Text and picture by Ida Flik.
In an interview, the journalist and co-founder of hostwriter.org calls for critical self-reflection in mainstream media.
Newsrooms need to account more for diversity in order to stay relevant. Journalists from all over the world illustrated this point with the book “Unbias the News: Why diversity matters for journalism”. In an interview, journalist and co-founder of the organization that published the book, Tabea Grzeszyk, reflects on who gets a seat in today’s journalism industry, the role of journalists in society, ‘objectivity’ and the idea of journalism as activism.
“I have the impression that topics of diversity and representation have been around for a long time already, but the understanding that this is about future sustainability is new”, states Grzeszyk, while recalling a recent training conducted in a newsroom in Germany. “When I said that white newsrooms are part of the problem, people gave me the looks.”
Grzeszyk emphasizes the need to move away from narratives of diversity in newsrooms as acts of ‘charity’. Instead, it needs to be framed as a problem for the quality of the journalism these newsrooms produce. “Readers stay away if they are not represented. It’s simply bad journalism.”
In the US, the Knight Foundation found that people from communities underrepresented in mainstream media outlets often move to social media for getting their news, instead. Grzeszyk, who works at the German public service radio Deutschlandfunk Kultur, mentions the Otto Brenner Foundation whose studies explain some of the consequences of lacking diversity in German newsrooms. They found that reporting around the so-called “refugee crisis” had neglected journalistic principles as a result of being too detached from migrant and diasporic communities. Another study highlights the media’s role around the NSU investigations, where police failed to acknowledge racist motivations of a murder series and themselves followed hypothesis largely based on racist stereotypes.
What journalism can learn from Cultural Sciences
Before entering the journalistic profession, Grzeszyk studied Cultural Studies at a university in Berlin, where she got in touch with topics and theories like queer theory, deconstructionism, postcolonial theory and critical whiteness.
Grzeszyk used to be Chief Editor of a programme at the public service radio station before she switched to freelancing and co-founded hostwriter.org, the organization which in 2019 published the aforementioned book. She is now managing the organization which runs an online platform helping journalists network and provides training in cross-border journalism.
She describes both the collaborative book as well as a paper she published as attempts of transferring knowledge from the field of Cultural Sciences to journalistic practice. The idea for the book developed from conversations within the platform’s international community of journalists that started around the often problematic practice of hiring “fixers”.
“Tendencies towards being elitist”
We talk about entryways into the journalistic profession. In Germany, most journalists start with a “Volontariat”, a 1 to 2-year traineeship program offered by most major news outlets. I wonder if this education acts as a door opener for people from non-academic backgrounds. “Journalism has a significant class problem”, Grzeszyk responds instead and points towards statistics that show a majority of journalists have a university degree. In the UK, private education is another gatekeeper, especially for making it to the higher ranks of editors. Meanwhile, many other forms of discrimination are not documented in numbers. According to her, not gathering the right data is “where the problem starts”. For example, journalists with disabilities are another significantly underrepresented group.
I wonder how public service broadcasting compares to private media companies in Germany. Grzeszyk points out that “the aspiration to be an especially ‘educated’ and ‘quality’ medium creates exclusions, too – it can create a tendency towards being elitist”. While admitting that these are merely personal observations since no such statistics are regularly captured in Germany, she mentions: “On other channels’ programs you can see journalists with immigrant backgrounds more often and sometimes even hear a slight accent with a presenter – with the public service stations, that hasn’t been possible for a long time.”
Rethinking hiring patterns to break structural exclusion
One example might be reconsidering qualifications and hiring practices: “I get that language skills are very important for the job, but that is also something you can train people in. Instead, we maybe should pay more attention to which and how many other languages a person speaks, and what communities they have access to. At the moment, these things are not taken into account – it often ends up being about whether or not you are proficient in German grammar and can write the news.”
Grzeszyk mentions the 50:50 policy the BBC introduced in 2018 to try to achieve equal representation of female- and male-identified staff members.
“The understanding that things need to change is there”, she comments. “In theory, I see a lot of openness; the question is rather how deeply people will engage. Journalists are those who explain the world – to direct the lens back to oneself then is a rather unfamiliar situation”, says the journalist, who has previously urged newsroom managers to book anti-racism trainings for their staff.
Being impartial versus defending democracy
I asked her about the role of journalism in society and her ethical compass as a journalist. Grzeszyk mentions what she calls the “traditional” concept of media and journalism as the fourth pillar of a democracy, tasked with holding existing powers accountable.
She refers to journalists as “defendants of democracy” if the latter is threatened. In her opinion, journalists need to make a clear distinction between democratic and anti-democratic actors: “For me, it is clear that when I have done proper research and have come to a conclusion, then we also have to communicate that conclusion. That is just proper research and clear reporting and not ‘I have to show both sides’”. She hints towards talk shows. “I think it is erroneous to want to always depict the whole spectrum. With this chronologist approach we don’t put things into context anymore”. She remembers the BBC’s pre-Brexit coverage: “When you are being “impartial” and you portray ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ as equals – it is a relevant piece of information that ‘leave’ is working with lies. That is not fifty-fifty.”
