It is time for all public media mandates to place diversity and representation centre stage.

The killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis on 25 May, which prompted the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the United States, have placed the US and its race relations centre stage of a global reflection on diversity. Since then, there has been a significant push to hold power to account and the responses from many individuals, political bodies, and the business sector have been positive.

But the issue of tensions in race relations is not unique to the US. Protests have occurred in countries around the world and more and more nations have been turning the lens inwards to reflect on their own histories of oppression.

Within public media there has been a reckoning and when we consider some of its mandates – such as universalism, pluralism, and diversity – there is even more urgency in addressing any shortfalls that exist. As trusted media institutions, public media organisations are mandated to ensure that they reach and are representative of all members of society – those who fund and consume it. It should strive to inform, educate, and entertain everyone within a population.

Read more: The Public Media Alliance condemns attacks on journalists and media workers during protests in the USA

The lack of racial diversity in the media, both in creators and content, is not a new problem but the current climate has fortunately given more space to members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities to share their experiences and call for greater inclusion not only in their numbers, but in their voices. We have also seen how threats and physical attacks against journalists by some authorities have escalated in light of the protests. This duality of being not only a journalist, but a member of the BIPOC community, presents a unique and difficult challenge for journalists to navigate. Public media must therefore take a lead in addressing diversity, not only for audiences but for staff, contributors and creators.

Public media must therefore take a lead in addressing diversity, not only for audiences but for staff, contributors and creators.

The issue of race is often at the forefront of the diversity sections of public media policies and editorial guides, as is gender diversity. But these two are just part of myriad themes and issues included within sections written about diversity. Such policies and guidelines usually also acknowledge physical ability, sexual orientation, gender identification, age and economic status, among others.

But why does diversity in public media matter? It matters for many reasons, but there are two critical factors that are especially important: the societal level and the individual level.

At the societal level, diversity in the media helps build democracy. It promotes dialogue between those holding conflicting viewpoints and allows groups to hold power to account. This accountability lends itself to a better distribution of political and social power among communities. Diversity in the media also adds depth and richness to society and allows for a better understanding of the world we live in. It helps to broaden perspectives and challenge personal prejudices.

When we fail to reflect the diverse structures of our society, we fail to represent – or even misrepresent – those who do not fall into the majority. We inadvertently “other” entire communities. When we successfully reflect diversity, we bring attention to misrepresented or underrepresented members of our society and provide them with a platform to amplify their voices.

When we fail to reflect the diverse structures of our society, we fail to represent – or even misrepresent – those who do not fall into the majority.

This particular benefit of diversity in the media transcends to the individual level: diversity and accurate representations of people promote social inclusion, acceptance, understanding of minority and disadvantaged groups, and members of these communities are incentivised to participate in society. This is also beneficial to people across the community.

It could be argued that public media has more responsibility to diversity than private media, it is necessarily a part of its core remit. While public media ideally exists as part of a pluralistic media environment, it has a remit to serve, represent and be accountable to the public that fund it. It must set exemplary standards.  When public media fails to represent its audiences or meet their needs, how can it justify payment for services? Without diverse newsrooms, content, and programming, public media is no longer true to its core principles if it exists solely within its own echo chamber. In that circumstance, who would it serve, and, by extension, who would trust, support, and fund it?

Read more: Why Public Media Will Not Survive Without Real Citizen Participation

A failure to attend to the needs of all – and not just the needs of the majority – would be a fundamental failure of public media’s key principles.

While the values of public media are idealistic; many organisations have made significant strides towards the inclusion of diverse voices. Some have launched specific initiatives such as the BBC’s 50:50 Equality Project and CBC/Radio-Canada’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives. The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia offers impressive multilingual services, which have been ramped up during the COVID-19 crisis. In Japan, NHK has significantly expanded accessibility to its crisis and emergency content for those living with disabilities as well as more broadly across its services ahead of the postponed 2020 Olympics. But this is not a time for complacency. Significantimprovements are still required in public media worldwide, not least due to revelations and complaints revealed in the light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Read more: World Radio Day: Radio and Diversity

Diversity must cut across all aspects of public media: it must be reflected in its management, in its newsroom staff, in its content producers and creators, in the way people are represented in its programming and output, and in who is given space and the power to speak throughout its operations.  Diversity must go beyond lip service; the organisational culture must encourage participation, transparency, and equality. And just as importantly, public media should also provide space for the public to have more say in how they are represented and what content is being produced.

What we are doing

Diversity, universalism and pluralism are fundamental pillars of public media mandates. That is why we will be dedicating more of our reports and work to covering the multifaceted nature of diversity in public media. This will include both the internal and external elements of public media, the strides made, and the stumbling blocks encountered.

As a public media advocacy organisation with members across the globe, we are in a unique position to report on the different approaches and varying contexts of diversity, inclusion and representation. We have lots of ground to cover but we are committed to doing our best.  We want to make this an open and ongoing conversation as it is important that diversity remains at the heart of everything that public media does, everything that public media stands for.

We always like to hear from members and actively seek their input- why not share your diversity stories?

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Header Image: Rows of colorful chairs in Auditorium. Credit: siraanamwong/iStock