In this picture Garvey Bailey is sitting on the right side of the image holding a mic and interviewing singer Madisan McFerrin who is dressed in a sweater and jeans and sitting on a bed next to her with one hand in her hair and the other on the bed behind her.
Audio producer and Media Girlfriends cofounder Garvia Bailey (right) interviews singer, songwriter and producer Madison McFerrin. Photo credit: Justin Morris.

We all need help reporting in Black communities

New guide will focus on advice to strengthen reporting practices for engaging with Black communities Continue Reading We all need help reporting in Black communities

I can’t remember when I first learned about “Susie in Saskatchewan” while working at CBC Radio. She was an imaginary person many producers and hosts were taught to think about as an average member of our audience. 

No one explicitly outlined any details about her to me, and I am not sure why Saskatchewan was attached to her name. But, eventually, Susie’s desires, concerns and perspective coagulated into a bright presence living in the corner of my professional mind. I was guided by some version of Susie as I crafted story ideas and considered what listeners would care about. 

Without realizing it, I came to cater exclusively to her preferences, operating with the unspoken assumption I was to please this middle-class Christian woman, probably college-or-university-educated, heterosexual and non-disabled, living somewhere in Saskatchewan. I imagined her as an urbanite, while some of my colleagues say she was rural. At some point I became highly conscious that Susie (Suzie? Suzy?) was decidedly not Black. Rather, very specifically, Susie was white. Her family was white too, and they have been Canadian for generations.

I could be blamed for assuming these details about Susie, and that it was my own decision to work in a news organization under such assumptions. But is it any wonder I would think of her as I did when most folks around me appeared to be versions of Susie herself? 

It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but it was only after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis in 2020 and I recounted the many instances of anti-Black racism I encountered at work that I realized I had never been encouraged to think of anyone  as a listener outside of Susie. I was angry that it had never crossed my mind to think instead, for instance, about the one person closest to me who actually was an avid CBC Radio fan: my mother.

I still think about that. 

One thing that happens when you allow Susie in Saskatchewan to guide your editorial decisions is you see everyone who is different from her as secondary.  

As a Black person, I was trained to view my own perspective as secondary to Susie’s. That means I did not make it a regular practice to prioritize Black, African or immigrant communities. 

While I was more likely to pitch and focus on those stories than my colleagues, the truth is I was still thinking of Susie as the end user. When hosting public events, I would be surprised by older Black women who would greet me, eyes shining with pride as they complimented me and encouraged my work. 

“Right! You’re listening too,” I’d think, warm from their words. 

It was only in my last few years on the job that I made the switch to consider the listener could be my mother, Augustina Abo Duncan from Edmonton, or my aunties or members of other Black communities. 

Even now as I write, I am thinking you, reader, are likely not Black, because Susie’s shadow still lingers.

That is how deep this goes, nearly 20 years after my first day at CBC. The supremacy of her existence frustrates me, because the need to cater to her that is ingrained in our journalistic practice means we continue to neglect the stories and needs of communities other than Susie’s. 

I like to believe my former colleagues at CBC have moved far away from prioritizing the Susie I knew. In fact, those at CBC have been working on making changes around racial diversity for years, long before I arrived.

In my own time, I know inclusion was paramount for many leaders. I also knew individual producers who were making their own lists to achieve some semblance of parity or equity in their reporting. My colleagues at DiversifyCBC, a resource group for racialized employees I belonged to, encouraged management to think about the impact of racist attitudes in the workplace. 

CBC executives have been making efforts to achieve greater racial representation, equity and inclusion in their newsrooms, by asking more intentionally “Who’s at the table? Who’s speaking? Who’s missing?  Who’s deciding?” Two major events in recent years have propelled these efforts to the forefront.  After George Floyd was murdered, CBC management acknowledged the pain caused by anti-Black racism at the corporation and outlined a commitment to making sure CBC News would “reflect the many interests, sensitivities, beliefs and viewpoints found in Canada.” 

In 2021, as unmarked graves were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, CBC introduced a series of measures to ensure fair and comprehensive reporting on the issue. They included the launching of a “special edition” course about reporting in Indigenous communities for leaders and assignment editors and consultations with experts in trauma-informed journalism. 

We need more

Now that I am a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, I am focused on making research-based changes so we can move away from ideas and structures that continue to harm Black communities. 

This means releasing Susie, an imaginary white person, as the default Canadian news consumer from our collective psyche. The goal is not to remove her identity from the imagined audience, because she belongs just as much as anyone else. The point is that my own perspective and identity should be treated just as legitimate and worthy as hers.

I view this approach as a continuation of my work as co-chair of DiversifyCBC, where I worked with Judith Lynch and others to show management that the impact of racism at work is deep and consequential for both employees and Canadian news media writ large.

I have been outspoken about the impact of anti-Black racism at work, both internally and in public, and I acknowledge and applaud any forward movement that serves the well-being of Black employees at any news media organization. I am also aware that some of these organizations have taken steps to support more reporting about Black communities in Canada. 