“People sometimes carry the concept of ’objectivity’ in front of themselves like a protective shield”
As for the idea of objectivity, which is often used as an argument to present and treat different positions equally, she responds: “People sometimes carry the concept of ’objectivity’ in front of themselves like a protective shield”, adding that “of course nobody wants to throw out the baby with the bathing water – with fake news etc people are afraid that when you say there is no universal truth, everything turns arbitrary. Of course, there are facts. But when I report facts, I interpret them. So the best possible is fact-based reporting, but there will always be a moment of interpretation.”
She suggests talking more about transparency instead of the term ‘objectivity’, including the societal position from which one speaks.
“There is a lot to learn from other discourses. For example, in the academic world, this idea of universal truth and objectivity has been worked through exhaustively already – they are a lot further down the road, and journalism really needs to catch up, now.”
Dealing with elected, far-right political forces
In December 2019, the German journalists’ union hosted a panel discussion that Grzeszyk was part of. The invitation posed the questions “How should journalists report on the threat from the right-wing? What is the right way to deal with an AfD that is openly nationalist, authoritarian and racist? What new rules are needed?”. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was founded in 2013 and grew into the third-largest party by 2017 when it scored 12.6% of all voters in the federal elections.
I am curious how the public service broadcast in Germany, that was set up by the Allied Forces after WWII to explicitly help educate towards democracy and prevent fascism, deals with these forces today.
Grzeszyk shares her reflections: “All of this is a learning process. Now, they [the AfD] are dealt with more critically, again, I think. For example Höcke [leader of the Thuringia section of the AfD who is monitored and considered a right-wing extremist by the domestic intelligence service] – he is a fascist and then we also have to call him that.” However, back in 2016, she recalls, reporting was shaped more by the fear of not wanting to be called one-sided. She worked full-time for the public service radio until 2016, at a time when the AfD started to win seats in state parliaments and were given “too much uncritical space” in the media, in Grzeszyk’s opinion.
Can journalism and activism be separated?
So what about the ideal of neutral journalism and journalists without a personal opinion? Some journalists find it important to differentiate between activism and journalism. “I think that is a bit artificial”, Grzeszyk replies. “If democracy is endangered, us journalists become activists for democracy. With the word “activist”, there is often an underlying assumption that the thorough research and careful weighing of pros and cons is lost; that we are just doing PR. But these things are of course still just as important to uphold.”
Grzeszyk mentions the Panama Papers. “They were excellent journalism, but had an activist impact”. She continues: “I think it is more important to talk about transparency and quality standards. I would say that when one does a good job, it has the effect of political activism, whether or not oneself defines it like that or not.”
She adds a more global context to the question and raises attention to the fact that “real” press freedom is the privilege of a worldwide minority. “People under repressive regimes, who are working on making things better and overthrowing politicians, automatically are ‘activist’ journalists. I think retracting to some ‘neutral observer’ position presumes an incredibly stable political system. It is a very Western idea.”
Sustainable funding a ”dramatic challenge”
We start to talk about the financial situation of the journalism industry in Germany, the masses of jobs that have been moved to freelance contracts, colleagues that have to do side jobs in order to cover their living costs. “In-depth research projects are becoming a hobby”, Grzeszyk sighs.
This is a problem concerning all of society, she suggests. “If we agree that journalism is indispensable for the society, we have to find sustainable ways of funding. This is really a dramatic challenge. … In general, journalism is still seen as a commercial product, which is nonsense, because very few can make money with it.”
She adds about the importance of good conditions for journalistic work worldwide and not just a limited region. “The world is not better off if Europe has fantastic journalism and the rest is going down the drain. It is an interest that there is strong journalism all over the world, it is in all of our interest.” She explains how Hostwriter manages to cover its costs in creative ways, like offering trainings on the side. “But the world is not any better when one start-up in Berlin has scored sustainable funding. We need to see it as a whole system.”
Being open to criticism is key
When we spoke about “directing the lens back to oneself”, Grzeszyk shared a recent story of her own from the launch of the Unbias the News book at an international journalism conference. The organizers had found a “special location” for the event – a boat. “And then exactly this thing happened – a blind journalist spoke up and wrote a text about how the experience was from her perspective”, Grzeszyk remembers. In the text, the journalist criticized the inaccessibility of the location and the lack of mentioning disability in discussions around diversity. “It really hit us, and of course she was totally right”, she recalls and describes how her organization tried to deal with it: “It feels very uncomfortable because you feel guilt over your mistake, but I think in these cases it is more important to deal with it in a transparent way, to learn from it and to do it better in the future.”
Summarizing our conversations across different topics, Grzeszyk concludes: “Of course we can’t make journalism perfect overnight”. The most important thing, she suggests, is to engage with criticism and learn from it: “If we account for the fact that we will make mistakes, that people will call things out, and if we then learn from it and better ourselves and don’t react in aggressive ways or try to cover up what happened, much is gained already.”
Hostwriter.org platform – a network for journalists to ask for advice, find cross-border collaborations or a colleague’s couch: www.hostwriter.org
Book “Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism”: www.unbiasthenews.org
Fundraising campaign for Hostwriter to get over the effects of the corona crisis – you can also get the book there (as pdf or print): donate.hostwriter.org