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Amplifying Voices, Protecting Lives: Addressing Systemic Racism in Media

Brian Daly, Dexter Brown, Julie Sobowale and Nadia Stewart, The Canadian Association of Black Journalists

Acknowledgment and disclaimer: The views and positions expressed in this report are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development or the Government of Canada. The report is in its original language.

Executive summary

The voices of journalists of colour, within mainstream media and as citizen journalists, are needed more than ever. A government’s willingness to protect journalists and their rights reflects how much it values democracy. Effective and enforced policies protecting the lives of racialized journalists, and resources to amplify their voices and stories, are needed the world over.

Public trust and citizen journalism

The individuals who recorded George Floyd’s ill-fated encounter with Minneapolis police were engaging in citizen journalism. This form of reporting is generally defined as when “an ordinary person actively engages in recording, generating, and disseminating newsworthy events”.Footnote 1 This allows citizens to “confront issues of social injustice and police accountability using technology such as smartphones.”Footnote 2 A pair of city police officers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were placed on administrative duty, and the province’s Serious Incident Response Team was called in, after a Black teenager was injured during an arrest caught on cellphone video.Footnote 3 Five months later, in the same city, a cellphone video of a Black woman being roughed up by police officers at a Walmart led to charges being dropped against the victim.Footnote 4 South of the border, eyewitness video in the shootings of Jacob Blake, Oscar Grant and Eric Garner played pivotal roles in the subsequent investigations.

As the Black community’s trust in law enforcement deteriorates in North America and around the world, eyewitnesses-turned-citizen-journalists see their recordings as the only way to challenge the status quo.Footnote 5 Real STL News, a citizen journalism outlet born out of the 2014 Ferguson uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, has no full-time employees and is staffed by volunteers but is relied upon by locals for breaking news, scoops and live streaming. In speaking to St. Louis Public Radio, Black citizen journalist and activist Tony Rice said a lack of trust is driving people to his reporting and the Real STL News platform. “[My followers] do not trust mainstream media. They think they have a certain bent or angle…And they rely on people like me. … For the most part, I have no one to account for.”Footnote 6

Establishment media should look to create partnerships with community journalists focused on training and expanding coverage. Researchers in Turkey found professional journalists who have either left or have been forced out of mainstream media outlets are establishing their own “‘hybrid’ alternative media platforms” where they work alongside citizen journalists in a new model of delivery.Footnote 7 Fellowship programs, such as those made available to Indigenous journalists through a partnership between the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), provide opportunities for citizen journalists from racialized communities to access resources needed for personal and professional development. The recipients of the 2020 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, Sean Vanderklis and Karl Dockstader, are both community journalists who launched their own podcast to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities throughout southern Ontario. Expanding the program between CJF and CBC could include the public broadcaster exploring how they can better serve geographical news deserts through partnerships with community journalists who complete the fellowship program.

Protecting racialized journalists

When CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested live on air while covering demonstrations in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd, police said it was because they were told to move and they did not. Fellow CNN reporter Josh Campbell was also reporting on the demonstrations that day but, when questioned by police, was told he could stay. “I identified myself ... they said, ‘OK, you’re permitted to be in the area,’” Campbell said. “I was treated much differently than (Jimenez) was.”Footnote 8 Campbell is white. Jimenez is Black and Latino.

Covering U.S. President Donald Trump has made White House correspondents Yamiche Alcindor and April Ryan the targets of repeated attacks. Their relentless pursuit of answers from the “leader of the free world” has been an inspiration for Black female journalists the world over, even as the journalists are called names, ridiculed and even ignored.

We can only guess to what extent these Black journalists were targeted based on race. However, it is clear media companies need to ensure journalists’ rights are upheld by government and law enforcement. In this case, U.S. journalists’ First Amendment rights—their right to access public spaces, right to protect their sources, etc.—must be protected. Globally, credentialed journalists must be free to access spaces and ask questions, without fear of reprisal or arrest.

