The Canadian Association of Black Journalists is out to prove the best way to change the system is from the inside
Fil Fraser, armed with his remote control, is hoping to show me how times have changed for black journalists in Canada. He aims the remote at the television set, surfing the channels to count how many black journalists he finds. Karen Percy’s smiling white face greets us on CBC Newsworld. Click. Another white anchor, Leslie Jones, grins out from behind CTV’s NewsNet desk. Click, to Marina Mirabella, a white anchor on ROBTv’sDay Watch. Fraser, veteran broadcast journalist, president of Vision TV and member of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists, doesn’t find a single black journalist on television. Surprised, he turns off the set. He’s disappointed, but he’s still hoping the CABJ’s efforts will be the catalyst that brings more black journalists in front of the camera and into the newsroom.
Formed in 1996, the CABJ has a mandate to “educate, support and advocate on behalf of its members and the community in order to achieve truth, excellence and equality in media.” The association is trying to create a strong network of journalists. It works to overcome poor representation in both broadcasting and print newsrooms, as well as troubling coverage of black communities. But so far, the CABJ has avoided protests in favour of power lunches to achieve its political ends. “People expect us to have a radical political agenda because we’re an organized group of black people,” says Hamlin Grange, a reporter for the CBC Evening News in Toronto. “Well, you’re not going to find us marching the streets, gloved hands in the air screaming ‘Black Power.'” Instead, you might find board members schmoozing with the editor of The Toronto Sun, or discussing internships with executives at CFTO. At the CABJ, strong professional development and networking, combined with smooth PR-style manoeuvring with media bigwigs, are what’s really working to get jobs for black journalists.
As Fraser learned, there are still few black journalists in Canada. In 1993, the last year for which statistics are available, a study reported that less than one per cent of journalists working in Canadian newsrooms are black, even in a city as diverse as Toronto, where 10 per cent of the population is black. Discussion of this dismal fact on a TV forum prompted Angela Lawrence, senior editor of Style at Home magazine, to start organizing. She called up Grange, enlisted five other board members and started the CABJ in 1996. Initial membership was 70 people, a far cry from Grange’s early days in the late 1970s, when all the black journalists working in the mainstream media in Toronto could sit around one restaurant table.
Today, it would take a banquet hall to seat the 170-plus members of the CABJ. The association’s growth has enabled it to provide a variety of valuable services to its members – an approximate 50-50 mix of students and professionals. Monthly job postings are emailed to members exclusively, who also attend professional workshops. Last October’s workshop, “Producing Visual Media,” featured a panel discussion with CityTV videographer Dwight Drummond, MuchMusic cameraman Basil Young and news producer Margot Daley. The panellists discussed their jobs and showed tapes of their work. Young showed a documentary, shot in South Africa, about the native music movement that has grown since apartheid was abolished. After the presentations, journalism students approached with questions.
The CABJ offers another prime networking opportunity through the mentorship program, now in its second year. A professional who is working in a student’s field of interest becomes a mentor for one year, offering the student advice and encouragement. The program has proven effective. Nicolette Beharie, a Humber College student, was paired with Ashante Infantry, a reporter at The Toronto Star. “I was new to journalism. I got a mentor who was right where I wanted to be. Now I work at the Star part-time.”
Clearly, at the CABJ the focus is on the tangible benefits of membership. “We’re in a curious position here, because we made the decision to concentrate on our members’ needs on a day-to-day level first,” says CABJ president Jacqui Debique, whose term ended in February. “We invested our resources in services, rather than on advocacy and political work.”
Not all members agree with this approach. Norman Otis Richmond, a broadcaster on CKLN, has never agreed with the CABJ’s policy. “I understand that you have to build bridges, but black journalism originated with a slave press and has always been about liberation. Globally and in Canada, black people are worse off than in the 1960s. We need to push for more advocacy journalism. It’s naive to think that an organization of black professionals can exist without automatic political implications.” Still, Richmond likes the benefits of membership. “Hey, I’m a starving journalist, right? I need contacts like everybody else.”
