Shree Paradkar – Lack of Racial Diversity in Media is a form of Oppression
Lack of racial diversity in media is a form of oppression
The major newsrooms in this country — the Toronto Star included — are unnaturally white, leading to tone-deaf, biased coverage of news.
Charity, it is said, begins at home.
So should a critique.
Last week, Black Twitter poked fun at a respected Toronto Star film critic for a repeated spelling error.
While writing about the much-acclaimed film Moonlight, Peter Howell got the definition of the term “code-switch” right — “deliberately shifting cultural traits and vernacular to suit different circumstances” — but he spelt it “coat-switch” because he was unfamiliar with it.
Code-switching is a relatively obscure term in Canada but the movie world stung by #OscarsSoWhite had little patience for the mistake.
Howell himself says he was “greatly dismayed by the error, as I am with any error.
“The fault was entirely mine. This has reminded me of the importance of double- and triple-checking unfamiliar terms, especially culturally sensitive ones.”
Cultural insensitivity was not the point, however. Unfamiliarity was. That typo was mocked on #coatswitch because it confirmed what many believed — that Canadian journalists are predominantly white men in a white world.
I don’t blame a specific writer or a specific editor for this slip.
I do blame white newsrooms.
The major newsrooms in this country — the Toronto Star included — are unnaturally white. Journalism is a field so antediluvian it is patting itself on its back for opening up to women — white women. I invite any media organization that wants to challenge that assertion to share its racial diversity data.
“The economic reality is the biggest current barrier to diversity,” says Toronto Star Editor, and my boss’s boss, Michael Cooke. “A shrinking staff is more likely to reflect hiring decisions of 10-25 years ago with more junior people leaving and more senior people staying.”
The time to invest in diversity with seriousness was when the now-struggling industry was flush with funds, but hubris had blinded it from having a vision.
Does diversity really matter? Canadian standards of journalism, investigative and institutional, are world class. By upholding values of objectivity and balance, can one group of people tell all stories fairly?
In theory, yes, Cooke says, “but sometimes missing will be stories and angles that the one group doesn’t know about . . . and sometimes certainly some nuance.”
I don’t agree.
Speaking for others leaves them voiceless. Look at the shoddy job male journalists did with women’s issues. It’s the same now with race-related news.
Non-representation in journalism is a form of oppression. It happens when we — Canadians — invite or accept newcomers to our mutual benefit, but then allow only one dominant group — whites — to play gatekeeper to all the stories, generation after generation. Indigenous people, too, are not exempt from exclusion.
Those in charge of hiring say they are exerting a bias towards hiring from four “designated groups” (women, members of a visible minority, persons with a disability and Aboriginal/indigenous peoples). Visible strides have been made in ticking of that one box for (white) women.
For an industry that demands transparency from public and private institutions, it offers surprisingly little when it comes to itself. When asked, media organizations have plainly refused to open up. As a result, there is no recent measure of staff diversity or how it is distributed through the ranks.
Transparency would reveal good, old-fashioned tokenism. The few journalists of colour hired are given visible roles such as interns, reporters or anchors, but they are a rarity among those who set the daily agenda — the editors, producers and managers — who are out of public sight.
Decisions by this group are often unchallenged, leading to tone-deaf, biased coverage of news. It also leads to skills drain.
“A lot of ambitious people start to look elsewhere,” says veteran journalist John Miller, who published the country’s last definitive research on media diversity — that was back in 2006.
In his decade-long role as chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, Miller took head-on the commonly cited complaint of “not enough minorities” and relooked at the school’s admissions requirements.
“If we give points to people who have worked with a student magazine, why not give points to someone who has travelled, known a language or volunteered at a community organization?”
The adjustment succeeded, the number of minority students went up, he says. “Let’s face it, in my last year at Ryerson, I went to the awards night and it was the diverse students who were winning.”
His experience gives lie to the other oft-cited challenge, of the lack of quality among journalists of colour. To them, he says, “You have hired the wrong people for the wrong reason.”
I have often encountered an insulting side effect of tokenism. Every time someone tells me I was hired in this, that or the other job because I’m a woman and of colour, I bite my tongue and roll my eyes.
The next time, though, I’m going to #MakeItAwkward and say, “No. The fact is, YOU were hired because you are white.”
Shree Paradkar tackles issues of race and gender. You can follow her @shreeparadkar. She is dedicating this column to Raveena Aulakh, an outstanding journalist, gone too soon.