Turn on the television any time from breakfast to bedtime and, yes, you’ll see the faces of anchors Lloyd Robertson, Peter Mansbridge and Kevin Newman illuminating the screen. But something has happened over the past few years. Television news has gone full-colour, with journalists such as Suhana Meharchand, Carla Robinson and Ian Hanomansing in prominent anchor spots at CBC. Over at Citytv in Toronto, they’re seeing colour in double vision. Vice-president of news programming Stephen Hurlbut says, “To the best of our knowledge, Francis D’Souza and Merella Fernandez were the first anchor team of colour for a supper-hour newscast in a Canadian major market.” And long before D’Souza and Fernandez, Citytv reporter Jojo Chintoh worked the crime beat and Harold Hosein presented the weather.
But it only looks as if colour is the hot new commodity. Behind the scenes, the story is different. Visible minorities make up 13.4 per cent of the population, not including Aboriginals who make up another 3.4 per cent, according to 2001 census data from Statistics Canada, the latest year for which figures are available. In 2004, the Task Force for Cultural Diversity on Television found that visible minorities comprise only 12.3 per cent of anchors and hosts and 8.7 per cent of reporters and interviewers in English-language news. And last year, Ann Rauhala and Marsha Barber of Ryerson University released a study that examined the demographics of news directors across Canada. They found that more than ninety per cent of news directors – television’s key decision-makers – are white.
The truth is, Canadian news broadcasters do have a ways to go to reflect Canadian society accurately. It’s important that diversity goes beyond the faces on television to include producers, editors and news directors because they’re the ones assigning, cutting and assembling stories. Albert Lewis, a senior editor at Global Ontario, says, “When those big jobs come, we need veteran reporters who’ve been out there for ages to say, ‘Hey, you know something? I want that job because I want to make a difference.'”
And things should be different. Unlike newspapers and magazines, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates broadcasters to reflect the “multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society and the special place of Aboriginal Peoples within that society” under the Broadcasting Act. In August 2001, the CRTC asked the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) – the industry association representing over 600 private television and radio stations as well as networks, specialty, pay and pay-per-view television services – to determine how private broadcasters might better reflect Canada’s cultural mosaic. It responded with the creation of the Task Force for Cultural Diversity on Television, formed the following year. Among its many activities, in 2003, some members conducted twenty focus group sessions in major cities across Canada. They interviewed 150 people from a range of ethnic backgrounds about their impressions of the onscreen presence and portrayal of visible minorities and aboriginals on Canadian television.
The focus groups showed that viewers clearly form judgements based on what they see. “In the news, people believe everything they see,” said an aboriginal participant during a focus group in Vancouver. “There [were] some cuts to social services, so instead of maybe showing the minister’s office or something like that, the camera [panned] the Downtown Eastside [and showed] aboriginal people. You don’t see any other [group]. That makes people form opinions.” Another participant, a Toronto man of Middle Eastern background, said, “People on TV all look the same. Out on the street, you see all different cultures.”
“Diversity is a growing reality,” says Madeline Ziniak, co-chair of the CAB Task Force, and vice-president and station manager of Omni Television in Toronto, “because, of course, immigration continues to grow.” A 2004 report prepared by the Task Force said that “newsroom culture must become well-versed in cultural diversity, in understanding vocabulary, culturally unique behaviours and other methods of communication.” It advised broadcasters to establish and maintain connections within the community through viewer forums, which encourage communication. The CAB is expected to release another report this spring documenting the changes stations have made since the release of the initial results.
In October 2004, Andrew Cardozo, a former commissioner of the CRTC, released a report that outlined the number and names of visible minorities and aboriginals in on-air positions on Canadian television. His data, gathered mostly from the websites of each affiliate station (because the networks generally do not distribute such information) show that as of May 2004, Global Television had sixteen visible minority and aboriginal on-air personalities across its national network of sixteen stations. CTV had twenty-one among eighteen stations, while CHUM Ltd., the parent network of Citytv, fared a little better, with forty-three appearing on its thirty-three local and specialty stations.
“It’s a journey,” Ziniak says. “It’ll take a while for broadcasters to evolve.”
A black woman with long braided hair stands in a small bedroom, her back to the television camera. She leans over and closes a travel bag on the bed in front of her. In another room, her young son folds a red, white and yellow striped blanket and places it in a similar bag.
“It might just be a few days away at camp,” says a female reporter’s voiceover, “but for these kids, it means the world.”
“I’m going fishing,” says a beaming young black girl, her hair pulled back in a neat half-ponytail. “I’ve never gone fishing before.”
The young boy is now outside on the grass. “What are you most excited about?” asks the reporter, off-camera.
“Swimming,” he replies with a smile.
Under the bright sun, the children play duck, duck, goose on the crisp summer grass. Then, another voiceover: “A handful of kids from the Jane and Finch area are getting ready to go to camp in Muskoka. It’s a place only a few hours away, but a place many have never seen.”
