The Unbearable Whiteness of Canadian Columnists
Old white men are dominating opinion pages in newspapers across the country, but a shift toward a more diverse roster may be easier said than done
As the editorial pages editor at the Ottawa Citizen, Kate Heartfield oversaw 11 columnists until she resigned on November 18. Only one of those columnists isn’t white. The absence of opinion writers of colour means the paper may become a publication just for white people, admits Heartfield, who worries about the relevance of the conversation the Citizen is generating. “If you’re only publishing a certain selection of people, you’re not getting all the perspectives on any issue,” she says. “Canada is not that homogenous.”
This lack of diversity is not unique to the Citizen. Canadian columnists are predominately white, and this undermines the relevance of the conversation they help shape on a daily basis. But this problem cannot be solved overnight—and fixing it will require the support of those in power at newspapers.
People of colour make up only 3.4 percent of staff at Canadian newspapers, according to a 2004 study by Ryerson University professor emeritus John Miller, the most recent on the matter. This demographic makeup, which does not seem to have improved much since 2004, stands in stark contrast to the country’s population as a whole; visible minorities make up 19.1 percent of the population, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. Stats specifically examining the race makeup of Canadian columnists do not exist, but a scan through a staff list at any major Canadian newspaper suggests the opinion pages are even less diverse. A 2014 J-Source investigation also revealed that the median age of national columnists is 58.5 and 73 percent of the columnists surveyed were men. In other words, opinion writing in Canada is dominated by old white men.
Shari Graydon, founder of Informed Opinions, a project for amplifying women’s voices in opinion journalism, says this disparity is troubling because it means the problems facing the most marginalized people in Canada aren’t getting enough attention, while other issues are over-emphasized. That means the proposed solutions for problems facing marginalized people lack the insight that those most affected can offer.
Editors and publishers don’t want their outlets to predominately serve white people. Regardless, the internal demographic at newspapers across Canada is out of skew with the national demographic. Something has gone wrong.
According to the Vancouver Sun website, all 17 columnists identify as white, though the editor-in-chief Harold Munro says two columnists of colour aren’t listed. Columns often go to seasoned reporters, who often hold onto them for years, and columnists typically pass down from one editor to the next, so new op-ed managers lack the autonomy to fundamentally reshape the demographic of their pages.
Newsroom hiring has also diminished over the last few years, intensifying the problem by giving editors less power to address the imbalance. The Canadian Media Guild estimates that over 10,000 jobs were lost between 2008 and 2013. Mary Elizabeth Luka, a Banting postdoctoral fellow at York University, says companies typically function on a “last in, first out” basis, so the young reporters, who are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds, are unlikely to survive recessions.
While Heartfield says the longevity of columnist positions contributes to the imbalance, she did most of her recruitment for potential columnists—who are all freelancers at the Citizen—from op-eds. This process avoids some of the pitfalls of picking columnists from an imbalanced pool of staffers, but structural issues still make it hard for more people of colour to get hired. The problem, she says, is that the overwhelming amount of content in the newspaper produced by white people leads others to feel unwelcome and believe that, “Clearly this editor only wants white people, because that’s all they publish, so why am I going to send my stuff to be rejected?” The vast majority of submissions Heartfield received came from middle-aged white men, hampering her ability to get to know writers from other backgrounds.
But Luka says there’s no excuse for the extent of demographic imbalance because editors can select the voices they showcase. “If 90 percent of the people they’re getting solicitations from are middle-class middle-aged white men, then they still have 10 percent, and there are still people they can go out to solicit.”
Heartfield also admits many editors suffer from subconscious racism, which leads them to contact the same few white men when someone is needed for comment on developing issues. Minelle Mahtani, a professor in human geography at the University of Toronto who has done extensive research into race and representation, says whiteness is often mistaken for expertise. This can exacerbate subconscious racism.
There are solutions to the demographic imbalance. Luka says publications could broaden internship opportunities to give people of colour an avenue into the industry. Editors can diversify their predominately white columnist roster by actively looking for talented writers in underrepresented communities. The Toronto Star recently added Desmond Cole as a weekly columnist, for example. Mahtani says this sort of concerted effort in hiring opinion writers is important because, “It’s a nebulous process at best, and one that is offered to individuals not necessarily based on merit, but networks.”
The idea of columnists being assigned due to connections instead of merit points to a bigger problem. Mahtani says the pattern of overwhelming whiteness among columnists will continue until shot-callers at newspapers diversify. Luka adds that a significant amount of research collected since the 1970s demonstrates the necessity of diversity among those with power in journalism. “If you don’t have a variety of people with a variety of perspectives in charge of decision-making, then you won’t get decisions made that represent a multiplicity of views.”
A drastic reshaping of the upper echelons of Canada’s white-owned media monopoly is unlikely, so a truly diverse columnist roster may seem unattainable. Still, editors should do all they can to improve Canadian journalism. So far, they haven’t made full use of their limited autonomy.
Davide is the blog editor of the spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. He also works as an associate editor for the Islamic Monthly. Davide's articles have appeared in numerous publications including Al Jazeera America, The Globe and Mail and the National Post.