Newsroom managers say they can't afford to do more about diversity. For journalists of colour, that argument holds no water
Pacinthe Mattar is in a story meeting when the news drops: on February 11, 2011, after 18 days of civilian protests in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak is resigning. The meeting dissolves, and the As It Happens producer runs to her desk to monitor social media and watch Arabic-language news channels. While covering the Egyptian Revolution for the CBC Radio show, she’d been rushing to the TV every morning, bracing herself for the worst possible headline. As her cousins, aunts and uncles protested in the country where she was born, she heard rumours of military plans to scare protestors away by lighting streets on fire.
After the morning’s chaos, Mattar is enveloped by the dim lighting, wood floors and intimate quiet of the control room. She had set up an interview with Tarek Zohny, a young Egyptian-Canadian professional who went to Cairo to join the protests. She calls him from the control room and transfers him to the show’s host Carol Off. Mattar watches Off through a big glass pane. The sound quality is spotty, and Zohny yells himself hoarse over the jubilation in the background. People cheer and clap, and he describes the waving flags and scarves. From thousands of kilometres away, Mattar hears car horns honking. She starts crying. In a country where people honk in anger, happiness and hurry, the sound is now a distinctly Egyptian joy. As the interview continues, her own joy, national pride and disbelief join the pressures of being new to the show and conveying the story’s magnitude to a Canadian audience.
Now a producer for The Current, Mattar went into journalism to give voice to under-represented perspectives. Even on a team that does have other journalists of colour, she has experience and expertise that her colleagues don’t. She can connect her communities with the newsroom. She provides translation between Arabic and English or draws upon her network of experts, writers and activists for interviews. Other times, her own perspective illuminates a story’s nuances.
Being the rare person of colour in a newsroom can mean the honour of bridging the distance between colleagues and untold—or poorly told—stories. But the longer the responsibility of representing diversity weighs on a few, the longer newsrooms deprive Canadians of richer journalism.
In the early 1990s, John Miller was riding a Toronto streetcar to Ryerson University, where he taught journalism. He looked out the window and saw the diversity of the downtown core. “My God,” he thought. “The city has changed.” Before he was a professor, Miller was deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star. He barely saw the actual city he covered, one of the most diverse in Canada, because he worked in an office during the day and drove home in the evening. “I was as guilty when I was at the newspaper of being blind to this as they are,” he now says of editors who are reluctant to address diversity in their newsrooms.
That streetcar moment sparked his curiosity; curiosity sparked research. After his 1994 study on newsroom diversity for the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association (CDNA), he recommended the organization conduct an annual investigation like the American Society of News Editors’s Newsroom Employment Census. Miller doesn’t recall getting any reaction from publishers. He conducted a similar study in 2004—this time, independently. The survey of newspaper editors across the country revealed visible minorities accounted for only 4.1 percent of staff in papers with circulations over 100,000. (The 2006 census found non-white Canadian residents constitute around 16 percent of the population— about 40 percent in Vancouver or Toronto.) Worse, the commitment to diverse hiring had actually decreased from the 1994 results. A few returned the survey empty; one scribbled across the page, “I find these questions insulting.” Some explained they had bigger concerns than diversity, including layoffs in their newsrooms. Again, Miller recommended an annual investigation, and, again, he doesn’t remember receiving a response. “Well, I guess it’s hopeless,” he thought. Then he shook his head. “No, goddamnit, you’re an educator!” He launched a course at Ryerson on cross-cultural reporting, which was reduced to one lesson within a general critical issues course in the early 2000s.
To date, Miller’s 2004 study, published in 2006, is the most thorough on the makeup of the newspaper industry. Even if someone were willing to update the statistics, it could be difficult, since CanWest refused to participate in both studies, and Postmedia, which bought CanWest’s publishing arm, now owns 44 Canadian daily newspapers. Broadcasters are federally regulated under the Broadcasting Act and other policies. They must submit an annual cultural diversity report to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or risk losing their licence. Although broadcasters don’t have to report specific numbers, CBC’s 2015 to 2018 Inclusion and Diversity Plan claims visible minorities composed 8.3 percent of its permanent positions in 2014. However, that includes administrators and other non-journalists
Many news outlets have made public commitments to diversity, devoting a few sentences in their policies to reflecting their communities or “looking like” their readers. They also state that they’re equal opportunity employers welcoming a diverse applicant pool. Miller thinks newspapers should have acted 15 or 20 years ago. “Today, I don’t know. I just don’t think anybody has an appetite for it,” he says. “But it’s still going to be the issue.”
