News So White It’s Blinding

Lack of diversity in media is bad for democracy, business, and justice. And readers. But what’s the solution? 

Photo: Mike Sudoma, Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), website homepage 2020. The CAJ shared “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action” publicly and with it members in support of the recommendations.

Working in Canadian media these days can feel like playing a real-life version of Survivor. It seems every quarter brings new buyouts, shuttered outlets, and more castaways. While times are challenging for all journalists, people of colour—already underrepresented—are getting squeezed even harder.

Earlier this week, a first joint report by the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) and Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) tackled the issue, highlighting why it’s finally time—even in these challenging times—for the country’s newsrooms to stop sweeping appallingly low diversity statistics under the rug and start acting on its recommendations to boost diversity.

The two organizations decided to work together on the report when they realized they shared the same concerns. And that, says Nadia Stewart, executive director of the CABJ, was, “Folks who felt they weren’t represented in the leadership in their newsroom, folks who were still encountering unpleasant experiences, folks who felt like their voice wasn’t heard.” When the heads of the two organizations began to talk, Stewart says, “Representation diversity was still the elephant in the room.”

With diversity and race issues regularly making front-page headlines in Canada and abroad, the industry’s own problem with racial representation had become even more ironic, if not downright comical. Last September, editors at the Vancouver Sun showed a deaf ear to the issue, publishing an op-ed that recommended Canada say, “Goodbye to diversity, tolerance, and inclusion,” then later apologized after many of the Sun’s own journalists denounced the op-ed on social media.

During the 2019 federal election, when Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal erupted, an overwhelming number of journalists criticized the coverage and called for increased diversity in the newsroom, noting the first journalists to question Trudeau on the Liberal campaign plane were all white. Journalist Sunny Dhillon quit his Vancouver posting for The Globe and Mail when he wanted to write about that city’s lack of diversity on council—and was overruled by his bureau chief. In an essay, Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away, Dhillon explained the “challenges journalists of colour can face in a lily-white industry” and said the solutions were “as obvious as they are unacted upon—hire more people of colour, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence.”

Ironically, in recent years, US and international media have started hiring high-profile Black Canadians to cover race issues in Canada.

The goal of the joint report, called “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action,” is meant to move issues of diverse inclusion forward “in a way that isn’t just paying lip service, but actually is actionable steps,” says Anita Li, co-founder of CJOC.

The CJOC has more than 600 members and launched as a Facebook group in October 2018, though Li says the conversations around race has been going on for years. The CABJ was founded in 1996 as a resource for Black journalists in Canadian media and was relaunched in 2018 with “renewed focus” to support young journalists. In the report, the two organizations lay out seven recommendations to improve diversity and create an “equitable media” within the country, which includes creating mentorship and scholarship opportunities for people of colour and self-reporting newsroom demographics. Unlike in the US, Canadian outlets often opt out of publishing such details so that it’s impossible to know how many people of colour work in a news organization, or what roles they play.

Diversity in a dying industry

Increasing diversity in Canada’s struggling news industry faces one seemingly insurmountable roadblock: how to increase representation in an industry that’s simply struggling to stay afloat? Over the last decade, Canadian media has been pummelled by declining advertising revenues and shrinking subscriber bases. A recent report from the Public Policy Forum found that, since 2008, more than 250 news outlets have either closed or reduced the services they offer, and advertising revenue—the lifeblood of most organizations—has all but dried up.

So, is it possible for newspapers and digital publications to increase diversity while facing the constant threat of collapse? Many experts say yes. In fact, the benefits of greater racial diversity in the newsroom has been proven over and over again, starting with a deeper and more authentic relationship with the communities they serve, leading to a more sustainable business model. In an industry suffering from declining readership, a diverse news staff could be what rights the ship.

However, the business case can’t be the only reason to boost diversity, explains Eva Salinas, the former managing editor of Open Canada. In her former role, she actively hired and supported diverse staff and says diverse journalists play an important role in a democratic society by highlighting the stories that originate in Canada’s diverse communities.

“Yes, there is a business case, but there’s also a business case for allowing immigration,” she explains. “That shouldn’t be the leading reason. It’s about equality and human kindness. I think that needs to still be the leading reason.”

Yet another obstacle in increasing diversity is the role unions can play in blocking and even ousting diverse workers during layoffs as they protect seniority over everything else. Given that it’s usually journalists of colour who are less likely to be in senior positions, they tend to be the first offered buyouts.

Thinking outside the box

In response, some newsrooms are getting creative in maintaining both headcount and diversity, says Brian Gibson, president of Unifor Local 2000. “We did do something different here in Vancouver. The members themselves did decide to take a 10 percent cut in the form of a day off every two weeks to prevent layoffs, so the diversity was preserved. But, it’s not 100 percent commonplace because, again, seniority is usually followed, and with the addition of these new folks they’re usually the first to go.”

Logically thinking, journalist shops without a union might find it easier to tackle the diversity debacle, but Gibson has found that not to be the case when working with the recently shuttered Star Vancouver office. “That group was fairly diverse, but our issue there with bargaining was, again, because people negotiate their own wages, the people of colour and women were the lowest paid there. One of our biggest bargaining issues was trying to bring those folks up and get everybody paid the same for the same work,” says Gibson.

In their report, the CABJ and COJC also strongly recommended that news outlets not only hire reporters of colour but create “leadership tracks” for journalists of colour and invest in their potential as future managers. “Current newsroom leaders should be proactive in seeking out and developing leaders of colour. These individuals should be promoted to occupy decision-making positions, such as assignment editors, senior and executive producers, managing editors, and news directors.”

Even as the CABJ and COJC were issuing their joint report, TorStar, which had a strong record of employing young, diverse journalists, announced it would close its StarMetro News offices across the country. Where those journalists will find work is impossible to tell, but they are at a disadvantage with little experience in a slowly shrinking industry.

The authors of the joint report concede that the industry’s problems can’t and won’t be solved on the recommendations of one report and that change won’t be easy, but the group remains united and focused on putting forward solutions. Says Stewart: “The time is now. I think the circumstances are ripe and I do think people are ready for change.”

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