Minority report: Taking a closer look at newsroom diversity
Journalists report on a colourful world, so why are their newsrooms so blatantly monochrome? News organizations have spoken about the importance of having people from different backgrounds present in the field, yet there is an incredible lack of diversity within the media.
Are we making a point to not hire members of visible minorities? No, it’s not that simple. Instead, fingers point to institutional barriers that are largely systematic and unconscious. In the latest issue of the King's Journalism Review, Iris Estrada explores the subject of diversity in Canadian newsrooms and uncovers some of the problems faced by journalists who belong to a visible minority.
(Kim Brunhuber covered Inuit performers in Timbuktu. Photo: Kim Brunhuber/KJR)
Lack of diversity in journalism is as common today as when Kim Brunhuber was in diapers. Brunhuber has come a long way since then, but Canadian media is still overwhelmingly white.
National reporter and Saturday host of CBC's The National, Kim Brunhuber is a Canadian journalist who belongs to a visible minority. “Journalism is about the truth, and you can’t get to the truth without truly reflecting the people you are talking about,” he says.
Many employers also believe hiring visible minority journalists can provide a wide range of viewpoints and creative thinking. “A diverse workforce broadens and expands the kind of stories we tell, the way we approach and tell those stories and our presence and relevance to the communities we serve,” says Allan Rowe, News Director at Global Maritimes.
So why do studies confirm that visible minorities are absent in newspapers, radio, and television stations across the country?
Is it simply discrimination? Unlikely.
A 2000 study by Laval University showed that the vast majority of journalists across all media were white – 97 per cent, to be exact. In 2004, the Canadian Task Force for Cultural Diversity on Television discovered that visible minorities add up to 12.3 per cent of anchors and 8.7 per cent of reporters and interviewers in English-language news. That same year, John Miller – former director of newspaper journalism at Ryerson University – found that non-white newspaper reporters made up a mere 3.4 per cent. In 2010, CBC/Radio-Canada reported that minority groups – including Aboriginal people – made up 8 per cent of their reporting staff.
Canada’s Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as people “who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” Such people make up more than 16 per cent of the Canadian population, and that fraction continues to grow.
“There’s an advantage in having a different perspective on things,” says Shaina Luck, a young freelance writer based in Halifax. “It can be easier to report on something if you share that experience, if you lived it. It helps ask the right questions.”
Brunhuber thinks hiring journalists of different ethnicities can provide “perception” and “openness.” “It’s important to have people on the inside that act as gatekeepers in order to prevent things that mainstream, white journalists or editors could miss… mistakes or misperceptions which are usually a result of ignorance,” he says.
A diverse newsroom can also deliver stories that otherwise might not even be considered.
“You pitch stories that interest you, that’s how you find your story ideas,” says Maureen Googoo, an award-winning journalist and founder of radiogoogoo.com. “If you have mostly white people working in the newsroom, guess what stories are always going to come up,” she says. “Except that’s ‘objective journalism.’”
The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission amended the Canadian Broadcasting Act in 1991, committing to reflect the country’s racial and cultural diversity through the industry’s employment practices. In response, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters produced its Cultural Diversity Action Plan in 2002. The plan monitors and reports on the development of diversity by analyzing content on both Canadian radio and television. Newspapers are an unregulated industry and hold no official commitment to fostering diversity in the workplace. However, the Canadian Newspaper Association’s Statement of Principles states, “Newspapers should strive to paint a representative picture of its diverse communities.”
Jay Witherbee, news director at CTV Halifax, says, “Any media company would want its staff to reflect the community that it serves accurately. That means having a diverse staff and having people with different backgrounds.” But he also recognizes that stations aren’t as diverse as they could be.
“I think there’s room for improvement, if I’m being frankly honest. It’s something that we’re working towards, it’s a reality we face.”
Ryerson’s John Miller says that in his 2004 study on diversity, editors often said, “Minorities just don’t apply here.”
All job postings at Global Maritimes say, “Shaw Communications Inc. is committed to creating an inclusive and diverse workforce and our aim is to reflect the communities in which we do business. As such, qualified designated group members are encouraged to apply.”
Yet, “the number of visible minority applications for journalism positions at Global Maritimes is relatively small,” says Rowe.
So why aren’t journalists from diverse backgrounds applying to these jobs?
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation says the deficiency is due in large part to the lack of training for minorities.
“We are constantly striving to have more diversity but our classrooms in Radio and Television Arts are still very white,” says CBC’s Yvonne Colbert, former professor at the Nova Scotia Community College and president of the Broadcast Educators Association of Canada. ”Part of the reason why we don’t have people from diverse backgrounds applying to the program is because they don’t see themselves on radio and television, and if you don’t see yourself there then you’re going to think ‘that’s not for me’.”
Universities are not oblivious to the problem. To attract diversity, journalism departments set aside scholarships for visible minorities. Ryerson University offers the Weather Network Scholarship, a $2,500 award open to visible minority students who are pursuing a career in television. Jaclyn Mika, secretary of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, says that over the past two years more students have begun to apply for the scholarship, making it one of department’s most sought after awards.
Brunhuber believes, “Anything that encourages people to get through the door is a good thing. It’s sink or swim once you’re there. Either you can do it or you can’t.”
Luck, a Chinese-Canadian freelancer, is not convinced that such awards are for the best. ”I guess everyone who is a visible minority and comes up against this question says, ‘Well, why is there something special set aside for me?’ You hope that whatever you get, you get on your own merits, not because of your ethnicity.”
At Carleton University, one scholarship that specifically targets journalism students from a minority group is the El-Aggan Family Muslim Community Award. Elizabeth Disabato works at the university’s Advancement Office and is Carleton’s scholarship development and stewardship specialist.
