This week, we’re bringing you our interview with the managing director, Mercy Abang, and editor-in-chief, Tina Lee, of Unbias The News (a newsroom by Hostwriter). We wanted to speak to them about the work they do and how they see their work as an effort to increase representation in media. We talked about some ways that journalists are affected by lack of financial transparency and pay gaps while covering topics like inequality for their newsrooms. But to get started, we get some context on how Mercy’s experience working for international media reflects the inadequate credit and compensation for local journalists. (If you’d prefer to listen to the interview, click here).
Mercy: I have been a reporter in Nigeria for a while, and I mean, I have also dealt with some of the barriers that we [at Unbias The News] seek to address. For instance, I've done a lot of fixer/stringer (whatever you want to call the terms that they use) work. And one of the biggest stories I don't forget is a story I think I pretty much interviewed more than nine or seven people just to get that story out. So I literally did more of the legwork and there was no byline. There was no credit. If you check the story, you don't find me there. It was an award-winning piece. Because it was a long read on an international media in the U.K. So I have also dealt with it personally.
So when I talk about it, I also talk about it from a very personal point of view. And we all have these strings attached to something somewhere. If Wafaa says she’s going to tell you her own story, Tina is going to tell you her own story, same with Zahra and everybody who is on the team.
So pretty much that has been like, beyond being a journalist, we have also been affected by these issues. And yes, perhaps that's the journey of why we're here. And sometimes life takes you where it takes you. When it takes you there, you just know that it was all part of the direction and it's something that you're excited about.
In Old News: And when it comes to keeping the bias out of the reporting, how do you keep the objective and direction clear as they carry out their editorial processes?
Tina: Well, we have an editorial manifesto. And in this manifesto, we explain that by saying ‘unbias the news,’ we don't suggest that we have no bias, but rather we suggest that the real bias is a lack of diversity in the media, that when the journalism field is homogeneous, that that means that there's less fact-checking. Because people don't aren't able to call you on your bullshit if they're not aware it's even there.
So we have our editorial manifesto, which also explicitly says what our bias is. We are a feminist newsroom. We're anti-racist so these words actually also mean something, and we're also pro-democracy where this is our biases that we are exposing. People who work with us get a copy of that editorial manifesto also, for example, that we definitely do not amplify stereotype tips. We effortfully do not portray victims without agency, people who are victims of things. We need to have the chance to speak for themselves. So it's more like tactics, it's not like there's words that are not allowed. But actually, I think because we have those things explicit, we have a culture of kind of saying like this is what we stand for, and we attract, I think, also journalists that stand for those things too. So I have never had to correct a piece because someone used a slur word or had some kind of racial stereotype in there. When there has been things that we changed, it was like, we find this confusing, give us more context.
In Old News: So why is equal pay and credit important in journalism?
Tina: So one thing that's immediately noticeable [when paying and crediting equally] is that this totally discourages you from using fixers or using interns or using other people. So for instance, when we have told people everyone who works on the story needs to get paid, people even get credit, sometimes people said like, “Oh, but I thought of working with this person, but I would just pay them from my own money, it’s fine.” And we said, “No, you're not going to pay anyone from your own money. Everyone in the story who works on the story needs to be paid by us.” So this forces you to evaluate like, do you really want to outsource things? Or maybe you should collaborate with someone and you guys can both work on the story together.
So this is one way I think it kind of forces people to collaborate, but also to not rely on that cheap labor that you outsource. Like, do the job yourself. I mean, go work at a big media outlet, if you want to hire translators and fixers and things like that. For us, if you're a freelancer and you're working with us, then we want everyone who works on the project to get paid.
Mercy: I think importantly also we're practising what we preach. And we’re also trying to show the world that it's possible. So for us it’s very, like the Christians would say, evangelism. We're literally doing it and we're showing that if we can do it, trust me, you can also do it. It won't kill you to pay everybody equally, you know, and that's it.
Tina: Well, yeah, it's about choices, right? You were asking about like, have the advantage for the authors, but to some degree, we also want to ask these organizations, like, what do you actually think you're achieving? Like, for instance, if you are a media outlet that's funded by a western country like Germany and the person who works there, the German one, makes what they make home in Berlin.
But the people that work there, they say “oh, that would create bad incentives if we would pay them what a German outlet would do.” So what are you expecting? Are you expecting them to do inferior work? Are you expecting that their work will not be as valuable for your organization, in which case, maybe hire fewer people and actually pay them to do really good work. Like, what is the concept that you're doing when you say like, we expect that they should be able to do the same work that we have in our outlet, but for less money, you're actually expecting that their work will be worse.
They think it's a great idea. They think it's really smart. But the second you go, “Oh, what is the person that runs the office make? Do they make the costs of the local living expenses? Oh, no, they don't.” So that person shouldn't actually have bad incentives. Like what? It doesn't make any sense.