During an interview, actress Meg Tilly tells Tony Wong, the Star’s television reporter, about taking her son to China to celebrate his high school graduation.
“Are you Chinese?” Tilly asks. Yes, he replies.
“Well, my name is Chan!” Margaret Chan, to be specific.
And so, Wong had found an unexpected angle for his 2012 article about the new series Bomb Girls: Chan’s mother had told her to hide the Chinese half of her heritage, afraid other parents wouldn’t let their kids play with her. Instead of a standard TV series launch story, Wong wrote a feature examining questions of identity in Tilly’s life and in the show. “That might not have come out in another interview, in another circumstance,” he says. Wong has also penned pieces on mooncakes, camping for the first time as a Chinese man and how Star Trek: Voyager’s Harry Kim had yet to ever get the girl. “I don’t think we have to make excuses for writing about our own condition,” he says. “It illuminates a little more of the human condition about diversity and race.”
To Karen Ho, who recently left a position as a business and labour reporter at Northern News Services in the Northwest Territories to freelance full-time in Toronto, being a woman of colour in journalism is like wearing a different set of goggles. “That comes with advantages and disadvantages,” she says, “but they’re goggles I can never really take off.”
The goggles were at work the day Mattar pitched a story about the Starbucks “Race Together” campaign, the coffee giant’s attempt to start a dialogue about race. Some of her colleagues at The Current also pitched it, but while they praised the initiative, her angle was critical. A lively debate ensued. Mattar pointed out that “race relations” wasn’t a new conversation: it’s been her reality since childhood. The show ended up hosting a panel that included two journalists of colour.
Mattar loves providing her own perspective, but she is cautious about appearing as an expert voice. Some colleagues have assumed her knowledge spans Central Asia and the entire Middle East. She once received a phone call from within the CBC building asking whether she knew how to “call Afghanistan.” Another time, someone asked her to secure an interview with Mohamed Morsi, as though contacting an embattled Egyptian president was as easy as calling a cousin. At times, she feels responsible for catching the things her newsroom doesn’t cover properly or misses entirely.
Although often related, a journalist of colour’s ethnicity is not inherently her expertise. Jan Wong was born in Montreal and didn’t grow up speaking Chinese at home. Only later did she get a degree in Asian studies and live in China for 10 years as a student and foreign correspondent. That helped when, at The Globe and Mail, she covered the 2003 kidnapping of Cecilia Zhang, a nine-year-old Toronto murder victim. Wong’s familiarity with the Chinese language and diaspora gave her a way into the Zhang family’s circles. “That’s not because of my skin colour or the shape of my eyes,” she says, “but because I have expertise in the area.” That distinction guides Star assignment editor Scott Colby’s approach. He’s seen journalists of colour start off pitching a lot of ideas from their communities and then, over time, pitch fewer and fewer, afraid of pigeonholing themselves. Instead, he finds it’s best to assign a reporter to a story only when she speaks the language or has other special access. Otherwise, he gives stories based on skill or, on rare occasions, whoever happens to walk through the newsroom door first.
Assigning even the best journalist to a story doesn’t always make it worth telling. When diversity pieces are little more than annual fluff about holidays or culturally tied occasions like Diwali or the Lunar New Year, it can do more harm than good. “Every year, we think our readers have some collective amnesia and need to be reminded,” says Asmaa Malik, former deputy managing editor at Montreal Gazette and now a Ryerson journalism professor. “So the question is: who is that piece for? It’s obviously not for the people who celebrate it year in and year out.”
Diversity reporting for diversity’s sake tends to create a mentality of “us versus them,” says Kenny Yum, managing editor of The Huffington Post Canada. And that distances people of colour by portraying them as a separate brand of citizen, their behaviour under observation. These stories end up being about, rather than for, people of colour and their communities. In 2013, the Year of the Snake, Toronto’s CityNews aired “Kicking off the Lunar New Year at the Dragon Ball,” about a fundraising party for a non-profit geriatric care centre. The opening visuals: women dancing in traditional Chinese dress. The rest of the story focused more on the event’s food—and reporter Sangita Patel wearing a large, live snake—than on the event’s cause.
