Su-Mei Thompson: Improving media representation for minority groups requires sector-wide commitment

How charities can work with the media to tackle the public’s lack of understanding around systemic inequality

At Media Trust we believe giving everyone a voice will lead to a more equal society. That’s why we work with charities and under-represented communities to strengthen their capabilities in storytelling, campaigning, press relations and social media.

Our work has given us a bird's-eye view of the lack of connectivity, trust and empathy between charities and minority groups on the one hand, and parts of the media on the other.

There are still many areas where representation is glaringly poor. If the polling company YouGov is right and more than 60 per cent of the British public get their knowledge about Islam from the media, then the criticism often levelled at the UK press for promoting negative stereotypes about Muslims is concerning.

Even critically acclaimed shows like the BBC’s Bodyguard fail the so-called “Riz Test” because they have Muslim characters that fit one of five stereotypical tropes, including being a terrorist or misogynist.

Although 20 per cent of us have a disability, disabled people are still largely invisible when it comes to film and TV programmes.

What does that do for the self-esteem of disabled people? And what does that say to potential employers, not enough of whom currently recognise disabled talent?

And while there is growing recognition that disadvantaged groups contribute the least to causing climate change but are more likely to be impacted by its effects, most climate action spokespeople featured in the media are white and middle-class.

This is not just about slamming the media – charities also have a role to play if we want to achieve a more level playing field of media representation.

Most enduring negative stereotypes of minority groups are rooted in the general public’s lack of understanding of the systemic and structural factors behind disadvantage.

This is not helped by a media industry that doesn’t really understand these issues, but we should also acknowledge the challenges of presenting a more complex narrative.

So how do charities respond to this?

Unfortunately, because of the predominance of single-issue charities and most businesses choosing to prioritise one or two aspects of diversity over the others, we often see different diversity strands competing for air time and funding.

This is why it’s so important that charities ensure their output is inclusive and representative. Storytelling should be diverse and delivered in partnership with, or led by, people with lived intersectional experience.

Here are some steps to help achieve this:

  • Develop a diverse database of case studies. Pinpoint which groups are currently underrepresented and find people from those groups who are happy to share their story.

  • Stop exploitative consulting. Find the budget or another way to compensate individuals for sharing their lived experience and insights.

  • Be mindful of language and check that any acronyms or terms are not inadvertently causing offence. The difference between getting this right and wrong can make or break trust in your charity with minority groups.

  • Signpost reporters to charities working on different equalities strands if that would help them gain a better understanding of intersectionality.

  • Be ready to collaborate on joint messaging with charities working across different equalities strands, and developing less singular shared narratives and case studies.

At Media Trust we successfully facilitate opportunities for community leaders and the media to meet, lean into uncomfortable conversations exploring different forms of participation, perspectives and power, and work together on possible solutions to improve representation of minority groups.

Our Stronger Voices programme, now in its fourth year, aims at strengthening the voices of equalities organisations and the marginalised communities they serve, and creating stronger connections between different people, communities, and organisations.

We believe that building trust and connectivity between equalities organisations and the media is key to achieving greater social cohesion, and are looking for more organisations to partner with us in this goal.

Su-Mei Thompson is chief executive of Media Trust. Applications close on 19 September for the new season of the Media Trust’s Stronger Voices programme. Find out more here.

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