Unpaid journalism excludes the voices we need most

Crisis of unpaid work worsens underrepresentation of minorities and women in media
Photo: Adam Fagen

The Canadian media landscape is already severely lacking in ethnic and gender diversity. Expecting free labour only dissuades those whose voices we need the most.

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An open letter by freelance journalist Véronique Voyer, published a few days ago in Ricochet’s French edition, had me shaking my head in silent agreement, both as a current freelancer and as a former news director who was once encouraged by upper management to obtain free or cheap labour. In this piece Voyer candidly discusses the plight of many freelance journalists trying to make ends meet in a struggling industry that often attempts to get something for nothing.

Unpaid work has become the thorn in the side of many journalists, and the expectation that a large number of editorial internships reap no salary may slowly be transforming the industry, and certainly not for the better.

Voyer writes, “To work for free is to transform a profession into a privilege; it’s to exclude the perspective of those who need a salary to survive.”

In most cases, that’s the perspective of those who come from low-income backgrounds and minority communities.

The Canadian media landscape is already severely lacking in ethnic and gender diversity, and the damaging expectation of free labour is doing absolutely nothing to change that. On the contrary, it’s dissuading those whose voices we need the most.

According to 2011 Statistics Canada findings, one in five Canadians is a member of a visible minority.

And yet a 2004 study from Ryerson University shows that Canada's daily newspapers continue to lag behind in hiring racial minority groups. Researchers John Miller and Caron Caron found that at 37 daily newspapers in all 10 provinces, out of a total staff of 2,119, managing editors identified only 72 staff members who belonged to a racial minority group. That number is well short of their share of the Canadian population.

In that same study it was noted, “Aboriginal Canadians are 70 times less likely to be employed by daily newspapers than their numbers in society would seem to warrant, a shockingly bad inclusion rate and one that may help explain the endemic stereotyping and marginalization of native people in the press.”

Visible minorities make up 40 per cent of the U.S. population, yet there are only 4,700 visible minority journalists out of a total of 38,000 employed, according to Michael A. Deas, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and former editor at the Chicago Tribune.

The newsroom composition of traditional media, as measured by the American Society of News Editors in 2013, is 88 per cent white.

Similar issues occur with gender. “Male journalists make up 63 per cent of bylines in print, Internet and wire news media, according to a recent report from the Women’s Media Center,” as published in Time magazine. “Women have just about 36 per cent of bylines or on-camera appearances.”

Men, their stories and their perspectives continue to be vastly overrepresented in the media.

What this dearth of racial minority and female bylines and on-air presence means is that we are not being offered different and much-needed ethnic and gender-specific perspectives that would enhance our perception and knowledge of the world around us. We are being offered part of a story, an incomplete and partial truth.

An entire newsroom (hosts, news directors, producers, and so on) full of older white males is simply unable to report on what I, as a young allophone woman, am ultimately interested in. It’s just the way it is. Some interests and points of view may overlap, but inevitably — consciously or unconsciously — media bias creeps in. And media bias involves not only what you cover, but how you cover it, and who you go to for your expert sources and pull quotes.

If objectivity and accuracy are what are ultimately important in journalistic reporting, how is a newsroom to achieve that when minorities (in terms of gender and ethnicity) are underrepresented?

Media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, in consultation with the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, sponsored an academic study in which journalists were asked a range of questions about how they did their work and how they viewed the quality of media coverage in the broad area of politics and economic policy.

The survey results indicated that bias can creep in through a reporter's choice of sources, a failure to hear and report dissenting voices and always turning to the same “experts” or government officials to interview. What these studies show is that, even if you think you’re unbiased in your story choices and the way you choose to cover said story, you’re really not.

Cultural and gender diversity is therefore of the utmost importance within the context of a newsroom where it is decided what is and isn’t relevant and ultimately what is considered news. By omitting minorities and women from the news-gathering process, we are missing out on vital aspects of any given story.

During the post-Ghomeshi revelations, the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag would have never gone as viral as it did, had two female reporters not spread it like wildfire on Twitter and probably (through their presence in the media room and their influence with their respective publishers) managed to push it to the forefront of mainstream media coverage. The front pages of Huffington Post Canada would not have been dedicated to those tweets and the Rehtaeh Parsons story if women didn’t feature prominently on that editorial board.

This is how representation works. You need to be within the system to influence the system. Story choices and editorial decisions are ultimately affected and influenced by the people covering the news.

In a recent rebuttal to the CBC, Ottawa-based motivational speaker and frequent author of articles on racial diversity, Rachel Decoste, stated, “Minority politicians come to the table with a contrasting set of lived experiences which add balance to otherwise one-dimensional discussions.” The same applies to media representation. If the newsroom isn’t diverse, it can’t accurately represent the diverse realities and perspectives of the population it’s supposed to be reporting on.

News, including the stories we cover and the angles we present, has a powerful educational impact on those consuming it. It not only informs, but also teaches people about the members of the groups being reported on. This is of even greater value when the focus is on cultural and ethnic minorities the public has little or no direct contact with. Just think of Herouxville’s Code of Conduct, written up in a town that does not have a single Muslim living there, but has probably seen a myriad of depictions of evil Muslims in Hollywood movies, or only news reports focusing on the horrific Shafia case. News shapes our perception of reality.

Unpaid internships and expectations of free work reduce and even eliminate opportunities for minority applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, who simply can’t afford to spend six months working for free. That inevitably means they are deprived of the networking opportunities and access to potential jobs that often come with many of these internships. What this does is reinforce the lack of diversity that already exists within the current media landscape.

But journalism and the dissemination of news is far too important a vocation to drown out the voices of journalists who have unique perspectives and insights, and marginalizing minority voices is a dangerous thing to have happen because it ultimately affects the quality of the news you are receiving. It’s a problem that needs to be rectified.

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