As part of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we ask Samantha Asumadu about the media’s attitudes towards writers of colour, women, and the role social media could play in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define or characterise the media’s blind spot?
The problem is that 94 per cent of journalists are white. Most of them are middle class. The fact that one in six of the population is not white means that they have a blind spot – not that they can see it as they operate in a mono-racial culture.
Three things led me to start Media Diversified. I had been living and working in Uganda and came back to the UK looking for funding for the second documentary I was making, which was proving difficult. As a result, I started spending more time on social media which I hadn’t done before. I came across an article in The Voice newspaper online by Rodney Sealy called The Evening Standard of Whiteness. He did a simple analysis of one edition of the Evening Standard and noticed that in a city where 40 per cent of the population is not white, only four pictures were of non-white women – two were of Alicia Keys; none were of UK based women of colour. He chose to boycott the paper.
Then there was BBC radio producer Nick Sutton who tweets the front pages of all the national newspapers. I saw a worrying correlation of not seeing any people of colour. The front pages, apart from the news stories, are where companies advertise for their business so you find very few, if any, black or Asian people in their adverts. What are they saying- that we are not consumers; we are not an integral part of society? One day The Times had a woman of colour on its cover and I felt a feeling of joy. It shouldn’t be out of the ordinary to feel so happy when this happens.
Finally Amol Rajan became editor of The Independent, the first person of colour to edit a national newspaper. Once again it was a massive deal when it shouldn’t have been. Unsurprisingly some of the talk on social media was wonderment that a brown person had got so far. That he did it on on merit was an afterthought. However statistically speaking, and looking at past appointments, it does seem incredible. Starting Media Diversified was a rebellion against the continued marginalisation of women and men of colour within the media; a rebellion against the media’s stories that when covering people of colour are often negative, reinforcing stereotypes. A rebellion against the many others on social media – and in real life – who seek to speak for us or use us as some sort of weapon, be it from the left or right of the political spectrum.
What do you think of the media coverage of women’s issues generally, and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
It’s not a women’s issue per se, but something that grabbed my attention was when the crisis in Libya started. Alex Crawford was covering the story accompanying machine gun laden men on the back of a truck on the way to the Green Square for Sky News. She did a good job. When she came back to the UK there was extensive coverage of the fact that she was out in Libya, even through her three kids were at home with her husband. There was the implication that she shouldn’t be a foreign reporter because she has kids and that something was wrong with her husband being home looking after them. This kind of thing makes me think we are going backwards and that sexism is winning, or will do unless we push back.
How have your experiences of the media been affected by the blind spot?
When I lived in Uganda I made a film called The Super Ladies, about three female rally drivers, for Al Jazeera English. I began filming Born Again in the United States of Uganda the following year, a more complicated film to navigate politically, and covered a couple of countries. The reception I received was very different from The Super Ladies, I believe, because people couldn’t see me in the role of making a complex political documentary. It explored the anti gay bill in Uganda. I was following an anti gay pastor with strong links to an American-based neo-conservative group with membership among the Democrats and Republicans; powerful people who are also anti abortion, pro free trade and fund both the US and Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast. I’ve never been able to raise the funds to complete it, despite having a reasonable track record at this point. I felt this was because people don’t see women, and especially black women, as having the ability to do investigative reporting on par with the vastly white male stable of directors.
What are the challenges facing people working in the media?
Resources are a problem. Nick Davies, in his book Flat Earth News, talks about churnalism – journalists not getting enough time to write proper stories and ending up relying on PR agencies. I think this why columnists for mainstream papers now get such a high profile and a bigger word count than standard reporters. I would like to see columnists of colour (as few as they are) mentor others. They are role models for many trying to get their foot in the door. I hope to see them move up the career ladder to become editors, commissioning the diverse stories that people want to read. Though this may be difficult to do in the current climate, what we have proved with mediadiversified.org is that there is an audience for writers of colour and our audience is getting bigger each month.
I commission stories that come from the writer’s perspective and to be frank, don’t try to suck up to white audiences. I hope they’ll read too (they seem to), but that isn’t my biggest consideration. We publish articles that many people don’t have the experience to write about. Our recent intersectionality series Complicit No More covered things from body image, to gendered violence, identity and black feminism, written by and for women of colour.
What role does digital media play in challenging the blind spot?
You can get your work out there immediately and it can spread virally within a day, if it speaks to people. Having a platform where you can click on a story, read it and forward it on to a friend is a challenge to newspapers. They have to spend a significant amount of money for online to outstrip the various start ups, blogs and small organisations like ourselves.
I hope that more people will start their own organisations, build their own platforms and get their voices out there. I’ve seen a crop of new websites start up since we launched last year, from Muslim feminists to young Swedish women pushing back against a racist society. It’s great and needed organisations like ours to inspire people to do their own thing. I would like more people to build their own platforms to challenge the dominant narratives of newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, among others. people will read it. We’ve proved that.
Media Diversified has just launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, which you can find out more about here.
About the author
Samantha Asumadu is a documentary filmmaker, former journalist and founder of Media Diversified. Her decade long commitment to grassroots activism has led to her to campaign on issues such as women’s representation in Theatre, sickle cell and anti-Imperialism since 2001. As a journalist she was based in East Africa, Great Lakes region, where she covered stories such as acid attacks, blood minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Kampala bombings of 2010 for news outlets including CNN, Deutsche Welle and Agence France Presse. Her first documentary was broadcast by Aljazeera English in 2009. ‘The Super Ladies’ is the story of three Ugandan women rally drivers. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a commentator on diversity in the media industry.