“Ultimately, journalism is about reflecting the stories of society. If that journalism is made by a small group of people who represent a small minority of the population, then journalism isn’t doing its job. The question is actually about basic questions of equity and fairness.”Shirish Kulkarni
After decades of media companies turning a blind eye to diversity, equity and inclusion, the tide is slowly starting to turn.
Hearst recently reported that 45% of its leaders are female and that 23% are non-white, which at face value might not seem impressive but it shows significant progress from a few years ago.
Meanwhile, in 2022 Future PLC set out its board diversity policy, with a stated aim that “the proportion of women on the Board and in leadership positions is 40 percent by no later than 2025 and to have at least one director of colour by no later than 2024.”
The larger media players all seem to agree they need to increase the percentage of people from minority backgrounds on their teams to better serve and reflect the society at large.
Progress is rarely as fast as we would like, but we are making progress.Hearst President and CEO Steven R. Swartz in a company memo
But there are many who caution against back-slapping and warn that media companies still have a long way to go to deliver working environments that enable individuals from diverse backgrounds to truly flourish.
One of the key voices in this debate belongs to Shirish Kulkarni. He describes himself as “an independent journalist, researcher, consultant and community organiser focusing on innovation and inclusion in storytelling.
Shirish Kulkarni is also someone who knows the media landscape intimately.
“Over a 25-year career I have worked in every major broadcast newsroom in the UK, and done almost every job – editing network news programmes, being a camera operator/editor in the field, winning awards for investigative journalism, and even being a broadcast drone pilot.”
He claims too that his work has had ‘global impact’ after having presented his research at the Reuters Institute, the World News Media Congress, the International Journalism Festival, the Future of Journalism Conference and many others.
He also has some serious words for media companies, especially those he believes are involved in little more than DE&I box-ticking exercises.
The need for systemic solutions
“I’m not particularly optimistic that the media industry is taking genuine steps to address diversity and inclusion” he argues.
If I’m honest, I think we’re in a phase where many media organisations are engaged in a range of largely superficial and/or performative actions which fail to understand either the real problems or the systemic solutions that are required. Clearly, there are some people and organisations doing good work – but we are some way from reaching critical mass.
Kulkarni is adamant that the key issue is that systemic discrimination is still endemic in the media industry. Companies are not creating environments in which talented individuals from minority backgrounds can not only feel comfortable but also begin an ascent towards leadership roles,
“The biggest obstacle standing in the way of genuine change is the failure of much of the industry to engage in the real problems in the industry. If we accept that systemic discrimination exists (and frankly many are unwilling to even acknowledge that) then we have to accept that there are many people in positions of power which are undeserved and many people whose talents are not appropriately recognised or rewarded. Many of that second group will either not have broken into the journalism industry or been forced out. Until we accept those fundamental realities, then anything we do is largely going to be tinkering at the margins.”
One way the media industry has responded is through instigating quotas of numbers of staff from different backgrounds. This is controversial territory in that while quotas have become common in some parts of the world such as Europe, they are illegal in other places such as the U.S.
Shirish Kulkarni is a little wary of quotas arguing instead for more fundamental changes.
“Change isn’t defined by people’s identities, it’s defined by their values, beliefs and actions. As so often, talking about quotas or headcount is entirely missing the point.”
The change I want to see is a much more fundamental realignment of newsroom cultures. These issues won’t be addressed by just employing a few more black or brown or disabled people. It’s the people who already hold the power that need to do the work, on themselves and their organisations.
Advice for media leaders
“My advice to media leaders would be to engage better with the substantive issues. For instance, there is no point in having “Diversity Internships” if newsrooms aren’t prepared to acknowledge the different stories and perspectives that different people will bring.
If we still want everyone to have the same understanding of ‘news values’ or the dreaded ‘objectivity’ then we’re never going to cultivate a genuinely inclusive and representative media sector – or actually inclusive and representative journalism.
Shirish Kulkarni is currently working across a range of projects, including a two-year R&D programme with BBC News Labs and Media Cymru, looking at how new storytelling approaches can reach audiences who aren’t currently engaging with journalism.
He thinks too that technology, whether it be powering new social media platforms or empowering content creators, could also help re-defining the media and make it more reflective of the society in which it operates.
“The growing availability/sophistication of AI tools is interesting. These are often seen as a threat to the industry, but I see them as presenting unique opportunities to fundamentally redefine journalism in positive ways.
“They have the potential to create new storytelling experiences and to move away from the one-to-many “article” as the basic building block of journalism.”
You can hear more from Shirish Kulkarni by watching his conversation with Charlotte Ricca at FIPP World Media Congress 2023. We have made this conversation freely available to view below: