Time to act on newsroom inequality

From the Star’s Public Editor:

“For years, we at The Star have talked about, sometimes in terms of despair, the need to reflect the changing nature of this city… Our coverage has not been inclusive enough. One obvious solution would be to hire more reporters and editors of all colors and cultures. New perspectives and new contacts would clearly improve the breadth and scope of our coverage.”

1995: Toronto & the Star: Report of the Diversity Committee

How can it be that a generation – a quarter century — has passed and still the Toronto Star and newsrooms throughout North America have not come to terms with the reality and repercussions of predominantly white newsrooms that look nothing like the communities they seek to serve?

Certainly, journalists at all levels of news organizations have seemingly long understood that a more diverse newsroom can provide more representative, more accurate and more complete news coverage that is necessary in a just and equitable society. Yet, after all these years, the truth of this matter is found in statements released earlier this year by the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour.

“Canadian newsrooms and media coverage are not truly representative of our country’s racial diversity. We acknowledge that journalism outlets have made efforts to address this worrying gap, but glaring racial inequity persists.”

I am not the first person to note that the brutal police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests against systemic equality and for racial justice have presented journalism with something of a “#MeToo” moment – a seemingly rapid and revolutionary recognition of the need for change and broad refusal to accept the status quo of a long simmering situation.

Indeed, as Canadians confront the broader realities and repercussions of systematic anti-Black and Indigenous racism in our own country, it is well past time for a “reckoning” within journalism, a time to listen, to learn and to examine journalism’s role in the damaging prevalence of systemic racism.

As many have also made clear, this is most of all, a time for action. To its credit, the Star and its parent company, Torstar, committed this week, in a statement sent to all staff, to “taking concrete measures to address inequality, exclusion and discrimination.”

That was followed by a memo to the newsroom from Star editor Irene Gentle, who endorsed well-justified calls to action by the CABJ and CJoC that hold newsrooms to account for racial equality in Canadian media.

“Calls on behalf of Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour are founded in principles of anti-racism, justice and accountability this newsroom has long stood for in its reporting but did not live up to in its internal make-up, organization and, at times, judgment,” Gentle said. “Words don’t matter without actions and these actions can only make us a better, more fair newsroom to work in, inspire more relevant, vital journalism and help make our ideals a reality.”

In an earlier note to staff, Gentle acknowledged that the Star’s newsroom is not representative of the communities it reports on, even as its own outstanding anti-racism reporting continues to expose systemic racism within other institutions and organizations such as education and police.

“Internally, we obviously cannot ignore our own deficits,” she said. “There are historical and financial reasons for this, but that, while a fact, is not an excuse.”

Among the actions the Star and Torstar news organizations have committed to are: voluntary surveys of newsroom demographics to measure employment diversity statistics, hiring and promoting of Black and Indigenous employees and other people of colour and diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, training and mentoring of young and aspiring journalists of colour, including possible collaborations with journalism schools. Gentle also committed to establishing ongoing consultations with racialized and other communities through advisory groups.

“Some of these are underway or beginning. Others will require some time to set up and entrench,” Gentle said. “But we are committed to doing it because we, like all of you, know it is the right thing to do.”

The Star’s newsroom commitments are supported fully by the Torstar organization overall. In the memo to all staff, Torstar CEO John Boynton made clear the company “cannot just talk about appointing more committees, more task forces more study groups to look at these actions.”

“As a media company with a long history of championing equality for all, Torstar is uniquely positioned to learn from our past, to give voice to the present through our news coverage and providing opportunities in our pages and on our websites for frank, honest and open conversations about race and diversity and to help provide guidance and examples for future generations,” he said.

While I have been discouraged at knowing how long Canadian newsrooms have been talking about this issue, with so little real and necessary change happening. I am heartened by these statements of actions and our CEO’s words seeking accountability: “We will be – and we should be – held accountable for ensuring that we act. If we fail, please let us know.”

Indeed, equality and diversity are not simply “nice to have,” an exhaustive 2019 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on “the struggle for talent and diversity in modern newsrooms” tells us.

“More diversity and a better representation of the underlying population is not only a question of justness and fairness, it’s also a question of power, as the media still largely decide who gets to be heard in society and thus who gets to shape political and social issues,” that report states.

Within the Star, I believe there is strong understanding that this week’s commitment to action is just the beginning as we all listen to learn and understand our own roles in the perpetuation of newsroom inequity. I see need for ongoing discussion and debate among journalists, their employers and unions, people of colour from the wider community, journalism scholars and industry associations about newsrooms structures, and journalism’s practices, standards and values. Most important, as is happening throughout North America now, this time demands a rethinking about how journalism and its mission in a democracy that stands for universal human rights is defined — and more important, who defines it.

Whether we regard this moment as a reckoning or a revolution, the time for that is now.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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