The Forever Battle of a Journalist of Colour
This year's Dalton Camp Award-winning essay is by Radiyah Chowdhury who gives a powerful first-hand account of the systematic barriers faced by racialized journalists in Canada.
I’ve been grappling with the decision to leave journalism for a while now. After four years of journalism school and nearly four years in the field, I can’t help but think of the 17-year-old me who started this journey with the best intentions. The first time the notion of absolute objectivity was introduced to me, I sat with clammy hands and looked around the room to see if anyone else looked anxious. It was the first year of my journalism degree program at Carleton University, a mostly theoretical year when we sat in large lecture halls and absorbed the traditional values of this field. Journalism school reflected the industry at large—most of my peers were white. Objectivity as it was presented to us seemed to be tailored for a specific type of person, one whose capacity to be dispassionate about certain issues came from a place of privilege that was unfamiliar to me.
As my education went on, I internalized it as a personal failing, that inability to dissociate from myself when I was on the job. These days, it feels like Canadian journalism asks something almost impossible of people of colour. It asks them to set aside the traumas they face on a daily basis for the sake of an industry largely created by white people. To legitimize viewpoints that denounce their very existence in the name of balance. To be less human in the most important ways they know how. And I don’t know how to do that.
As a student, I understood that a story was about the truth. I agreed with the golden tenets of fairness and accuracy, of presenting true accounts and letting readers decide for themselves. I coveted the title of journalist, seeing it as an honour and a responsibility. But anytime I tried to fit myself in the apolitical box I heard about from professors and acclaimed guest lecturers, I started to sweat again.
These days, it feels like Canadian journalism asks something almost impossible of people of colour. It asks them to set aside the traumas they face on a daily basis for the sake of an industry largely created by white people.
To be racialized is to be politicized. I could walk into any room as a journalist, but by virtue of my headscarf I’d be recognized as a Muslim woman first. I was taught to present both sides of a story, but what would I do in situations where one of those sides threatened my ability to live peacefully in a democratic society, like the secularism law passed in Quebec? How could I give vitriol and racism a platform when covering political movements that aimed to effectively legislate Islamophobia, like Stephen Harper’s 2015 Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act1, which legitimized unfounded fears of Islam? It seemed like at some point, the sacrifice I’d make to be a mainstream journalist would be to quiet the human side of myself. In fact, I would have to work twice as hard to be considered a fair journalist, lest I be accused of bias by way of my ethnicity and faith.
I struggled with this, fearing I could never be a good journalist because I would never be able to achieve the “objective” lens my white peers seemed to don effortlessly. It didn’t help that I rarely met other journalists from racialized backgrounds who could offer the support I was unable to get from my white professors, and later co-workers, because they simply never had to consider this reality.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) and Canadian Journalists of Colour (CAJ) released a white paper on Canadian media diversity, along with calls to action. According to the document, there hasn't been research on Canadian newsroom demographics since the mid-2000s2 (a 2004 study by Ryerson University professor emeritus John Miller found that people of colour made up 3.4 per cent of staff at Canadian newspapers)3. A 2010 study of media organizations in the Greater Toronto Area found that people of colour occupy just 6.1 per cent of all seats on their boards of directors, even though they represent approximately 40 per cent of the GTA's population.4
More recently, an academic study led by Ryerson University professors Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah on the demographic makeup of columnists at Canada's major newspapers found there was no representation of Black women, Indigenous people, Latin Americans, Middle Eastern people, North Africans or non-cisgender people from 1998 to 20185. In the last census done by Statistics Canada in 2016, it was revealed that more than one-fifth of Canadians are people of colour. By 2036, those numbers are projected to be about a third of the population. 6Malik and Fatah’s research showed these demographic changes were not reflected in the makeup of Canadian columnists. Conversely, in the 21 years of columns from major newspapers that they studied, they found that as the population of white people in Canada declined, the representation of white columnists actually increased.7
Journalism has long been called the fourth estate, a democratic cornerstone. But democracy is for all people. And if journalists, and media by extension, are meant to be representative of the public, that should extend to representation within journalism itself. I would venture further and say that the pervasive lack of diversity in newsrooms and journalism institutions is a continuous failure on our part to uphold a true Canadian democracy.
