LUSU Media Conference 2016

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Media tends to be an industry that requires a very proactive approach in order to break into, with experience often being one of the primary factors dictating the employability of potential recruits. As such, anyone aiming for a media job is often obfuscated by the blanket-bomb statement of ‘employability’ that is often echoed during a careers talk. Katie Capstick, our LUSU Vice-President for campaigns and communications, who ran the event, further highlighted how the talk compensates for Lancaster’s lack of information provided about practical media and journalism opportunities from Lancaster University. The event was indeed the perfect antidote; with speakers from the Rock FM, the BBC, Channel 5, Amnesty International, the Nubian Times, The Sexist News Campaign and Fully Focused, there was no want of professional advice and wisdom throughout the day! Whilst this reporter found himself rather split, the report that follows will cover the majority of the event that ran throughout the day.

Amnesty International with Niall Couper

The day started with an initial introduction by Katie Capstick, before Niall Couper, the Head of Media at Amnesty International and former SCAN News Editor, began to talk on not only Amnesty, but also the nature and the power of media. Couper talked about his first journalistic forays for SCAN, his local, then national, newspaper experience, his appointment as the media head for the NASUWT, a brief note on his literary exploits, and finally concluded with his joining Amnesty as a press editor, before being promoted to the head of media. His winding path through many careers was a sentiment echoed by many of the other speakers throughout the day.

What then transpired was an effective masterclass in media journalism; using language to reach a wider audience, building human interest, making a report interesting and the rule of three were points discussed, but he also gave a further insight into the difficulties of media and manufacturing a good report that will become part of the centralised public sphere. To counter this, he highlighted the importance of making sure that media professionals are engaging and use language that everyone can read, as a means of ensuring that the public aren’t turned off by an academic account of events (to which he noted that the average readership age for the Sun is 9, and The Guardian 14 years of age!).

Working for an organisation that has to deal with some of the greatest human rights abuses and atrocities all around the world, he heralded the media as ‘the ultimate campaign tool’ further noting that ‘without it, many of these things, such as Syria, would go unchecked.’ Not only did he showcase the brilliant work of Amnesty, but he also invoked the concept of individuals having the means to make a difference. In the face of increasing citizen-journalism, he said that it was ‘more and more becoming individual people making a difference; don’t think your voice is small…your voice really does make a difference.’ He justified this with the work Amnesty did on getting the arms trade treaty into the public sphere, which also became an insight into the creation and effects of a media campaign. He highlighted how Amnesty targeted Alistar Burt, the then UK delegator to the UN, by analysing his lifestyle and behavioural traits, in order to convince him to make a case for the arms treaty at the UN. He himself admitted that campaign organisation can be ‘manipulative’ but is often necessarily so. The ‘NUJ [National Union of Journalists] has moral codes’ that dictate the public interest should justify the actions of journalism. Elaborating further into the ethics of journalism, he explained his stance, saying ‘I am an advocate for truth. The line is putting people in danger who are telling us the truths’.

The talk was a brilliant introduction into the world of journalism, media and campaigning. All that is needed to sum up the ideals of journalism can be summarised in his reasoning for joining Amnesty: ‘to change events around the world and make the world a better place’. Everyone left feeling more knowledgeable, and, I daresay, inspired.

An Insight into Journalism with Warren Nettleford

After the keynote talk, the next segment of the day was split into two, with spectators able to go to one of two talks, oriented towards media or towards campaigning. It was here that I decided to opt for the talk with Warren Nettleford, former LUSU president (2003-4), who previously worked for Channel 4, the BBC, Carbon Media and Princess Productions, before beginning his current role as a general reporter for Channel 5 news. The main theme of his talk was to provide an insight into the process of getting into televised news-journalism. He began his talk by introducing his career, showcasing a sparkling list of interviews and journalistic reporting for Channel 5 News, before he explained how exactly he found himself in the media sphere. Nettleford met a BBC journalist at Lancaster when there was an accommodation crisis attracting national attention, and he was promptly invited to the BBC headquarters to discuss his journalistic career.

Easily the most riveting part of his talk (which was difficult to single out!) was his discussion about the daily routine of the television journalist; he talked about how before each new day, the team get together and prioritise news agenda for the next day. The following morning, journalists are allocated to different stories, which could involve performing research, to being jetted off to some far-flung region of the world to report on some foreign affairs (which Nettleford explained was quite regular, as unlike the BBC and Channel 4, Channel 5 do not have their own foreign offices located in the Americas or Switzerland, for example). After doing the shoots needed for the news stories (live or not), the team get back together at 3pm, to edit the footage for the 5pm broadcast. Here, he emphasised the pressures of getting a final report completed, as he noted that having no report completed before then ‘is a disaster…you could lose your job over it’.

