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Revolution Within? How Diversity is Challenging the Newsroom Power Structure

Revolution Within? How Diversity is Challenging the Newsroom Power Structure

Written by
Celia Sankar
April 30th, 2019

If traditional media organizations are going to thrive in an era in which they don’t have a monopoly on access to the masses, they will have to figure out how to share the power to decide what is news and how it should be covered.

Revolution Within? How Diversity is Challenging the Newsroom Power Structure

Photo: Andy Piper

In the October 2018 Vancouver election, women occupied 45 per cent of the ballot and captured eight of the 10 available seats. It was a remarkable breakthrough for gender diversity.

In terms of ethnic diversity, however, the results didn’t jibe with the demographics. Visible minorities, the vast majority of whom are Asian, comprise about half (48 per cent) of the Vancouver population. Just over a third of the candidates had been non-Caucasian, yet only one visible minority (who isn’t Asian) was elected to the new council.

Two days after the vote, Sunny Dhillon, a 10-year veteran with The Globe And Mail, set about writing an analysis piece he’d been assigned. His understanding of the discussion during the editorial meeting had been that, while gender diversity would be covered, the focus of the article was to be the ethnic makeup of the new council.

He spent the day conducting interviews with visible minority candidates about the racism they’d faced during the campaign and prior to it. But when he sat down to file the story, his bureau chief instructed him, he said, to concentrate on the gender angle instead.

Dhillon, who is South Asian, said he voiced his disagreement to the bureau chief: “I felt we were making a choice that would undercut the voices of people of colour.”

In an article explaining why this exchange led him to quit the very next morning, Dhillon wrote, “The bureau chief told me what I thought did not matter. The newsroom, she said, was ‘not a democracy.’”

Discussions about democracy and the media usually revolve around the industry’s role in keeping the populace informed to help them decide how they should be governed, and in allowing citizens a platform to express their views to the powers that be and to their peers.

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However, as indicated by the incident Dhillon related, democracy within newsrooms is also a matter of concern. And when it comes to how the media covers communities outside of today’s mainstream, the issue is particularly vexing.

It’s one that news organizations will have to grapple with as Canada’s workforce becomes more diversified, challenging the status quo. Whether they maintain a rigid hierarchical structure or adopt a more consensual approach to editorial decision-making is likely to determine how well they thrive in a marketplace rife with disruption.

I had cause to consider the newsroom power structure two decades ago, on my first day in journalism school. The lecturer distributed newspapers and asked us to explain what was “news,” based on our observations.

Some said that it was information about a recent event that happened for the first time or was unusual. Others suggested the occurrence had to be one that had a profound impact on many people.

After much discussion, many of us concluded that what got disseminated as “news” was actually whatever the holders of power in a news organization — the editor, the publisher, the owner — decided should be covered.

This autocratic model is a source of frustration for many non-Caucasian media workers.

Commentators have long observed that Canadian media houses have not done a spectacular job in the diversity department. It’s something Montreal’s La Presse appeared to have been blind to in itself until it published a picture of its entire organization in December 2016. Critics were quick to point out that there was not a single non-Caucasian among its 250 editorial staff.

“Many of our articles promote inclusion,” said an official of the 134-year-old publication, “but when people saw the picture, they threw that inconsistency back in our face.”

The now digital-only newspaper responded promptly. It established four internships for Indigenous peoples and visible minorities. Then, it tapped sources it hadn’t tried before to recruit candidates. At least one from that cohort still writes for La Presse today.

Back in 1994, and again in 2004, Ryerson journalism professor John Miller unveiled studies that examined the ethnic composition of daily newspapers across Canada. He found that Indigenous peoples and visible minorities were under-represented.

Now retired, Miller lamented in 2016 that no further national diversity overview has since been done. He wasn’t optimistic that the numbers would be any different: “What little evidence there is suggests that 97 per cent of people gathering our news are white. Nothing has changed in 15 years.”

A 2010 survey of Toronto news organizations found that visible minorities occupied only 4.8 per cent of the positions as editors and producers, senior managers and board directors.

Indeed, in Toronto, where Canada’s biggest media companies are concentrated, the picture at the top is not encouraging for anyone who believes that diversity is necessary in an industry that has the power to set agendas and shape our national identity.

In a 2010 survey of Toronto news organizations, Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management found that visible minorities occupied only 4.8 per cent of the positions as editors and producers, senior managers and board directors. This in a country where non-Caucasians make up nearly a quarter of the population.

Why has so little progress been made?

