Journalist Lydia Wilkins tells us what diversity in the media means to her

Journalist Lydia Wilkins talked to us about the importance of diversity in newsrooms and how it is important to show young people how you can achieve your dreams by taking on opportunities with confidence. 

Lydia currently works as a freelance journalist and Autism trainer, and runs her own blog and newsletter. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Readers Digest, The Metro, Refinery 29, and more.

She was also diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome in 2015, two months shy of her 16th birthday.

So Lydia, tell us what diversity means to you?

“To some, it may be just a buzzword – something to do with inclusivity, something you’re not really sure of. But for me, after years waiting, I was finally diagnosed in 2015 with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“There is a bias against women in diagnostic criteria. ’Masking’ – a hallmark of the condition – which can make picking up on a potential diagnosis difficult.

“Stereotypes still persist everywhere. I’d seemingly been tested for everything bar autism!

But labelling like this should not make a difference to how people perceive you. Sadly, it does. By luck of the genetic lottery, I fall under the category of “diverse” – and the reaction can be mixed. A few teachers, lecturers – even friends – would make stereotyped statements. I wouldn’t be able to be a journalist; people with Asperger’s Syndrome are a bit cold, a bit weird…

“I can struggle with practical tasks, following some instructions, filtering noise (hurray for noisy environments!), I can be very literal. But H

hallmarks like attention to detail are assets.

“I’m good at research and enjoy asking questions and this has helped me go on to interview people like singer Anastacia (of “I’m outta love, set me free…” fame).

“Diversity, to me, means that I can do the job I love to do. My label is just a label. But autism helps me to be a better journalist.”

What was your root into journalism?

“I applied for an NCTJ course. Work experience at a national newspaper lead to a conversation with an editor, who said I should take up an NCTJ on leaving education.

“With the worst cold ever, I had been invited to a panel interview held at the Financial Times; this was for the Journalism Diversity Fund, to decide if I was eligible for a bursary. This later enabled me to take part in the course.

“I felt very small, clutching my portfolio and its clippings. Questions were asked of every possible subject: What were my ambitions? Where did I want to go, if I was granted the funding? What news was taking place locally? What newspapers did I read regularly? Returning to college at the end of the day was the ‘coming down to Earth’ moment.

“Later, a phone call came while at college, in the middle of a politics lesson. I was in! For the rest of the day I was in an ecstatic bubble.

“Twice a week I attended lessons, with exams, revision, and stories to be filed in between – the NCTJ course was not what I expected. Full on, factual, there was a lot to remember – and not a lot of time to find your feet. I lived for the days when speakers would come to address the class.

“My law lecturer had a huge influence on me. For the first time in my life I felt like I was not the ‘autistic student’, or even the ‘problems with learning student’.

“Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times, was one of my favourite interviewees, while I was still on the NCTJ course. I found the documentary, Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime. I had so many questions when watching the documentary, I just had to interview this person.

“My grandparents had a mantra when I was little: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I asked for an interview, thinking nothing of it. Why would someone like that ever want to talk to someone like me? But he did and we met in London. He didn’t merely speak for the sake of a good quote – he spoke of stories, drawing a picture in the air in front of me.

“Returning to another lesson as part of the NCTJ, a cluster of lecturers wanted to hear all about it. As I left, I heard one call out to me: “welcome to the world of journalism”. I could hear the smile in the voice. I treasure that.”

What did you go on to do from there?

“Graduating with a certificate for shorthand, as well as a joke certificate for asking the most questions, I was at a loss. Networking had created a contacts book, but no job offers. For the moment, freelancing seemed to be the answer.

“I also enjoyed some down time (of sorts) attending the Byline Festival in 2018. It was something else, and I still lack the capacity to describe it. In a field in the middle of nowhere, under stars, anything felt possible.

“Activists, poets, speakers were all around. I got to meet my hero, Nick Davies, who used to write for The Guardian. I remember looking out for his work constantly as an undiagnosed, young teenager, thinking “maybe I could do that.”

“Freelancing is tough but autistic individuals face barriers into employment – discrimination, unforgiving interviews.

“It sometimes feels like there’s always an extra hoop to jump, something unseen that’ll inevitably trip me up. To try, and try, and try is the only way.”

What’s next for your career?

Journalism has taken a ‘hit’ due to the pandemic – and it’s like the industry is in transit, not entirely sure of  itself.

“In response, I’ve started a newsletter. Each week I interview someone like Samantha Renke and link to resources to try and help others with the current situation. I’d like to expand it to pay other autistic people to write, create illustrations. It would be my (small) way of trying to make the industry more diverse.

“I am also thinking of applying for a grant for a story I’m working on.”

What is your dream role?

 “Chief interviewer! Journalism gives you permission to ask as many questions as you like – perfect for someone nosy and curious, like me. Other people are far more interesting than my ‘inner world’ – and in that way, I guess I am selfish, for wanting to know as much as possible about them.”

Check out Lydia on Instagram here and her blog here.

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