Illustration by Matt Daley

On a sunny afternoon last April, Alek Minassian, according to Toronto Police, went on an alleged murderous rampage with a rented white van. Beginning at Yonge Street and Finch Avenue, police say that Minassian drove the van onto the sidewalk and began bulldozing through pedestrians on his way south. One onlooker told the Toronto Star Minassian was “zigging and zagging,” and that “people started flying into the air.” Minassian, 25, identified himself as an incel, or “involuntary celibate,” and asserted on Facebook that the “Incel rebellion has already begun!”

Minassian was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, while his trial is set to February 2020. Of the victims, three were South Korean. In Toronto, Koreans make up 1.5 percent of the population, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census numbers. In the Willowdale area, where the attack took place between Finch and Sheppard Avenues, the population of Koreans rises to 10.4 percent. Among the dead were 22-year-old So He Chung, a student at the University of Toronto; 22-year-old Ji Hun Kim, an international student at Seneca College; and Chul Min Kang, a 45-year-old steakhouse chef.

As Toronto Star reporters rushed to put together profiles of the victims, Evelyn Kwong, a Star digital producer, turned to a Facebook post from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea page. The statement, however, was only available in Korean and there wasn’t anyone employed in the newsroom who was fluent in the language. Kwong decided to phone a friend of Korean descent whose mother was able to translate the post quickly. It stated that at least two victims were of Korean descent, information that was inserted into the paper’s original breaking news story, which had 19 different bylines by its final update. The information also allowed the Star to be the first news publication to report that there were Korean victims, says Kwong, while helping them narrow down their own search. The information proved pivotal when the Star released an article two days later with all the names of the victims along with short obituaries. Through her network of connections, social media tools, as well as her knowledge of the Korean community, Kwong had filled a key newsroom gap during one of the biggest stories of the year, allowing the Star to accurately and thoroughly report on the tragedy. “We were lucky,” says Kwong.

Journalists’ inability to understand and speak directly to all the communities they cover is a sign that there remains plenty of work to be done in building newsrooms with greater racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity. Still, following years and years of paying lip service to the importance of diversity, journalistic outlets in Canada are making progress because they now understand its importance. “Knowing the same language as the community, it provides a safe space for them to express themselves,” Kwong says. “They know that they’ll be understood.” However, changing up established practices is never easy. Bringing greater diversity to our newsrooms is still a work in progress—one with a multitude of frustrations, barriers, and setbacks, but has had some welcome successes.

More than 200 languages are currently spoken in Canada. In 1996, there were 4.7 million people who reported a mother tongue other than English or French, a number that rose to 7.7 million in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. The country’s foreign-born population has also increased. Data gathered in 1991 show Canada’s foreign-born population stood at 16.1 percent. Every time since Statistics Canada has collected this data, the number has gone up. The percentage reached 21.9 in 2016. As newsroom staffers have dwindled (a decline of seven percent between 2001 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada, while the labour force has risen by 18 percent), Canada has become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse—making it both more vital and more difficult for reporters to fairly, accurately, and quickly report stories that involve diverse communities and languages.

The first conversations about racial and ethnic diversity in newsrooms started in the late 1980s, says John Miller, a former chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. It wasn’t until his report for the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association (CDNA) on newsroom diversity in 1994, which revealed that only 2.6 percent of the 2,620 news professionals surveyed identified as non-white, that newsrooms were confronted. “It was met with hostility,” Miller says, who followed up his survey independently in 2004. While the second survey showed slight improvements, Miller says it was nothing compared to the increase in diversity among Canada’s population.

Canadaland tried to follow up on Miller’s survey in 2016, asking 18 of Canada’s top newsrooms to provide their diversity numbers. Only three complied, including the Star. But the individual numbers weren’t released because of Canadaland’s promise “that the results would be kept confidential and data would be presented as an aggregate across many papers.” However, the Star’s editor-in-chief, Irene Gentle, told J-Source in 2018 that 11 percent of employees, through their union, had self-identified as coming from a diverse background—though, this figure doesn’t include the Star’s Radio Room, helmed primarily by students, which Gentle estimated to be “in the 40 percent range” of people from diverse backgrounds.

Newsrooms that are privately owned are not required to make their diversity numbers public. But that’s not the case for CBC, which has to provide yearly updates under the 1991 Broadcasting Act. In 2016, Canadaland reported close to 90 percent of CBC’s staff were white. The outlet discovered this figure only after filing an Access to Information request, which revealed only 453 CBC employees self-identified as a person of colour (in 2015, CBC reported it had 7,440 employees). Since then, CBC has said 27.8 percent of its new hires between 2017 and 2018 were from a diverse background, being “Indigenous and Inuit peoples, persons with disabilities, and visible minorities.”