Nettleford also gave advice to anyone considering him or herself for, or lucky enough to be in a position of receiving work experience at a newsroom. In response to a question about finding mentors, he said that the best thing to do is to follow someone you enjoy the work of, in media, and be brave enough to ask them for advice. He also highlighted that whenever any prospective journalists call him, his first question is to ask ‘What have you done?’ Experience or evidence of previous work is essential to proving to a journalist or to a media institution that you would be a good journalist. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of local news journalism in gaining experience, as he pointed out the difficulties in getting into national journalism, which tends to preside predominantly in London, which is highly competitive.

He often said that being a journalist is ‘the best job in the world! It’s fun not knowing what you’re going to do.’ But he gave a critical view of the profession too, citing the extreme pressure of time as well as the issues of television itself. Unlike print journalism, TV journalists have less room to dig around and provide investigative content, ‘meaning you have to use contacts to find information and set the agenda for the news. You have to find the hook for getting viewers to care…’ And this gets harder as the ‘attention span of viewers is dwindling.’ Not only that, but ‘there are only three big companies to work for; BBC, ITN and SKY’ and ‘it’s very difficult to get a job in TV journalism, unless you’re a trainee, or have a masters/postgraduate in journalism, which isn’t fair.’ He elaborated on this by giving an example of a trainee course he went on, where the majority of the other participants were Oxbridge educated.

However, despite the institutional flaws, the talk highlighted that TV journalism was one of the fastest, most diverse jobs in the world, and ‘If money doesn’t drive you, [you] want to do exciting things, travel, [and] make a difference, I will never turn you away…but keep your eyes open!’ All in all, there was no one more qualified to hold up a mirror to the profession of TV journalism!

David Watson: Political Campaigning

After a brief interlude, I switched tack and sat in on a campaigns talk, to learn about the methods used by none other than No.10 Downing Street to influence the public. Of course, it wasn’t as nefarious as this sounded, as David Watson, the Head of Campaigns for the office, explained his role was that of a civil servant, who wasn’t particularly oriented towards any political party. Of course, that didn’t stop the talk from being a fertile breeding ground of political discussion and questioning! More often than not, the session more resembled a seminar questioning the ethics of influencing public behaviour, rather than a talk on the theory of campaigning.

The talk centred on giving an insight into running a campaign and influencing public behaviour. In between questions from students, he explained issues such as decline deference (the phenomena whereby the public more actively reject and resist authority-sourced information and recommendations) and the importance of wording in a campaign – he gave the example of reducing ‘waste’ patent applications by changing the wording on the approval criteria to ‘approved by your bank’. Another example was of motorcycle deaths being predominantly of individuals who felt they were being encouraged to get a car instead. To avert this, the campaign department informed police officers to engage riders about their own special issue motorbikes, and then encourage them to join up to a police riding group, which would not only make them better riders, but also improve police-public relations! This was one such example given to the power of campaigning; it however raised questions about the legitimacy of using public funds to, in effect, manipulate the public. Watson replied with the example of smoking, stating that ‘everyone can agree smoking around young children is wrong’ and further stated that the communications given are governed by the 2004 Communications Act (which sets out laws stating what you can publish to the public, as an impartial body).

Of course, these were but just a few of the topics discussed, with the students often spurring a new example or theory given out. It seemed like the talk was cut short when someone came in to announce he had overrun his timeslot, with even Watson lamenting his lack of discussion on later topics he had wanted to cover! However, in this reporter’s opinion, there was no better source than from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and it was indeed a very different experience! It would seem that sometimes, it isn’t all that hard to influence public opinion.

A Breath of Fresh Air with The Nubian Times

‘News is colourless.’ That was just one of the inspirational quotes gained from this talk which engaged the audience with not only the importance of local news, but also the issues of diversity in media. The speakers were the three founders of the Nubian Times, a free, independent newspaper founded in October 2012, centred in Greater Manchester, who wanted to tackle not only the stigma associated with traditional print journalism, but also the issues of diversity in traditional media. Their tagline of ‘Bad news sells, good news inspires’ sums up their philosophy in a pristine nutshell; they aim to recruit young, enthusiastic and aspiring journalists to report on not just local events in Manchester but also on unreported events that aren’t shown in mainstream news. ‘What we’re looking for is a different perspective on news, different things that you want to hear…we usually recruit interns from universities and colleges – such as yourselves! – to deliver news to different people in society.’

