Change the Storyteller, Change the Story?

Photo by Korie Cull on Unsplash

There’s an idea lurking around that it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter who tells your stories. In journalism, the idea prevails that the form itself is what matters. The things journalists do — asking questions, sifting information, and arranging it for public consumption — are replicated by most journalists, with variations largely depending just on the platform (e.g. press, television, podcast). Moreover, journalists often say your personal opinions and your background shouldn’t be evident in the stories you tell. Scholars discuss objectivity as a myth, yet still the norm persists (Tuchman, 1972).

Having worked as a journalist in Canada and having studied journalism all my adult life, I can tell you that the storyteller does matter. Our background, attitudes, and affiliations — what in sociology we often call our positionality — have a bearing on the stories we produce, in significant and in subtle ways. That’s one of the core questions I consider in my research on Muslim engagement with news media practice. An example that illustrates this is the recent(ish) podcast from Serial and the New York Times on the “Trojan Horse” scandal from Birmingham in 2014. A major news story that year concerned the veracity and the implications of an anonymous letter alleging a plot by Muslims to Islamicise a group of schools in the city. Politicians, educators, and civil society groups had their say, amplified and interpreted by many news organisations. When the substance of the plot was found to be without evidence, the media circus packed up and went elsewhere, but like a muddy, rutted, and litter-strewn field after an actual circus, the damage had certainly been done. British Muslims suffered on account of the suspicion (Holmwood and O’Toole, 2017).

One British Muslim — a medical student who turned his hand to journalism — was not content to let the story lie. Hamza Syed eventually convinced the producer of Serial, a true-crime podcast that really spurred the platform’s second wind, to help him investigate and report on the story behind the story. Its publication in February 2022 reopened old wounds and ignited a second round of reporting. Ultimately, it failed in its objective to prove who wrote the anonymous letter at the heart of the story, but it did demonstrate that the positionality of the storyteller mattered. Syed, a South Asian Muslim from Birmingham, cared about the story, and his conviction drove his tenacity and approach. His close identification with the subject helped in some aspects and hindered others, and this contributed to the shape of the final published product.

This is a long preamble to my research project. I’m interested in the big questions about the extent to which the religious identification of a journalist affects the work they do — choosing that work, learning how whilst being socialised into its priorities, and then working in that field and changing it or being changed by it. Finding time and funding for this research has proved difficult, but Socrel’s Seed Corn Fund has helped me to study one aspect of it.

That research, which I spoke about at the annual conference in Bristol last summer, looks at groups that provide support for people who want to enter journalism but don’t come from backgrounds traditionally represented in the field. Financial support to diversify those training for journalism will, it is hoped, lead to a more diverse set of working journalists, and that will broaden the range of stories or sharpen the way those stories are told.

This does presuppose that having more women, more people from racialised minorities, more people with disabilities, more people from working class backgrounds and so on will lead to changes in how news is constructed. This isn’t a necessary conclusion (Saha, 2017), and it’s one I want to explore further. The people administering these support schemes do believe that representation matters. Some of these schemes are created and run within news organisations and others by groups that work closely with news organisations, so it’s true that one of the objectives of diversifying the actual or potential workforce is being seen to diversify the workforce. What matters in representation is not merely optics, but it would be naïve to suggest it wasn’t one of the goals.

Readers might note that religion was not on my list of characteristics in the previous paragraph. Indeed, most of the scheme providers I spoke with were not looking specifically for Muslim candidates, and religion was not a characteristic they kept statistics on. Nonetheless, they told me it was important for their schemes to reach Muslims in Britain and that they felt they had succeeded in this. Despite the absence of hard numbers of applicants or successful awardees, they “knew” they had Muslims in the mix and would be worried if they didn’t. This relies on self-disclosure of applicants to identify themselves as Muslim, as well as qualities of “perceived Muslimness” such as dress or names like Mohammed and Fatima.

One provider I spoke with exclusively supported Muslims, though conversely, they funded applicants in a range of programmes such as law and policy. Journalism is an important field to them. Moreover, they have reviewed the programme with past awardees and found that, though recipients may succeed in their training, they still struggle to get jobs. The provider has thus expanded its support to include internships to wedge these prospective journalists’ feet a little further in the door.

Two things I heard repeatedly from the people I spoke with: among British Muslims, more women than men were applying to and completing training in journalism. This was a noticeable difference to them, and it maps onto trends for higher education in Britain generally (HESA, 2023).

The second point I heard from all participants was that I should give more attention to socio-economic factors. Providers felt that those from less well-off backgrounds were the ones who needed help and encouragement to enter journalism. This is not to say that their Muslim identity wasn’t important, but they saw these factors as intersectional, and comfortable British Muslims might not perceive the same barriers to entering journalism if they wished. Further, and perhaps most important, it is the stories and voices of British Muslims from lower socio-economic demographics that they most wanted to hear from.

Michael Munnik is Senior Lecturer in Social Science Theories and Methods at Cardiff University, with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. Prior to undertaking postgraduate study in Britain, Michael worked as a broadcast journalist with CBC Radio in Ottawa, Canada. You can learn more about his work here, and if you are on Bluesky, he is @michaelmunnik.bsky.social

References:

HESA. 2023. Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2021/22 — Student numbers and characteristics. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/19-01-2023/sb265-higher-education-student-statistics/numbers

Holmwood, J. and O’Toole, T. 2017. Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. Policy Press.

Saha, A. 2017. Diversity initiatives don’t work, they just make things worse: the ideological function of diversity in the cultural industries. Media Diversified. https://mediadiversified.org/2017/02/16/diversity-initiatives-dont-work-they-just-make-things-worse-the-ideological-function-of-diversity-in-the-cultural-industries/

Tuchman, G. 1972. Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity. American Journal of Sociology, 77(4), pp. 660–679.

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