The clip, from a story that ran on Global Ontario’s evening news program last summer, recounts how a local church raised the funds to send a group of Toronto children to a camp in Ontario’s cottage country. “Of the twenty kids going to camp today, eight are from this neighbourhood, one of the many subsidized communities in the Jane and Finch area,” the reporter continues. “Reality is, many of them are being raised by just one parent, and because money is hard to come by, for many of them this is the only world they know.” The reporter’s blonde hair, black suit and navy shirt contrast sharply with the T-shirts and jeans of the parents and kids she’s interviewing. The trip, she says, is an “opportunity to experience something other than the often dangerous world around them.”
The reporter’s intentions are honourable, says Global Ontario’s Lewis, but the point of view is skewed. “The story makes it look as if every single black person in the community is on welfare,” he says. “To me, that is unbalanced. You’re saying the black kids are so poor they can’t afford to go to camp, but the white kids, well geez, they’re fine. This story is not about the black kids – it’s about kids going to camp.”
Lewis says he normally doesn’t see stories until they actually go to air, but in this instance he recalls seeing children from many different ethnic backgrounds on some of the raw tape – none of whom made it into the final piece. When he saw the final cut, he decided to approach news director of Global Ontario Ron Waksman and express concern about the aim of such stories.
“From my standpoint,” Lewis says, “this was a good story, but it offended that community.” The station is trying to change some of its procedures, he says, and uses Lewis now as a resource when covering Toronto’s black community. “They’ve started to inquire, talk to people like myself and others at the station who are of a Caribbean background, saying, ‘Should we be saying this?'”
Lewis is also president of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists. Once, he took some clips to a school in Toronto to teach young people about “the kinds of stories you don’t want to do.” When he started at Global in 1986, he was the only black editor. There are more visible minorities now, but he still feels it’s not enough. “Every time I talk to young people, I say we need to make changes to get more ethnic people in broadcasting.”
Sarah Crawford, vice-president of public affairs for CHUM, says Toronto is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and Citytv has always aimed to reflect that diversity. The station has never treated visible minorities as a fragment of the population, she says. Instead, it sees diversity as the mainstream. “We don’t necessarily reflect the diversity of the city because we think it’s an important thing to do,” says Derek Miller, a producer for CityNews at 6. “We aggressively pursue stories that reflect diversity because those are our viewers. It’s also good business to reflect viewership.”
Miller considers his diverse newsroom to be his biggest resource. “These people have their own lives, they read their own newspapers, and they talk to their own people whom they go to church with and go shopping with,” he says. “If we can reflect what is important and interesting in reporters’ lives, that will probably be important and interesting at least within certain segments of the population.”
Having someone from the community on the inside has its advantages. Just ask Citytv’s Dwight Drummond, who was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica and grew up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area. Drummond became a journalist because he was disheartened by the media’s coverage of his neighbourhood. He felt perspective was lacking and thought he could do a better job. “I understand you need to tell stories,” he says. “But the stories were wrong in the sense that they were giving people the feeling that we were all just running around ducking bullets.”
Or dodging police officers. On a cold October night in 1993, police stopped Drummond and a friend while they were driving on Dundas Street East in downtown Toronto. Both were taken out of the car at gunpoint, searched, handcuffed and told to lie in the middle of the road.
At the time, Drummond had started working on air at Citytv, anchoring a regular segment on emergency services called “Street Beat.” He had a police media pass that allowed him to visit crime scenes. “The whole tone changed when they found that in my wallet,” he says. “They went from treating me like a punk to all of a sudden treating me more respectfully.”
Drummond later filed a complaint. “I heard through the grapevine that they were just bored and wanted to perform a high-risk takedown,” he says. “They saw a black guy driving a half-decent car and thought they were bound to find something.”
A lifetime of similar experiences has certainly affected the way Drummond does his job. So has his knowledge of his community and his neighbourhood. “When I go in, I don’t treat people differently than I would if I were doing a story in a more affluent neighbourhood,” he says. “It’s all in the way you treat people.”
Treating people fairly in reporting the news is just good journalism, but so is the worry about being too close to the story. “Just because someone is a visible minority, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be good at covering their own community,” says Mutsumi Takahashi, co-anchor of the noon and 6 P.M. news at CTV Montreal. “They could be more involved in the community, so they might be less objective.”
Diversity is important, but even Lewis says it’s important to proceed with caution. Having an ethnically diverse newsroom is not the same as having the right person for the job. To put this in perspective, he says, if he were to ask stations to make their newsrooms more diverse, he wagers they’d say, “‘We’re going to hire two black reporters, we’re going to hire a Chinese reporter, we’re going to hire an Indian reporter, we might hire somebody who’s Hispanic. Okay, that’s our diversity.'”