“The application rate is extremely low,” she says. “To date we have not had a suitable candidate; (it) has never been awarded. It’s not that we lack Muslim students, (they) just aren’t applying. I think we had maybe two applications this year and the year before that I don’t think there were any.”
Reporting the news can be hard for anyone, but journalists who belong to a visible minority may face hurdles that white journalists will never know. Maureen Googoo first ran into trouble pitching Aboriginal news when she was a student at Ryerson.
“I remember getting my assignment back basically saying ‘Who cares? Nobody cares. This is just a small group of people in the city. Who is going to read this story?’ I kept coming across that every time I wanted to do a story with an Aboriginal angle. I constantly kept getting back the comments ‘Why do I care about this community?’ It really made me feel discouraged.”
Her story ideas weren’t any more popular once she left school. ”At ﬁrst I was encouraged to cover Aboriginal (news) but then after a while that encouragement started to fade and I started getting resistance,” she says. ”I got into a huge argument with a bureau chief telling me if I kept pushing Aboriginal stories or if I kept continuing on with this ‘Native-kick’ that I was never going to be promoted or considered for prestigious beats.”
That was several years ago. Today, Googoo feels things are getting better.
“I think newsrooms are becoming more open to diversity and realizing that they’re totally missing out on stories of the community. I’d like to think news directors are more enlightened and more aware, and realize that if they don’t cover these stories other blogs and niche websites are going to pop up and kick their ass,” she says with a smile.
For minority journalists, fighting off allegations of conflict of interest is routine. Brunhuber recalls pitching a protest story that his employers assigned, just not to him. The director thought it was a conflict of interest because the story involved the Black Students Association at Dalhousie University. But Brunhuber wasn’t about to give up his story without a fight.
“I guess I’m going to be pretty busy then because I’ll be doing the rest of the stories about white people,” Brunhuber told his superior at the time. “Obviously it’ll be a conﬂict of interest for white (reporters) to do any story involving white people.”
Brunhuber isn’t the only one who’s had to defend his ability to cover a story objectively. ”If I was struggling with a lede (they’d ask) ‘Is it because you’re too close to the story?’” Googoo says. “’Do you ask the same question to other white reporters who are covering white stories?’ I constantly had to keep pointing that out. Maybe I’m just a writer struggling with a lede.”
Like Brunhuber, Googoo defended her impartiality. ”(Editors) were constantly saying ‘An aboriginal person, covering an aboriginal story, can never do it objectively, they will always cheerlead for their community,” she explains. ”I always fought for my stories. If anyone told me I was in a conﬂict of interest I’d always say ‘bullshit.’ I usually won but I’d know next time I pitched a story I’d be up against the same battle.”
Global Maritimes says they have no problem assigning a minority reporter to cover minority events. News director Allan Rowe says the journalists they employ are all “fair, unbiased, and approach the story equally.”
Brunhuber also describes a challenge for minority reporters that he calls “the rule of one.”
“People always say that being a minority gives you an advantage and you get an edge on jobs. In some ways that’s true. Certainly people want to make their stations representative,” Brunhuber says. ”But then you’re also hamstrung by ‘the rule of one’. That is, if there’s a station and they have a black guy, they’re not going to hire another black guy. Where as if you’re a white person you’re not really limited by that rule.”
Rowe says hiring two journalists from the same background isn’t a problem as long as they’re both qualified for the job, but some minority journalists have doubts.
“One always asks themselves, ‘Why was I hired? Why am I here? Am I just window dressing? Am I just here so they can put up a poster of these different coloured faces? Or am I here because of my journalistic skills?’” says Brunhuber.
Employers say they seek out talented journalists, regardless of race, aiming for a rainbow of skills, not just a rainbow of faces.
Rowe says, “I would not say our station goes out of its way to recruit employees from diverse backgrounds. Clearly when job opportunities arise, we look for the best possible candidate in terms of qualifications, skills, attributes and diversity.” Other organizations, like CBC/Radio-Canada, are changing the way they search for employees to maximize the amount of minority-applicants. Christian Martel, National Senior Consultant for Diversity and Talent Management at CBC/Radio-Canada says, “we are concentrating our efforts now on attracting diverse candidates via other sources.”
CBC is using social media and working with employment agencies that specialize in recruiting workers from diverse groups. Rebecca Lau is a news anchor for Global TV Maritimes and an optimist when it comes to the future of journalism and visible minorities. ”As time goes on, eventually looking at diversity in the media won’t even be an issue anymore, and I’m kind of waiting for that day.”
As Colbert says, “it’s all about bringing the different voices that are out there (for) other people to hear.”
She believes the public should be aware of all the hues and tones that walk the country’s streets. Minorities should be more than characters in Canada’s stories; they should narrate as well. ”It doesn’t matter who’s what, but what does matter is that we learn from other people about what’s important to them and the wisdom of their culture versus our own. I just think it makes for a better country, it makes for a better person, it makes us all better.”
Iris Estrada is a Mexican-American journalism student at the University of King’s College. She’s an advocate for immigration rights, a self-proclaimed foodie, and is passionate about putting people’s stories to paper. Iris is one of only two visible minorities in her graduating class of 2012 at the University of King's College in Halifax, NS — a fact that motivated her to write this piece.
This piece was originally published in the King's Journalism Review. Check it out on its website for additional maps and information.
Correction: This piece originally referred to Kim Brunhuber as "National Anchor for CBC News Now and host of The National." We have since updated the story with Brunhuber's correct title. Apologies for any confusion.