A portion of CBC’s government funding, however, is designated to help promote increased diversity in the workforce (and in programing). By contrast, the budgets for private sector newsrooms are generally tighter and more vulnerable when ad revenues, as they so often do, decline. Miller says that when organizations in the private sector do work to create change by hiring more people with diverse backgrounds, their new hires are vulnerable to the fact that, like everywhere else, “The last ones in are usually the first ones out.”

In 2018, due to decreasing revenues, the Star chose to cut its reporter internship program and set up a paywall. Nicholas Keung, the Star’s immigration reporter, points out that it costs publications more money and resources to develop and maintain a diverse workforce. “When a publication’s interest is on survival mode, the bottom line is how to enlarge the readership,” he says.

Gentle echoes the same sentiments, writing in an email that “a consequence of the general lack of diversity in the industry can be found in the stories we don’t have as much or more than those we have. The stories that are missing in part or wholly due to the lack of diversity in the industry in general is something I think is a concern for all of us as people, and part of the overall community…

“It can be very difficult to increase diversity in the workplace in [these economic] conditions.”

Beyond language skills, sending a reporter from a similar cultural background to the people in the story can build trust in sources. Fatima Syed, an investigative reporter for the National Observer, grew up in Pakistan and speaks Urdu fluently. When she goes door to door as a reporter and knows that someone is Muslim, she’ll greet that person by saying, “As-salamu alaykum,” a Muslim salutation that means, “Peace be upon you.” Syed’s ability to understand and relate to non-western cultures has helped in her reporting, such as when she wrote a piece for the Star where she interviewed the family of an Afghan-Canadian person from Whitby, Ontario who died in a Canadian prison in 2016 under still mysterious circumstances. When Syed visited the family, who spoke Farsi and some Urdu, she was taken to the son’s grave where she covered her head with a scarf as a sign of respect in accordance to Muslim tradition. “The mother hugged me at the end,” Syed says. “I was respectful… which meant a lot to them in that difficult time.”

When diverse perspectives are reflected in the news, the audiences associated with that media tend to grow, says Nick Davis, the director of development at CBC Radio. He was personally involved in the transformation of CBC Radio One’s flagship weekday morning program, Metro Morning, which was not the top listened–to show in Toronto as of 2001 when program manager Susan Marjetti joined. Davis, then an associate producer, told Marjetti that “it didn’t feel like we were representing Toronto’s voice.” Davis brought up that he felt the show didn’t reflect that Toronto was one of the most multicultural cities in the world, especially the diversity of the staff. If CBC wanted to improve, it needed a change. One of the first steps was to hire Chinese-Canadian reporter Lu Zhou who would keep tabs on the Chinese language newspapers in Toronto.

A year later, Zhou’s ability to speak Mandarin was crucial when CBC covered the kidnapping and murder of Cecilia Zhang, the nine-year-old daughter of new Canadians from China. To secure an interview, Zhou left the parents a message through a member of their community, asking if she could speak with them. They soon agreed, but with one stipulation: the interview had to be done in Mandarin. “I think that was the best decision they ever made,” Zhou says. “Instead of worrying about the right words to use, they were able to just communicate with me while they were going through tremendous stress. I’m someone who can understand the nuance, their impressions, their thoughts, their ideas.”

After interviewing Zhang’s parents in Mandarin, Zhou put together a tape talk with Mandarin clips and English translations for radio broadcast. In both cases, Davis says it was the sadness in Zhang’s mother’s voice that grabbed listeners. Davis credits stories like Zhou’s for helping Metro Morning become the top-rated morning show in Toronto. The first time they received that honour was in December 2003, one they also currently hold, according to the latest Toronto 2018 Fall PPM (Portable People Meter) Ratings.

Journalist Karen K. Ho, who recently wrote a cover story for Time magazine about the blockbuster film Crazy Rich Asians, says she wants to know that Chinese-Canadians are being represented in media before she subscribes to any given publication. “You should be telling me why I should pay [for content],” Ho says. “Do you reflect the city I grew up in?” Ho also says that sharing newsroom demographics is a vital step towards showing readers they’re being represented through the publication’s voice. Ideally, she says, newsroom demographics would show a balance in ethnic backgrounds and age as Canadian media tries to shed its label of being filled with “old white men.” In 2016, Statistics Canada showed that in Toronto’s metropolitan area, over 50 percent of people aged 15 to 34 identify as being part of a visible minority. Courting these demographics could refresh newspaper and magazine readership.

While there’s been a push to promote women to leaderships positions, “We’ve gone from white men to white women,” says Shree Paradkar, race and gender columnist at the Star, which in 2018 hired its first female editor-in-chief (EIC) with Gentle.

