Nadia Stewart and Anita Li discuss the path to anti-racism in Canadian journalism, what's changed and what the future holds

In January 2020, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour released their calls to action, a document offering a seven-step roadmap to equitable representation and inclusion in newsrooms.

The white paper, which was drafted in collaboration with each organization’s executives across Canada, garnered quick support online and with a selection of independent media outlets that were in some cases, already started on the track. 

Today, a new spate of internal initiatives are underway at outlets of all sizes, with the organizations consulting on emerging and revamped community engagement, discussions surrounding commitments to greater accountability measures and plans for the future.

But it was six months after the CTAs’ release before any of Canada’s largest, establishment media organizations took heed.

In the summer, as protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality intensified, the microscope was soon turned on workplace discrimination and abuse across industries, including newsrooms.

In early June, a sitting United States senator calling for a military response to the protest movement set off an uprising spearheaded by Black journalists at the New York Times, making clear that his op-ed, which management claimed did not pass through standard editorial processes, posed grave risk to them, the workers of the publication. 

Following a subsequent outpouring of disclosures about workplace harassment and bullying, journalists in Canada followed suit, blowing the whistle on their experiences with systemic racism in media. The steady stream of accounts cast a light on how whiteness and power structures have continued to be upheld through discriminatory labour standards and flawed gatekeeping practices in newsrooms that had largely evaded the accountability typically reserved for other institutions.

In the crush of the media reckoning, staff coalitions were mobilized in some of Canada’s legacy newsrooms demanding change. Energy around the CTAs mounted, and some newsrooms began to make announcements about ways they intended to reform their workplaces. Student and alum-led groups at Canadian journalism schools organized to implement courses dedicated to covering Black communities, diversify faculties, challenge traditional curricula and create opportunities for mentorship and scholarships for BIPOC students.

Accounts of systemic racism in work and editorial practices haven’t gone away. But with increased willingness to collaborate, CABJ and CJOC are opening dialogue with traditional media players and pushing forward with plans for the future. 

In 2021, CABJ and CJOC will host their inaugural conference, RISE, “focused on celebrating journalists of colour and reimagining an equitable future.”

J-Source spoke with CABJ executive director Nadia Stewart and CJOC co-founder Anita Li about where they started, what’s changed and the movement toward equity and anti-racism in media and journalism education.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In the beginning 

Nadia: Emerging media have always kind of been leading the charge in terms of change and forward thinking and some of the calls to action were things that either they had already begun thinking about or begun working on. What always stood out to me about that release in January was that establishment media said nothing. Even the company that I worked for, Global News, said nothing. And I sent it directly to them. There was no response from the CBC, there was no response from anyone in upper management at any of these organizations. To me at that time, it was very telling, especially when you consider the complete 180 later on in the summer. 

I think we honestly went from like zero to a hundred within the space of a week in terms of inquiries, meetings, so many outlets reaching out and wanting to talk: “What do we do? How do we do it?”

Anita: A lot of the emerging players were already doing this work. I definitively know that because I used to work at the Discourse. So I was actually leading the work internally there. Emerging media were mostly walking the walk already, so doing the public affirmation of the calls to action just was an extension of their work. Whereas establishment media, from what we know, not only did they not reach out to us, and not endorse the calls to action, you’ve seen the news reports out of those newsrooms about how toxic the environment has been for journalists of colour. So what happened? And this is a question we always get asked: “Why do you think they changed their minds?” The answer I always give is you should ask them. Nadia and I, and the thousands of journalists of colour that our organizations represent, have been aware of this for a long time. The murder of George Floyd occurred in late May and then Black Lives Matter protests were renewed around the world and they reached a new degree of public consciousness. And so around June is when we re-released the calls to actions to be able to take advantage of the discourse that was happening publicly around the world and that’s when we started getting inquiries and were contacted by establishment media. That’s when more outlets and unions began to publicly endorse the calls to action. 

We’re hearing all of the right words, but are we seeing what needs to be seen to restore the trust that is gone between these organizations and racialized journalists?

Nadia: I think from the outside, people will look and say, well, obviously it was the murder of George Floyd. That was the turning point after that happened, that’s when they started to reach out. But I think it’s so important to remember that George Floyd was not the first Black man who died at the hands of police and as we’ve already seen, he wasn’t the last. And so you really do have to ask them, what was it that finally got you to, to wake up and want to engage in this conversation in a meaningful way. Some of the establishment media that have reached out to us, we’ve still seen despite the stories coming out of their organizations from Black journalists, journalists of colour, despite the accounts that we’re hearing, despite the promises made, I don’t know if I’d still say that change is incremental. I think in some places we still aren’t seeing any kind of meaningful movements from the CABJ’s perspective, we still aren’t seeing that meaningful movement. We’re hearing all of the right words, but are we seeing what needs to be seen to restore the trust that is gone between these organizations and racialized journalists? I’m not sure yet. I say that not from a hopeless standpoint. I haven’t lost hope, but you definitely feel that frustration.

This is about equity. It’s about equality. It’s fundamentally about the health of our journalism industry, and also the health of Canada’s democracy.