Journalism that reduces a complex culture to a single holiday or trait alienates large chunks of potential readership and viewership. It also sells short how much journalists of colour can improve a news outlet’s reporting. Global Calgary anchor Stefan Keyes has read too many news releases describing crime suspects as having a Jamaican accent. Born to Jamaican parents, he knew how challenging it could be for someone not from the Caribbean to accurately differentiate between the region’s accents. The suspect could be from Jamaica, Trinidad or Barbados, but police, victims and witnesses often make assumptions, and then newsrooms report them as fact. One day, Keyes brought this up. His colleagues listened, omitted that description and avoided reporting a potential inaccuracy that could continue damaging a community’s reputation.
A journalist’s personal connection to her racial identity can also lead to seeing a story’s worth and reporting it with proper depth. Mai Duong’s international search for a bone marrow donor caught Global Montreal web producer Rachel Lau’s attention in 2014. Duong had leukemia and needed a donor, fast. The cells had to be a near-exact ethnic match, but only one percent of the international bone marrow donor bank was Asian. And within that category, Duong needed to find someone to match her part-Vietnamese, part-Filipino background. Of Chinese descent herself, Lau realized she could one day be in Duong’s position. Her first report on the story, “Vietnamese community rallies to help Montreal mother find bone marrow donor,” portrays Duong gently and presents her search for an exact match as the main conflict. Lau did follow-up pieces over the next year as Duong found an umbilical cord blood donor and returned home to her family. In her most recent video report, Lau interviewed Duong on a bench in a sunny park following the treatment. Done well, diverse journalism brings out unseen layers in the Canadian narrative. And a compelling story, with thoughtful reporting and the right sources, makes for good journalism.
After his 1994 diversity study, Miller conducted focus groups to research how people of colour perceived newspapers in 1995. Many felt invisible in print because they were portrayed with prejudice. The white subjects, on the other hand, described newspapers as objective, fair and balanced. Feeling alienated from major news organizations, people of colour may turn to alternative sources such as the ethnic media. They address untold stories, but they can ghettoize the coverage of under-represented communities and lack both the resources and influence of major news organizations. In an effort to serve Chinese-speaking readers, the Vancouver Sun launched taiyangbao.ca in 2011, a news site with original reporting in their language. While taiyangbao.ca grew in popularity, Chuck Chiang, Asia Pacific columnist for the Sun, says many readers wanted to be part of the mainstream English-language voice. They wanted to see themselves represented in a paper of record, not just a Chinese-only website.
And people of colour do respond when they see themselves reflected in journalism. “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” Ho’s Toronto Life story about a woman who arranged the murder of her parents, is available in English and simplified Chinese online—the magazine’s first bilingual article. Not only does Ho tell Pan’s story, she writes about her own childhood: Ho also experienced high expectations from an immigrant parent. At over a million total page views by the end of 2015, the piece became Toronto Life’s most popular long-form feature of the year. The number of views on the Chinese version alone would qualify it as a hit for the publication. The story attracted readers as far away as Hong Kong and Indonesia.
Diverse coverage, enriched by a diverse newsroom, could be vital to maintaining and growing readership. Stories reaching out to neglected audiences draw them in to click, turn on the TV, read another sentence and come back for more. “Diversity is good for news organizations’ bottom line,” says Malik. “If that’s the only language they understand, then shouldn’t that be enough of a sell?” Ron Waksman, Global News’s director of online news and editorial standards and practices, sees diversity as good business and good journalism. “If you represent people’s common interests and agendas and experience, they can relate to you better,” he says. “If they relate to you, they will consume more news. If they consume more news, they’ll consume more of your brand.”
Unfortunately, cutbacks continue in the industry, and many newsrooms operate under union conditions: last hired, first fired. As they’re often the youngest and newest hires, the most diverse slice of the staff tends to bear the brunt of layoffs. Meanwhile, top tiers of editors remain predominantly white. Since the Star renovated its office a few years ago, the paper’s daily story meetings take place in the open, in the centre of the newsroom. Twice a day, reporter Ashante Infantry witnesses what she rarely saw in full array when bosses met behind boardroom doors: approximately 15 people around the table, mostly white.
