University research could point the way to more inclusive journalism

Will be interesting to see the results of this analysis, particularly the evidence in contrast to perceptions:

How well does journalism reflect the diversity of the community? And what are the perceptions of that coverage?

The Diversity Institute at Ryerson University expects to provide some answers with research examining media coverage and its impact in shaping biases and perceptions.

The examination was inspired in part by the institute’s extensive work examining discriminatory workplace practices that, for example, limit gender and racial representation on corporate boards and in executive leadership positions.

From this, there was a recognition of the media’s influence on perceptions and stereotypes, which have a “profound” effect on people’s assumptions about others, said Wendy Cukier, the institute’s director and a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the university’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

“Every single aspect of diversity and inclusion in the workplace or in the education system pointed to broad cultural stereotypes and biases that get embedded in organizations and shape the way individuals think and behave,” she said.

“The media is one of the most important carriers of values and culture. And it has a profound impact on these stereotypes and assumptions and biases, or it can help challenge them,” Cukier said.

The project, tentatively titled “Media Bias and Under-represented Groups,” will analyze the online news of selected outlets and their representations of those who are Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Black and racialized. Focus groups with identified groups will glean perceptions of media coverage and its impact on their identities.

The research will identify areas of misrepresentation, under coverage or coverage that reinforces negative stereotypes. The objective is to make journalism more representative and inclusive.

Working on the project are Mohamed Elmi, the institute’s director of research, and Ruby Latif, research associate, Media Bias Project lead. Both have experience examining how media shape stereotypes.

Elmi was involved with the Black Experience Project, an extensive study published in 2017 that examined what it was like to be Black in the Greater Toronto Area. In a survey done for the project, respondents cited inaccurate media portrayals of the Black community that exaggerated involvement in criminal activity, or depicted them as uneducated or lacking ambition. Few saw what they considered to be accurate portrayals of Blacks as leaders or individual success stories.

“When you’re looking at the media, they only saw people who look like them portrayed in a negative light, not necessarily as an expert or some commentator on a particular subject,” Elmi said.

Latif’s own research focused on Muslim women and organizations. That work and research since has noted how the Muslim community was being “othered,” she said.

“It’s putting somebody in another light, that they’re not part of the in-group … showing that they’re not the same or they don’t have similar values, like Canadian values,” said Latif, who is a regular contributor to the Star’s opinion section.

The deaths of a London, Ont. family — run down last month during an evening walk because they were Muslim, according to police — has underscored those concerns.

The role of mass media in amplifying racial divides is well-documented. The Ontario Human Rights Commission notes, for example, that racism “is communicated and reproduced through agencies of socialization and cultural transmission such as the mass media (in which racialized persons are portrayed as different from the norm or as problems).”

Cukier says progress has been made, notably in the wake of last year’s murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “But I’m not sure if mainstream reporting and editing and the kind of power structure has shifted that much,” she said.

Floyd’s death prompted a reckoning among institutions on race, racism and diversity. For media outlets like the Toronto Star, it means examining how well the paper reflects the diversity of the community it serves, in both the journalists who work in the newsroom and in its coverage.

Breaking stereotypes and ensuring stories are representative requires effort in all parts of the editorial process, from decisions on which stories to cover, the language used in those stories, the people chosen for interviews and the selection of pictures. Each is a subjective decision — and a chance to make coverage more inclusive.

Researchers emphasize that media portrayals too often perpetuate stereotypes. Another issue is journalists only seeking out racialized individuals to talk about issues of diversity and race, rather than their fields of expertise, be it finance, law or science. “They’re not featured as experts in whatever their field is … I would argue that just reinforces a certain kind of marginalization,” Cukier said.

The Trust Project, a global group of media outlets that includes the Star, rightly sets out diverse voices as one marker of trusted news: “Are some communities or perspectives included only in stereotypical ways, or even completely missing?” And the Torstar Journalistic Standards Guide states, “Inclusiveness is at the heart of thinking and acting as journalists.”

The Star has worked to ensure that the diversity of the community is reflected in its stories. Journalists are encouraged to bring new voices to their story-telling. It makes for better-informed journalism and improved civic discourse. No doubt that remains a work in progress.

This research project promises to be an important road map to how the Star and other media outlets can do better.


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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