headlines for an article and to pick out what they thought was the best quote, and that was it. And if what I got back from that made some sense, then I invited them in. I wasn’t interested in what university people went to. And actually, if anything, I was more interested in the people who didn’t go to university.

They were great, like they were practical people, often. They had perspectives that weren’t often seen and they added so much. And I think sometimes people who go to a very good university are very good at doing certain things in a certain way. And they don’t necessarily think outside the box, because actually thinking outside the box is not that useful when you’re getting good grades and applying for a good university. So that’s one thing. I think you’ve really got to address any internal biases that you might have –

Caithlin:  – Yeah. How do we do that?

Robyn: – and everybody will think ‘well …’ – OK, so the problem with that is that it’s very, very hard to do in the society that we live in, because we live in such a classist society. So just the other day, I started watching a sitcom that was full of really appalling classist stereotypes and classist tropes. So the family in this sitcom were portrayed as being lazy, being kind of scroungers. The mum in the sitcom said she didn’t work and the joke was that she said, for obvious reasons or something, ‘in my condition’, and it wasn’t clear what her condition was. So there was like a notion of that maybe she was some kind of scrounger, like a real lack of ambition.

In the sitcom, the working-class characters were a kind of foil, almost like a prop for the middle-class people – oh, and immoral as well. And we, as an industry, have so far to go on this stuff.

Benefits of a diverse newsroom 

Caithlin: So when we talk about a newsroom culture that more than one class, ethnicity, sexuality, etc – gender, can feel a sense of belonging in, what does that culture look like?

Robyn: So I guess it depends on the newsroom. There are places where there is actually probably no benefit to them, or very little benefit to them to extend their bubble further than it already is. And the kind of benefits that you would get through that, they won’t necessarily get, because they are targeting a certain audience and that certain audience is defined, broadly, by class. So I think disregarding those kind of situations. OK, let’s take a well-meaning newsroom that really does want to have a more representative staff and do better content and get more readers and get a broader range of readers.

So there’s a real tangible benefit to having working-class people in the newsroom, and it’s about discussions that you might have, internally, about the kind of content that you want to do. It’s about being able to speak to different groups of people. You’re going to get loads of really good ideas for stories because of that, and I think it kind of comes down to that. It’s like there’s just a bit of a desert, like there’s just a bit of a gap when writing about working-class people. In the newsroom, they’re like, ‘oh, cost of living crisis, what can we do? Foodbank or Universal Credit’.

And the same ideas are being recycled over and over, because there’s nobody in that newsroom saying, “Oh, well actually, these are the real problems. And I was speaking to someone the other day about this and this is what’s actually happening.” I think that’s it and I think we have really poor media literacy in this country and quite poor participation from people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. And that’s purely of our own making, that’s purely because we don’t do the kind of content within journalism that they want to read, or we don’t talk about them.

Caithlin: That’s it. It’s the recognition from the newsroom – ‘we’re not going to get these stories. We’re not going to get the story right. We’re not going to tell every aspect of the story without your contribution’. And again, that’s going to require a conversation happening first, like, “Hey, what background are you from?’” and feeling actually safe and open in this environment to say, “Oh yeah, my dad works at –

Robyn: Asda.

Caithlin: – right, “My dad works at Asda and I identify as working-class.” “OK, great. Now I know that I can come to you and talk to you for a perspective on this thing.” But if that conversation isn’t had, then nobody wants to make assumptions, so there’s just this sort of weird tiptoeing around the conversation and not having it.

Robyn: Yeah, but I think we’re so far away from people really being able to – or a lot of people really being able to be honest and being able to say that in most newsrooms. And I think it has to be a culture shift within the newsroom.

Creating a shift in newsrooms 

Caithlin: That’s not something you can ask your staff to do – “Hey, please make this place still open and safe for everyone.” It’s literally, it has to come from leadership where they’ve shown a commitment to addressing this issue. They’ve invited contribution, there’s been a willingness from the leader, themselves, to be aware of their bias – in themselves and in the system. That they’re curious about the different cultures that people are coming from, and different life experiences that they’re bringing to the table. That they, themselves, are culturally-intelligent, because they’ve had these conversations. And that they’re then creating the conditions for these conversations to happen, safely and openly, so that working-class journalists can feel valued for their actual working-class backgrounds.

