We aren’t getting enough journalists from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is what we need to do.

Photo: Prostock-studio

Originally Published in Splice

I grew up poor in Malaysia. We didn’t own a house. Heck, we didn’t have a car – or even a motorcycle, for that matter. When it came time to go to college, all I could afford was night school while I worked the daytime hours to help pay the bills and support my family.

My socioeconomic background also meant I picked IT — an undergraduate discipline that was ‘marketable’ but which I had zero passion for, and it wasn’t long before I found myself uninspired by subjects like C++ programming and Oracle database management.

Road to journalism

By then I had been working for almost five years, and had built up a decent career in sales. I was in my early 20s, but already managing a sales team and making good money. But what I yearned to do, what I’d been dreaming of since the age of 14, was to become a journalist. To record history in the making. To be a voice for the voiceless and to speak truth to power – you get the idea.

So, I scanned the jobs section in the newspaper classifieds regularly and when I saw the country’s largest English daily advertising for a maritime journalist, I threw my hat in the ring.

I remember my interview. I honestly had no idea how to be a journalist, much less a maritime journalist. And I was flabbergasted that I actually got the job. I later asked my manager why he gave me the opportunity and he said it was because I was the only candidate who had cared enough to wear a tie and shine my shoes.

My first base salary was RM920 a month — roughly about US$220 at today’s exchange rates. It was less than a third of what I’d been making previously and far less than what my cub reporter peers with degrees earned.

Thankfully, I got my fairytale ending — moving companies, getting opportunities, and climbing up the ranks to enjoy a very satisfying career. I had the privilege of working in four countries — Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the U.S. — and in some of the world’s biggest or most prestigious media companies, places like Yahoo, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and CNN before I even turned 40. All’s well that ends well, I guess then?

What’s broken

So what’s the point of my story? It’s this: Not many people from my background get the opportunities that I got, much less the fairytale ending. 

You see, there is an unspoken diversity problem in the news media industry. While our industry quite rightly is trying to self-correct on issues like gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, one aspect that has rarely been addressed is socioeconomic diversity. 

In previous generations, reporters often came from blue collar backgrounds. They were working class people who had talent with a pen or mic and honed that ability to become amazing journalists, editors and media magnates. These journalists saw first-hand the effects of joblessness on families and communities. They witnessed the destruction drugs wrought on previously strong and vibrant communities. They saw the effect incarceration had on a generation of children who then had to grow up in single-parent families and got caught up in a cycle of endless poverty and crime.

As time went on, journalism became an attractive field of study and you began seeing more graduates who didn’t just have incredible CVs and academic qualification, they also had skills previous generations didn’t enjoy. 

As much as journalism has improved thanks to these highly qualified professionals, it has also lost touch with blue collar or underprivileged communities – that ability to empathise and understand the problems as well as perspectives of such communities, which even today form the bedrock of most countries. 

And just what is the problem with this? 

On a macro scale that loss of empathy and connection to blue collar communities shows in our reporting. Stories go unreported, underreported or superficially reported simply because we stop seeing them happening. 

The clearest example of this is how the American news media completely missed the signs of Donald Trump’s growing resonance with voters, which drove his eventual path to the White House and the four fateful years that followed. 

A few examples closer to home come to mind too. I recall suggesting on-ground reporting in Mindanao in 2016 focused on the growing militant threat there, but was rebuffed. Mere months later, the area blew up into full-scale conflict and the world’s media descended on it. 

Similarly, the global media speaks about the Rohingya in Myanmar ad nauseam. But what about the Mon and the Karen? What about the jade mining industry in Myanmar, which is a huge source of revenue for the nation, paid for in blood? The erosion of tribal and indigenous rights in Malaysia, a loss of ethnic identity for minorities in Singapore, deforestation in Indonesia… the list is endless.

An industry gentrified

But it’s not just that macro effect we see. On a micro level, as the industry becomes more competitive, more gentrified and more upper middle class, we have fewer and fewer opportunities for poor kids with talent to enter the industry. The barriers are just too high. 

Working at CNN, I was amazed to be surrounded by amazing journalists, people who’d graduated from the likes of Yale, Stanford, and Northwestern. But blown away as I was by their skills and qualifications, I was also deeply aware of how little opportunity a Malaysian journo, or somebody who didn’t go to a top j-school, would have to break into such institutions. And what are these institutions losing by missing out on these journalists?

These are the young people who would have the ability to see the unseen stories in underprivileged communities that outside-in journos might miss. These are also people who want to represent, protect and fight for those communities they come from. I know I did.

Resetting media

So, what can the industry do – what should it do? Here are some ideas which may help:

  • Affirmative action policies aimed at providing opportunities for either journalism scholarships or job opportunities for those from underprivileged backgrounds, similar to diversity policies for other marginalised or underrepresented groups. A policy like this would take a needs-based approach — not just in terms of what an individual’s financial constraints are, but also the particular need of the community in terms of greater reporting. Would a particularly crime-prone area benefit from more coverage? If so, how could/should a media org provide said coverage? And what would the metrics of success for that be?
  • Greater salary parity for journalists, based on ability and work performed rather than just academic qualifications. While entry-level positions would no doubt be dependent on qualifications, the gap needs to be closed sooner than later to ensure the have-nots don’t always remain the have-nots.
  • More grassroots/citizen journalism programs to provide the skills and means for communities to report on their own issues within the parameters of responsible and credible journalistic organisations. Media organisations need not just limit themselves to citizen journalism, but also look to empower school-based journalism programs, again giving the opportunity and necessary skills to voices on the ground to speak for those who are on the ground.

Is there anything scientific about any of what I’m saying? No. I have no data to back it up, but merely experience, observation and anecdotes. But all you have to do is look around you and ask yourself if you notice any of the disparities I pointed out. If you don’t, glory hallelujah. But if you do, then it’s time to fix this diversity blind spot.