For people who fall into the category of ‘marginalised group’, the experience of reading the news can sometimes be a perplexing experience. For the most part, media coverage often involves people who know very little of the reader’s experiences, projecting their worldview onto a ‘story’, often with negative consequences.
House of The Guilty Feminist, the outfit responsible for the award-winning podcast that shares its name, has produced a new podcast series, ‘Media Storm’, which seeks to challenge some of these bad habits that plague the world’s biggest media institutions.
The first episodes have included conversations around anti-Asian abuse, first-hand experiences of being trans in Britain, and a clear-sighted explanation of immigration to the UK, including the problems around terms like ‘illegal immigrant’. By giving the microphone to those who the story is ‘about’, marginalised or otherwise often mischaracterised people get their power back.
I spoke to the podcast’s hosts Mathilda Mallinson and Helena Wadia about the media, the power of their podcast, and what the future might look like.
You can listen to episodes of Media Storm on the official website or on Acast, Spotify and Apple.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Dan Cody: The name ‘Media Storm’: could you explain where that comes from?
I think for us, when we were talking about the podcast and what we wanted it to be about, we were actually discussing the depiction of transgender people in the media at that point. And I said “they just get caught up in these media storms” but they don’t actually get their voice across.
We kind of ran with that, because there are so many media storms about so many minority groups, so we thought it would be interesting to do [the podcast] from the perspective of the people that are caught in the eye of these media storms.
It was a work in progress for a while. But what the topics have in common is conveyed by the term ‘media storm’; it touches on a sensationalism and clickbait, but it also touches on bias, a covert form of bias where an article might have two sides and seem to be impartial, but the fact that story is being told so many times may not be proportional to how dangerous a threat it actually presents to society. So it touches on a lot of the issues that underpin every episode of Media Storm.
That’s really interesting, that you had specific stories in mind that inspired the name. It’s not the only term for it, but I suppose ‘culture war’ would be a bit more of a divisive name for a podcast.
Yeah, but actually one of our guests on the transphobia episode said ‘It’s a culture war, I hate the term, I don’t want to say culture war, but it’s a culture war’. It’s maybe a bit more of a buzzword in that sense.
Can I get your reaction to this statement: We have access to more information than ever, but it seems like we’re more attracted to false stories than ever before?
It’s like this reaction against expertise, that fuels the fake news, alternative news, industry. People are saying ‘people are sick of hearing from experts’, when as you say there’s so much information out there, so to compete in the information market it’s not about accuracy, it’s not about expertise or balance, it’s about being eye-catching.
They say a lie spreads so much further than the truth; hate spreads, and it’s one of the easiest things to sell, so that pinpoints the economy in which the news is having to compete these days. It’s dangerous.
My immediate reaction to that statement is to think of social media, and more specifically Twitter. Sometimes when I talk to people who aren’t in the media, or journalists or aren’t on Twitter, I realize that not everybody is involved in this culture war. Sometimes I think that there is a bubble, especially on Twitter, on social media.
So that makes me think. Of course, in times past, not everybody had access to a Twitter account, not everybody could just say what they want, so I do think that naturally, disinformation is going to spread. Like Mathilda says, sensationalist stuff does spread faster; it catches like wildfire.
You mention that not everybody is in the ‘Twitter-sphere’. How do you think people relate to this news when they’re not in that hashtag news world, they may not have enough time, or aren’t familiar with the technology. What’s their relationship to these different stories, whether it’s the media storms, culture wars, or the story of the day?
I think that’s where the scariness of it comes in. Often you don’t have to be an active consumer of the news, you don’t have to buy a newspaper or log on to BBC news to consume these stories, and then that’s where so many of the media storms come from; they come from people who have heard a thing that’s happened somewhere, and it’s trickled down in the subconscious and they’ve formed these biases.
I think it’s a really good question because it’s the question of responsibility and accountability. Who is responsible for the misinformation? Can you blame someone for having certain news about certain communities, when the only information they’re exposed to is feeding them this stuff? Where does the responsibility lie?
The media outlets will say ‘People want to read this’, so there’s no sense of accountability, but ultimately, someone has to take responsibility, so what do we want the news to be? Is the news here to tell people want they want to hear, or to tell people what they need to hear? That’s been a big question in the industry and there’s a schism with journalists of one mind and journalists of the other mind.