She doesn’t think this means current management should be fired. But she worries that news outlets aren’t actively grooming journalists of colour for these leadership positions. Infantry joined the Star when reporter Philip Mascoll recommended her for an interview in response to the paper selecting an all-white group of summer students in 1995. As far as she’s aware, she’s one of only two Black full-time reporters the paper has hired in the last 20 years. The other was Morgan Campbell, who was interviewed on Infantry’s referral in 2003. Although both have remained at the Star because of their talent and skill, both needed a good word from another Black reporter to be considered for the job. “What concerns me more than how things look today,” says Infantry, “is how they’re going to look tomorrow—and there’s no fucking plan.”
A push toward diversity on television in the ’90s and early 2000s put many people of colour on camera. But behind the camera, little changed. Fennella Bruce recalls that she was the only producer of colour when she started at CityNews in 1994. For a long time, it was just her and four older white men. Intimidating, but not surprising.
Nor does Bruce, who’s now a news producer at CTV’s Canada AM, see many people of colour at Radio Television Digital News Association events attended by senior management types. With the power to decide editorial direction, hire, fire, promote and mentor, less diverse senior management teams can be quick to assume their viewers and readers are exactly like them. Lucinda Chodan, editor-in-chief of the Gazette, likens such management to a huge guinea pig in the stomach of a boa constrictor: “Our newsrooms will be much more diverse when the baby boomers have exited.”
Video by Eternity Martis and Anda Zeng
When Bruce was in journalism school, City’s Jojo Chintoh talked to her class about a crime series he was doing. He invited the students to watch it and call him with their thoughts. Bruce, the only Black person in the class, was also the only student who called. Chintoh invited her to shadow him, and he ultimately became one of her mentors. A former president of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and part of the launch of Toronto’s all-news station CP24, Bruce thinks journalists of colour have many obstacles to overcome and should, like any journalist, make their own opportunities. Still, the mentorship of established journalists was crucial to her career development, and she now extends that helping hand to the next generation. One of her former students at Centennial College is now a writer on her news desk. A former intern is an assignment editor at City.
Mentorship can help ensure Canadian journalism’s diverse future, especially since formal organizations supporting journalists of colour have been in decline since the early 2000s. Some, like the Strategic Alliance of Broadcasters for Aboriginal Reflection, no longer receive the same funding from networks. Ho, a member of the Asian American Journalists Association, says her fellow journalists of colour would rather invest their limited time and energy into other groups, such as those dedicated to furthering their skills and networks in digital journalism.
Mentors made a difference for Elysia Bryan-Baynes. She describes herself as being quieter than her peers, belying her deep-seated ambition and determination. Some people perceived that quietness as weakness. Not that being more “bombastically aggressive” would have benefited her either. The Global Montreal anchor lowers her voice and leans in slightly, lest she be misunderstood: “As a Black woman or as a minority woman, you have to be very careful about the kind of possibly aggressive ambition that might be okay for somebody else.” Her mentors helped her develop confidence in her quiet strength and taught her to push back in a way that would subvert the “angry Black woman” trope.
The diversity among her group of mentors is its strength; it includes members of Black communities, a few Global Montreal colleagues and an introverted, white male print journalist. Each mentor provides different elements of support. The tight-knit nature of her newsroom also helps. Bryan-Baynes knows many fellow journalists of colour who have been denied opportunities because of their perceived weaknesses, while other candidates—with their own shortcomings—landed a job. The bosses simply chose to invest in their potential. With the help of her mentors, Bryan-Baynes has lived what she calls a Goldilocks situation for a person of colour: an ideal alignment of conditions, just right.
Building diversity is a collaborative effort. It begins with a commitment from management and develops into common newsroom practice. It’s recruiting, grooming and preparing for the payoff. Sometimes, big payoffs arrive in small moments.
Mattar cries after watching Off weave gold out of her interview with Zohny. As much as Mattar is filled with joy and pride, watching the interview is heartbreaking. People like Zohny dropped everything to be in Egypt and protest, and she regrets that she couldn’t do the same.
“Tarek, I’ll let you get back to the party,” Off says. The call transfers back to Mattar in the control room. She and Zohny take a moment to finally congratulate each other. “We did it.”
Mattar, heart heavy from the weight of the day’s events, leaves the studio with Off. They face each other in the small hallway. “I know you’d much rather be in Egypt,” Off says. “But we’re so glad you’re here with us.” She reaches out and gives Mattar a big hug. And, without a doubt, Mattar knows she’s in the right place at the right time.
by Anda Zeng
Anda is the chief copy editor of the spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.