I want to be able to tell the stories of all Canadians, writes Aleysha Haniff. (Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

Topics: Justice | Opinion

What readers miss out on when newsrooms aren’t diverse

The stories we're told are shaped by those with clout. What about the voices we're not hearing from?

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As an eager young journalist in a major Canadian newsroom, I hated to say no to anyone. But I had to.

 “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Arabic,” I remember telling the editor who asked me whether I had their translation ready. “You must have me confused with someone else.” The other brown-skinned woman on the digital desk. The one who had worked there for years, while I was still a contractor.

What else could I have done? The editor was mortified. I was, too – all my efforts to blend seamlessly into the newsroom apparently hadn’t worked. I spoke with a big-city Canadian accent. I didn’t get my nose pierced because I was worried it would make me seem too brown. In other words, I was trying to look like almost everyone else I saw in the office. I wanted to be noticed for the quality of my work, not the colour of my skin. And for the most part, I was recognized for my accomplishments. But I never forgot that one editor’s comment, or the way it made me feel.

Last week, the group Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC), along with the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ), released a report outlining what newsrooms and journalism schools can do to bring racial diversity to the media industry. The lack of representation in newsrooms has become “impossible to ignore,” they write – particularly in the wake of “reductive” coverage of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface, among other media missteps – and they lay out seven suggestions to encourage diversity in the industry. Their calls to action target representation at all tiers of the newsroom, from hiring from diverse communities to promoting people of colour into decision-making roles.

More on Broadview: Writer’s new book highlights need for diversity in CanLit

I spoke with CJOC co-founder Anita Li. She says that there’s been acknowledgment from the industry that inclusion efforts have been lacking and progress is slow.

“I think a lot of institutions put it on the backburner because – I think especially in Canada… because multiculturalism is actually entrenched in our constitution – we take it for granted, we rest on our laurels a little bit,” she told me.

According to the report, more than 20 percent of Canadians are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC), but that wasn’t reflected in the sea of faces I saw in my reporting classes in university, or what I’ve encountered in my almost decade-long span as an editor in newsrooms in Canada’s biggest city. (CBC, the report notes, does compile diversity figures — less than 15 percent of employees were of colour or Indigenous in 2018.) Opening doors by seeking up-and-coming talent from racialized communities is a start, as the white paper suggests. Having diverse hiring panels helps. Reporting our own statistics (newspapers and digital outlets aren’t mandated to do so) and keeping tabs on the makeup of the industry provides a starting point from which we can improve – and data was the no. 1 call to action for a reason. 

“It really indicates to your staff as well the broader public, especially if you’re a public institution like the CBC, that this is something that you care about,” Li says. “You care about telling diverse stories. You care about serving all communities across Canada, not just specific ones. And it’s an acknowledgment of the fact that we believe in multiculturalism and diversity in this country, and that’s really important if you’re going to be reporting on news in an accurate way, in a way that actually provides a public service to Canadians.” 

I believe BIPOC journalists bring fresh insight to the table, informed by what they’ve seen and experienced in their communities.

This all might seem a little inside baseball, but think about your favourite newspaper, magazine or website. The stories you read need to be greenlit by someone. What you consume is directly influenced by the people in charge, and talented as they are, they often don’t represent one-fifth of the Canadian population. Think of all the stories we might be missing because the people with the authority to shape the news lack the lived experiences of so many Canadians – people who are historically marginalized and have to work harder to make their voices heard in the first place.

Some of the concern about expanding media’s scope might be rooted in fear or misunderstanding, Li speculates: that a drive to tell diverse stories might negatively disrupt the status quo, leaving behind the people who are currently being represented. 

She says, and I agree with her, that that’s misguided. “All sorts of people are interested in stories from diverse communities. Just because you’re a white person or Black person doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t interested in reading about something that’s happening in the South Asian community, for example, or the Indigenous community.”

In a long-suffering industry, inclusion initiatives are among the first to go – a shame, Li notes, seeing as she believes more diverse storytelling has the opportunity to create new audiences and capture new revenue.

As the report says, “a more diverse news team translates into more diverse coverage.” I believe BIPOC journalists bring fresh insight to the table, informed by what they’ve seen and experienced in their communities. These professionals know where to find stories that may otherwise fly under the radar, and they deserve to have their ideas heard in environments that have diversity in mind when assigning and editing news. 

That’s why I’m speaking up now. I am a person of colour. I got into journalism, an industry I love, because I wanted to tell people’s stories – and I want to be able to represent all Canadians who are willing to share them with me. 

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Aleysha Haniff is Broadview's assistant digital editor.

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  • says:

    I'm wondering, 15% of the students are of "diversity", perhaps they're more aware of the cut throat business of journalism. Broadcast jobs, like actors, need lots of networking and agents.
    I wonder where multicultural journalism would be today in Canada if it wasn't for Moses Znaimer?