The fact that Black Panther has grossed over one billion dollars at the box office reflects the deep yearning among racialized communities to see themselves positively portrayed in the media.
“Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted,” wrote American journalist Jamil Smith in a recent essay for Time. The movie’s success demonstrates the power and necessity of diverse representation – a lesson Canadian media frequently overlooks. With recent funding commitments, the federal government could help influence change.
“Canada’s newsrooms are not diverse. And we are all suffering for it,” wrote Kenny Yum, managing editor at HuffPost Canada in a blog post last year.
National Geographic admitted that it had perpetuated racist narratives and tropes about people of colour for decades, a long overdue mea culpa. “It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” wrote Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor in chief. Yet admitting the magazine’s mistakes and omissions was the right thing to do and will likely bring in new audiences.
As Black Panther’s recent success demonstrates, fair representation shouldn’t only be considered a civic obligation but also sound business sense. Could it be that legacy media have struggled to survive not only because of the advent of online advertising but simply because they have failed for so long to reflect the communities they purportedly serve? This significant gap wasn’t even mentioned in a wide-ranging study of Canadian media by the Public Policy Forum last year.
A new generation of journalists are challenging this status quo. Max Binks-Collier, a graduate student at Ryerson University, for one, is currently researching ways of standardizing how editors and producers determine what to cover. While journalism claims objectivity, decisions about what to cover are often subjective, he argues.
The producers behind the upcoming Indigenous film, “Indian Horse”, are encouraging news consumers themselves to diversify their news sources. “Although we have always found ways to share stories and news with each other within our Communities, the dominant narratives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada were shaped in large part by the negative stereotypes and harmful myths that were created and perpetuated through the non-Indigenous news media,” reads their challenge, introduced by CBC journalist Duncan McCue. “We, as Indigenous journalists, are continuing to challenge these negative narratives by sharing our own stories and the stories of the rest of Canada as well.”
But those working in any newsroom need to regularly be asking themselves some hard questions. Are enough editors and producers pausing to consider their own biases? Is enough time spent cultivating sources within diverse communities, or spending the necessary effort looking for diverse reporters and editors? Are there enough people of colour represented throughout the higher echelons of decision-making?
As newsroom resources shrink, there are fewer opportunities to dig deep for harder-to-reach stories. “The daily picture of our local and national life provided by Canada’s news media is already less complete, less nuanced, less authentic, more sensational, more staged and more negative,” noted John Cruickshank, former head of CBC News and former publisher of the Toronto Star in the 2017 public policy forum report. “As the business crisis worsens, the news media’s representation of Canada becomes less reflective of our collective reality.”
The Department of Canadian Heritage says it wants Canadians “to actively participate in our democracy by having access to high-quality news information and local content that reflects a diversity of voices and perspectives.” Yet in announcing new money for local journalism in the recent federal budget, the government was mum on whether such funding would be tied to assurances that diversity would be part of an outlet’s business case. There is an obvious disconnect between the government’s commitment towards promoting multiculturalism on the one hand, and promoting a vibrant local news landscape that fairly and positively represents communities often impacted by racism, on the other.
As far too many newsrooms continue to struggle for their very survival, it’s a good time to place more emphasis on diversifying the stories they cover, while creating a two-way dialogue with communities, and ensuring representation. That’s good for both their bottom dollar and for those of us who have been let down for too long.
Amira Elghawaby is an award-winning journalist and human rights advocate. Along with frequent appearances on Canadian and international news networks, Amira has written and produced stories and commentary for CBC Radio, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Globe and Mail. Amira spent five years promoting the civil liberties of Canadian Muslims as human rights officer and later, as director of communications, at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) between 2012 to the fall of 2017. Amira obtained an honours degree in Journalism and Law from Carleton University in 2001.