Concordia alumna says news media should reflect the diverse society it serves
Maya Johnson, Quebec City Bureau Chief for CTV Montreal, spoke to journalism students about how political polarization is creating tension around the world and the importance of racial diversity in the media, on March 13.
“I’m not saying political parties or individual politicians are directly responsible or should be blamed for acts of violence, like the Quebec City mosque shooting,” Johnson told The Concordian. “What I am saying is that our political discourse over identity issues can absolutely inflame social tensions.”
Johnson asked the audience a question as she discussed Quebec’s political tensions involving secularism: “When criticizing the CAQ, how far is too far?”
Then, Johnson showed the audience an editorial cartoon that was not published in The Montreal Gazette because the Editor-in-Chief, Lucinda Chodan, felt it was going too far. The cartoon depicted the CAQ’s logo with a hooded Ku Klux Klan figure as the ‘A.’
Johnson explained it’s times like these when the media should come in to bring balance to a news story without raising tension from the public. “This is a reminder that our stories carry weight and we have an ethical responsibility to make sure they are fair and they are balanced,” she said. “The consequences of our editorial decisions can have real and damaging impacts on people’s lives.” Only two days before the mosque attacks in New Zealand, Johnson disclosed to the audience that the Quebec mosque shooting and its aftermath in January 2017 was the most difficult story to tell. “Every time you cover anything related to it, it’s like you relive the trauma of the original night of reporting,” she said.
During the coverage, Johnson had the chance to spend time with Aymen Derbali at the rehabilitation facility where he stayed during his recovery. Derbali is a survivor of the attack who was paralyzed after being shot seven times. “Those stories are so important to tell because it shows the real, concrete consequences of what happened that night,” Johnson said. “Derbali is one of the bravest people I ever met.”
Johnson graduated from Concordia’s undergraduate journalism program in 2006. She started her internship at CTV in 2005, where she later returned as a full-time reporter in 2012. Within weeks of starting her internship, Johnson jumped from researching behind the scenes to reporting on-air. At the age of 21, Johnson became the youngest reporter in the newsroom at CTV Montreal.
“I didn’t think at that time that I would become the Quebec City’s bureau chief for CTV,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think that I would have the privilege of anchoring and I certainly couldn’t have imagined that I would be standing here in front of you giving this lecture.”
Johnson said her parents separately immigrated from Jamaica to Canada in the late 1960s. They eventually met each other in Montreal. “My parents always told us that the key to success is education,” she said. “It has been a mantra in our family, and they have always said it with absolute unshakable certainty and I know it’s true.”
“There were times when I thought I was too soft, not enough to make it in TV journalism,” said Johnson. “I thought I would have to change my personality, be more of a bulldog, be more aggressive, but that’s not in my nature.” Johnson realized journalists should never change who they are, rather, they should put their best qualities forward.
As the only woman of colour in the Quebec Parliamentary Press Gallery, Johnson said there is a lack of diversity in the industry that is also apparent due to how male-dominated it is. “I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility and I take that role very seriously,” she said.
Johnson believes that the media should reflect the society it serves, which not only means that it must cover a variety of issues, but also that diverse people should be hired. “People of different backgrounds bring different experiences, knowledge, expertise and contacts to the table,” she said. “If you’re a news organization serving a diverse population and all of your reporters look the same, I think that’s a problem.”
For Johnson, representing minority groups in the work environment equates to equal opportunities for everyone in society. She used her own path to journalism. “I was hired at CTV Montreal through a visible minority internship,” she said. “It was a federally-funded internship that was created specifically to give a student from a minority community an opportunity to work in the newsroom, because there was a recognition that there was room for improvement in terms of diversity.”
However, Johnson stressed that not everything is served on a silver platter. “It was made clear to me I was not there to be a token,” she said. “I would have to work hard, and prove that I deserved to be there.”
Johnson was recently nominated for the Radio, Television and News Director Association’s prestigious Dave Rogers Award for Best Long Feature in a large market in the country for her story on the Quebec City mosque attack aftermath.
“At the end of the day, we have a duty to report the truth but sometimes we may not know where the truth really is,” Johnson said. “It may be somewhere in the middle in what two people from the opposite side of the spectrum are saying.”
Photo by Mackenzie Lad