As the CABJ’s numbers grow, so does its networking power. Older members recall exclusion from the white-boys’-club networking of their day. Jules Elder, a columnist for the Sun and former editor of SHARE, a paper that covers the black and West Indian communities, thinks the connections and job resources offered through the CABJ are invaluable. “Twenty years ago, before the CABJ was founded, there were fewer opportunities for black journalists. In its four-year history, the CABJ has been helpful in developing networking opportunities.” Anyone can join the CABJ, regardless of ethnicity, as long as they supports the association’s mandate. With members at major news organizations, the CABJ’s professional clout is recognized in the journalism community, and it has financial support from organizations including the Star, the Sun and Southam.
Relations with the dailies came about casually. Debique and vice president Robert Payne invited Sharon Burnside, head of training and development at the Star, out for lunch. “Basically, we let Sharon know that the CABJ offers a pool of very talented students and professionals,” Debique says. “We wanted to see how we could work together.”
The CABJ makes no demands on these news organizations in terms of hiring quotas or employment equity. The papers now recognize the benefits of diversifying newsrooms, and they welcome the CABJ’s assistance in catching up. Burnside agrees that the CABJ meetings are useful for getting messages across. “One of my hopes in doing these talks is to overcome any hesitation to apply to the Star. I don’t think the Star has always seemed accessible to black students, so I wanted to send the message – you are welcome here.” In 1999, theStar hired three CABJ student members for its student programs. The Sun also announced an exclusive internship offer for two CABJ students.
Receiving support from a paper like the Sun is a perfect example of the CABJ’s separating politics from its goal of getting jobs for members. Some would think that the CABJ and the Sun would be an uncomfortable alliance because of the Sun‘s inflammatory coverage of the black community, but in truth the Sun is the CABJ’s major financial contributor: $2,000 goes toward the annual Gospel Luncheon (money from ticket sales supports the CABJ scholarship fund).
Still, many members find fault with the Sun‘s coverage. Its reporting of the Scarborough bedroom rapist case in August and September 1999 was cited most often by members as an example of outrageous, racist journalism. “I couldn’t believe when the Sun published the composite sketch on the cover,” says Amorell Saunders, former reporter for Montreal’s The Gazette, and currently a director at Veritas Communications, a public relations firm in Toronto. “I have a son – if he was a few years older, he could have been a suspect based on that picture.”
Grange takes issue with another aspect of the Sun‘s coverage. “I don’t remember ever seeing Paul Bernardo’s mother in the paper, so why was Eli Stewart Nicholas’s mother’s face on the cover? That’s curious.”
While many CABJ members criticize the Sun, they do recognize the paper’s effort to support the association. Carol Charles is a videographer for CHEX TV in Peterborough. “I cringe every time I read the Sun, but the internship they offer is important. If we want representation in the mainstream media, then this is a relationship we have to have.”
But it’s logical to predict conflict as the young association evolves. One of its goals is to become an organized, recognized voice for media criticism. Shellene Drakes, a reporter at the Star, is specific about her ideas. “I want people to turn to the CABJ for its opinion on questionable coverage. I want us to be quoted in the papers and on the news.”
CABJ members all have examples of offensive stories. Infantry and fellow reporter Maureen Murray published an editorial in the Star about questionable coverage of the “Van Bandits” bank robbers story from January 1999. They discussed how a colleague at another paper surmised that the robbers favoured green vans out of allegiance to the African flag. “Not only was it racist, it was also ridiculous for the reporter to extrapolate like that,” says Infantry. Desmond Brown, a reporter at the National Post, has a method for dealing with problematic coverage at his paper. “I’m usually pretty angry first – I go home and rant to my wife about the story, and then in about two days when I’ve calmed down I’ll approach the writer. I was furious about a piece in which Phillippe Rushton’s study on penis sizes of black babies went unchallenged by the writer. I emailed the writer, asking if he intended to endorse such views. He explained that he felt it was a given that people dismiss Rushton and said that he intended for the piece to provoke anyway.”
The CABJ’s ideas for handling its new role as media critic echo Brown’s strategy. The idea is still in the planning stages, but Debique feels that inviting the offending writer or editor to a meeting would be effective. “Getting people to participate in reasonable discussion about the coverage and our problems with it is best. We’re here to keep each other honest. If we determine something to be racist, we’ll deal with it professionally without diminishing its severity. We want to let the mainstream know that there’s a different perspective out there.”
