I lost my dream journalism job in the middle of a global pandemic. In August last year, I was informed I was being made redundant.
I was devastated. I’d worked so hard to get to where I was — from saving up to pursue a postgraduate degree in journalism to waitressing after classes to fund unpaid internships in the field, I’d done whatever I could to get this job.
As a non-native English speaker, I felt the onus was on me to prove that people who acquired English later in life could succeed in a British newsroom. And yet, before I could leave any kind of legacy, my dreams were shattered and I was left to pick up the pieces.
A few days after I was told the news, I started applying for other jobs. The journalism field was absolutely decimated as a result of the pandemic. Most of those free news sites you get your news are funded through ads. But many companies lost their ads budgets when the pandemic hit.
I found a remote reporter opportunity for a news agency and I applied. A news agency sells stories to news outlets — they don’t have an audience themselves. This particular news agency sold stories to some of the major tabloids in Britain.
I was elated to get an interview for the position. The editor called me and we had a lovely chat. I explained I’d been made redundant and he sympathised. He told me I would be progressing to the next stage and assigned me a task.
It sounded simple enough; come up with five human interest story ideas and case studies. They had to be unique, shocking, inspirational – all three if possible. So I did. I scoured social media and found some great stories.
I realised I could do some amazing things with this job – like spotlight some great charities whose founders had inspiring stories. So what if the work would appear in tabloids? They were read by so many people and these organisations could get some well-deserved exposure. Or so I thought.
The next day, I was told my ideas weren’t in line with what they had in mind and that I was rejected. It was disappointing, but that should have been the end of it.
The Feedback Session — “That Rape Victim Just Wasn’t Hot Enough”
I got a text message a few days later. It was from the editor and it went something like this:
“Hey, I feel like we missed out on a great candidate by letting you go. Are you free for a quick call? I’ll give you some feedback and you could give the task another go.”
Beggars couldn’t be choosers and I didn’t have any other promising prospects so I agreed.
It was after that feedback session that I decided to take a step back from journalism for now.
The editor called me and started talking through my stories. Some of the things he said, I could agree with. The ideas were fine in principle, but they just weren’t big enough. My proposed headlines weren’t clickable enough. Fine.
But then we got to the story of a woman who had been raped and started her own charity to help women in a similar situation. It was so inspiring — she had her own trauma to deal with and she was attending therapy sessions, but in the meantime, she was working with other women who had been through this experience and offering tremendous support and free resources.
I was curious to find out what was wrong with this particular story. The next thing to come out of the editor’s mouth shocked me. I was taking notes up until this point and had to pause to stomach it.
He said: “This was a really good story. It would actually make a great article. However, the other editors and I all agreed that the person you chose wasn’t very…presentable.
“Media outlets who buy our stories want aspirational people — people who their readers could picture themselves as. If they’re men, they need to be rich and successful. If they’re women, they need to be beautiful and thin. This person just wasn’t representative of that.”
The person I’d selected was plus-sized, yes. Perhaps she was not conventionally beautiful. I don’t know. I hadn’t actually focused on her looks. I’d focused on the strong woman who built a charity after a traumatic event nobody should have to go through.
I am so embarrassed to admit this, but when he said that, I just chuckled nervously and said: “Oh, right… I didn’t know that.”
I should have hung up. I should have called him out. I should have told him exactly what I think of him and his shoddy journalism ethics. But I didn’t. I became a part of the problem.
“So, will you give it another go?”
“Sure, might as well,” I mumbled as he said something about liking the fact that I had a can-do attitude. I felt a little sick to my stomach as I hung up.
I started working on the task. I thought — beggars can’t be choosers. I thought — I need the money and this is just a stepping stone and I get to stay in journalism and I get to do what I love.
But it made me nauseous. I made a cup of coffee and sent my boyfriend a voice-message. I told my best friend. I told some of my other pals in journalism. I couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe it.
Later, my boyfriend came home and we talked. I told him I didn’t want to do it. But, I told him, what if I didn’t find another job? He said something which made me fall in love with him even more.
He said he didn’t care. He said he’d support us both for as long as it took me to find something I loved. That evening, I withdrew my application. It was the middle of the pandemic but I had the privilege to stick to my convictions.
Again, I was far too polite. I said that on reflection, I didn’t feel like I was a good fit for their organisation, after all. The editor said he understood and that he wished me well.
I don’t work in journalism now. I realise most journalism outlets try to do good and try to uphold ethical standards — I know this because many of my friends work in the field and they’re good people who would never do harm on purpose.
But this experience made me realise that there is a dark side to journalism that needs weeding out. This agency sells stories to major tabloids and talk-shows across the country. They are either condoning this behaviour or actively demanding it.
The journalism industry has a long way to go before it can call itself ethical.