A recent session at the fantastic The Pros Winter Series conference focused on interrogating the idea of the journalist as an activist in a contemporary media landscape. The session – which consisted of a keynote speech from BBC journalist and broadcaster Samira Ahmed, followed by a discussion with leading journalists at the likes of Channel 4 News and Metro UK – gave much food for thought regarding the intersection of activism and journalism, and how appropriate the term ‘activist journalist’ was in relation to reporters and writers from non-white backgrounds.
The keynote presentation from Samira focused on two key areas. First was the role of the media when it comes to holding those in positions of power to account, and the duty of the reporter in shaping public discourse and perspectives. She referenced stories from the past year – including the ‘Thank You NHS’ Spitfire flypast from the summer and that trip to Barnard Castle – to question whether journalists should report on attention-grabbing statements and expensive stunts at face-value or investigate them further. She suggested that journalism is as much about taking a step back and questioning the correct way to talk about a story as it is reporting on the day’s events.
Second, Samira considered the responses of individuals and brands – including media outlets – to social issues that become national news events. An interesting question she raised related to brands doing the ‘right’ thing for the ‘wrong’ reasons – does a tokenistic gesture of support on social media from a brand trivialise social issues, or does it instead suggest that minority rights are no longer considered a minority cause? If a magazine believes that a non-white cover star will sell well to their chosen demographic, should we respond with cynicism about that brand or optimism about the society it is appealing to?
Following the keynote address, a post-talk panel of leading journalists interrogated some of the session’s key themes and questions – in particular, what constitutes ‘activist journalism’ and how this terminology can be unfairly applied. Symeon Brown, a reporter at Channel 4 News, noted that while every journalist wants to uncover truth and human interest through their reporting, an activist journalist is specifically aligned to a particular campaign, agenda or cause.
For Natalie Morris, a senior lifestyle writer for Metro UK, the term ‘activist’ tends to be applied to writers covering stories about marginalised and minority communities, but its use can often be quite coded and racialised.
This feeling was echoed by Sarah Shaffi, a freelance journalist and managing editor at Penguin.co.uk, who highlighted how being the only non-white person in a room often leads to being labelled an activist simply for being the one who speaks up whenever race is discussed in an insensitive way.
The panel also considered the short-term reward structure shaping modern media and social media discourse – a system where strong opinions can be monetised to drive clicks and ad revenue. Tobi Oredein, founder of subscription-based lifestyle publication Black Ballad, spoke about the extent to which the business models of media outlets incentivises this approach.
She noted that people who choose to pay for journalism are often paying for quality – something other than ‘viral’ stories – suggesting that this encourages a greater depth of insight from writers, and in turn makes for more patient readers.
There is an ongoing challenge, the panel agreed, with reporters of colour being pigeonholed as only covering ‘activist’ issues, and therefore struggling to gain respect for their expertise on other topics – be it business and economics or arts and culture. A cultural change in the media landscape itself – with a focus on knowledge and nuance instead of simply being ‘first’ to a story – could help to promote writers of colour into more senior roles and positions of influence at mainstream publications by helping them to gain the equity they need to ensure an equal footing in tomorrow’s