A lack of newsroom diversity is hurting readers
Three Questions with Barry Malone, deputy editor-in-chief for the Thomson Reuters Foundation
(“Three Questions” features Q&As with journalists and academics discussing the craft of putting out the news.)
As a journalist, Barry Malone has pretty much done it all.
Malone cut his teeth in his hometown of Dublin as a breaking news reporter for The Irish Times. He moved to East Africa, where he reported for the Reuters News Agency, specializing in Ethiopia and Uganda. Malone also worked for Reuters in Tunisia, Libya, and Iraq. He was a senior member of a team that was runner-up for the International Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Libya war.
I met Malone when he moved to Doha, Qatar, to work for Al Jazeera English, where he was eventually promoted to the acting managing editor role for the online division.
We became fast friends over our shared love of the news and clean copy.
Malone is one of my favorite types of people. Someone who is passionate about what he does and willing to debate ideas—without allowing differing viewpoints to get in the way of sharing a few pints.
He eventually left Doha and moved to Washington, DC. There he worked as the executive producer for The Stream, a TV program driven by social media and currently Al Jazeera’s only live talk show.
Malone recently relocated to London and is now the deputy editor-in-chief for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He also has an excellent Substack newsletter called Proximities, a daily briefing on three non-Western news stories that haven’t gotten much play in the news cycle. I recommend subscribing to it.
Malone talked to The Angry Editor about doing journalism across different media formats, lessons learned along the way, and what he sees as the most significant challenge for journalism.
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The Angry Editor: You have worked across the spectrum of media formats. Are there different ways that you approach a story depending on the medium?
Barry Malone: Yes, I've worked in print, digital, and TV. They're all very different mediums, obviously. But the main thing I've taken away is that journalism is journalism.
The fundamentals don't change—you ferret out stories and vet your sources and you fact check. You look for the people impacted and lend them your platform; you find out things that people don't know and need to know. You hold power to account, and you question everything. You apply your training and your experience. You apply journalism.
Obviously, there are stylistic things that are important for helping the audience understand the story: TV is a visual medium, so you think hard about the visuals. With print, copy is king, and a reader should have no questions or confusion when they're finished reading it. In digital, you have to reach people where they are.
But, whatever the bells and whistles, however distribution changes, there's one thing that doesn't (or at least shouldn't) change: the fundamental practice of professional journalism.
That's what needs to be protected.
TAE: You've gone from being a reporter, focusing on individual stories, to becoming a high-ranking editor for the Thompson Reuters Foundation. Is there a difference in how you see the news? If you could go back in time, is there advice you would give your younger self?
BM: I suppose I have a more birds-eye view now of how the industry as a whole can impact things.
I see more clearly how the framing of a big story by big news organizations can really sway public opinion and even influence events—and I see that, when we get it wrong, the impact can be hugely damaging.
But I don't think I'd be able to necessarily teach my younger self that straight away. I might be able to speed up the realizations that eventually shaped how I came to see the profession, but I had to learn those lessons along the way.
So I'd offer my younger self advice on other things. This might be a pretty personal answer, but I'm sure it applies to many other journalists. I suffered from imposter syndrome—I still do.
So I think I'd tell my younger self to be more confident, that I belonged in the profession as much as anybody else did and that, with some hard work, it would all turn out okay.
Sometimes when you start out, you try to write and report like you've seen other journalists do it. So it's almost like you're acting a part. I would tell myself that it's okay to have your own voice and push for the right to do journalism your way. We all bring different experiences to the game—we should be allowed to lean on them.
I'd also remind myself not to be defined by being a journalist and to make sure there were other things in my life that I gave as much time to.
Oh, and I'd tell myself to ask for raises more often and not act super grateful when being exploited for crappy pay.
TAE: What aspect of the current state of journalism that you think is failing? How would you go about fixing it?
BM: Many aspects need improving. But one that consistently niggles at me is the lack of diversity.
I'm talking about diversity of every kind—ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexuality, gender identity, and so on and so on.
Studies1 and surveys consistently show that journalism is one of the most elite professions there is. The majority of journalists, and we're talking across many countries, are privately educated and come from privileged backgrounds. Too many are white. Too many are men.
But what bothers me is that there are so many journalists that are in denial about this.
You see the results of surveys on the backgrounds of journalists coming out, and journalists are immediately out in force on Twitter, competing over who had the most hard-scrabble upbringing and who fought the most to get where they are.
They're nearly always journalists at the top of the profession, outraged that anyone would suggest they got there for any reason other than their god-given talent.
I come from a very average background. I wasn't privately educated, I went to a disadvantaged school and a disadvantaged college, and I couldn't rely on the bank of Mum and Dad. But I would never use my personal circumstances to pretend that the profession isn't extremely elitist and that I'm not one of the exceptions that prove the rule.
Any journalist who denies it is either lying or willfully ignorant.
If newsrooms are not diverse, how are they supposed to cover a diverse society? How are they supposed to understand the lives of those they report on? How are they supposed to truly—truly—understand what it's like to be the person on the sharp end of a policy change or rising inflation or, well, a war?
You need people in the newsroom from a wide variety of backgrounds with a wide range of experiences, or your coverage suffers. And those people need to be given the space to speak up freely. We simply do not have that now.
How do we fix it? That’s a bigger conversation than I can have here. But you have to be strategic about it.
You hire better and smarter, and more creatively. You actively look for diversity. You advertise in places where you can reach a broader range of people. Look for Facebook groups, find a subreddit for young journalists, and target a college with a more diverse student body.
And pay interns—pay them really really well so that they can do it full time without the support of their parents.
Stop awarding fellowships to elite universities only. Stop developing relationships with elite universities only.
And stop making a degree a requirement for jobs because that's absurd.
I'm getting to a stage in my career now where I have some influence over these things, so I hope I can put my money where my mouth is.
This turned into a rant. Sorry!
You can follow Malone on Twitter @malonebarry.
If you have questions you want to be answered by journalists and academics, please share them in the comments.
(Up Next: Spot the Bias game #6. You can find last week’s Spot the Bias here.)
“Almost half of the people who end up at the pinnacle of the journalism profession attended an elite school and were likely in the top 1% of cognitive ability. This means top 1% people are overrepresented among the NYT and WSJ mastheads by a factor of about 50. Roughly 20% attended an Ivy League school.” - p. 76, Expertise in Journalism: Factors Shaping a Cognitive and Culturally Elite Profession (2018) by Jonathan Wai and Kaja Perina, Department of Psychology, University of Arkansas, Psychology Today.