They themselves highlighted that as three black women, they were aware of the issues surrounding the lack of diversity and also often experienced pre-judgements about their background. Despite their troubles dealing with misconceptions (one example being a meeting where their counterparts immediately assumed that they weren’t the owners of the paper), they highlighted the increasing opportunities available to minority groups, as institutions are becoming increasingly pressured to open up their policy. It was evident from their talk that they were determined to contribute to this change.

Unlike the majority of popular newsprints, The Nubian Times is a free publication, which means that they have to derive their income from corporate advertising. They highlighted how instead of the traditional approach of blanket-slapping adverts on the paper, they develop and tailor advertising campaigns to provide specific solutions to different companies. This came under the distribution and marketing band of the paper, and would certainly prove of interest to any budding marketers!

In explaining their philosophy, one particular quote could not do a better job than this…

‘You have to promote the bad news to let people know what to be aware of, so they can learn off other people’s experiences, but what we like to focus on the positive news – that’s where the aspiring news comes into it. Good news is finding role models in the wider community – you have to go into media with a motive, [and] ours was creating a tool that was going to inspire and uplift people.’

There couldn’t possibly have been a better talk for anyone aspiring to go into journalism. Not only did the founders showcase themselves as a bastion of independent light in an increasingly corporatized media world, but also as a medium of happily accepting and training aspiring students in media. The founders themselves immediately made a brilliant impact! If you’re reading this and are interested in journalistic experience, check out The Nubian Times!

Women in Media Panel: A discussion on Sexism in the Media

Diversity and equality was a key feature of the day, and this event marked the pinnacle of it; an open panel of women in journalism and media, opening up and being asked about their experiences of sexism in journalism and media. The talk was preceded by a film called ‘Missrepresentation’, which succinctly highlighted some (sadly unsurprising, but still shocking) statistics about the representation of women in media, versus the actual number of women participating in the media production processes. Katie Capstick introduced the panel by highlighting her own experiences with sexism, before moving on to the panel, which was made up of many different media professionals and women who work in media. Katie fuelled the initial proceedings by asking questions about the issues faced by women in the industry. From being snubbed for genuine work assignments or being professionally misjudged to receiving inappropriate comments and even plainly questioned about their role, the panel came up with a list of experiences highlighting the misconceptions and prejudices that still exist in today’s journalism. A panellist from The Nubian Times said, ‘we make it our business to champion women in the industry and lift them up and push them,’ citing an example of a woman who lamented an internship at the Liverpool Echo, where she only made tea and coffee, who suddenly found herself challenged by the work environment given by a positive, proactive approach to promoting all journalists in media.

Following this, Katie asked what the main obstacles were and how to overcome them. An oft repeated sentiment was ‘if you want to do something, go for it! Don’t give up just because of criticism!’ Another method was ‘to use it to your advantage’, with women being able to leverage their exclusivity, often as ‘the only woman on programme xyz’ in order to promote themselves and other women into the career. Having the support of other women, especially in journalism, which ‘is already a dog-eat-dog world’, can be a real morale booster as well.

The whole talk was punctuated with advice and encouragement for women going into the media, but the focus wasn’t just on gender. The ideals of journalism are to gain as many different viewpoints as possible, and the importance of encouraging journalists of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds were championed through the talk. In short, the talk was an eye-opening one, and as a white, male journalist, I cannot help but feel I have gained a valuable insight into the ways we can all improve the media system.

Conclusions

After an informative day, it was clear there were a few key things to take away. Firstly, diversity and equality was a key factor of the day, and it is evident that whilst significant counter-measures are being implemented to encourage more women, trans and minority background professionals to enter the media fray, there is still a long way to go. However, with every day that more people recognise this problem and pressure media institutions, the more this will be rectified.

On the career path, two things were echoed throughout the day. The first was the importance of gaining experience or demonstrating a journalistic inclination when applying for internships and jobs, the second was the power of local news; Warren Nettleford of Channel 5 stated that ‘the most watched news program is at 6:30; the local news.’ It was further echoed throughout the day that local newspapers often have a greater impact on the local public, and are often great places to gain initial work experience! Whilst careers in writing and journalism can be tough, the media conference has definitely been a success! Hopefully we’ll see some of the visitors and audience members becoming future speakers and alumni for Lancaster University!

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