I suppose that’s the power of your podcast. People won’t necessarily have any interaction with these communities that they don’t know of, whether it’s different ethnicities or different gender identities, it could just be the media that they get these stories from. Because you’re going out to the people it actually affects, they’re getting as close as they can to meeting them, by hearing their stories.
Yes. Helena and I have our respective expertise in some of the subjects, but some of the episodes are really new for me for Helena as well. Like the episode on transgender healthcare just blew my mind. I realized just how many of these transphobic ideas seep into my subconsciousness. We do see being trans as a sickness, and that just infiltrates our mentality. And it’s difficult to unlearn these things, and it’s been a learning experience for us as well.
In terms of these kinds of stories, they really affect everybody, even the most respected kind of organizations that we think of as stalwarts of really rigorous journalism have these kinds of biases. The ones that spring to mind are the portrayal of the unrest in Cuba earlier this year, where a lot of platforms fell into quite common traps of misinformation.
Also, the scapegoating of the transgender community; the most recent examples come from organizations that I think we’ve probably all consumed news from throughout our lives. With that in mind, where do audiences turn to to get a sense of things? How can they arm themselves in a way that makes them more able to see past these biases?
I think the very first thing I’d say – and it’s kind of like what we’re hoping to achieve with the podcast – is a greater amount of empathy when reporting on minority communities and when reading or listening to stuff about minority communities. I think that you can arm yourself with empathy. It will go a long way.
Yes, I’d say the first question to ask yourself when you’re reading an article or listening to or watching a piece of broadcast news is what voice am I not hearing? If you are reading a story about a specific demographic and that demographic is not represented with a first-hand voice, then that should ring alarm bells. And it sounds so obvious that it’s shockingly common that these stories go out without those voices and we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t even journalists don’t notice that they’re not asking people these questions. So to me, that’s the place to start.
Okay. A completely different kind of tack: the recent North Shropshire byelection. Boris Johnson seemed to blame the Conservative Party defeat on the media, in a sense. So the exact quote is: “people have been hearing is a litany of stuff about politics and politicians and stuff that isn’t about them and things we can do to make life better”. The implication being that there has been recent scandals, which has meant less emphasis perhaps on things happening the local area, although there is obviously public interest in this for a reason.
Do you think that there’s any kind of truth to that statement? Do you think it’s a fair statement?
Look, we’re obviously seeing, with these leaks coming from someone in Downing Street, a slightly dirty marriage between media and politicians. Someone in Downing Street, who probably feels unanimously unkindly towards Boris Johnson, is capitalizing on slightly backdoor media relations to undermine the party. That doesn’t mean that the information isn’t in the public interest, and it probably wouldn’t have had such traction if it wasn’t in the public interest. I think it’s not very clever and definitely not very responsible for Boris Johnson to try and pinpoint blame on the media.
But I’m not saying that the media in publishing that information is necessarily the moral Paragon that only has the hypocrisy of the party in mind. They will milk these stories because it’ll sell them papers. So I think, on the one hand, I don’t think that Boris Johnson is inventing the flaws that exist within the media industry, but I don’t think it’s up to him to point them out – don’t throw stones in glass houses.
To the statement by Boris Johnson, I do think that all the additional information is relevant because we’re asking ourselves not just why has this happened in Northrop Shipshire in particular, but why have the conservative at this point in time lost the seat they held for 200 years?
You’ve both worked for some of the biggest names in media, and you’ve got resumes that cover different specialties in different areas of culture. With all of that in mind, how do you think things have kind of changed in relation to the public’s relationship with the media over the years, and what are the most significant changes that you’ve seen?
The main thing that I’ve seen change is how people, especially younger people, consume the news much more frequently than I ever did [at their age].
Do you think they’re more up-to-date?
Yeah, I do. I think access has changed. And I think the age range has changed. I have a lot of younger cousins who are all kind of, like, early to late teenager- hood, and they are so much more informed than I think I was at that age. Whether they’re informed in a good way or a bad way because that is a double-edged sword, like we were talking about before with Twitter and Tiktok and all the information you get all the time.
