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November-December 2016

What should diversity in Canadian media look like?

Why legacy media needs to dismantle tokenism, pigeonholing, and the great glass ceiling

Priya Ramanujam@SincerelyPriya

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-1-04-56-pmBee Quammie’s social media feeds buzzed with chatter. Earlier that day the CBC had announced its decision to replace Shad with Tom Power as the host of its flagship radio show, q. It was less than 16 months after Shad took the position and the same day that, south of the border, Comedy Central cancelled The Nightly Show hosted by Larry Wilmore. “There was a lot of discussion on social media like, ‘Wow, in Canada and in the States we’re seeing two Black men who held notable hosting positions have now lost those positions,’” says Quammie. “So what does this mean?”

As a freelance journalist and writer Quammie often writes sharp and critical pieces about the intersections of race and popular culture. Two days after the shake-ups, she published a piece with Vice titled, “Are Diverse Hosts like Shad and Larry Wilmore Set Up to Fail?” “Monday was a bad day for diversity in media,” opened Quammie’s piece, which questioned whether diverse voices brought into major media outlets were supported or left to fend for themselves. Quammie wrote that the industry “has to do more than prop a non-white male on set to show an invested approach to diversification.”

Five years into her career as a freelance writer, Quammie says she’s still hyper-aware of the reputation she’s building, and finds herself constantly having internal negotiations within her head: to write or not to write on particular topics. “Am I being too much?” she often asks herself. “Am I closing myself off from certain opportunities? I’ve had that battle with myself… You don’t want to shut yourself out of opportunities, but you have an opinion and you want to share it.” These questions are only part of the internal negotiation that Quammie admits to having when it comes to her writing—both on her own blog, ’83 to Infinity, and with other media outlets. “I’ve said, ‘Okay, my last three posts: were they all about Black stuff? Should I mix it up?’” She adds that she doesn’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s just a feeling, Quammie says: “Should I speak on this? If I don’t speak on that, then what does that mean? Does it mean I’m a poor representation of my race?” In the end, Quammie, who has written for a wide range of publications including For Harriet, Revolt TV, Chatelaine, and the Globe and Mail, says that authenticity wins out. She goes with what she feels strongly about, and hopes that because she can back up why she said it and how she said it, she won’t lose out on opportunities as a result.

Many journalists and writers of colour, including me, have these types of internal conversations with themselves at least once in their career. From time to time, I look at my portfolio, and wonder: Will I be pegged as someone who can only write about diversity issues? And is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s important for legacy media outlets to understand how pigeon-holing writers and journalists into writing about race and diversity issues can lead to this internal conflict—and can also devalue the breadth of knowledge and experience an individual brings to the table. After all, a white journalist is rarely confined to write only about “white issues.” In fact, when Black Lives Matter Toronto held a sit-in at the Pride parade 2016 to protest several aspects of the organization it deemed racist and oppressive, the pundits sounding off about it across major media outlets were overwhelmingly white.

As more legacy media outlets in Canada feel growing pressure to further diversify their newsrooms and the stories that they tell—take Canadaland’s damning “Just How White is the CBC?” that found 90 percent of the outlet’s staffers were white—diversity must become part of newsrooms’ inherent philosophy. As Toronto-based diversity strategist Tana Turner tells it, the onus of ensuring honest and fair reporting and commentary that doesn’t further perpetuate and stigmatize various ethno-racial communities cannot rest squarely on one diversity reporter. She says feeling like the work starts and ends with hiring this one reporter “lets the other reporters off the hook” because they won’t feel like they need to address diversity in other areas, such as education or crime.

There must be buy-in from the entire newsroom. Shani O. Hilton, head of U.S. news at BuzzFeed News, hit the nail on the head in her 2014 Medium piece, “Building a Diverse Newsroom is Work.” She wrote: “Any newsroom in which the Black staff is expected to speak for Blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.”

***

More than a decade ago, when Camille Dundas got her start in media, she worked for a mainstream broadcast media outlet. While sitting next to one of the station’s producers on a plane flying to Toronto for a training session, she glanced over at a list of all the names of people attending. Next to her name was an abbreviation; she didn’t know what it meant. She was surprised to discover it stood for “diversity hire.” “This was my first job and I actually didn’t know about diversity hiring,” she says. “That it existed. I was very young.” Comments she had overheard in the newsroom— like “that’s why she’s here, anyway” or “she wasn’t really qualified to be here, anyway”—began to make sense. She started to doubt herself. Luckily she received words of encouragement from a mentor that made her shake off her self-doubt. It may be the reason you got in the door, he told her, but it isn’t why you’re here. He assured her that she was valuable, and that she had something of worth to bring to the outlet.

Dundas continues to work in mainstream broadcast media as a news writer and producer, as well as editor-in-chief and cofounder of online publication ByBlacks.com. Despite how that experience made her feel, she says she still thinks the notion of diversity hires in journalism is necessary. But she does think news organizations should be transparent about their intent, especially so that new hires don’t view themselves negatively. “Don’t approach your life or your career as if someone’s doing you a favour,” she adds. “Because they’re not.”

Whether it’s overtly stated or not, this is something many people of colour entering journalism grapple with: wondering whether they’re hired to fill a diversity quota or based on their skillset and abilities. Arti Patel, lifestyle editor at Huffington Post, laughs when asked if the thought ever crossed her mind when she entered the workforce five years ago. “I thought about that as soon as I graduated. Am I being hired because of my colour? Or my resume? Or maybe both?”

