JFF #004: Journalism, inequality & engagement

[Cross-posted from the Journalism Funders Forum website, where you can sign up for this newsletter.]

This month, we’re taking a closer look at the correlation between journalism and inequality. 


  • The research field is starting to focus on the intersection of inequality and journalism.
  • Funders focused on inequality are beginning to engage with journalism as well as other kinds of communication and media.
  • Both philanthropy and media are not diverse or representative enough, especially in terms of socio-economic background and status.
  • Some journalism initiatives with a strong inequality focus have managed to survive and sustain through a mixture of reader support, revenues and philanthropic grants.

As ever, we’re keen to hear from you if you have examples, ideas, critiques that you’d like to share. And do pop over to our usual Google sheets, where you can comment and add resources, and leaf through resources we’ve shared related to previous editions of this newsletter.

Journalism, inequality & engagement

Inequality – which has rocketed to the top of the international political agendaEurope included – is also an increasingly urgent question facing the journalism field itself, and those that support it. But it’s a question that can’t be answered just by hiring a “correspondent for the Rust Belt” or its European equivalents. It’s structural. 

If journalism is – as the research tells us – “one of the most influential knowledge-producing institutions in society”, then we all need to take a harder look at how it does its work. 

Looking from the perspective of inequality, is journalism using the right methods and employing the right people to acquire and produce that knowledge, is it focusing on the right targets of investigation and reporting, and is it using the right forms to share that knowledge? 

The message from leading international researchers is stark: “The distribution of media resources (including traditional media and digital platforms) is skewed towards the rich and powerful, and away from the majority of the world’s population, especially poor, marginalized, and excluded groups”. This comes from an absolute must-read paper on the relationship between communication (including journalism) and inequality worldwide. 

In the UK, for example, just 11% of journalists come from working-class backgrounds, and social inequality is a factor in how citizens access and engage with journalism and news. Add in information poverty, news deserts, media capture, press freedom challenges and other factors, and the ability of journalism and journalists to try to challenge that skew is severely limited. We’re going to help you peek into three areas we hope you find useful:

  • The research on media and inequality.
  • How some funders are thinking differently.
  • Journalism initiatives focused on aspects of inequality.

A Piketty for Journalism?

First up, it’s worth noting this recent paper, which shows that communication and media research is dominated by US and UK-based researchers, institutions and publications, and by the English language – it’s even less diverse, it says, than other academic disciplines. 

That said, there is a wide international body of scholarship in several disciplines on inequality (see, for example, this collection from the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute), including information inequality, but, as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute noted in 2017, the sub-field on journalism and inequality “bears more work”. His 2018 research – with Benjamin Toff – on “folk theories (“news finds me,” “the information is out there,” and “I don’t know what to believe”) that consumers draw on when making sense of their information environment” is a key starting-point for anyone interested in this area.

The pace of that work might be starting to pick up more broadly. The LSE’s III says, for example, that it will “examine the role that new inequalities in the resources, skills and connections related to fast-changing media and information infrastructures play in reproducing or potentially challenging deep-seated inequalities.” And last month, a group of scholars met in the US to celebrate the launch of the Media, Inequality and Change Center – we’d love to know if there are European equivalents.

Growing funder interest in how journalism can combat inequality

There is a growing core internationally of funders focused on different aspects of inequality (the 2019 Ariadne Forecast shows inequality as a rising focus for philanthropy in several countries) – notably the Ford Foundation’s organisational pivot towards inequality as its overarching frame – and within that, a growing sub-section looking at the relationship with communication, media and journalism. 

The Fondation Charles Leopold Mayer pour le Progres de l’Homme and other funders focused on systemic change, such as Lankelly Chase, and those involved in the EDGE Funders Alliance, may bring new perspectives to journalism and media grantmaking. 

As philanthropy starts to address its own biases, privileges and power dynamics through, for example, participatory grantmaking, and bringing more diverse staff and decision-makers into its own ranks, we can expect things to change further.

An area of interest and growth for funding that intersects with inequality is engagement – journalism is reaching out in ways not seen for decades, if ever, and engagement is being pushed as the solution to everything from the collapse of trust to the need for audience revenue. The EJC – which publishes this newsletter – has an Engagement Journalism Accelerator, lessons from which other funders and intermediaries should definitely read.

What does journalism with a focus on inequality look like in Europe?

There’s a perception in some countries – see this research in the UK and elsewhere – that media narratives in times of austerity, for example, tend to blame the poor. But it’s a much more variegated picture than that. 

We might look to examples like France’s Bondy Blog, set up in the wake of the 2005 uprising in the banlieues to “raconter le quotidien de celles et ceux que l’on n’entend pas ou dont la parole est déformée, stigmatisée, minoritaire” (“to show the daily life of those whom we don’t hear, or whose voices are twisted, stigmatised, marginalised”). Or Parisian near-neighbours StreetPress, whose founder could only get a bank loan to start this youth-driven journalism service by pretending it was to re-do his bathroom

Looking beyond journalism, it may be valuable to look at the activities of organisations like Siec ObyWatelska, in Poland, which, although freedom of information group, rather than a journalism organisation, has engagement and public service in its DNA. Over in the USA, the Membership Puzzle recently published a report on what journalism can learn from other membership-driven sectors, with some inequality crossovers. 

Although by and large, we try to focus on European examples here, there is undeniably a significant well of expertise and impetus in US journalism, that might serve as an inspiration to funders and journalists in Europe – a couple of examples: 

  • Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, an independent journalism unit hiring journalists often with lived or current experience of poverty and working with high-profile co-publishers, to change “the [US] narrative around poverty and economic insecurity”.
  • What might a European version of this US-focused set of case studies and practical resources on Reporting Inequality (co-authored by Professor Venise Wagner and Sally Lehrman, who runs the Trust Project) look like?
  • Amid the latest revolution to up-end the US news industry, John Nerone called in 2009 for the reinvention and “rebirth of working-class journalism”: “All we’ve had so far this time is the collapse. Journalism will find its future when it finds its audience, and that audience will be many hued, sexually diverse, and composed mostly of workers.”

While we found – and have previously covered – the healthy and growing work on, for example, gender and racial inequality, we’ll admit it was quite hard to find a consistent body of work covering the intersection particularly of socio-economic inequality and journalism – please let us know what we’ve missed via @sdp and @ejcnet or PM us at klomp@ejc.net

What else we’re reading this month

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