Anita: There were definitely some organizations that are trying to walk the walk and while they may be making mistakes or are kind of unsure there, there’s an earnestness and a genuine movement towards action. While some of them, it feels like they just still don’t understand fundamentally why this is an issue. I’ve even heard allusions to inside conversations with some of these people — there’s kind of a suggestion that it’s, “Oh, this is coming up again. When are people going to move on from this?” When really, it’s never gone away. This issue hasn’t gone away. We haven’t solved it. It’s systemic. And so that mindset is really limiting in terms of actually making genuine progress, because I think you fundamentally need to understand that this is a real issue. We aren’t victims here. This is about equity. It’s about equality. It’s fundamentally about the health of our journalism industry, and also the health of Canada’s democracy. It’s not the whinings of some journalists of colour. And I really hope at this point that this would be very clear because this isn’t an issue that’s only happening in Canada — it’s happening worldwide. 

Accountability

Nadia: The CABJ has been around since 1996, so they’ve actually been at this work for a while. During the summer, we had a Zoom call “Past, present and future.” One of the first things that Hamlin Grange, who was one of the founding vice-presidents, said was “it’s like Groundhog Day.” For him, this is an old conversation that they’ve been having over and over and over again. But, I do believe that in 2020 we did hit a turning point. I don’t think that we are going to go back. I do think we are actually moving forward. I always say to my team, it feels like a door has been kicked open for us, but we’re going to have to fight to stay in the room. But I really feel like change is going to happen, but it’s not going to be easy. And on the part of our organizations, it’s going to require consistency and precision because we know that the moment we stop talking, the moment we pull back, the moment we take our foot off the gas: status quo. 

Anita: With the outlets we now work with, we basically try to have quarterly check-ins, but we’re open for them to actually reach out to us in between the quarterly check-ins for guidance here and there. But we always make it a point to check in every quarter or so and see “how are you doing with these calls to action?” because we want to hold them accountable while also, it’s a way of calling them in and holding them accountable. From CJOC’s perspective our approach is one that’s collaborative while also holding them accountable. So we are very cognizant of the fact that Canadian media institutions have paid lip service to equity issues for a long time and there’s no way to let that happen again. And our organization and our executive team is made up of very strong, capable leadership. So that’s just not a question. Just won’t happen.

Structural change in media work

Nadia: If it takes longer to get it right, that’s a good thing. Speaking across the board, not just within the media industry, but in many other industries, we saw that rush to make a promise, commit to something, do something, implement a program, throw some money at the problem. But it wasn’t meaningful. And so if there are initiatives that companies are working on that might take a little bit more time, but they kind of get at the heart of the issue and really focus on solutions —  from the CABJ’s perspective, in the long run, we don’t want Band-Aids anymore. People are tired of Band-Aids. 

When we talk about retention, racialized journalists are still looking to see a change in the culture, in their newsrooms and in the organizations that they work in.

Within our team at the CABJ, we always joke that we’re done with unconscious bias training, because there have been so many of those seminars and workshops over the years, and as we saw in 2020, it still hadn’t done anything. I still think that that structural approach is going to require a lot of work. And I still think that for many organizations, big and small, that is still really an area of growth for all of them.

When we talk about retention, racialized journalists are still looking to see a change in the culture, in their newsrooms and in the organizations that they work in. And it is that culture that is going to reflect in those retention numbers. And we also still are not seeing the kind of upward mobility that we need to see Black and racialized journalists being promoted to positions of leadership. There still needs to be more change there. So I’d say that of all of the CTAs, hiring and retention is the most precarious. It is going to give us the biggest indication of whether or not there’s been progress in my mind.

Anita: From my perspective, it’s the one I want to see the most action on because it’s the most concrete way that shows that we’re making progress on this issue of equity and anti-racism. It should be easy to do. Don’t have to do anything except hire people. It’s not like you need to put anything into place, just to do it. So there’s no excuses there basically. 

Starting in the classroom

AnitaSelin Kum spearheaded a scholarship where she basically lobbied Carleton where if you raise X number of funds, Carleton will match it. And it surpassed the goal immediately. This person is in her early twenties. And she’s pitch-perfect on everything. Industry leaders should take a lesson from this person because she’s just wonderful to work with. Also consulted us from the get-go on everything, regular, detailed updates, and actually getting stuff done. She literally created this, now it’s a funded scholarship for BIPOC journalists at Carleton. That’s amazing. And she did it in such a short amount of time and she’s so passionate about it. She did everything right.

Nadia: There are other scholarships that have come up and the CABJ were in a position to be able to offer scholarships. So we’re also excited about that. Both of our organizations are going to have more in-depth conversations about j-schools later on this year. There is more of a strategy, more of a targeted approach that we would like to take to working with post-secondary education and young people in general. From the CABJ’s perspective, I will say, we really do believe that change starts there. And there is really a need to engage students and faculty. We are encouraged by the schools that now have reporting on Black communities courses. I’m thinking of Ryerson. 

