Tuesday, 14 July 2020

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Sunday Times journalist talks newsroom diversity

Photograph of Shingi Mararike, The Sunday Times' first apprentice, against a backdrop of the Thames

Image: James Hacker

Shingi Mararike, whose investigation made the front page when he was just 21, tells XCityPlus how he broke into the industry 

The news reporter, a self described “black man from one of the poorest boroughs in London” describes what it has been like to join The Sunday Times as their first apprentice journalist. From exposing acid attacks in schools to door-knocking in a purple fur coat, Mararike discusses what it has been like to work in a predominantly white, middle-class profession. 

Who are you? 

I’m a black man from a single-parent home who wanted to be a journalist. I’m a mixture of so many random things. I like the cinema — I’ll go by myself gladly. I like music a lot, particularly the stuff I grew up on: Grime, R&B and Hip-Hop. I love sport. I like reading. I’m an English undergraduate.

How did you get into journalism? 

It was by chance. A teacher at my sixth form, who I owe a lot too, told me about the Young Journalists’ Academy summer school, which is where you get to meet journalists, do workshops and take part in masterclasses.

After doing that scheme, I was asked by News UK to give a welcome speech at the launch of the News Academy. Luckily there was enough red wine in the room for people to be jolly and laugh at my jokes. Someone from The Sunday Times came up to me, gave me their card and said: “Would you like to intern with us? I can help you out.” It was a lifeline and I just hustled off of that. 

I interned from the age of 19 to 21 on five different desks at the paper. I also edited my student paper, The Boar, in my last year at Warwick University. We were nominated for student paper of the year, which was a massive achievement. 

So after I graduated I remember thinking, I’ve done all this work with The Sunday Times, I’ve run one of the best student newspapers in the country – how do I get a job? Where do I get a job? I emailed the managing editor at The Sunday Times and asked for a job. He had a think and came back to me after a few agonising weeks and he said: “We are going to give you the first ever apprenticeship in the history of The Sunday Times. We’ll pay for your NCTJ and then the other days you’ll be in the newsroom.”

What subjects do you most like to write about? 

Interesting people are at the heart of any story. I remember door knocking in York in December for a piece on the slowest broadband speeds in the country. I went to a street where it takes two days for people to download a Netflix film. I was knocking on doors in this massive purple jacket with fur on it, chatting to people. It was freezing, but I loved it.

As a news reporter, I like writing about crime and its causes. Where I’m from, knife crime is a massive issue; it’s a massive issue across the country too. Because I’ve grown up around it, not only do I know people who have fallen into it, but I’ve grown up around the reasons why people fall into it. I try and look at the causes and humanise the story as much as possible because it’s way more complex than lawless British people running around stabbing each other. 

I’m also really interested in social mobility because I’m a product of that. I was on programmes and schemes aimed at bringing people from where I am from into places that they don’t normally get to. Race too – no one really looks like me in the places I go to, so if I can look at some of the issues that affect minority groups in a newspaper that might not be read by that many of them, then I’m pleased.

Are there any specific stories you’ve written that you feel have had a strong impact? 

The piece that is closest to my heart is one I wrote about my mum on Father’s Day last year. I’m from a single-parent home and I wanted to talk about how you can have a mum who can do a dad’s job too. It was really widely shared on social media because I think a lot of people can relate to a parent who’s laid so much on the line for you. 

I also wrote a piece about children taking acid into schools and using it as a weapon. Following the article, it was looked at as a topic in the Commons and Amber Rudd, who was Home Secretary at the time, spoke out about children under a certain age not being allowed to purchase these substances. It was literally just off the back of my brother telling me that this was happening in his school and me looking at it as an issue. It was constructive; it helped make a change. 

I don’t want writing about my own culture or race to be the only thing I do, because I think in terms of progressing as a reporter – a black reporter, or anyone from a minority group – you want to show you can do it all. You want to be able to say I’ve written about meditation courses in the Lake District, same-sex dance classes – counted willies in art galleries. Prove you can do all kinds of reporting.  That’s the way I see progress: a black reporter coming in and doing what everyone else can do and more. 

 

Portrait of Shingi in white collar shirt
Image: The Sunday Times

 

Do you think we need a specific person or people who identify as a certain minority to act as a representative in the newsroom? 