But there are exceptions, such as Andree Lau, the editor-in-chief of HuffPost Canada. Lau, who is Chinese-Canadian, says that while it’s important to promote people of colour into leadership positions, it’s equally important to make sure they’re given the proper resources to make a difference. It’s what’s made HuffPost Canada—an exception when it comes to diverse leadership—successful in its hiring. Kenny Yum, now the chief of staff at CBC News, previously held the position of editor-in-chief while Lau was the managing editor of news. Above Yum was another person of colour, Rashida Jeeva, who, as general manager of HuffPost Canada, hired Yum to lead operations. The makeup of their staff allowed Lau to make key decisions about allocating funds for projects to cover under–reported communities, as well as guiding editorial decisions while giving management the space and opportunity to hire the right personnel. “We want to be hiring people from all different walks of life,” Lau says, who speaks Cantonese, which she learned from her parents and Cantonese language classes. “It doesn’t give me an upper hand as a reporter, but as a person,” Lau says. “Our job is based around speaking to people. If you can’t speak someone’s language, how else are you supposed to communicate with them?”

Mohamed Omar, a reporter and producer at HuffPost Canada, says the publication’s management has provided him with a “different feeling” since he’s entered its newsroom. “It’s not just one desk where there’s diversity,” Omar says. “Even when there are white dudes who are reporting, they’re still in that environment where diversity is being pushed…where it’s being considered.” Omar’s ability to speak Arabic, having grown up in the Middle East, was pivotal during the Quebec mosque shooting in January 2017. As a result, HuffPost Canada was able to release an accurate article following the shooting, citing a live video in which bystanders responded to the tragedy as it was unfolding. Omar’s translation allowed Lau to quickly publish a timely article to the website.

Davis, who was a member of CBC’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee in 2018, says it’s important to have a diverse range of people among top decision makers because it’s ultimately executive producers who choose who and what gets on air. One such decision CBC has made is to prioritize advancing Indigenous voices. When CBC Indigenous was launched five years ago, says Duncan McCue, a visiting journalist at the Ryerson School of Journalism and correspondent for the National who identifies as Anishinaabe, it started with a staff of two. It has since expanded to 10 employees. Another major effort by CBC is to promote more Indigenous languages on the air, such as in Inuktitut. “Our language is an important part of who we are,” McCue says, who just started learning Anishinaabemowin.

Despite the strides news organizations have made, staffers who check diversity boxes don’t always have their insights valued. In a recent case, reporter Sunny Dhillon resigned from the Globe and Mail in October after his editor pressured him to shift the focus of his Vancouver election coverage. Though the city had voted in a “nearly all-white council,” he wrote on a Medium blog post. “The bureau chief soon walked over to my desk with a message: I was to focus less on the issue of race and to focus more on the fact eight of the 10 elected councillors were women.” Both Dhillon and multiple editors at the Globe, such as editor-in-chief David Walmsley, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Kwong has been at the Star for three years and says newsrooms generally see the most diversity in their entry-level positions, such as in the Radio Room. In her job as a digital producer, Kwong’s responsibilities involve maintaining the website and social media platforms. “There are missed opportunities where I see a story that I think deserves to be reported on” she says. “But I’m at the desk, so I can’t.” Kwong had been pitching a story to her editors for months about the Chinese elders who pick up cans in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods area. When the Globe scooped her with an article by a white writer with the assistance of a translator, Kwong was irritated. “It was a great story,” she says. “I could have played both roles.”

Ho emphasizes that newsrooms need to recognize the particular skills multilingual reporters and reporters of colour bring to newsrooms. These skills, she says, shouldn’t be taken for granted. Those who can translate or speak multiple languages should be recognized and compensated for their work. Ho echoes Kwong, asserting that publications lose out on writers and stories when they fail to recognize their reporters’ skills. Ho experienced this firsthand when she wrote about Crazy Rich Asians for Time. “I have never been published in Maclean’s or the Walrus’s print edition, but [now] I have a cover story in Time,” Ho says, “That doesn’t make any sense.” She speaks English, Cantonese, and some Mandarin, three of the many languages spoken in the film.

For many journalists of colour in Canada, finding opportunities can be few and far between, especially if they’d like to be assigned stories that aren’t directly related to their own backgrounds. “There’s this feeling of being trapped in a box that I’ve heard journalists of colour refer to,” says Jackie Hong, who never used her ability to speak Cantonese during her almost three years as a reporter at the Star or her year and a half at the Yukon News, where she relocated to find a longer-term, more permanent role. Hong’s focus is on crime and court reporting rather than equity and race issues. She says journalists who are visible minorities are often encouraged to write on their own experiences and focus on the communities they’re part of, rather than their own personal interests. “I never wanted to be that Chinese person who was the Chinese reporter covering the Chinese community,” Hong says.

