Who Will Write The History of the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Without diverse newsrooms, journalists will get the story wrong.

By: Amber Sunner

As the saying goes, journalism is the first draft of history. But as newsrooms fail to reflect the demographics of the communities and countries that they are covering, we have to ask ourselves how this lack of diversity will impact not just the way our media is presented but the way that our history is recorded for future generations.

Of course, the most grave and pressing example of this is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now infected more than ten million worldwide, with a disproportionate number of deaths happening in communities of colour, when it comes to two of the most affected countries, Britain and the United States.

While the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) pointed out that many reasons for this is structural racism—ranging from cramped accommodations to the disproportionate number of people of colour who work as key workers, and found themselves repeatedly exposed to the virus, this connection was often lost on the media.

According to Vice President of Race on the Agenda Maurice McLeod, a large part of this disconnect is the lack of people of colour in newsrooms.

“If the media is to survive, it needs to reflect the society that it is trying to serve,” he said.

According to a City University of London study from 2016, the UK journalism industry is 94 percent white. This inequity can be further highlighted by the fact that 2.5 percent of journalists are Asian and only 0.2 percent are Black. While diversity and inclusion initiatives like the BBC pledging £100 million to diverse productions and talent work on diversifying the media they do not uproot the deeper problem which is that white men and women are not only writing our news cycle, but also writing our history and likely leaving Black, Asian and minority ethnic people out.

He added that in order to change this dynamic, newsrooms must work harder to achieve diversity by having proper conversations which tackle the issues.

While the #BlackLivesMatter movement has inspired calls to diversify and decolonise history lessons, it is equally important for media outlets to take action in the present to diversify their newsrooms to ensure that these gaps in history are a thing of the past. As French author Yves Lavoinne writes in her article Journalists, history and historians. The ups and downs of professional identity the journalist has three roles: servant of future historians, the historian of the present, and the mediator of history.

If journalism stays the way it is, future historians will be missing key issues impacting communities of colour.

“Historians can, generally speaking, only go back to the evidence that was produced at that time and so if certain stories are not being covered then the we will effectively be written out of history or it will be harder for history to know about us,” said Marcus Ryder, a journalist and visiting professor of Media Diversity at Birmingham City University.

“Because our newsrooms are not diverse we don’t know what history we’re missing. We have limited resources. We are making editorial decisions every single day; something is not being recorded.”

Ryder added that the problem is that issues impacting communities of color and other minority communities are far less likely to be discussed in depth in a newsroom lacking representation from those communities. To this end, Ryder believes that newsrooms need to empower those who represent diversity rather than trying to reach a certain percentage to hit the diversity quota.

“The editorial perspective is determined by the people in power,” he said, pointing out that diversity should not only be among journalists, but among editors and other decision-makers as well.

When it comes to the way that the COVID-19 pandemic has been reported, only 5.4 percent of the questions asked at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s daily briefings came from journalists from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. This points to a troubling trend—because of the lack of journalists from the most impacted communities, the media is missing the extent to which COVID-19 is intertwined with structural racism, and missing the opportunity to hold politicians to account for not addressing these structural inequalities.

“The impact this virus has had on BAME communities shouldn’t be forgotten,” says British journalist Basit Mahmood, using the popular British acronym for Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. “We can only ensure this is the case if we have diverse newsrooms.”

For Mahmood, one of the most overlooked issues is communities that do not speak English, who have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, likely because of a lack of information in their language. If journalists with these language skills were more represented in UK newsrooms, he thinks that they media would have paid more attention to these stories, and likely posed more pointed questions at government press conferences.

As we move into the “new normal” and start treating this pandemic as a thing of a past, Kathleen Hansen and Nora Paul’s co-authored book, “Future-Proofing the News: Preserving the First Draft of History” comes to mind. In the book, the two authors ask a key question: in 50 or 100 years, what will we be able to retrieve from today’s news output?

With this in mind, how will the impact of the novel Coronavirus be recorded in history? With only six percent of journalists in the United Kingdom being from minority backgrounds, and an even smaller number of those represented in government press conferences, will the full impact of the virus on communities of colour be accurately recorded?

My educated guess is no—not without more journalists who can speak more than one language, and represent several different communities. Mainstream media outlets need to work harder to increase representation, not just for the present, but for the future. Otherwise, these stories will be forgotten.