Robyn: I think that we already know what the implicit biases are and we already know what is and isn’t classist. The problem is that some people think classism is OK, and that’s where it starts. So when someone makes fun of someone’s accent, it’s not because we don’t have the words to describe making fun of someone’s accent, it’s because no one ever said, “Don’t do that.”

Caithlin: Is this an example of where you would hear, “Oh, it’s just a bit of banter”?

Robyn: Yeah, exactly. If there’s training that needs to be had, the training needs to be, ‘we are a newsroom that, when people do this, we call it out’. And that’s the way we make it more inclusive. It will be very easy for people to get out of this by saying, “Oh, we don’t know what class means anymore. People have always made fun of each other’s accent and I wouldn’t mind if someone made fun of my accent.” But I think, deep down, everybody knows that it’s not appropriate.

Caithlin: You’re right, you’re 100% right, and yet there’s a contradiction in what you’re saying. Because on the one hand, you’re saying we shouldn’t have to have these conversations – you know what’s wrong and right. On the other hand, you’re saying, nobody wants to talk about this yet. We don’t want to talk about this yet. It’s too soon to have these conversations without it becoming really, really awkward. And there’s something in me that’s wondering, if it’s so difficult to have these conversations because we’re worried about shaming people if we have these conversations. And having that concern – ‘oh, will that person feel uncomfortable or ashamed if I ask them if they’re working-class or middle class?’ presumes that there is something to be ashamed of in being working class. It’s morally neutral, or it needs to be – it should be.

Robyn: I think it’s actually kind of more complicated than that as well, because it’s like people will agree that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being working class, but it’s seeing those working-class identifiers. There’s identifying characteristics as something other than being working class. That’s where the problem comes from, I think, a lot of the time. When people mix up something that’s an identifier of class with something that seems to be a personal failing. So for example, lazy. So if like –

Caithlin: Scrounger, unintelligent.

Robyn: Yeah. There’s so much shared understanding of class that doesn’t get said, that actually, trying to say those things now is actually quite hard. It’s quite hard to do that, the kind of thinking.

Caithlin: If I were to summarise key takeaways, for me, what I’ve learnt from you is that, really, really key, that despite how awfully painful and awkward the conversation is, we do need to create safe spaces where people from different classes can come together and genuinely just have a conversation about what those implicit biases are. Because until you’ve heard that verbalised, you’re going to have a very hard time confronting implicit bias in your workplace to the point of actually fixing this problem.

Robyn: I think you’re probably right. Yeah. The good thing is, I’ve felt like there is an appetite – a lot of appetite in this industry to improve things. But I think the problem is that nobody’s done any thinking, whatsoever, sometimes. I’ve been asked before, “How do we know when someone’s working class? What do we do about it?” And it’s like, well, you know what the problem is, really. If you spend five minutes thinking about your organisation, you know what the problem is. You can find a way to solve it yourself. Like, it doesn’t need me to write a framework where it ticks all these boxes.

I find it quite difficult sometimes to have this conversation in a really kind of open and genuine way when I feel like often I’m being asked questions from people – not in this conversation right now – but I mean, I’m being asked questions sometimes from people in news organisations that haven’t made even the smallest effort to address it. And seem, somehow – or are acting like they’re baffled by how this has happened. So I think that’s maybe why it’s so difficult to articulate it and why it’s so difficult to give advice.

Caithlin: You know in body positivity they have the sentence ‘all bodies are good bodies’? What would that sentence be for class? Is there like a class positivity movement? Do we need like a Jameela Jamil? Can you be our Jameela Jamil for like class positivity – start a movement?

Robyn: I feel like people have what they think is class positivity, but I don’t –

Caithlin: I feel like the working-class have class positivity. I feel like the middle-classes and the upper-classes need to get on board of the damn train.

Robyn: Yeah, yeah, maybe you’re right.

Caithlin: Robyn, I want to thank you for actually articulating really well the problem where you think we can start looking for solutions.