Media complicity in race and class tensions must change

Predominantly white newsrooms fail to tell the whole truth, making George Floyd’s killing seem like a one-off event
Photo: Andy Piper
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America is at a historical turning point. The pandemic has set in motion the wheels of unemployment, at a rate unseen since the Great Depression. In the midst of fear and anxiety as people face issues of survival brought on by COVID-19, countrywide protests have taken place, as video footage emerged showing the unjust murders of Ahmaud Arbery, who was just out for a run, and George Floyd, who made a purchase with a $20 bill in a country where big corporations have been bailed out with a trillion-dollar relief package, while the poor and working classes are left to themselves.

North of the border, Canada is trudging through the pandemic relatively peacefully, but the tremors of change are being felt here too. See, Canada doesn’t like to talk about racism. In fact, if you read conservative commentator Rex Murphy’s recent piece in the National Post, you’d be led to wonder if racism even exists in Canada.

When newsrooms remain predominantly white, they tell the stories of their privileged lived experiences.

Just a few days before George Floyd’s heinous murder, a Black woman died while attended by several cops in Toronto’s High Park neighbourhood. Now, let’s be clear — we don’t know what hand the cops played in her death, but we do know there are systemic problems with cops and Black people in Canada just as much as in America. In 2018, an Ontario Human Rights Commission report established that Black people are more likely than white people to be injured or shot by Toronto police. Seemingly polite Canada also has a disgusting relationship with Indigenous communities. On June 4, on the heels of the grief and anger rippling through Black communities and their allies, a police officer shot and killed a 26-year-old Indigenous woman in New Brunswick during a wellness check.

The way these deaths are covered by the media make them seem like one-off events, giving people the licence to say things like “oh white folks are killed by the cops as well.” The media has consistently failed to cover issues that affect racialized communities because newsrooms are still stacked with predominantly white faces, allowing for a very narrow representation of narratives and viewpoints that are not the lived reality of the many. Data on diversity in Canadian media is severely lacking — an abysmal reality in itself. In 2000, Laval University found that 97 per cent of journalists across all media were white.

As a journalist, I find it infuriating that the media tend to talk about racial injustices only when a sensational murder cannot be swept under the rug. I find it infuriating that the media’s knee-jerk response to egregious incidents is to reach out to BIPOC journalists for input, stories and personal essays when we are emotionally swinging between anger and grief.

I blame the media for so much of the race and class tensions we’re seeing today because of the consistent failure to ensure that a diverse set of stories and viewpoints leave the newsroom, actually representing the people who exist out there.

We need to stop turning to BIPOC journalists only during high tide.

When newsrooms remain predominantly white, they tell the stories of their privileged lived experiences, while painting other communities through cliches or an angle that panders to wider societal perceptions of blackness or brownness. Canadian media excused Justin Trudeau’s blackface by failing to place it in the larger context of systemic racism, and it also allowed a CBC producer to cut Sandy Hudson’s argument that the way forward is to defund the police.

The offshoot of a more diverse newsroom isn’t more simply stories on race, but more undertold and untold stories. We would see more labour stories because people of colour are heavily involved in precarious work, stories of migrant and undocumented workers organizing, stories about how mental health services need to evolve to better serve communities of colour that experience intergenerational trauma.

As journalists, we’re taught to be fair and objective, to be a witnessing fly on the wall. But when Black people are killed for running (Ahmaud Arbery), for playing in the park (Tamir Rice), for eating ice cream in their own apartment (Botham Jean), attempts at objectivity are simply failures to tell the whole story — about how Black people are more likely to die in police encounters, about the persistent abuse of certain people by others. The angle we pick as journalists, the sources we choose, the words we type all come from our biases. These biases are essentially our take on life, shaped by the colour of our skin, the neighbourhood we were born into or how much money we had growing up. Our biases can evolve with time, but cannot be eliminated. What we can change is the composition of our newsrooms.

We also need to start talking about the current models of corporate, mainstream journalism that have eroded local, community news.

Stories of murder, abuse, and health and infrastructure crises in Black, Indigenous and communities of colour cannot be covered as one-off events. We need to stop turning to BIPOC journalists only during high tide, and instead deploy a diverse set of reporters on the ground so that all communities have a voice in the media. It is an established fact that when people see themselves represented in the political or public space, they are empowered as political actors.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour published seven calls to action to increase diversity and inclusivity in Canadian newsrooms, such as increasing representation and coverage of racialized communities by hiring more editors and reporters of colour, and retaining journalists of colour and promoting them to management positions. At some point we also need to start talking about the current models of corporate, mainstream journalism that have eroded local, community news while promoting sensationalism and clickbaitiness, which often leads to overly simplistic and reductionist arguments.

The issue of newsroom diversity has been spoken about time and time again. This time things feel different. First, U.S. data revealed that Black people are being disproportionately affected by the health and economic crises caused by COVID-19, and then George Floyd’s murder became a ghastly physical expression of the many real ways in which Black and racialized folks are marginalized. I can imagine how business as usual would have carried on if it wasn’t for widespread access to smartphones and social media that have provided evidence to hold the killers of Arbery and Floyd accountable, both legally and in the media.

Now, I wish for concrete solutions and changes to emerge, among them having more BIPOC journalists in newsrooms to deliver different parts of the truth to the public. I wish for the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Dominique Clayton, Tamir Rice, and countless others to not be lost in vain.

Shreya Kalra is a journalist based in Toronto.

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