Bias vs. Lived Experience: Journalism’s Double Standard

In his 2019 book The Skin We’re In, Black journalist Desmond Cole paints a disturbing picture. Cole describes a situation at a May 2017 Toronto Police Services Board meeting where a debate around police officers in schools was on the agenda. Speaking up at the meeting brought on warnings of an arrest, despite the fact police appeared to be using tactics to limit the number of opposition voices in the room, something Cole and others were pointing out.Cole’s ground-breaking 2015 Toronto Life article on carding—the police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting individuals (often Black and Indigenous people) though no crime has been committed—shone a light on the conversation surrounding the policing of Black lives. It also raised the argument of objectivity, one often used to silence Black journalists when they attempt to use their platform to address the anti-Black racism they deal with on a regular basis. Cole writes: “The false premise of objectivity in journalism reinforces white supremacy. My activism is my writing, and in the fight for Black life, I am by necessity an actor and a critic at the same time.”Footnote 9

As Cole notes, the same standard is not enforced for white journalists:

“Just before I was hired [as a Toronto Star columnist], Catherine Porter, a columnist at the Star, had written about an environmental demonstration she attended. In her column she misstated some facts about her demonstration. The Star acknowledged the inconsistencies but defended Porter from claims that she should not be demonstrating while working for the newspaper. The same public editor who later admonished me for ‘becoming the news’ wrote that ‘Porter is right in her understanding that she has explicit permission, and encouragement, to take a public stand and act in line with her views on social justice issues. Certainly the editors who asked her to write about the climate change rally understood that she was participating in the protest as a means of introducing her daughter to the power of protest.’”Footnote 10

This is not new. Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour are often labelled as biased in such cases. University of British Columbia professor Candis Callison says what they actually have is a type of expertise.Footnote 11 Therefore, objectivity is a convenience—a luxury, Black journalist Pacinthe Mattar says.Footnote 12 Until lived experiences are viewed as expertise, the voices of Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour will continue to be stifled under the guise of objectivity. As Cole notes, journalism is activism for those whose voices have been marginalized. Media outlets must ensure their codes of conduct and journalistic standards and guidelines cannot be weaponized or engaged as tools by management to silence Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour who speak publicly about their lived experiences. These policies typically exist to protect companies and must be re-examined through the lens of diversity and inclusion.

During a presentation at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism’s Reporting Race Conference in 2016, William Gumede noted the need for South African media outlets to assess the extent to which institutional racism is present within their policies and practices. “Such audits must look at organisational policies, practices and informal cultures. There must be regular monitoring, and the impact of organisational policies, practices and customs should be measured. Managers should not retaliate against individuals pointing out racism in institutions.”Footnote 13 Such audits should not be handled internally: third-party oversight is needed to engender trust. For Crown corporations/public broadcasters, license renewals should be tied to the implementation of key recommendations from these third-party audits.

Visible and invisible: the case for diversity data

It is worth considering whether Cole’s experience at the Toronto Star would have been different had those in leadership been racially diverse. There are too few Black journalists in Canadian newsrooms and the absence of industry diversity data is troubling. A 2010 study found people of colour were significantly under-represented at all staffing levels in media outlets, including in management, where only 4.8% of board members and executives identified as people of colour.Footnote 14 Though outdated, this report contains the most recent available data in Canada. By comparison, American newsrooms have taken part in regular surveys since 1978.Footnote 15 Typically, journalists in Canada encounter resistance in response to calls for the release of such data.Footnote 16 The result: being a Black journalist in Canadian media is to be both visible and invisible at the same time.

This is not just a North American problem. In Germany, a study in 2009 found 84% of daily newspapers lacked representation from journalists with a migration background. Recent effortsFootnote 17 to gather data on newsroom diversity failed, with newsroom leaders in Germany providing responses similar to their Canadian counterparts: it is “not customary for us to ask employees about their ancestors or their origins” and they believe it would be “legally highly problematic to collect store and evaluate” diversity data.