Mercy: And even within the context of, you know, I know we call Unbias The News often, but even unbiasing the activities that we do as media organizations and dealing with barriers and structural barriers, journalists need to start talking about equal pay. Guess what, we report about everybody’s pay gap, every other organization’s pay gap. We report how the other staff are not being paid. Well guess what? Just on the mirror back to the newsroom that is reporting it.
Tina: Then they don't do it. Then they don't want to.
Mercy: Well, it is messy. Let's start looking at the mirror.
Tina: Yeah, that would be also the thing, right? I mean, they had this problem, right? When they said, “oh, you know, we can't afford a union. We can't afford to raise the prices,” then, “oh, how much does the CEO make?” And everyone finds out. It's like, holy shit. So you actually have plenty of money. What are we doing here? There is actually not a lack.
In Old News: What are some things that journalists can do to promote better pay when they don't have the options, like unionizing.
Mercy: Within the context of associations and unions, they've been set up to better the deal, I would say the contractual deal with employees and employers. Which is something that, you know, is now the ‘in’ thing for organizations. For journalists, it's also a very, very difficult sell in reality. That's why we are doing what we're doing. We're saying, without needing to start an association, we don't care if you're a fixer or you're a cameraman or an illustrator. If you contribute to the work, you deserve to be paid this amount. And it is there. It is clearly stated. So when I come to a contractual deal with you and you've already pointed that, I don't have any need to call lawyers. I only start calling lawyers when I feel cheated, I only call in lawyers when I feel like, you know, my situation has not been properly addressed.
But at the core of it is the fact that the funding challenge for these media organizations… because the ones that have all the resources in the world are the ones that are refusing to even pay equally, are the ones that have this pay gap between one editor who is in Nairobi and another editor who is also in Nairobi. But because they say [to one], “you flew all the way from London to come to Nairobi, we’ll pay you this amount.” But [to the other] “because you stay in Nairobi, no, we cannot pay you that amount.”
I’ll probably leave it to Tina to talk about the kind of money we have, but it's how much more funders, people that are interested in funding public interest media, need to look at these things and say, let's pump in money into these other indie newsrooms that are doing differently and not say, “No, we have to restrict up our funding to the bigger corporations.” I mean, these guys already have billions of dollars in adverts anyway, you know what I'm saying? And we're not interested in that, we just want to do good in the course of this profession.
Tina: I would say I agree with Mercy about the transparency issue, that this is something that you can demand if you can't demand unionization. That you can demand transparency about the contracts and demand transparency about things. And you see this all the time that people put news organizations on blast. I see it from Indian journalists all the time that mention, like, “I haven't still gotten paid for that story. I see it has 100,000 Twitter hits and a bunch of tweets, but still haven't gotten paid by this news organization. What's that about?” This is something I think that other journalists can retweet. The other issue is solidarity with other news outlets, not just in your country, but in other ones that are doing the same kind of things that journalists, if they can show more solidarity for people that are doing it right and point these things out and hype each other up.
In Old News: How does someone apply to work with Unbias The News?
Tina: We work with Indian journalists all the time. Also, one of our editors Ankita Anand, is from India. So we really like to work with Indian journalists. We also think that with 1.3 billion people, there are quite a few stories, even with a very thriving ecosystem like there is in India, that are not being told even there. We will have a call for pitches coming soon that's open. And actually, I have never had any problem with getting Indian journalists to appear in my inbox because they know about us and we have published a bunch of stories so keep them coming. The easiest way is to apply when we have a call for pitches, and this is basically how we get stories. And, I mean, go look on the website of the stories that we've already done for ideas of what kind of pieces we're interested in. We want things that are context-rich, that are undercovered stories, underreported topics that allow you to think about things in a different way. Constructive journalism pieces, rural, things that don't make it into the outlets the other ways.
In Old News: What is the aim of publishing behind the scenes of stories covered by Unbias The News?
Tina: So afterwards we will often do a piece where we explain some of the backgrounds of the story, why we thought it was important to do what it was like working with this journalist, or in some cases, what were the barriers that the journalists had to go through, or not even barriers, but what did they do to do the story? And I think that that helps to add some kind of interest to the stories, to recognize that sometimes these things are really difficult to tell, but also the kind of… how the sausage is made of collaboration and things like that, to encourage people to do it more often themselves.
Mercy: I mean, not just journalists, even the editors that are involved also get to, you know, at some point insert personal narratives. So I did work on a Kenyan story on maternal health, and I could literally feel the story. So when I was writing, I think when I was writing my own newsletter, after the story was out, it gave me an opportunity to say this is a story that this journalist has filed and even as an editor editing the story, I felt it personally.
I just want to say that what we're doing almost feels like just a tiny drop in the larger scheme of things. But change is always gradual but it happens anyway. I mean, we hope that the number of people that start to listen today will have access or influence in their media organizations. Or… took something out of it and they will go and reflect and make sure that it becomes part of their core culture. Everything is gradual, but we will all get there.