Andree Lau, editor-in-chief of HuffPost Canada and one of the few non-Caucasians in a position of power, offers two reasons. Journalists of colour are not seeing change happening fast enough and get discouraged, she said. “Those very talented people are the ones we need to move up into the next level, and they end up leaving. Also there are a lot of people entrenched in Canadian media who are only hiring within their circles, within their comfort level.”

For many, this results in the despair Dhillon expressed at not being able to get issues of concern to ethnically diverse communities onto the agenda. Sometimes even when such stories are planned, the situation is not much better.

One journalist explained: “Ethnic assignments came with predetermined, inappropriate and inaccurate bias and assumptions that I was expected to spin a story around. I would refuse, but it fell on deaf ears.”

When a pitch about the challenges faced by ethnic communities is dismissed, it’s likely because Caucasian editors don’t believe there’d be wide interest in it.

In the past, when media organizations had a monopoly on mass communications, there was no means to test such a premise. But today, technology has democratized the dissemination of information. Anybody with a smartphone and a social media account can perform the media’s traditional duty of holding up a mirror to society.

With no gatekeeping editor to shoot down their ideas, ordinary citizens have uploaded videos of African-American men being arrested for sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks awaiting a friend; of a woman in an Alberta Denny’s telling a group of men speaking in their Dari Persian language they were “not Canadian”; and of people of various ethnic backgrounds being harassed by Caucasians at a London grocery store, a Toronto ferry terminal and a Hamilton Walmart.

All of these videos went viral, suggesting such stories are of interest to the general public.
All were reported on by traditional media. All had an impact. Charges were laid. People got fired. Institutional policies were revised. Discussions about race relations ensued in the media, yes, but also in homes and schools, in workplaces, and on the street.

It’s the kind of impact journalists dream of. And with their ability to add context, do analysis, draw on expert opinions and explore solutions, non-Caucasian journalists can enrich the discussion about race, diversity and inclusion.

Ah, but to just get past those gatekeepers....

Demographic trends and challenges to the traditional advertising-dependent business model are leading to a rethink of long-standing newsroom decision-making practices.

There are signs that demographic trends, as well as challenges to the media’s traditional advertising-dependent business model, are leading to a rethink of long-standing newsroom decision-making practices.

Two years ago, the CBC introduced employee resource groups (ERGs) that bring together staff of similar backgrounds (visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities) to give them a role in shaping the stories it tells.

“ERGs help to inform content development,” said Sandra Porteous, CBC’s director of engagement and inclusion. “They can act as internal ‘focus groups’ that can help our programmers create better, more relevant content.”

The New York Times, weary of losing ad revenue to social media, has stopped relying on advertising to bankroll a print publication. Thus, it no longer has to tailor its output to the largely Caucasian households advertisers want to reach.

In 2017, the Times earned US$1 billion from subscriptions, which accounted for 60 per cent of its revenue. With a diverse, primarily digital subscriber base of 3.8 million, it has gone to lengths to showcase a diversity of perspectives and to cover race in a more comprehensive manner. Dean Baquet, the first African-American executive editor of the 167-year-old newspaper, has introduced a race coverage team of six journalists, supported by six others, in departments such as national, metro, sports and culture. Accepting ideas from throughout the organization, they conceive and develop stories dealing with race.

Baquet said: “The newsroom I envision will say yes to new stories and new ways to tell them, unfettered by the bureaucracy we have created over generations.”

These may be just tentative steps toward a more collaborative style of decision-making, yet the signs are that there’s no turning back. If anything, newsrooms need to quicken the pace in revolutionizing the way they function.

By 2036, non-Caucasians will make up as much as 70 per cent of the workforce in Toronto and 66 per cent in Vancouver. The “mainstream” in terms of the media’s labour pool and potential customers will be reversed.

A decade before that, millennials will form 75 per cent of the global workforce, noted a report by the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion.

Unlike previous generations, they’ve grown up interacting with all types of people. So for them, diversity and inclusion isn’t just about getting a variety of people into a room; it’s about creating “cognitive diversity,” the Deloitte report said. “It’s about connecting these individuals, forming teams on which everyone has a say, and capitalizing on a variety of perspectives in order to make a stronger business impact.”

More than previous generations, millennials will quit their jobs if they’re unhappy with their work environment. When they form the majority of the labour pool, autocratic newsrooms that stifle employee input could find themselves hamstrung.

“The first step to a cognitively diverse organization in which millennials will thrive is to break down formal hierarchies,” the Deloitte report advised.

If traditional media establishments are to thrive in era in which they don’t have a monopoly on access to the masses, their business model is crumbling and the labour pool looks different than it did in the past, they are going to have to figure out how to share the power to decide what is news and how they cover it.

A journalism crisis is threatening Canadian democracy.