Widening the lens of foreign news

Widening the lens of foreign news

By Marcus Ryder,
Tuesday, 4th April 2023
Yogita Limaye reporting in Afghanistan
BBC South Asia and Afghanistan correspondent Yogita Limaye reporting from Afghanistan in 2021. Credit: BBC.
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Ukraine has reignited the debate over a lack of diversity in how TV war reporting is framed. Marcus Ryder reports.

On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity and ITN held an invitation-only event to ask if the war had exposed a serious lack of diversity across newsrooms and what this meant for the journalism they produced?

At the start of the war, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “In the heat of war, a number of correspondents, consciously or not, framed suffering and displacement as acceptable for Arabs, Afghans and others over there — but not here, in Europe.”

There were frequent examples of racial prejudices and stereotypes permeating the language in the reports. Ukrainian victims were described as people “just like us”, and “having blond hair and blue eyes”.

But there were also issues with the framing of the reporting, which were more subtle but possibly even more insidious, such as stories portraying the conflict as more dramatic because “Ukraine is not a ‘third-world’ country”. This was despite Ukraine then being ranked 133rd globally in terms of GDP per capita – below numerous African, Asian and South American countries. The fact that many countries on these continents are not “third-world countries” is not raised when conflicts from these places are reported.

While many of these early “mistakes” were picked up – with some news organisations and individual journalists even offering mea culpas – the concern is that it has exposed a deeper problem in the way journalists frame and report the Ukraine war and foreign conflicts in general.

The fact is that only about 0.2% of British journalists for mainstream media organisations are black. When it comes to the ethnic backgrounds of UK foreign correspondents, figures are scant but, anecdotally, the picture appears to be even less diverse.

But does the race, gender, sexuality or disability of the people in front of and behind the camera affect the journalism that TV news organisations produce and how audiences connect with it?

ITV global security editor Rohit Kachroo reporting from Ukraine in 2023.
Credit: ITV.

These were the fundamental questions that ITN and the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity addressed in front of an audience that included ITV director of news Michael Jermey, ITV head of diversity Ade Rawcliffe and the Chair of the Imperial War Museum, Matthew Westerman.

The discussion was chaired by ITV News senior correspondent Ronke Phillips and featured: Bafta-winning journalist Paul Kenyon, who has reported for the BBC; ITV News global security editor Rohit Kachroo; Channel 4 commissioning editor for news and current affairs Nevine Mabro; and BBC South Asia and Afghanistan correspondent Yogita Limaye, who joined online. I was also on the panel.

All acknowledged that there is a serious lack of diversity, which creates a serious problem. Kenyon, who was in Ukraine at the time of the Russian invasion and has reported from numerous conflict zones, set out the issue with stark candour: “There’s still an old-fashioned preserve of white, middle-class, public-school-educated journalists [in war reporting].” He added: “There’s a whole host of reasons for that, but this issue isn’t resolved by putting more people from ethnic minority backgrounds on screen alone. Behind the camera is where there’s a real issue.”

Limaye, on a Zoom link from India, responded by explaining that the teams she works with often have people from all over the world. Unsurprisingly, the governments and populations of the countries her team members come from often hold very different views of the conflicts that the teams cover.

For example, India abstained from voting to sanction Russia in a critical vote at the UN following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

It is this diversity of perspectives and values in the editorial process, rather than on-screen representation alone, that Kenyon and Limaye agreed is critical in accurately reporting on wars. This is something that we have all too often lacked. Kenyon talked about how he would frequently call colleagues in seemingly unrelated places, such as Ghana, to get their perspective on events.

The message that came across loud and clear during a spirited and occasionally humorous debate was that diversity is not just “nice to have” but creates better journalism and gives audiences a more rounded and more nuanced understanding of events. It helps challenge stereotypes and stops group think.

Mabro, an executive producer of the award-winning film For Sama, concerning a young mother’s harrowing experience of the Syrian war, talked about how commissioners often fail to understand the importance of diversity.

Using the example of For Sama, she explained how some executives had originally wanted it to be a love story, playing to accepted narratives and tropes. Ultimately, this would have denied the female protagonist the power and agency she had in the film.

Possibly the most depressing – and yet simultaneously optimistic –moment in the discussion arose in a contribution from the audience, when ITN’s head of high risk, James Sladden, addressed the issue of the almost total lack of disabled reporters in war zones. He said that, despite the challenges, he saw no reason why there shouldn’t be more. Sladden encouraged newsrooms to talk to him to explore how they could make this happen.

Soberingly, ITV News’s Kachroo, who had returned from Ukraine the day before, said the lack of diversity in all its numerous forms had led the reporting on Ukraine to unearth something that is deep-rooted in newsroom culture. “It felt like the expression of something we always felt was there, an unsaid hierarchy for the value of life.”

There was undeniably a lot of good will in the room among both the panellists and audience members, but the question remains how do we transform that into action?

In my job at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, based at Birmingham City University, I recognise the importance of data to help drive change and shape policies.

If there was one policy recommendation that came out of the discussion, it would be for newsrooms to keep data on the protected characteristics of their foreign correspondents and war reporters, and those who work behind the camera. Currently, no UK broadcaster keeps these statistics.

And while the anecdotal evidence and lived experiences of people in the field, such as Kenyon and Kachroo, all point to a complete lack of diversity, rarely does anecdotal evidence shape effective policy remedies. Following this debate, what we should seek next are the hard facts.

Marcus Ryder is head of external consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University.


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