There’s an elephant in the newsroom, and here’s what we can do about it

Canadian Media has a problem with the representation of minority groups

According to Brent Cunningham in Re-thinking Objectivity, “[the] understanding of ‘the other’ has always been – and will always be – a central challenge of journalism.”

The media in Canada at large creates a world of reductive, selective or idealized images of “the other” that misrepresent them by using the experiences of a few people and allowing them to speak for a whole group.

Also, the rhetoric used in Canadian media often makes distinctions between majority and minority groups by establishing a sense of ‘us and them,’ which makes minority groups largely invisible and communicates the message that they are not full participants in Canadian society.

While newsrooms need to invest more time and effort in digging deeper and understanding these minority groups’ issues, most media producers are doing the opposite: content production  choices are mainly made by journalists who come from the same majority-group of the Canadian population. At the same time, most media producers rarely make the effort to change  their hiring processes or news story choices. And the outcomes of this state of denial are  catastrophic.

Hal Niedzvieki wrote in his controversial The cultural appropriation prize editorial – where he denied that cultural appropriation exists – that writers need to break the ‘write what you know rule’ by writing about people who live beyond their own worlds.

While I appreciate Niedzvieki’s creative endeavour to represent other worlds that exist alongside that of white middle class people, I think Indigenous and racialized writers have more competent authority by way of their lived experiences to write about their own culture and community.

Across television and radio platforms in Quebec, experiences of marginalized communities are whittled down not even to trauma or fables of defying the odds, but rather worse, to delusional thinking. “What systemic racism?” cried La Joute’s hosts Luc Lavoie, Paul Larocque and Bernard Drainville as a comment on the Quebec government’s final release of a consultation about systemic racism in September. The rhetorical question makes light of what members of minority groups go through in Quebec and treats it as something that has never existed.

What adds insult to injury is the fact that Canadian media is anything but diverse. A 2010 survey by the Ryerson DiverseCity Counts project found that members of visible minority groups were vastly underrepresented in newsrooms, where they held only 3.2% of decision-making positions in print media in Toronto.

In 2016, a survey by Canadaland showed that 90% of CBC’s staff were white. Another questionnaire was conducted by CBC/Radio-Canada in April 2018. It collected race and identity based data from its employees who participated voluntarily. The questionnaire showed that 15.4% of CBC staff were from visible minorities, only one percent more than the year before.

There is a tendency to not be open about sharing race-based demographics of the people working in these newsrooms.  Another Ryerson study analyzed over twenty years of columns in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and the National Post to gather data about the demographics of all journalists who worked there.

It was quite a challenge to get this information – newsroom management in Canada admitted that they do not collect race-based data on newsroom staff. Likewise, mainstream Canadian media outlets often refrain from responding to surveys of the same nature, and hardly react to any calls to action.

Without this data, how can we approach who is telling these stories? Getting a clearer picture in this regard can go a long way in solving this dilemma.

In his Re-thinking Objectivity, Cunningham also comments on how reporters tend to lean more on “existing narratives because they are safe and easy.” This is where the danger lies.

In her Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story, Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi said “show a people as one thing over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Hence, relying on existing popular media narratives about minority groups will take us back to square one: inferiorizing and excluding  “the other,” simply because they are consistently told  through the lens of a detached, misinformed narrator.

And then we find ourselves entangled in a vicious circle: first the media others its minority citizens by sticking with one representation of them; next, the idea becomes a culture; then, hiring practices start to embrace that culture; after that, newsrooms lacking in diversity  tell the same “us versus them” single stories. And so on.

Overlooking the importance of a diverse Canadian media reveals a troubling double standard, and a gap between what it preaches and what it practices.

A big part of solving a problem lies in acknowledging that there is one.

Newsrooms are still refusing  to take part in surveys that investigate media diversity: mainstream newspapers are not reacting to calls for action such as the one raised by the Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJC), white talk show hosts are discussing systemic racism without seeing the need to invite a racialized guest and many white writers still find themselves entitled to rob the voices of others in pursuit of creative genius and literary recognition.

Sadly, more journalists of color are just leaving the newsroom and the whole industry behind, as in the case of Sunny Dhillon, a Globe and Mail reporter who quit because of a disagreement about a story that involved race.

Activists have already done the research and the data is revealed: there is a problem, and it should no longer be overlooked. The gap between the theories of journalism and the practices of newsrooms should not exist.

We clearly need more interactive multi-dimensional reporting methods and less one-way flow reports told by certain gatekeepers or power structures.

Change needs to be top-down: news managers, producers and leaders should take action. Newsrooms should self-report diversity statistics on a regular basis in the interest of transparency and equal opportunity employment. Representation needs to be increased in Canadian media, with more training and mentoring for novice journalists. 

In a nutshell, the work of diversity and inclusion in Canadian media should start from its newsrooms. 


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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