But they are just so much more aware of things, and I think if you take the example of sex education and sexual assault (Media Storm’s third episode is titled Rape Justice: What happens to the 98%?) and the complexities and nuances around consent, I had no idea. But my younger cousins during their teenage years, they’re so informed, and a lot of that has stemmed from, I think, how they consume the news in a different way to how I ever did.
I’ve written to some very different audiences in my time, and one of the things I’ve always really tried to do is break out of the Echo Chamber and not just be writing humanitarian news just for audiences who are already sympathetic with humanitarian issues. So that has meant sometimes I’ve written content where they’ve literally had to turn off comments because it’s exposed to quite belligerent audiences who are not afraid to write very hateful things. And that has been quite difficult and can be very shocking.
With media Storm, our audience seems to be amazingly engaged and critical. I mean, it’s kind of too early to really speak to what our audience is, but I am constantly worried about not getting stuck in the echo chamber, but it is amazing to have such engaged listeners who think so critically, and the dialogue that comes from that is really rewarding.
The other change is that even from the start of my career to now getting stories out, the need for it to become more rapid and faster has changed massively. This notion that if you pitch something and buy the next day or even like a couple of hours, it might be an old story. I think that’s really changed journalism as a concept in itself.
And getting the hang of the news cycle and getting better at predicting the news cycle is definitely an important trick that we’re still getting the hang of.
That’s really interesting. From my perspective, I read more news than I write. I write a lot less than I used to write. And what I’ve noticed is there seems to be a lot more emphasis on reporting than analysis in a lot of different publications. I suppose one of the issues of that is that it’s not always clear to an audience what is reporting and what is analysis and what is fact and what is opinion, because you’re putting something out at a deadline, but you may be biased.
I mean, one of the biggest issues that Helena and I go on and on about is this pretense of objectivity that journalists stand by, and mainstream respected outlets stand by, that allow them to produce pieces of reporting under the guise of being impartial, when it’s so clearly not impartial, has a viewpoint and is basically a piece of analysis or a piece of opinion dressed up as a piece of reporting. That really is one of the big issues.
I think a lot of the latter half of the podcast, a lot of the headlines and articles that we look at, so many of the ones that we have looked at are presented as fact when really it could almost be a comment piece. The one on our second episode of anti-Asian abuse, the pandemic of hate that sticks out so much that we looked at from The Telegraph, which was about Azeem Rafiq, and I think it was so borderline that it could have been an opinion piece, but it wasn’t. Who gets to decide what topics you’re impartial on?
I think what you’re saying Dan, that there’s so much more focus on reporting than analysis – at least on the surface – I think it is a reflection of our perception with fast content and that’s to do with the business model that journalism and digital journalism has been reduced to, and now it’s all about traffic.
I’ve seen at a paper that was struggling financially moved me and Helena onto SEO desks. We were just supposed to produce content and more and more and more content. And it was content purely design. We were looking at analytics all the time to attract this. And really all it was just recycling content that was already online in a million other places, just rewording it, republishing it. It’s just like a landfill, useless, recycled information. There’s no proper fact checking. No time for proper research and analysis.
To your question before about what has changed, it actually made me think of what hasn’t changed. And I think that what hasn’t changed is diversity and inclusion in newsrooms. You’d think that if the times are changing so fast, if social media is coming up, if different people and younger people are consuming your content, you would try and change diversity in newsrooms. And that has not changed.
That goes fully hand in hand with this idea of impartiality, and the lack of right of reply in the media goes fully hand in hand with the lack of diversity in newsrooms. Because if you do not have those people in newsrooms that have the experience from those communities, whatever the communities may be, Asian, black communities, transgender communities, working class communities. If you do not have them, you will struggle so much to write a story in a way that is relevant to those communities.
You’ve made me think of a documentary by the BBC called ’Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?’ David Harewood starts from the position of this question and then goes on to all of these different institutions that we have in this country, looking at the fact that there are so many different prime ministers that were former solicitors and then ends up in a newsroom where I think – from my memory – he’s literally looking around and trying to see by eye how many different people he can spot that are black and Brown in the BBC newsroom.
I’ve had experiences of being in newsrooms, particularly large media organizations, done that same thing and said ‘wow, I can count on one hand’ the people of color in the editorial team, because I think they might get away with quotas, because of the people of color that work on the advertising team and their finance team, but editorially? It’s crazy.