Photo by Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash
While hiring more Indigenous, Black, and people of colour at news organizations is important, it’s not nearly enough. Are any of these hires board members with the power to decide what gets covered and how? Are they temporary, casual, contractual? After all, hiring is one thing, but retention is another.
My close friends in journalism school were people of colour, but I am the only one who remains in this industry. I don’t blame them for leaving. In a post written in 2018, former Globe and Mail reporter Sunny Dhillon addressed why he quit his job after a disagreement with his editors over the way a local election story was framed8. Dhillon conducted interviews and prepared to tell the story of a nearly all-white council being elected in a city where 45 per cent of people are of Asian descent, and not a single such person was on the council. It was only after he began writing that he was instructed to focus less on race and more on the fact that eight of the 10 councillors elected were women9. When he pushed further, the bureau chief said something very telling. The newsroom, she told him, was “not a democracy.”
“To be a journalist of colour can be to walk a tightrope,” Dhillon wrote. “On which issues do you weigh in? On which issues do you not?”
To appeal to mainstream journalism is to appeal to a white audience, as the gatekeepers of this industry are still hegemonic. BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul touched on this after many prominent Canadian newsroom managers voiced their support for an “appropriation prize.”10 This came after Hal Niedzviecki resigned as editor of The Writers' Union of Canada magazine, Write, shortly after writing a piece in which he said he didn't believe in cultural appropriation, and that writers should aspire to “win the Appropriation Prize.” As Koul pointed out, this was in an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing. Niedzviecki’s resignation is what prompted these managers to take up the cause of a hypothetical appropriation prize, many of them pledging money from their own pockets to help create it. I remember watching this unfold on Twitter in real time, noting the organizations these folks came from—CBC, Maclean's, The National Post, Rogers Media11 —and feeling the return of that familiar anxiety I’d come to expect in my time as a journalist.
Niedzviecki recognized that most of Canadian literature comes from white, middle-class writers. But rather than calling for more diverse voices, he told them to continue writing about “what you don't know.” Forget the people who can actually speak to these experiences because they come from these varied cultures and identities. Instead, white writers should try harder to appropriate realities they’ll never know—and those newsroom managers supported this sentiment. What does that mean for the organizations they influence? What does that mean for their hiring practices?
“We know this is how white editors sometimes talk about us, that we’re aggressive, or irrational, that we ask for too much or we’re SJWs trying to maintain PC cultures,” Koul wrote. “This Twitter thread, though possibly glib, told all of us that we were right the whole time: They do talk about us like this when we’re not listening.”
The uncomfortable truth many news organizations are unwilling to accept is that the Canadian media frequently perpetuates racism and discrimination. Objectivity, quite frankly, doesn’t exist—at least not the utopian version taught to fresh-eyed rookies. Everyone brings themselves to the job. It’s just easier to appear objective if the norm is white and the people doing the work are white. The truth about Canadian media is that fairness and accuracy, while honourable things to aspire to, aren’t being upheld. If you come from a place of privilege, one where your identity and community aren’t regularly disparaged in mainstream media, the oversight in coverage is inevitable.
Take, for example, the way ideological violence by Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators is covered in Canada’s national news media. Acts of violence by Muslims received 1.5 times more coverage, on average, than those by non-Muslims12. Where a Muslim was involved, the word “terrorism” was more likely to be used, and Muslim perpetrators were likely to be labelled more by their religion and ethno-racial identities.13
The uncomfortable truth many news organizations are unwilling to accept is that the Canadian media frequently perpetuates racism and discrimination.
Then there’s the racialization of crime. Sociologist Dennis Rome wrote that contemporary news media have given crime a “black face.”14 A common practice is using mugshots as feature images in articles about Black perpetrators of crime, but family photos when the perpetrator is white. Studies show that in high-profile cases involving Black offenders and white victims, Canadian newspapers suggested a link between Black criminality and immigration, stoking anti-Black and anti-immigration sentiment.15 It was also found that newspapers were more lenient with white offenders, attributing their behaviour to mental health issues and individualized rationalizations16—a luxury not given to racialized offenders.