We’re encouraged by that. Of course it goes without saying that these are things that should have been there before. The fact that they got these courses up so quickly — the reason why Ryerson put up a course was because four students began raising their voices and put together a petition and took it to took it to the head of the j-school and suddenly they have a course. So, we definitely want to see more of that, but the only other thing I will say about j-schools is, yes, the need for more diverse faculty, but also just the need for a really good modernization and overhaul of curriculums, especially through the lens of DEI, especially through the lens of the changing industry where students will be better equipped for the world that they’re heading into. I think of some of the folks that went through our bootcamp program. A lot of this was new to them. And for those who went through j-school, this conversation wasn’t happening. So, just in general, it’s time for change. 

There is definitely more dialogue around this issue I can see. And there’s a lot of hunger among the students.

Anita: You’re starting to see change at journalism schools though it’s very belated. Because like we have said in our calls to action, they’re our pipelines to the industry and jobs. I feel pretty strongly about how woefully under-equipped a lot of journalists and students are, and journalists of colour because they aren’t the ones who get jobs and secure jobs regularly.

This is why I teach journalism entrepreneurship and innovation, to prepare students for a changing industry and changing world because of undergoing disruption. But, I know firsthand that we’re talking about these issues more because I frequently get asked to guest lecture on community-driven journalism and DEI at journalism schools across the country. So there is definitely more dialogue around this issue I can see. And there’s a lot of hunger among the students. Students — all students, not just students of colour — in journalism are very invested in these issues. They’re front and centre for their generation. So there’s a hunger and appetite. And this is something they’ve been demanding before the schools introduced the courses. So, I feel so excited about the future of journalism, because just talking to students, they get these issues intuitively. Or they’re more open and willing to have dialogue. It’s not that all students are necessarily on board with this, but the vast majority are, and even the ones who were kind of not sure, or don’t really understand, are open to this kind of conversation, even more so than some industry leaders that I’ve encountered. 

Nadia: For the CABJ’s J-School Noire program, where we go into high schools and encourage kids to get into journalism this year, we have Google on board, also presenting to the kids and teaching them how to make better viral videos and just better online content.

And so I really want to start younger, because these kids get it, first of all. And we want, especially for Black kids, them to represent themselves in their own voices, in their own ways, telling their own stories as young as possible, because we know that as they grow up, it is that poor representation that turns them off of media. But they just get it, they connect with that idea and they connect with using their own voice and building up their own platforms in a way I think that we weren’t encouraged to embrace.

Looking forward

Nadia: It is a regular fight against cynicism and hopelessness. I am encouraged by the work that we are doing. I’m encouraged by the conversations that we’re having. I am encouraged by our team and their dedication and their work. As we look at the conference, we look at programs that we’re doing, I am encouraged by the Black journalists, the young Black journalists who call, and maybe they were feeling a bit hopeless before, but suddenly they feel like, “OK, maybe I have reason to hope.” So I’m encouraged by all of these things. And I try to keep all of that front and centre because if I think about some of the conversations that we’re having and I see the pace of change, I know that it’s still going to take some time. 

I’m encouraged by the number of Black journalists and racialized journalists who are going out on their own and just launching their own platform and doing their own thing and not being limited by that scarcity mindset that has permeated this industry and believing that I’ve got to stay in, and I’ve got to do this job and suddenly branching out on their own and doing their own thing. I’m encouraged by all of that. I do not ever want to be naive and say that we’re going to get there in my lifetime. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done, but I have to cling to hope and keep focused on the work that we’re doing otherwise, there’s no way there’s no way to keep going. There really isn’t.

Anita: I focus a lot on younger people and their path and their hope in the industry, because I think it’s really important to keep that flame alive. But I pair that with a deep sense of skepticism while also trying to maintain action. It’s a combination of trying to remain optimistic and being skeptical, because we’re not naive about the lack of change over the last many many decades. And then being action-oriented, because that’s the only thing we can do to try to work inside and outside the industry to effect change. From my perspective, as co-founder of CJOC, I’m doing the work of trying to make change within the industry and working with organizations, especially establishment ones and of effecting this change and fighting against these entrenched status quo practices and entrenched status quo culture. But at the same time, the most optimism that I have is around the emerging ecosystem. You can see people like Brandon Gonez, who’s a Black broadcaster … he’s a young, very popular former CP24 broadcaster who just struck on his own with his own YouTube show. Like five years ago, even hearing somebody having the courage as a racialized journalist, a Black journalist to go out and be confident enough to say, “you know what, I’m going to do this on my terms and be able to speak authentically on my community” is very powerful. 

It’s a sign the times are changing whether the establishment likes it or not. And so that’s something that I, as somebody who works in innovation and journalism entrepreneurship, am very excited about. So that’s kind of this balance between, obviously there’s so many journalists of colour, who are in this establishment or mainstream media ecosystem, but there’s also this emerging ecosystem that’s becoming increasingly mainstream that I can also focus on and it’s wonderful because that means there’s more options for journalists of colour in this country. 

We are seeing movement  and we’re optimistic, but we’re still going to hold people accountable. We’re not going to just jump at the first thing that somebody puts on the table. The work that has to be done around anti-racism and equity has to be thoughtful and considered and have resources behind it. And this is clearly something that the public and our industry is demanding. This issue, this work isn’t going to go away anytime soon. And I know that CABJ and CJOC are committed to it.