'Are Irish journalists just reflections of one another?'

Irish journalism is in danger of becoming increasingly homogenised, writes Colette Sexton

13th June, 2017
Are we asking the right questions? Pic: Getty

Over the past decade, journalism has changed irrevocably. The collapse in revenue models due to the advent of technology and new advertising channels has had a detrimental effect on traditional media. This, in turn, has had a major effect on who journalists are, where they come from and what they believe.

I recently interviewed the new editor of The Irish Times, Paul O’Neill. Originally from Waterford, O'Neill started out his career as a journalist in his local newspaper. From there he moved to the then Cork Examiner, before securing a job with The Irish Times.

“I come from a print background,” he said. “I am from probably the last generation who come from provincial journalism. I started working in my local newspaper at 18. I spent five years there. Two in the Examiner.”

For many reasons, including larger numbers pursuing third level education and tighter budgets of regional media organisations, very few people now get their break in journalism through local media in Ireland. Instead, a degree in journalism, either a bachelor’s or a master’s, followed by a stint of working for free (or for very little money) as an intern in a media organisation is how the majority of the new generation of journalists got their break into the industry.

While there are advantages to people with academic backgrounds in journalism, O’Neill said this was causing a homogenisation of the industry.

“You have to come from a certain demographic to be able to do it [third-level education]. The result of that is that people are coming from the same schools, they have the same view in life, the same worldview. I’m not sure that is entirely healthy.”

We have seen the dangers of the media talking in circles to each other over the past year

Irish journalism is often accused of demonstrating liberal bias, of being too Dublin centric, and too middle class. This criticism should not be ignored.

People with third-level educations tend to be more liberal. A 2016 study from the Pew Institute found that half of those with postgraduate experience (54 per cent) have either consistently liberal political values (31 per cent) or mostly liberal values (23 per cent).

Those who grew up in Dublin have a better chance of completing free or barely-paid internships because they can continue to live at home, thus giving them a better chance of securing work in national media. In terms of the middle class argument, the maximum rate of the student contribution for the academic year 2017-2018 is €3,000. This combined with increasing rent costs across the major cities means that third level education is out of reach for many young people.

Of course, the homogenisation of the media is not an issue only in Ireland. Yesterday, a Steve Hewlett scholarship scheme was launched to support young people across Britain from low-income families to pursue a career in journalism. Created by the Royal Television Society and The Media Society, it is named in honour of Hewlett, a former broadcaster and Guardian columnist.

Hewlett’s sons Freddie, Billy and Bertie said: “We hope that it will inspire, encourage and support young people across the country from lower income families to pursue a career in journalism. To bring the issues that they hold dear to the fore, to not give up on what they believe and, as Dad said, ‘stay inquisitive’.”

We have seen the dangers of members of the media talking in circles to each other over the past year. Brexit slipped through. Donald Trump’s election came as a surprise. It is time to take a hard look around our newsrooms. Are we all just reflections of each other?

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