Companies measure what matters to them. If diversity matters, it must be measured. Efforts are currently underway by the Canadian Association of Journalists and researchers at Ryerson University to produce a diversity survey for newsrooms. As a stakeholder in these conversations, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists is optimistic media companies will be more apt to participate than they have been in years past. While we believe media outlets should willingly provide more robust diversity data, government intervention might be required to compel media outlets to be more transparent.

How digital upstarts and citizen-funded/founded journalism can change the game

Non-profit news—citizen-funded or citizen-founded journalism—is on the rise in the United States, with newsrooms launching at a rate of more than one a month for almost 12 years, according to a 2019 report.Footnote 18 The News Leaders Association 2019 diversity survey found digital-only platforms—which includes multi-city digital media start-ups, legacy media, business publications and issue-specific sites—drove race and gender inclusion among newsrooms.Footnote 19 In Canada, the move to embrace the audience-funded model has been slower. A 2018 report concluded systemic barriers hinder people of colour from founding news start-ups—primarily because they are unable to access capital. Among the report’s key conclusions: “If news outlets owned and operated by women and people of colour cannot access support to start and grow, the next generation of Canadian media will not represent Canadians in their full diversity”.Footnote 20 Countries with healthy democracies support the journalism ecosystem. This includes allowing news start-ups to register more easily as charities and offering grants specifically for media start-ups founded by racialized journalists.

The argument surrounding the need for diversity data in journalism was amplified by the gathering and release of race-based COVID-19 data. In Toronto, Black Canadians were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.Footnote 21 Canadian media captured the headline, but sometimes missed the nuance surrounding what it means to be Black during a pandemic. This causally relates to the problem of underrepresentation, which is at the core of Canadian media’s white-centeredness. In this case, Black Canadians are left feeling irrelevant and overlooked simply because their voices—at the intersection ofBlackness and post-secondary education in a post COVID-19 worldFootnote 22 or Blackness and healthFootnote 23—are underrepresented or non-existent.

Too few journalists of colour in newsrooms throughout the Western world and too many policies policing their voices mean these stories often die at the hands of assignment editors out of touch with the lived experiences of racialized journalists. Recently, employees and former employees at Swedish Radio in Sweden expressed concern their work environment was one where the ideas of journalists of colour were being ignored, creating “conditions for racists” to work in their midst.Footnote 24

Digital media start-ups create competition and provide an opportunity for diverse voices to enter an industry they might have otherwise been shut out of. Governments the world over should seek to remove barriers hindering their success, finding ways to incentivize investment and limit the power of larger players. For example, In India, the survival of journalism start-ups is threatened by the same challenges facing start-ups the world over: advertising revenue that is swallowed up by Facebook and Google and a system that favours legacy media.Footnote 25 In a 2017 report on the state of Canadian journalism, small digital news companies expressed their concern that new government policy measures often favour larger incumbent media organizations. The report argued that smaller media outlets are incapable of doing what the larger outlets can.Footnote 26 In some ways, this is true, but what remains a reality for many communities is that larger outlets have been known to ignore or poorly serve some audiences, as was noted in the aforementioned report on start-ups in India.

In recent years, an increase in the number of smaller digital players in Canada’s journalism scene is having an impact on what establishment media defines as “news” and “relevant.” An example is The Logic, a small, Toronto-based digital upstart. In the summer of 2018, the news outlet launched with 14 in-depth stories spread out over 3.5 months covering the Sidewalk Toronto project. The Logic’s founder, David Skok, believes their reporting prompted The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star to reallocate resources to cover what The Logic was uncovering. “I am confident and convinced that our existence has actually made The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star better on this file,” Skok said.Footnote 27 Small upstarts could have a disproportionate impact on the broader media ecosystem, as they tackle issues and policies mainstream outlets might not have the resources or will to explore.
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