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Discrimination isn’t just a US problem

The Fix spoke to Unbias the News’ Tina Lee about how European newsrooms can deal with diversity issues

Amid the US protests and the global conversation about discrimation and representation they sparked, The Fix spoke to Tina Lee, a Berlin-based American journalist, Hostwriter’s Head of Ambassador’s Network and Editor in Chief of “Unbias the news”. 

Lee described the kind of issues that exist in European newsrooms and journalism in general, as well as how journalists, editors, and individuals can go about tackling them. 

Note: Both Tina Lee and The Fix acknowledge the remarks below (along with associated recommendations) come from a conversation between two white women including a white, American journalist who knows she has similar problems with biases that many other white journalists do. We welcome any feedback or suggestions regarding this article ‒ please respond to us on social media or in the comments below.

The interview has been edited and condensed. 

Tina Lee
Source: Mezhyhirya Fest

Alicja Peszkowska: Is racism an American-specific issue?

Tina Lee: Absolutely not. Europeans need to grasp that racism has not been “solved” in Europe. Europe was, after all, the inventor of racism – the US may have perfected it but colonialism and slavery are both ideas that come from the old continent.

AP: How does it show in Europe?

TL: Throughout Europe racism and discrimination take different forms. There is a lot of anti-black, anti-Muslim racism in all of Western Europe. 

On top of that, because of the East/ West divide the same narratives and stereotypes about Eastern Europe are constantly being reproduced. In CEE, on the other hand, you see it with Roma and with immigrants of all forms. 

These voices are not represented in the media and when they are it is often very one-sided or biased. Roma people, for example, are almost always referred to as a social issue. 

How different nationalities or identities are represented in public discourse is another problem. In Germany the media would write about a ‘Tunisian man’,  but if it was a German person they would simply say ‘a man’. 

This reproduces stereotypes and discrimation throughout Europe.

AP: How about discrimination within newsrooms as workplaces?

TL: It is a huge problem and clearly present at European newsrooms. I recently read a German study called Diversity in German Journalism by Neue Deutsche Mediemacher Innen, which concludes that in Germany, where 1/4 people have a migrant background, only 6% of editors do. 

People of colour, especially black people, and immigrants are bullied, harassed, pushed out of the journalism field, paid less, put on less interesting topics or told that if they report on the topics related to people from their identity group, for example, they will be biased. Meanwhile, of course, it is assumed that white people can objectively report on any topic.

In German newsrooms it happens a lot with migration issues, that people of colour are told not to report on. 

AP: What can we do about it? 

TL: The old rules still apply. People need to develop awareness, recgonise their own biases, be aware of their own prejudices and try to adapt an anti-racist and anti-discrimation mindset by educating themselves. Representation, of course, also matters. However, these things are no longer enough and we need to go beyond them. 

One of the key things that people need to recognize, whether it is a #metoo movement or this new movement for racial justice that we see now ‒ the issue is not about replacing individual people, the issue is changing a system and setup that strategically disadvantages women, people of colour, ethnic and religious minorities. 

AP: What can a leader or a manager do to improve the current situation?

TL: As an editor I would want to critically reexamine what space for inequality I have left in my newsroom. For example, it helps to ensure there is a role in your workplace that can help workers address issues safely. 

Second, ask yourself: how do I ask for feedback from people that work for me about whether or not they experience discrimination? Am I open to that feedback? Am I receptive to it? What are the power dynamics at play that I may have ignored? 

For example, are there interns that do a lot of work and are not compensated or referenced for it? Are people taking advantage of work trips to harass people? 

It is about examining different situations by asking ourselves what can produce disparities in the team and trying to tackle them before they become a problem. 

As a leader you also have to think about hiring practices and other ways in which you might be discouraging people from different backgrounds from even applying to join your workplace or how you may have been lifting up some voices over others.

This is not about being woke. I rather see it as a way of being more accurate and being able to face the times we are in right now, where people are sick of hearing the same old perspectives of polarised majorities speaking back and forth to each other. 

By having different voices, by telling a different story, you are also telling a more accurate story. It is better journalism.

AP: What if you are not a leader but a journalist?

TL: Examine who you are asking for your stories. Check whether your sources look like you, come from your same socio-economic background, same country, same life experience. If so, diversify.

Next, what is your social media diet? Who do you follow on social media and who do you amplify? Again, are these people similar to you? 

Research shows that men, for example, tend to retweet other men. Women also tend to retweet other women but are a lot less retweeted than men in general. 

The same is true for people of colour in Europe. Journalists from migrant backgrounds and journalists of colour are less often retweeted by white journalists. 

This is something you can take a look at straight away and also by the same token, just evaluate what perspectives you have been absorbing. You are what you consume and if you are consuming non-diverse perspectives, that is also what you are going to produce.

AP: How should you approach research?

TL: It is all about educating yourself. Research, read, and challenge your perspective. For me what has been useful was to actually read more history.

I recommend all European journalists read “King Leopold’s Ghost” about the history of colonialism in Belgium and the rest of Europe, as well as to read more about the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, which can help you challenge the stereotypes that you have about this part of the continent; explore the history of Roma. Basically checking the history of things you are reporting on.

AP: How can you do that day-to-day?

TL: One thing that is now being recognised by people in Europe and all over the world is that these bigger newsrooms might be just impossible to break into. The culture of bullying, harassment, elitism that exist in many of them is so hard to overcome that many people rather start their own blogs and websites, The Fix is one example of that.

I’d recommend everyone to follow these new platforms, because they deserve both your attention and your support. In Germany there are newsrooms that highlight Muslim and migrants’ perspectives, in the UK those are mediums focused on, e.g., black female stories (check out gal-dem.com). 

In India, I follow Scroll.in, they have a great newsletter, romea.cz has great Roma news, Kyiv Post has comprehensive news on Ukraine, there is also Infomigrants ‒ a newsroom with news and information for migrants. 

AP: We would love to expand this list, so [a note to our readers ‒ please add suggestions in the comments!] Last but not least: what role did covid-19 play in any of this, if at all? Did it help Hostwriter promote its mission?

TL: Hostwriter is an open network that helps journalists to easily collaborate across borders. One good thing that happened out of covid-19 pandemic is that because of travel restrictions people started to increasingly reach out to journalists based in other places to collaborate on stories about places rather than just write about them on their own. 

If I want to write about Ukraine, I don’t just go there, talk to a few Ukrainian people and hire a fixer, but find local journalists that can help me grasp the bigger picture. I hope it will stay, not as a matter of convenience, but simply as a way of producing much better stories. 

Alicja Peszkowska is a Copenhagen-based consultant, researcher, and a participation strategist focused on technology, digital culture, and social change. Her track record includes working with IOVIA, Outriders, Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, TechSoup Europe, and Creative Commons.

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