That said, the work of anti-racism is a long road laden with several roadblocks, and most of us know it doesn’t end. So, our industry will continue to need help thinking about Black communities more inclusively, and help supporting members of those communities working in or with news organizations. 

I am now working with Toronto Metropolitan University Prof. Eternity Martis on a way to make this happen: a guide for journalists and journalism educators on how to report in Black communities in Canada. 

During the global movement for Black lives in 2020, calls for change were levelled at institutions around the world. In Canada, that included calls by journalism students for post-secondary schools to be held accountable for their part in maintaining racist media structures and education. 

At Carleton University, students highlighted racism in and out of the classroom, issuing a call to action including hiring more racialized faculty members. Students at Toronto Metropolitan University pointed to a lack of anti-racist course content, petitioning for a course on how to report on Black people in Canada. The answers to those calls resulted in the hiring of Black and Indigenous professors at Carleton University: myself, Adrian Harewood and more recently, Duncan McCue. At TMU, it included hiring Martis to launch her course Reporting on Race: The Black Community in the Media.

Martis’s course serves as part of the foundation of our joint project. The guide is intended to offer tangible strategies for engaging with and reporting on Black communities in Canada.

For years, I have been inspired by my colleague Duncan McCue’s Reporting in Indigenous Communities, an educational website for journalists that teaches how to report Indigenous stories and engage with diverse Indigenous communities and sources. It has been used by journalism educators and newsrooms alike, reaching thousands of visitors globally. 

Now a book, the guide begins with illustrations of the four ways Indigenous peoples have been historically stereotyped in the news in Canada, represented narrowly either drumming, dancing, drunk or dead. Based on this harmful history, McCue leads journalists to consider how they conduct themselves and what to think about before, during and after their stories about Indigenous peoples and Indigenous-related stories. 

The success and positive impact of the Reporting in Indigenous Communities guide led me to wonder — what if we created a similar resource for Black communities? Such a resource could help mitigate racist news coverage of Black communities in Canada. 

Martis teaches her students about the disproportionately negative portrayal of Black people in news. They learn about the racialization of crime and the history of state violence against Black bodies in Canada from slavery to the present, guided by Robyn Maynard’s book  Policing Black Lives

Students also review case studies of critical issues in Black communities like racial profiling, and then consider strategies on how to approach those communities with care. It goes without saying that such knowledge would serve all journalists well, from the newest to the seasoned, Black, allied and otherwise.

In my own research, I study the experiences of Black journalists in Canada, with a focus on how they handle anti-Black racism at work. I look at the prevalence and the nature of this racism, as well as its impact on journalists, particularly in editorial conversations. This includes looking at how Black journalists navigate instances where they have to report negatively about their own community.

In U.S. newsrooms, researchers have found that Black journalists either feel pressured to maintain the status quo of producing negative stories about Black communities or are accused of being “too close to the story” when they express a desire to report on their own communities so that they can ensure fair coverage. 

Sounds familiar. 

Along with frustrating, tear-inducing editorial conversations, my own experiences of racism consist of comments directed at me personally or racialized workers in general. I have found myself so stunned by comments I couldn’t muster a reply.

Other times, I couldn’t tell if I’d said enough or too much in response. Sometimes I just chose not to respond to protect myself, and it has all taken its toll on me. Other Black journalists have shared similar thoughts in private conversations. We’ve met and talked and cried in voice notes, Zoom calls and messages. 

My research will take the step of putting some of those details on record so we can all learn from these painful experiences. My findings will add to the strength of the guide, because I believe, maybe foolishly, that knowing about the precise harm that has been caused could broaden the perspectives of journalists in Canada, who may become more open to stories from our communities. They might take care to not immediately label some of our neighbourhoods as bad, and they might stop trying to touch our hair.

The current racial makeup of Canadian newsrooms makes the guide we’re proposing necessary. 

According to the Canadian Association of Journalists’ 2023 diversity survey, over half of the outlets that responded have no Black (or Latin, Middle Eastern, mixed-race or Indigenous) journalists on staff. Black journalists are more likely to work in a part-time role compared to a supervisor role, with 2.5 per cent of supervisors identified as Black and 5.3 per cent of part-time employees identified as Black. White journalists make up 84 per cent of supervisor roles and 82.5 per cent of top three leadership positions in newsrooms. 

Toronto Metropolitan University journalism professors Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah conducted a  landmark study of diversity at Canada’s largest publications and found that over 21 years, from 1998 to 2018, the white demographic in Canada declined, but representation of white columnists increased.  There were three Black men and no Black women who met their criteria for columnists in the country. 

Considering this, it makes sense that our industry doesn’t report well on Black communities. It also makes sense that in environments that don’t prioritize a duty of care to Black communities, even reporting by Black journalists about Black communities can result in anti-Black coverage. 