Mike Strobel, editor in chief of the Sun, says his paper would welcome the commentary. “Personally, I appreciate feedback from the black community,” he says. “I think the CABJ is a professional group whose input is valuable. Any member could call me.” At the Star, Burnside agrees. “I’m assuming the criticism would be fair. I know that our newsroom still doesn’t reflect the community, so we need different perspectives on our coverage.”
Black reporters bring a wealth of new ideas and fresh voices into a newsroom. “If I wasn’t at the CBC, theCBC Evening News wouldn’t run half the stories that I pitch, because the stories wouldn’t even occur to them,” says reporter Paul Riley. “The National newsroom has called me before to ask me if I knew any educated young women of colour to be on a panel. They don’t even know any black people – it’s a joke.”
Beyond just pitching new ideas, black journalists sometimes bring with them a whole new set of sources, as Infantry points out. “Because of my background in black community newspapers, people from the black community call me all the time to let me know what’s going on in their neighbourhoods. They’re not calling white reporters.”
Diversifying the newsroom seems to be on everybody’s agenda. Unfortunately, bringing in new faces is a slow process. “Remember, my newspaper isn’t hiring right now. We’ve been letting people go for a while,” says Strobel. “People trickle in mainly after their internships.” The hiring freeze explanation only goes so far to explain the disparity at newspapers. The Posthad the opportunity to start off with a diverse newsroom. Posteditor in chief Ken Whyte says he’s hired at least five black reporters, but Brown is the only one who’s been spotted in the Toronto newsroom. “I fundamentally disagree with the notion that newspapers should aim in their hiring to be representative,” says Whyte. “Editors should hire the most talented people available, period. What questions of this nature do is make an editor wander around his newsroom counting the people of colour. I feel lousy doing it. Far better, to my mind, to be colour-blind.”
The editor of Canada’s newest national newspaper has just articulated the attitude the CABJ is trying to change. Debique remains undaunted. “If he doesn’t support diversity, that’s fine. All we want from the Post is their job information. We have some of the most talented people available.” She admits things are moving slowly with the Post. So far, the CABJ has managed to gain its support only in the form of subsidized photocopying.
Older CABJ members, such as Payne, are patient about the time it takes to make the staff changes that are necessary at TV stations and newspapers. “Journalism is like any other profession. Getting more blacks employed won’t happen rapidly.” Younger members aren’t as patient. Drakes is unsure where her one-year contract with the Star will lead. “The older members have reached their goals. But I ask the TV stations and newspapers, ‘What have you done for me lately? I’m not going to be quiet and hope that I don’t offend you, because I don’t owe you anything.'”
Whether or not the association is moving fast enough, the CABJ is getting things done. Many members attribute their success, at least in part, to their involvement with the CABJ. Vanessa Thomas works in the radio room at the Star. “Initially, I was turned down for the Star’s summer student program. Maureen Murray, my mentor and a reporter at the Star, encouraged me to hound Sharon Burnside. I kept calling, and eventually she gave me an interview.” Students often see their personal contact with Burnside as an asset in their search for employment at the Star. “It’s all about getting people to see your face,” says Kirk Moss, who also worked in the radio room. “It’s a real leg up on the competition.”
For Brown, the CABJ was a two-pronged asset. First, he was inspired by a presentation Murray gave at the 1997 annual general meeting. “I was so impressed by Murray’s speech about her influence as a black woman in the newsroom. I was in journalism school at the time and aiming toward broadcasting, when I totally changed my mind.” He dropped off a r?sum? at the Star. “Donovan Vincent and Maureen Murray were dropping my name all over town. They kept checking with the Star people, ‘So, did you get Desmond’s r?sum??'” Eventually he was hired for the radio room of the Star. He has since moved to the Post.
Clearly, the CABJ is effecting change. In only three years, it has established a solid industry reputation, set up an effective network of journalists and provided valuable services for its members. With these assets in place, as well as a steadily climbing membership, the CABJ is in a solid position to move ahead. And as the CABJ continues to work toward equitable journalism, Fil Fraser’s dream of a representative channel surf gets closer and closer.
Megan Hutchison was the Visuals Editor for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.