Ann Rauhala, who has taught journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University for the past 16 years, says she makes it a point to acknowledge the deep-rooted bias that racialized students may be up against in pursuing media. She reminds them: “You have a right to be there. Your story, your background, your interests are as legitimate as people in the mainstream.”

Like Hilton and Dundas, Patel says having people of different backgrounds who can bring varied perspectives and voices to a newsroom is important. Her own workplace is noticeably diverse and she says that the types of stories the outlet puts out are a reflection of that. Take for example, a multi-part series, which Patel helped spearhead, on the unique experiences of second-generation Canadians—the children of immigrants. It tackles subjects ranging from interracial dating to never hearing your parents say they’re proud of you. “Stuff like that is brought up through hiring a diverse staff,” she says. “I think when you do hire people of colour or people of different faiths and cultures you get different kind of content, which is great because it’s reflective of what the Canadian audience is about.”

***

Andray Domise got his big journalism break two years ago. He credits much of it to a handful of editors who acknowledged a gap in the diversity of voices and perspectives amongst their contributing columnists—and then set out to do something about it. Domise is a community activist and very vocal on social media about issues of social justice, education, and diversity, among other things. And so, he says, editors from media outlets such as Maclean’s, TVO, and Toronto Life sought him out when they needed commentators on issues such as police brutality and race relations. While Domise is grateful, and says he wishes more emerging and established writers of colour would get similar opportunities, he urges media outlets to see racialized people as more than one-dimensional.

While he notes that it makes sense for a publication looking for comment on a particular story related to race or diversity to seek out a writer with relatable lived experience, race shouldn’t be the only topic people of colour are viewed as experts on. He points out how few Black people he’s aware of at major Canadian media outlets who are writing frequently about things like sports, finance or politics. It’s the idea that, he adds, “if it’s racial it must affect us, but if it’s not racial, then we can rely on the commentary of an overwhelmingly white media who explains the experience of everyone who happens to be listening or reading.” And that is, of course, a big problem.

Quammie sees this play out in terms of both what writers of colour are asked to write about and when they are called upon for quotes as experts. “If we’re only in the media and only called upon to speak when it’s these issues to do with race or being a Black person,” she says, “you’re not seeing my humanity when I have other interests and I have other expertise.” This is why for Patel it’s important to note that diversifying goes beyond just covering race and diversity issues. In practice, that means crafting a lifestyle section that reflects a variety of ethno-racial communities when it comes to both authors of and sources. It means being intentional when selecting stock images. It also means understanding that people of colour are not a monolith—no one person can be expected to be an expert in the experiences and stories of all people of colour.

***

While the internal struggles that writers like Quammie experience are complex, there are steps newsrooms can take to better support racialized people working within them. For starters, Turner says that making the connection between the business of the organization appealing to a broader readership can help naysayers get on board. As of 2011, Statistics Canada reported nearly 20 percent of the population identified themselves as “visible minorities”—a huge segment to risk losing by not ensuring they see themselves reflected in the media. Turner says once people start to see the monetary value attached to diversifying it may help to alleviate the types of micro-aggressions Dundas faced in her first gig. “That’s when racialized people are hired and [not] seen as tokens or treated as the ‘diversity hire,’” she says.

Beyond this, Shenaz Kermalli, who has worked as a journalist for more than 15 years and is currently a professor in the Humber College journalism degree program, stresses the need for diversity to happen across the newsroom hierarchy. Even in the mid to late 2000s, when working overseas at Al Jazeera in the Middle East, Kermalli was surprised by the fact that the majority of the senior level management at the time was white. She says more measures— especially a more concerted effort to hire diverse folks at senior-management levels—are needed to help the racialized candidates already in the newsroom move up the career ladder. Offering mentorship and support to these individuals, as well as recognizing and naming implicit biases are some ways media outlets can start this work. “Once you get past that,” says Kermalli, “you can start having more intelligent discussion, which revolves around how to reflect diversity within diversity.”

Quammie says her experiences pitching stories related to race and ethnicity to white (often women) editors has been pretty positive, but adds that top-down change is essential. It’s important to recognize that even if white editors welcome her ideas it’s often through their particular lens. She says that there’s still an expectation that “this is what they think a Black female writer’s going to write about.” She adds that it’s important to ensure diversification happens in multiple areas. As an organization, she says, “It has to be throughout to impact the richness of whatever it is you’re trying to offer.”

More ethno-racial diversity within all newsroom ranks can result in many benefits, including removing any hints of tokenizing and an increased level of sensitivity in the packaging and production of the news. We need editors to accept more pitches about underrepresented or misrepresented communities and issues. We need more genuine relationships and trust built between media organizations and Canada’s diverse ethno-racial communities. And we need more journalists on the ground level, like me, to no longer feel like there is a glass ceiling placed on where they can go in this field.

Priya Ramanujam is a journalist, editor and j-school instructor, who writes frequently on issues related to youth, current affairs, entrepreneurship, the arts, diversity, and social justice. In 2004, she co-founded Urbanology Magazine, and has been published in the Scarborough Mirror, Toronto Star, New Canadian Media, and LiisBeth amongst others. She is passionate about seeing Canadian media truly reflect the country’s ethno-racial diversity in both the stories being told and the people telling them.

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