Want to avoid cultural appropriation controversies? Make better newsrooms

OPINION: The real problem isn't that someone wrote something misguided — it's that our media outlets make it inevitable that this keeps happening
By Chantal Braganza - Published on May 25, 2017
Canadian media faces a persistent problem with diversity. Talking about it, as these journalists did at a recent CJF panel, is just the beginning. (Chris Young)



In a previous job at an industry news site for journalists, I became familiar with a particular type of news cycle that looks something like this: 

A writer or editor at an established media outlet makes a poor judgment call on an issue relating to marginalized or racialized communities. Perhaps it’s something comparatively small and kind of funny: a film reviewer, not familiar with a Black director’s use of the term code-switching, writes “coat-switching” instead. Or something with higher stakes: a documentary about gang activity in a west-Toronto neighbourhood places undue focus on Somali sources, even as it acknowledges that residents of such heritage are already being unfairly profiled by police for such crimes.

Affected parties point out the mistake, often on social media. Momentum builds; a hashtag gets created. If the outlet is paying attention — or, more likely, is forced to do so — perhaps an editor’s note will be appended to the original piece, or they will publish a dissenting opinion as some sort of corrective, attempting to fulfill the publication’s journalistic ideal of objectivity and balance. In rare cases, an apology is issued.

If this feels like a pattern, that’s because it is.

The examples I just gave are from the past 10 months alone, and the last couple of weeks has presented us with more. Earlier this month Toronto activist and writer Desmond Cole announced his departure from a bi-weekly column at the Toronto Star after being told by upper-level management that his anti-racism activism and writing could not mix. This, despite such advocacy largely being a known facet of his public persona when he was hired, and despite the paper’s history of employing and supporting the causes of activist-columnists for years, all notably white. A week later another Canadian media blunder exploded into an international embarrassment after the editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine published an op-ed flippantly questioning the concept of cultural appropriation —in an issue dedicated to Indigenous writing, no less—and several high-ranking editors from major media outlets including Maclean’s, the CBC, and the National Post decided to take things a step further by jokingly pooling money together on Twitter to organize an actual Appropriation Prize.

I’m not here to talk about the ways in which column writing and activism can mix, or to convince you that cultural appropriation is real. Plenty of smart writers, many of whom have deeper personal experience with either issue, have done this already over the past few days.

And therein lies the problem: the fact that they have to. The fact that, over and over again Canadian media’s overwhelming homogeneity — in its staffing (mostly white) and in its perceived audience (“mainstream,” i.e., white) — and the profound lack of empathy for those who don’t share the same context needs to be discussed. We are at the point where it’s become its own genre of commentary. Remember the Maclean’s “Too Asian?” controversy, or the time the Globe and Mail thought it would be a good idea to run this editorial cartoon on the topic of Afrocentric schooling?

If mastheads are repeatedly making editorial gaffes like these, it isn’t enough to simply run a couple of letters to the editor, or a one-off column about what went wrong, and how — the latter almost always by someone from one of the affected groups, and quite often not on staff but trotted out for the occasion. Frankly, it's insulting that this should be seen as the primary work of marginalized journalists, many of whom likely got into the industry for very different reasons. They care about sports, music, food and politics — you know, the full range of human experience.

Imagine embarking on a freelance career as a young finance journalist, with a degree in international business and a few internships under your belt, only to find that your pitches about what it’s like to wear a hijab in the office, take a wheelchair on public transit, or shop in a mall while Black are the only sure-fire story ideas to get accepted by an editor. There’s nothing inherently wrong about any one of those ideas, of course, but at what point does this become the unspoken price of being a journalist of colour, varying ability, or other minority?


For all the lip service industry panels and media executives pay to the idea of diversity in staffing and in their coverage choices, the work of actually shifting newsroom culture in this country is somewhere between slow and non-existent. We can barely even be bothered to measure the problem. While the American Society of News Editors has kept a regular census on the demographic makeup of newsrooms since the ’70s, such a count has only been taken comprehensively in Canada three times — in 1994, 2000 and 2004, each by different organizations. And that small collection of data tells us that over the years, very little has changed.

It’s also worth considering that the pockets within journalism that do have greater diversity —news anchors and television reporters, for example — don't necessarily indicate a solved problem. The many invisible people who make the news, from producers to editors to senior management, all have a large hand in how stories are framed, produced, and whether they're assigned at all, and there is still minimal diversity in their ranks.

Here’s another cycle that might sound familiar: media circles have a discussion about newsroom diversity, agree that hiring reporters and editors who reflect Canada’s demographic reality is a good idea, and throw their hands up when the next time a job opening comes up and every applicant looks the same. “Yes, we’d like to hire journalists of colour, but that’s not who’s applying!” One former magazine editor (notably involved in the whole #AppropriationPrize fiasco), even suggested this was because would-be journalists of colour simply don’t go to j-school, because they’re too busy lining up to be lawyers and bankers instead.

For one thing, the latter is simply untrue. As for the former, any hiring process or call for pitches that simply starts with a public posting and stops with what arrives in your inbox is going to fail at increasing diversity. To begin with the obvious: if your publication doesn’t already cover even a hint of the lives of the very reporters you’re looking for, why would they have been paying attention to you in the first place?

So what do you do, if you want to not just talk about it but actually make it better?

Here's one question anyone hiring should ask themselves: Where do, say, second-generation youth go to consume news, even if that news is subject-specific — arts, culture, tech? Here's another: Career paths begin well before that resume pile — in school programs, internships, and sometimes even in industries not entirely media related. What might mentorship look like if, in addition to learning the craft, young journalists (of colour and otherwise) were encouraged to see their curiosities about the world as part of the mainstream? Rather than only ever asking early-career writers to commodify their personal experience of the world with one-off, first-person essays that rarely lead to full-time employment, what if editors asked themselves where the gaps in their everyday coverage lies — where the Black film critics and Indigenous Parliament Hill reporters are?

Plurality of contexts — whether it's race, ability, sexuality, or class — simply means more ideas, better access to them, and catching on to what matters sooner. The biggest mistake a newsroom can make isn't getting something wrong, but failing to cover it in the first place. While reporters have spent a lot of time on the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls for the past couple of years, it is a human rights concern that's been known to Indigenous activists for decades.

At its core, hiring diversely isn't about avoiding embarrassing gaffes, but producing better, more comprehensive journalism. Newsrooms that refuse to acknowledge this with more than a simple repetition of the cycle we already know will be — and already are — worse off for it.

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