Fighting against entrenched modes of operation is exhausting, as any journalist of colour will tell you. It doesn’t help that when we speak out against prejudice or racism, we risk losing our jobs. In this muzzling of what we know to be true for the sake of objectivity, to retain our jobs or to uphold a legacy of traditional journalism taught to us, we are asked to erase ourselves. We are asked to pick a side.
I often think about an event I attended in journalism school. Kathy Gannon, who was wounded while reporting from Afghanistan for Associated Press, was taking questions from the audience. A man went up to the microphone and asked her a question: “How do you go about managing your values in relation to the Afghan people?” When prompted, he elaborated, “Religious values.” I sat in that auditorium with clammy hands, glancing around the room to see if anyone else looked anxious. At that moment, a very clear distinction between “us” and “them” was made. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I’d be living in that distinction for the rest of my career. I remember wondering if I could be considered part of “us” because I was there as a journalist, or if I was part of “them,” discussing a country where the majority of people share my faith.
Journalism needs to change and adapt. It asks an impossible task of people of colour. It drives us away, to industries where we don't feel the need to justify what we know to be wrong and harmful to a democratic society. Where we don't have to hide. As long as this industry fails us, it fails to uphold its role as the fourth estate.
In Dhillon's piece, he poses a question: How many battles do you have in you?
The truth is, I wish I could say. But I don’t know how many I have left.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I originally wrote this essay in March, in what feels like a lifetime ago. When I was doing research, I found few public statements about racism and inequality in newsrooms across Canada. If I were to write this same essay today, I would not have the same problem. The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis put police brutality and anti-Black racism at centre stage, globally and nationally. From it stemmed important conversations about media organizations and how they are complicit in systemic racism. Journalists of colour, and especially Black and Indigenous journalists, have been fighting private battles in their newsrooms for years. Publicly, they were largely silenced, whether by employers, journalism’s gatekeepers or the traditions of this industry. When I wrote this piece, I had no idea what was to come. My hope is that this moment of reckoning produces lasting institutional change—because if these past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that these voices cannot be silenced any longer.
1 Azeezah Kanji, “Islamophobia in Canada” (Noor Cultural Centre, November 17, 2017), http://www.noorculturalcentre.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Islamophobia-in-Canada-2017.pdf).
2 “Canadian Media Diversity: Calls to Action,” Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC, January 28, 2020), https://www.cjoc.net/white-paper).
3 Davide Mastracci, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Canadian Columnists,” Ryerson Review of Journalism, November 24, 2015, https://rrj.ca/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-canadian-columnists/).
4 “Diversity in Leadership and Media: A Multi-Perspective Analysis of the Greater Toronto Area, 2010,” 2010, https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/diversity/academic/Diversity in Leadership and Media_2011.pdf).
5 Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah, “Newsrooms Not Keeping up with Changing Demographics, Study Suggests,” The Conversation, January 28, 2020, https://theconversation.com/newsrooms-not-keeping-up-with-changing-demographics-study-suggests-125368).
6 People of Colour in Canada: Quick Take” (Catalyst, May 28, 2019), https://www.catalyst.org/research/people-of-colour-in-canada/).
7 Supra note 5.
8 Sunny Dhillon, “Journalism While Brown and When to Walk Away,” Medium, October 29, 2018, https://level.medium.com/journalism-while-brown-and-when-to-walk-away-9333ef61de9a).
10 Scaachi Koul, “On Glibness And Diversity In Canadian Media,” BuzzFeed, May 12, 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/scaachikoul/so-hows-that-whole-diversity-in-media-thing-going).
12 Azeezah Kanji, “Framing Muslims in the ‘War on Terror’: Representations of Ideological Violence by Muslim versus Non-Muslim Perpetrators in Canadian National News Media,” Religions 9, no. 9 (December 2018): p. 274, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9090274).
14 “Visible Minorities in News Media,” MediaSmarts, August 22, 2014, https://mediasmarts.ca/diversity-media/visible-minorities/visible-minorities-news-media).
15 Yasmin Jiwani and Ahmed Al-Rawi, “Intersecting Violence: Representations of Somali Youth in the Canadian Press,” Journalism, January 23, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884919825503).