I’d say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it helps you avoid making mistakes and doing things that you know you shouldn’t, whether it’s captioning one black MP as another or calling Kobe Bryant LeBron James. Those are things that, if you have someone in the newsroom — be it a specialist or someone from those backgrounds — you can easily ask them “is this right?” Or they can stand up and say, “YO THAT’S SO WRONG!” 

But I also think specialists like Ben Hunte at the BBC, and other diversity reporters for papers, are important because they help bring experiences into the mainstream and that should never be underplayed. Especially at public service broadcasters, like the BBC, that have that as their remit. They have a public duty. 

I’d also say that it shouldn’t be on the person to feel like they have to do that. That’s the key difference. The moment I feel like I have to always write about being black, working class and from a single parent home is the moment I’m not going to enjoy my job as much. 

How do you think we can get more individuals from minority backgrounds into newsrooms? 

Well, I think it is through lifting other people up. I’m a big advocate of that. If you are black, if you are LGBTQ+, if you are a woman then I think: if you have some spare time to go and meet someone for a coffee and give them some insight and insider knowledge, if you have some time to send someone a message, or time to send an email to get them onto an internship, you should do it. This is what the people who have been in journalism for years have been doing: looking out for their own. I’m talking about the general make-up of newsrooms: they’re still largely middle class. They’ll be like, “I’ve got a mate here, come and intern; let’s go for a drink here; oh your son needs an internship, I’ll bless you with that internship.” We need to start doing that too. 

What is your own personal experience with diversity within the industry? 

Or lack of it. It is a hard one because personally where I work, I am so looked after, I’ve never felt out of place, I’ve never felt marginalised. The people I work with have made a conscious effort to make me feel welcome and help me grow as a journalist. I’ve still got lessons to learn. I’ve never felt like the black kid who’s an outlier, I’ve felt like the kid who The Sunday Times has put money, time and effort behind. So it’s largely been positive. 

I sometimes get imposter syndrome. Anyone who is sane has imposter syndrome anyway, right? But sometimes you sit there and go, none of the mandem are here. It’s just me. It’s imposter syndrome because people, where you’re from, don’t get those opportunities. You haven’t seen them do it. There isn’t a precedent. You’re thinking, am I really the person that should be here?

What challenges do people from minority backgrounds continue to face within the industry?

If you come from a home where you don’t drink that much, you’re religious or your family just don’t take to it, the fact that the way to get a contact or story is often in a drink-fuelled environment is alienating. And the fact that this can prevent people from progressing or networking is a problem and one that needs to be addressed. We need to sit down and ask what the barriers to entry are, especially cultural ones, and address them.

What are newsrooms getting wrong in their coverage of marginalised voices? 

I’ll start with what is going right, because I think a lot of things are being addressed. So, women in sport has become something that a lot of publications are throwing weight behind. That is a plus – we’re looking at gender and we’re starting to look at women who are playing at the World Cup and we’re seeing that it’s just as valid and as brilliant a thing to cover as the men doing it. 

In terms of what could be better, I guess it’s just less token voices. I’ve noticed it more on television, where it seems like they need a black person to come and talk about what Meghan Markle is going through and these people are asked really heavy-handed, difficult questions. There needs to be an encouragement of more subtle debates — the whole Meghan situation has a lot of shades to it, it’s not just a black and white debate. So if you’re going to bring a black talking head onto your programme, it should not be to fill space. Ask questions like: What are the reasons behind Meghan Markle’s treatment by the media? Why is it happening? Where is it happening? It needs to be more constructive. And it’s the same with columnists, allow people to be a bit more subtle and nuanced in their experience because my experience as a black person is very different from someone who’s from Yorkshire or Glasgow, but is also black. 

How can we encourage positive change? And what can we put in place to ensure that people can access the industry?

Schemes like the ones I was on are important, and I think big newsrooms should put money behind them. They’re good because they pick people up early. So I was 16 without the faintest clue of a newsroom and since then I’ve had seven years of immersion into a newsroom, which means that I don’t feel out of place. I feel like I know my way around The Sunday Times – I know how to network, I know what to do – because they came and found me when I was younger. 

What is your advice to young journalists starting out? 

Don’t get tired, man, this is bigger than yourself. 

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