Sunny Dhillon posted an essay about his departure from the Globe and Mail on Oct. 29, 2018. Screenshot by J-Source

How representative are Canadian newsrooms, actually?

Racialized journalists are trying to create change in a predominantly white industry, but say support needs to come from the top. Continue Reading How representative are Canadian newsrooms, actually?

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.

Sad, but not surprised.

That was the overwhelming response of journalists of colour I spoke to after a Globe and Mail reporter announced his resignation after feeling dismissed as a person of colour.

On Oct. 29, journalist Sunny Dhillon left his job at the Globe and Mail in Vancouver after a disagreement over the way a local election story should be framed. For Dhillon, the story was the election of a predominantly white council and the racism candidates of colour encountered throughout their campaigns and before. But according to the reporter, who wrote about the incident on Medium, his editors decided to focus less on race and more on the women who were elected.

“What I brought to the newsroom did not matter,” Dhillon writes. “And it was at that moment that being a person of colour at a paper and in an industry that does not have enough of us — particularly at the top — felt more futile than ever before.”

The post was shared widely and journalists of colour from Canada and beyond posted their support on social media. Many of them shared similar stories of struggle, which became the subject of a follow-up post by Dhillon. 

According to Dhillon’s original post, his editor (who he didn’t name) refused to listen when he reasoned that race was a significant angle in the election story. He says he felt powerless in a newsroom where few decision-makers understood his perspective as a person of colour. J-Source emailed the Globe’s B.C. editor, Wendy Cox, and editor-in-chief David Walmsley with multiple requests for an interview but did not receive a response. Dhillon also didn’t respond to J-Source’s request for an interview.

Canadian journalism has long struggled to be inclusive. The Toronto Sun has a history of perpetuating harmful stereotypes against minorities. Just last month, a Sun columnist quoted fake TripAdvisor posts about a Toronto hotel housing refugees, including that the residents were slaughtering goats in the bathrooms. When Desmond Cole protested during a Toronto Police Service board meeting last year against keeping data from carding, the Toronto Star told him that he could not be both an activist and journalist, despite precedents for white staff treading both lines. Cole left his freelance column at the newspaper. But perhaps the best example of Canadian journalism’s insensitivity to diverse perspectives in recent years is when senior journalists at Canadian publications tweeted about creating an “Appropriation Prize,” after Write Magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki inserted the idea into an editorial at the start of an issue dedicated to Indigenous writers. The editors, some of whom later resigned, were widely seen as dismissing concerns about cultural appropriation by marginalized communities. Journalists across the globe are recognizing that when the public isn’t represented in newsrooms, it can mean facts are missed, or entire stories are left untold.

In Canada, while racialized journalists are finding opportunities to share their struggles and support each other in the industry, they’re calling on newsrooms to take action.

Canadian Journalists of Colour is a group co-launched by Anita Li and Sadiya Ansari last month to “create a supportive community and safe environment” for racialized journalists. Li says there were attempts to start similar groups before, but they didn’t go too far. The effort was renewed and after an initial meeting in October, Li, who is the director of communities at The Discourse, and Ansari, managing editor of online features at Global News, created an independent Facebook group so journalists of colour can connect online.

Dhillon said in his post that the solutions to the industry’s diversity problems are easy: “hire more people of colour, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence.” Among the first steps some journalists say newsrooms should take is making diversity data public. “We don’t really know how unreflective the newsrooms are, except anecdotally,” says Natasha Grzincic, a senior editor at Motherboard and one of the Facebook group’s admins. “We don’t have a way to see if we’ve improved because no one’s looking at these numbers.”

J-Source asked three legacy newsrooms about their diversity data and policies. Here’s what they said.

CBC/Radio-Canada has diversity data available online, which corporate spokesperson Douglas Chow says is collected through a voluntary questionnaire in which employees self-identify their race, gender, ability and sexual identity. According to data from April 2018, 15.4 per cent of CBC employees were from visible minorities, a one percentage point increase from the previous year. In 2016, Canadaland obtained the results of an internal voluntary survey showing that about 90 per cent of the CBC’s staff were white, as self-reported between 2011 and 2016.

But the CBC’s public information doesn’t include the employees’ specific backgrounds or which job those employees are doing beyond whether it’s an executive position or part of a union group.

“What’s the actual representation within editorial?” asks Li. “Who are the people making the decisions? That’s extremely important.”

Besides the data, CBC has programs to train journalists from diverse backgrounds and funding to hire minority groups for internships and other opportunities, Chow says in an email. It also has employee resource groups for journalists with shared backgrounds for mutual support.

“There is no doubt that a diversity of perspectives and voices is an issue in many newsrooms across the country, including this one,” says Toronto Star editor Irene Gentle in an email. “I worry about that a lot.”

The Star doesn’t have data on the diversity of its newsroom, Gentle says, “in part because of the challenges of assigning what is or isn’t a diverse background.” But she says in the past, employees have self-identified through the union, which showed 11 per cent of employees came from a diverse background — a number she acknowledges “was definitely not reflective of the community.”

“That data is a little out of date now, and I understand it has grown by a few percentage points,” she says, adding that in the Star’s radio room and intern programs, the number is “in the 40 per cent range,” though the intern programs were put on indefinite hiatus in February 2018.

Shree Paradkar, a race and gender columnist at the Star who is on an Atkinson fellowship this year, says while it’s useful to have reporters from different backgrounds, interns have less power to speak up.

Though the Star’s diversity policy encourages the newsroom to reflect the community in both hiring and the content it includes, the newspaper doesn’t have policies or practices for specifically supporting journalists from minority groups, says Gentle. “Maybe we should,” she adds, noting that the intern programs included one-on-one mentorship opportunities before being suspended.

The Globe was also contacted to share its diversity data but didn’t respond to J-Source’s requests.

Paradkar says the failure of newsrooms to publicize their diversity data can reveal a troubling double standard. “You can’t say, ‘Look at how transparent we are and trust us,’ but not actually be transparent about something this big.”

Grzincic says Dhillon’s article reminded her that she’s not alone. While many journalists were saddened to hear Dhillon’s story, Grzincic says it may have created momentum among journalists of colour.

“It wasn’t that this group was started as a result of Sunny’s article. The group was already there and Sunny’s article just fed into that.”