Lack of Transparency in Newsroom Diversity
Image: Adeolu Eletu via Unsplash

There is a diversity problem in Canadian newsrooms. The topic has gained traction over recent years, with calls for change growing louder. However, despite outspoken concern, no concrete data exists to truly understand the issue.

There has not been a conclusive survey of diversity in Canadian journalism since 2010. The study, conducted by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, found that 14.3 percent of visible minority decision makers were in broadcasting, versus 3.2 percent in their print counterparts. The most recent survey before that was in 2006 titled “Who’s Telling the News: Racial Representation among News Gatherers in Canada’s Daily Newsrooms.”

Some publications are trying to fill those gaps. In 2016, Vicky Mochama’s piece for Canadaland “Are Canada’s Newspapers Too White? Most Refused to Say,” attempted to report on findings from a survey about diversity in newsrooms. The survey was sent to 18 Canadian publications, but she writes that only three filled out answers.

In August, J-Source announced a survey on gender diversity in Canadian newsrooms focusing on women, transgender and non-binary journalists. “This project aims to gather information about these individuals’ experiences working in Canada’s newsrooms, and the type of employment they hold,” reads the announcement.

Sabrina Wilkinson is a PhD student and lead researcher on the project. Wilkinson created four surveys on Google Forms, one was sent to newsrooms, another to journalism faculties, and a third to journalism instructors. The final one was made public on social media and through J-Source to all eligible journalists.

Wilkinson says about 200 journalists responded, mainly from the public survey, and about 20 instructors, but “not enough newsrooms or faculty or departments provided information about their staff for a few of those surveys,” Wilkinson says, much like Mochama’s experience.  

Meanwhile, the United States conducts annual surveys through The ASNE Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey. The September 2018 survey found 22.6 percent of the workforce in U.S. newsrooms were people of colour. However, the report notes that responses from this survey marked a “historic low.”

Farai Chideya, an American reporter, faced the same issue while studying newsroom diversity during the 2016 election at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

“Even in the United States where we keep numbers, there is the question of who is willing to participate and how accurate the numbers are,” Chideya says. “To me, the problem is really that a lot of news organizations just don’t make this a priority.”

Chideya believes that the best information is a combination of quantitative and qualitative data, because she notes that both numbers and human beings often don’t tell the whole story. She follows this up with an example that if you have data from a number of newsrooms, but one didn’t respond, it would be worth investigating how their workplace culture differs from the others.

“There’s all sorts of layered storytelling you can do, but I do think that the numbers are really helpful at least to have a framework,” Chideya says adding that it might be a worthy project for the Canadian government to investigate.

Lori Beaman is a professor at University of Ottawa and was the principal investigator of the Religion and Diversity Project, which sought to “identify in detail the contours of religious diversity in Canada” and “provide new data and theoretical articulations concerning religious diversity.”

As for why there is no data on diversity in newsrooms, Beaman believes that there are “missing drivers” both internally and externally.

“People who are working in newsrooms themselves and people who direct and control news agencies are not really concerned about this issue, or not concerned enough to measure diversity,” Beaman says.”They don’t, in other words, think there is a problem.”

She adds that sometimes a push from external agencies is required to ask: Why aren’t you doing this?

Beaman believes that the numbers do matter because it allows you to actually see the diversity, so that then change can occur beyond just impressions.  

“If there is no data, we don’t know it exists, though. It is only perception,” Beaman says adding, “In order to take action, in order to argue for action, you have to have more than perception.”

“It’s important because people need to see themselves. People need to hear their voices [in the media].”

Perhaps the question should shift to: Why are we not collecting data on the content that is created says Andree Lau, editor-in-chief of HuffPost Canada.

“I think it is more valuable to do a survey of the voices and the topics that are created, and if those are diverse rather than the actual people invited,” Lau says.

Should surveys eventually collect data and newsrooms participate, Lau is concerned about how editors and publications will use the data if they have it. She expects that showing the data will result in a “hiring blitz” whereby newsrooms hire to fill gaps where diversity is lacking.

“That now means that check, you’ve now changed that data and now you’re doing a great job of diversity,” Lau says adding, “I think there is a danger to the data argument.”  

Lau adds that there must be more steps than that, saying that publications and editors have to consciously consider how they will improve newsroom diversity beyond collecting data. “It is not just about hiring someone in order to increase those numbers, it’s got to be deliberate and thoughtful as to how you’re going to move the needle on that data.”

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