Where are the media opportunities for underrepresented people?

Last year, the New York Times announced that it was hiring a gender editor, an unprecedented move for a major newspaper in the United States and one that sparked a great deal of discussion. By openly admitting that it needs more coverage of gender issues, that such coverage merits a dedicated editor and staff, the paper admitted that these issues are relevant, and should be integrated into the paper of record. It was a bold move for the Grey Lady and I’m sure they got scads of applications for it.

A number of people sent me the link, via almost every platform imaginable, and suggested that I should apply, Because Trans. I said that I wouldn’t be, and not out of an animus for the Times, but because I’m not qualified.

People tried to argue with me.

I didn’t really want to explain why this was frustrating and irritating.

So here’s the thing: In the media world, very few out trans people rise to any degree of prominence. I can think of a handful of trans journalists at some major publications, even fewer editors, and very, very few trans people deep in the heart of ‘traditional media’ like the Times. The one standout is probably Janet Mock from her time at People, who was all the more remarkable because she is a trans woman of colour, facing doubled barriers when it comes to building a career in the world of publishing and media.

When I said that I wasn’t qualified, I really did mean that: I do not have the CV necessary to be considered for an editorial position at the Times. Positions there are incredibly competitive and they typically go to people with years of editorial experience at other major publications (moving over from The Guardian or The Washington Post for example). The increasing demand for multimedia means that preference is definitely given to candidates who have demonstrated skills in video production for the web. Or, as the Times put it in the advert: ‘Experience with creating or editing in multiple story formats, including an ability to shape the entire experience of a story, from text to photos, videos, graphics and other visuals.’

The kind of qualifications the Times is looking for require years in media, which requires some other things that people really don’t think about when they make flip comments about how people should apply for things, or about how the problem with trans representation in media could be fixed by hiring trans people.

Those interested in things like editorial positions at the Times — which, for the record, I am not, because I am a far better writer than I am an editor and I would like to focus on telling stories — follow a very specific career path. They typically major in journalism or communications. They start out with unpaid internships. They work their way into low-paying positions. They gradually push their way into editorial. They work through a series of publications, gradually getting bigger and bigger, slowly shifting into position to apply for a job at a major newspaper.

This is a grueling path, and it’s also one beset by structural inequalities. Not everyone can afford to go to college or university, nor is everyone able to attend the ‘right’ kinds of schools (e.g. Columbia). Not everyone can afford to work in unpaid internship positions. And everyone, regardless of economic power, runs up against discriminatory attitudes in the hiring process, both conscious and unconscious. The name on your resume matters (in studies looking at resume perception, people with ‘Black’ names were discarded, but slapping different names on identical resumes got people interviews). The way you look matters. Your ability to relocate for a job matters. Underrepresented people struggle to access the kinds of privileges that white, straight, male, cis, nondisabled journalists get without even thinking about it.

This isn’t the way it should be, of course, but that’s the way it is. We struggle to get the clips that practically fall into the hands of our more privileged counterparts. We fight tooth and nail for positions that often go to people with privilege rather than skill as a primary qualification. Newsrooms hire people who look like other people in the newsroom, which, newsflash, is mostly cis, white, straight, male, and nondisabled.

Our very clips betray us: When we do get a chance to write for major publications, it’s usually about ‘issues.’ When you submit a resume that’s LGBQT issues all the way down, people assume that you’re LGBQT. If you cover racial issues, you must be a person of colour. Disability issues? Disabled, and therefore a liability. These are things we think about when applying that privileged people do not — I actually have applied to the Times, albeit in a different position, and I had to weigh the clips I chose carefully to decide what they might be saying about me before any prospective HR staff even had a chance to Google.

This is an issue that is systemic all the way down. It’s the Latina journalism student who just happens to get beaten out by a white kid for a key internship. It’s the trans woman passed over for a major fellowship. It’s the disabled columnist whose resume goes straight in the trash. The people living at the intersections have it even worse. We have shitty media coverage about a lot of issues because the people affected by those issues can’t get into the media, and instead of screaming at the media about its coverage (or lack thereof), people should be challenging the structures that make it virtually impossible for underrepresented people to ever rack up the qualifications needed to, say, become the gender editor at the Times. Rather than hating journalists, which seems to be a popular sport this year, people should be asking why so much of the press corps looks the same, and what that says about their parent organisations.

We should not have to rely on ‘diversity fellowships’ (by which people almost always mean racial diversity) to get a foothold in the media. We should not have to hide who we are on our applications to be considered. But we do.

Image: Newspapers, Magnus Carlsson, Flickr