We’ve talked about what’s changed in terms of the relationship between the readers and the media in these institutions. How do you think independent media, like podcasts or blogging, even influencers live streamers, fit into the mix? How are they part of this shift in terms of repairing journalism – if it needs to be fixed?
The editorial conventions within the mainstream media are so ingrained, and – like Helena says – you have these massive structural issues with diversity that go up all the way to the top and are changing at a snail’s pace, especially at the higher level. So I think that alternative media is really important to challenge these conventions. What we can do when we produce our podcast is we can go against editorial conventions. So it’s a really important challenge.
I don’t believe that the mainstream, personally, should be completely torn apart and that no one should trust the media. The whole fake news war that Donald Trump has perpetuated isn’t necessarily healthy for society or the right thing for society, but the status quo needs to be challenged.
Yeah, I completely agree. And I think that I think a lot of people scoff at Instagram influencers. But actually, I think that scoffing maybe just comes from a place of looking down on somebody. I think it’s great that they can live-stream their thoughts. And some people might think ‘They’re just a love Islander. They haven’t got anything to say’, or whatever. But they’ve said really important things. They’ve spoken out about sexual assault, they’ve spoken out about the dangers of getting lip filler too young, they’ve spoken about loads of different things. I think it is only a good thing that that can come directly from a source on a live stream or whatever it is, and then have to go through various different mainstream medias.
Like Mathilda said, this is not a podcast where we’re like ‘we hate the mainstream media, they suck!’ Of course they don’t. They’re super important. So much of the work they do is absolutely amazing. But it is always important to have that slight dissent where they have the ability to be challenged. They don’t have the ability to be challenged. It’s like a dictatorship.
I would go as far as to say also that I think that many mainstream media outlets have responded in the wrong way or misinterpreted their faith in the information economy in light of these new competitive roles. I think that the risks of having social media influencers tell their stories directly is obviously fact-checking can be a lower priority, and that’s where the mainstream media comes in, to distill this information and fact check this information. And instead, I think that many media outlets are responding to this competition by trying to compete by trying to be the same thing, trying to put out the same content again, click-bait, new articles every second. Trying to do what influencers can do better, but actually they should be drilling into their roles as information arbitrators.
Okay. A couple of questions that maybe give you an opportunity to talk about things outside of your work. What are your pet peeves? This can be either something that’s significant or it can be totally petty, it can be private life, or it can be work life, completely up to you.
Running for transport, running for trains, running for the bus. I don’t know what you’re going to do with that information. It makes me want to sit on the floor and not even try.
I tend to cut things fine time-wise. Sorry Helena.
Yeah, my pet peeve is people who are late!
We were doomed from the start.
My pet peeve outside of work – this is so stupid – is separate hot and cold taps. Why? Why would you have one that’s freezing, and one that’s boiling, and not put them together. Inside work is very simple, it’s writing an article or doing a broadcast without anyone with lived experience.
Last question, and you may have answered this already incidentally: what gives you hope for the future?
For me, in this particular area – and it’s a very big question because some days I’m like, do I? Yeah. No, I do, of course I do. But in this area, like speaking very specifically around Media Storm, I found that approaching stories the way that we do, by going to the communities affected and asking ‘what’s the story that you want to be told?’ ‘What are the issues that you think are important?’
Suddenly so many stories are presenting themselves that haven’t been told. And so, having seen just how saturated the Internet is with the same old content being made, and how many untold stories there still are, if we are just slightly opening that door, I think the floodgates could open. And so I see that there is a direction for the media that it will inevitably go down. And I’m excited for what that will bring up. There’s no way those doors won’t open, it’s just a question of when.
In a very similar way, I think with, for example the lack of diversity in newsrooms, it can be very isolating. However, it also spurs me on in a way because I think it’s going to get so much better, when this new generation, if you want to call them that, when we get further up, there’s a real opportunity to change that makes me very excited. The other thing that gives me hope for the future is, as I was kind of saying about my cousins who are teenagers, about how much they know and how well informed they are, and how they will be able to advocate for themselves earlier on in life, because of the information they receive.
You can listen to episodes of Media Storm on the official website or on Acast, Spotify and Apple.