Black Lives Matter protest in Calgary on June 1. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

The systemic racism of Canadian journalism

It’s time to go beyond diversity and inclusion.’

There’s a reason that news organizations, including newsrooms in Calgary, tend to avoid reporting on the racial demographics of their newsrooms.

Canadian media is white—like, extremely white.

For years, mainstream news outlets have cozied up next to whiteness in every way. Reporting is riddled with coded language surrounding minority groups, story and source choices are dominated by racial bias, journalism programs are taught by mostly-white faculty and newsrooms are overseen by often all-white executive teams.

The result is deeply-rooted mistrust on behalf of non-white communities—if that trust existed in the first place—and toxic work environments for racialized journalists who are often forced to carry the burden of pushing for change within the newsroom.

It is very important for people in the media to realize who the news is being catered to as well as the implicit biases that they have.

Dorsa Zamanpour,

executive director of culture, UBPAM

Both journalists and communities of colour have been calling for the overhaul of these systems for years.

In the past, some mainstream news organizations have claimed that they are committed to “diversity and inclusion.” But without addressing the systemic racism that thrives within the newsroom, any commitment to change is cosmetic.

Recently, newsrooms have made these promises again—but this time, local activist groups and organizations like Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) and the Canadian Association for Black Journalists (CABJ) have made their own promises: to hold them accountable.

Protesting to be heard, not just seen

On June 8, Calgarians gathered outside of the Global News headquarters following its coverage of the anti-police brutality protests a week prior. On June 10, the protesters made their way to CTV.

The protests were put together by the United Black People Allyship Movement (UBPAM) which is asking local media to realize their responsibility in controlling the narrative in the city.

“It is very important for people in the media to realize who the news is being catered to as well as the implicit biases that they have,” said Dorsa Zamanpour, the organization’s executive director of culture.

What people hear, see and read in the news drive the public consciousness and narrative.

Understanding racial bias is the personal responsibility of all individual journalists and journalism students. What people hear, see and read in the news drive the public consciousness and narrative. And when that news is being reported through the lens of whiteness and internalized oppression, it becomes distorted.

“I was told by a media outlet—I won't say which one—but they said ‘Not all reporters will be comfortable doing a story like this story.’ This being talking about the gaps in the media in terms of the Black community,” Zamanpour said.

But the reporters who do end up speaking on these issues are often the most vulnerable. Beyond risking their job security by being vocal about racism in the newsroom, Black, Indigenous and other journalists of colour become pigeonholed in their reporting.

“It points to how much Canadian media relies on the experiences of a few people to speak for most of the population, whereas issues that are important to the majority of the white columnists are overrepresented really and given a prestige position,” said Asmaa Malik, an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson.

The bar for being newsworthy is you either have to be an exceptional person or you have to have something terrible happen to you.

Asmaa Malik,

Associate professor, Ryerson

But what happens when there aren’t any racialized reporters at the table to tell these stories? The experiences of marginalized communities are whittled down to either trauma or fables of “defying the odds.” Sources become wells of potential stories or quotes from which white reporters can over-extract, rather than human beings.

“You keep going back when you need trauma stories, you keep going back to the same groups and are re-traumatizing them all over again and not actually seeing them as people,” Malik said.

“The bar for being newsworthy is you either have to be an exceptional person or you have to have something terrible happen to you.”

Zamanpour and the UBPAM team plan to work alongside both Global and CTV, who have expressed their willingness to do better in their coverage.

“Our mission is to work with these corporations to ensure that the discrimination and systemic oppression issues in Calgary are not being trivialized—and to hold them accountable,” she said.

There was some response from independent digital outlets but no response from any of the establishment media.

Nadia Stewart,

Executive director, CABJ

The potential for change at the local level may provide some cautious hope, but these outlets still belong to the overall flawed system of Canadian media, which has an enormous amount of work to do.

A call for tangible and substantial change

At the beginning of this year, Canadian Journalists of Colour and the Canadian Association of Black Journalists published their Calls to Action. The document outlines the ways in which Canadian media can “establish clear and attainable goals as they seek to diversify their newsrooms.”

Some of those goals are to create mentorship and scholarship opportunities for journalists of colour, invest in leadership tracks to get journalists of colour into management positions and begin self-reporting on diversity statistics in the newsroom.

But as attainable and clear as these goals are, they were largely ignored by mainstream outlets.

“We released it on January 28 and received absolutely no response from establishment media,” said Nadia Stewart, CABJ’s executive director. “There was some response from independent digital outlets but no response from any of the establishment media until now.”

“That's not to say that there isn't some cautious optimism around the response, but to me, it means even greater accountability.”

How can we approach looking at who’s actually working in newsrooms and creating the content that we read?

Asmaa Malik,

Associate professor, Ryerson

The Calls to Action also include a study done by Malik and Sonya Fatah, both assistant professors of journalism at Ryerson, in which they analyzed over 20 years of columns in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post.

Malik and Fatah reviewed columnists’ words, beyond their written articles, by looking to social media to identify their race and gender.

You may be asking yourself: “Why would someone need to go so far to find that data?” An obvious question, with an obvious answer: the outlets won’t provide it—at least, not if they’re not federally mandated to do so, like CBC. And even then, the local demographics aren’t available.

“Without getting cooperation from newsrooms, which just seems to be so hard—how can we approach looking at who's actually working in newsrooms and creating the content that we read?” Malik said.

As a Canadian broadcaster, CBC is on the list of workplaces required to report their demographics. And they have, nationally.

The burden of changing Canadian media… shouldn’t have to be on the shoulders of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Nadia Stewart,

Executive director, CABJ

While The Sprawl requested the demographics of the Calgary newsroom, CBC responded in an email that the “People and Culture department has advised that location information is not shared publicly,” and suggested reviewing the reports available online.

In an email to The Sprawl, Lorne Motley, editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun, said management does not collect race-based data on newsroom staff.

“I think that's why we keep continuing to have these conversations, because nobody really wants to admit how many racialized people they have in their newsroom or at what levels, which I think is also very important,” Malik said.

Everyone should be responsible for change

If Canadian media organizations truly want to do better, they need to step away from using “diversity” as a tack-on to white-geared coverage and support the organizations that have already been doing the work.

And that change needs to happen at all levels, not just at the top or the bottom—that is what accountability looks like.

“It's high time white news managers, white news leaders and those in positions of power, get up and make the change,” Stewart said.

Any more promise without change, it’s just wasting our time.

Nadia Stewart,

Executive director, CABJ

Beyond that, no one should be patting themselves on the back for the small number of racialized reporters they employ, who are regularly forced to do the heavy lifting when “diversity” does make it into the news cycle.

“It's always this idea of ‘Oh, well, we had that one person who did that thing,’ you know? But that's never a good reason, that's never a good excuse,” Malik said.

And instigating progress certainly shouldn’t be the responsibility of newly graduated young journalists of colour to bear, after enduring class upon class about reporting through a white lens and being let down by the state of journalism in this country.

“The burden of changing Canadian media, making it so that it's not what it is today, shouldn't have to be on their shoulders, shouldn't have to continue to be on the shoulders of Black, Indigenous and people of color,” said Stewart. “And that's always been up to us to carry this burden.”

It’s your move, Canadian outlets. Thanks to communities and journalists of colour—who did the grueling work and have been asking for your attention for years—the resources are available to you.

You are accountable for what you chose to do next.

“At this point, any more promise without change, it's just wasting our time,” said Stewart.

Hadeel Abdel-Nabi is The Sprawl’s staff writer intern.

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