The Los Angeles Times newsroom in 2018. Photo courtesy of C-Monster/CC BY-NC 2.0.

Employees have the power to make their newsrooms more diverse

Diversity of employees is more than just good journalistic practice — it is a labour issue. Continue Reading Employees have the power to make their newsrooms more diverse

It is been a little over than a year since Canada’s media landscape was rocked by the “appropriation prize” controversy. After an article was published in Write magazine encouraging writers to appropriate other cultures in their work, a group of mainly white editors, some of whom edited Canada’s biggest publications, took to Twitter to commit to funding an appropriation prize. The backlash was swift and within a day or so, many of the people involved had apologized for their tweets.

Then, earlier this summer, the National Post published an article about Prime Minister Trudeau allegedly groping a woman at a festival in 2000, according to an editorial published at the time. Despite the woman in question repeatedly telling journalists that she did not want this to become a story, the story circulated for weeks in the national press anyways. These events brought to the forefront an issue many had already known about: the on-going failure of the media to adequately respect marginalized people and their communities.  

For some journalists, these events are merely extensions of a hostile work environment for people of colour and other marginalized groups. Across Canada and the United States, media workers are articulating issues of diversity as being something more than just good journalistic practice; it is a labour issue.

This past July, the Intercept union signed its first collective bargaining agreement, which includes many provisions on diversity and inclusion practices — including the WGAE-Intercept rule, which states that two candidates from traditionally marginalized groups must be interviewed for any vacant position. The contract also creates a diversity committee, which among other things will also deal with issues related to editorial practices.

When the Los Angeles Times Guild began to bargain with Tronc (the Times is now owned by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong) earlier this year, the union requested pay data and discovered there were disparities between how much white men were making and how much people of colour and white women were making. The data showed that on average, women of colour at the Los Angeles Times who were in the bargaining unit were making 70 cents for every dollar a white male colleague received.

“We are using this data to push for fixes to the inequity proven by our report. That means fair and equal wages for equal work done by women and people of color in our newsroom. We are in the process of negotiating with our new owner on many issues, including pay,” saids Sarah Parvini, a reporter at the Times and co-chair of the Guild’s equity and diversity committee.

Parvini says that since the Times unionized, the workplace has gotten more transparent and that workers now have a formal avenue to push for changes without fear of retribution.

Here in Canada, workers have taken charge of the issue through employee resource groups. These are voluntary groups formed within a company that allow employees who often share a lived experience or interests to come together. At the Globe and Mail for instance, workers sitting on the company’s diversity committee, part of a larger newsroom culture committee, proposed a new head of newsroom development position, which was later created.

Adrian Norris is the current head of newsroom development at the Globe. Norris says in addition to the editorial and budgeting parts of his role, his job entails finding and creating training opportunities that are relevant to the company’s editorial and business goals. Staff participate in internal lunch and learn sessions, in which they listen to presentations on certain topics from their colleagues who are knowledgeable on the issue. Staffing and hiring also fall under Norris’ portfolio.

“Diversity in recruitment and promoting talent is a major focus going forward.  To help us we recently conducted an internal staff survey and compared ourselves to census data,” he said.

Meanwhile, at Canada’s public broadcaster, employee resource groups, or ERGs, have grown rapidly since they were introduced in 2016. In March of that year, the CBC had organized an internal disability summit, where staff from all parts of the country were invited to come and talk about the workplace and any challenges that exist. According to Sandra Porteous, director of engagement and inclusion at the CBC, part of the discussions revolved around whether or not ERGs would work at the CBC. A few months after the summit, the first ERG at the CBC was born – AbiliCrew, an ERG formed by disabled staff at the CBC and their allies.

Since then, five more ERGs have formed at the CBC and collectively they have 650 members at the broadcaster. These include outCBC, DiversifyCBC, Women in Tech, Visible Women and the National Indigenous ERG.

According to Porteous, the ERGs had significant input during the process when the CBC was preparing its three-year plan for diversity and inclusion at the company and can give input on news coverage.

“ERGs help to inform content development so they can act as internal ‘focus groups’ that, in turn, can help our programmers create better, more relevant content,” said Porteous. She says that when the CBC prepares stories relevant to a particular community, members of an ERG can help the storytelling process by providing input and perspectives to better the coverage.

This is a point echoed by Parvini at the Los Angeles Times, who says that the more diverse a newsroom is, the better the coverage is as journalists better reflect the communities they serve.

“I’m fluent in Persian. I use my language skills regularly to speak to members of the Iranian community when I’m writing about the diaspora. I’ve also used those skills to interpret for our foreign desk during protests or big events in Iran. When people post stories or videos of an election day or rally in Iran on social media, I’m able to help,” Parvini said.

Every week it seems like there is another reminder that lots of work remains to be done in terms of building inclusive and equitable newsrooms, that treat staff and communities with respect. In September, news broke that only one, male editor was consulted when the New York Review of Books chose to publish a feature by Jian Ghomeshi. While the news can be bleak, it is worth noting that, whether through a labour union or an employee resource group, lasting changes to newsroom practice and culture are usually pushed through by workers themselves: changes at CBC, the Globe and Mail, the L.A. Times and the Intercept among many others provide evidence of this.

Kim Kelly, an editor at Noisey and an organizer with Vice Union, explains how worker organizing can make seemingly individual problems, collective issues.

“Communication between workers is so important, and is so much easier to foster when you’re drawn together for a collective purpose; discovering that something you thought was an isolated incident or that was only affecting you personally is actually endemic across the company is a powerful realization, and fuels the fire to fight against it,” said Kelly.

“Organize, organize, organize,” she added.

Over the past year, this series has imagined futures where journalists own the workplace, has shown how collaboration leads to better investigative scoops, demonstrated how the CRTC is biased against smaller, independent broadcasters, talked about how readers can join in the process of journalism, and has illustrated the fight for employee representation at the CBC.

The common thread that runs through all of those stories and runs through this story is that journalists, as workers, have the power to dynamically transform the media landscape. Reporting on this series for the past year has taught me a lot, and as a journalist of colour has given me hope in what can be a demoralizing industry.

Diversity in newsrooms remains a problem, but just like with the other problems facing the industry, the solution will come from the writers, editors, fact checkers, photographers and designers who staff our newsrooms and not from the top.

Abdullah Shihipar is the first-ever J-Source/CWA Canada Reporting Fellow. Shihipar has written about the media and social issues for numerous publications, including the Globe and Mail, Quartz, VICE, CANADALAND, Torontoist and NOW Magazine.