The resource Martis and I create will begin with an acknowledgement of this current state of affairs, and will highlight strategies for change. Those strategies will be informed by community-based engagement with Black communities and Black journalists. 

Our first priority will be to meet with members of Black communities in Canada to explore the impact of negative media representation on them. This phase aims to gain a comprehensive understanding of the effects of media portrayal on Black communities across these diverse Canadian regions.

We will hold focus groups in four significant Canadian locales: Edmonton, for its large Somali-Canadian population, the largest outside of southern Ontario; Halifax, for its historic and long-standing Black community; Toronto, for having the largest urban Black population in the country, and Montreal, a key location for its Black French-speaking populations. 

Our next step will be to conduct focus groups with newsroom leaders to get a sense of their challenges, needs and goals when reporting in and with Black communities. 

Then, using our own expertise as educators and journalists, cultural knowledge (and humour), we will create an online guide offering specific strategies and contextual information to better prepare journalists and journalism students for engaging with Black communities and individuals. This will include preparatory steps for educators and practical strategies for interacting with Black communities, Black journalists and Black journalism students. 

Martis and I wish to create a public and widely accessible resource, outside of classrooms and academic papers. It will be accompanied by an accessible, printable guidebook summarizing the project and including practical strategies and key insights.

It should be clear that Martis and I will be using this resource ourselves. We expect to learn things for which we don’t have the answers. 

What, for example, is the best way to course correct an editor or another person in power who uses the N-word in a meeting? How do you do this without compromising your job/career and ensuring they don’t do it again or demand forgiveness? How do you tell your colleague to stop talking about your neighbourhood like it is full of criminals? What is the best way to support a colleague whose source relates a racist incident and their producer doesn’t believe them?

I also know I will be confronted with the privileges of my own upbringing and experience. I am fond of saying “we contain multitudes” as a way of expressing the diversity of peoples of African descent. I am a dark-skinned African woman whose family immigrated to Canada from Ghana when I was very young. 

Growing up, we lived in mostly white Ontario neighbourhoods. We never owned a home and I heard my parents fight about money, but my father’s job as a taxi driver and my mother’s work as a restaurant cook provided a stable foundation for me and my two sisters. 

Before I left my post at CBC, I was an established journalist and radio host with a full-time, permanent contract. 

My experience is different from Martis’s, who is Black and biracial with Anglo-Indian Pakistani and Jamaican roots. She was born in Canada and grew up in a racially diverse neighbourhood until her family moved to a white neighbourhood in London, Ont. She is a writer, a longform journalist and novelist who is over 15 years younger than me. We are different from each other, and each of us different from so many other Black people.

Still, as two Black women who have worked in Canada’s journalism industry for a combined 25 years, this project is equally meaningful to both of us. Many of the people we will be interviewing are us, and we are them. We have felt the pain and anguish of anti-Black behaviour and editorial practices at work, and we have witnessed and experienced the effects of racism as a result of negative news coverage. We have also seen how it affects our communities, families and friends.

 We know that efforts have been made to address anti-Black racism in newsrooms, both in the coverage of Black communities and in the hiring of Black journalists.

However, as professors, journalists and Black women, we know these efforts aren’t enough and are in fact, short-term, often shallow solutions. Education and hearing directly from Black communities and journalists about the impact of news coverage is the only way to truly understand, empathize and appreciate just how necessary and life-changing more accountable practices can be. 

In my first-year undergraduate course Practising Journalism in a Diverse Society, students read about the concept of projection in reporting in Cumming and McKercher’s The Canadian Reporter. The authors write about ”putting yourself into the mind of the audience and anticipating how they might react,” the purpose of which is to engender empathy and a sense of the audience’s interests. 

This was precisely what I was doing with Susie in Saskatchewan. The problem with this is that she was presented as a single archetype who doesn’t reflect all of us. 

If we want to have a more inclusive, just, and diverse environment in Canadian journalism, we will have to find a way to expand our empathy. Whether this means changing Susie’s name, creating other composite characters or doing away with her altogether, I don’t know. 

I do know that it has been a long while since I have given much thought to that woman. 

If anything, Susie in Saskatchewan has been replaced by someone else: Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first Black woman to publish and edit a newspaper in North America. 

Lately, I have enjoyed being preoccupied by her legacy of abolitionism, advocacy in journalism and education. I am refreshed, replenished and proud to have Shadd Cary’s courage now guiding my work. In a letter to Frederick Douglass’s newspaper the North Star, Shadd Cary once wrote, simply, that we should “do more and talk less.” I like to think that I am honouring that legacy, and that I’m doing my best.

Nana aba Duncan is an associate professor and Carty Chair in Journalism, Diversity and Inclusion Studies at Carleton University, where she is launching the Mary Ann Shadd Cary Centre for Journalism and Belonging. She is also the cofounder of Media Girlfriends, a production company led by journalists of colour.