Being limited to covering one’s own ethnicity was also a concern for Keung, who says he declined the Star’s offer to have him develop a Chinese beat in 2013. “I did not want to be pigeonholed,” he says. Later, Keung convinced his editors to establish an immigration beat. Many stories that affect Chinese-Canadians—like sponsoring grandparents to come to Canada—are stories that affect many immigrant families. “We should be bringing [communities] together, not compartmentalizing them,” Keung says.

McCue recalls raising concerns about “being the token Indian” when he was first interviewed for a TV reporter position at CBC Vancouver in 1998. That concern soon went away, McCue says, when he realized there were a plethora of stories about Indigenous communities that needed to be covered. Rather than being worried about tokenism, he pushed back against a disinterest in reporting on Indigenous stories. But as the host of CBC’s open line radio program Cross Country Checkup, McCue values the ability to cover a wide variety of topics. “I’d like to report on Indigenous issues as much as I would like to talk about hockey,” he says.

Lau laughs about the many times she has been asked to cover Chinese New Year throughout her career, especially when she first started as a reporter in Ottawa. Young reporters of colour, Lau says, need to put additional effort into managing and directing their own careers. For their editors, their ethnicity “colours the expectation” of what they’ll be able to report and write. If a newsroom only has one Chinese reporter or one Arabic reporter, the tendency to narrow the reporter’s focus becomes even more likely. When reporters of colour do report on their own communities, they can face additional public pressures. When Kwong reports on the Chinese community, for example, she makes sure to run her article by a person with a different point of view—including, ultimately, someone who isn’t part of the Chinese community. “I want to know if I hit the mark, if my own views or emotions didn’t get in the way,” says Kwong.

Jaren Kerr, a Black reporter and deputy news editor at Canadaland, says his race becomes especially important for him when reporting in Black neighborhoods. “A lot of people are concerned,” he says. “How is this stranger going to portray my community?” Journalists who have a stake in covering a community beyond its tragedies, Kerr says, are better able to foster trusting relationships with their sources.

Davis says CBC’s connections to Black communities over the years were essential in the making of its online longform piece, “After the Bullet,” which was published in October. The piece explores what it means to survive being shot as a Black person in Toronto. Many victims are left without access to post-trauma therapy and struggle to afford it on their own, running up against stigmas and the misconception that every Black person who has been shot is part of a gang. “If we didn’t have good relationships, that story would have never happened,” Davis says. “Instead of just looking at police [records], we were able to get an inside look at the impact it’s had on their lives.”

When newsrooms aren’t connected with communities, reporters are faced with a disadvantage, Kerr says, who held one of the 19 bylines on the coverage of Minassian’s van attack. Despite living in Koreatown for just under a year, Kerr wasn’t deeply connected to the community. Reporting at various vigils and hospitals, he had to work himself up to asking van attack victims, witnesses, friends, and families if they were Korean. Growing up, he and his Black friends hated to be asked, “Are you Jamaican?” Kerr felt uncomfortable imposing a similar assumption about sources’ backgrounds, and he didn’t want people to think that their connection to the story didn’t matter as much if they weren’t Korean.

Monica Chi, the executive director of family and social services at the Korean Canadian Women’s Association (KCWA), a non-profit organization that provides services to Toronto’s Korean community, says Kerr did a good job of portraying the Korean community’s feelings. But she did have one criticism. As an outsider, she says, Kerr wasn’t able to pinpoint the true leaders of the community. Kerr did speak with Shine Jiyoun Chung, who held an executive position at KCWA during the time of the van attack. One of the groups Chi says she wishes had been represented was the Hanca Senior Association, but many of those seniors aren’t comfortable expressing themselves in English, which would have posed a problem for Kerr.

Despite Chi’s criticism, Kerr’s reporting played a role in helping the Star secure a nomination for a 2018 Online Journalism Award for its coverage. Chi says she preferred the Star’s reporting over the Toronto-run Korean Times since the Star’s resources allowed it to offer more up–to–date information. However, she believes that on the whole, Korean-Canadians don’t see themselves adequately represented in mainstream media.

While Canadian newsrooms are slowly but surely making headway in improving diversity, the path to full inclusion will be long and winding, a journey made more challenging in that the demographics of the population will change. By 2031, according to Statistics Canada, we can expect that 29 to 32 percent of Canada’s population will speak a native language other than English or French, while the country’s foreign-born population will be expected to reach between 25 to 28 percent, which would be Canada’s highest since Confederation.

Newsrooms better get ready.

(Visited 352 times, 1 visits today)

About the author

Bryan Meler is a chief-of-research at the RRJ.

You can follow him on Twitter @BryanMeler

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest stories from our newsroom.