Hundreds of ethnic media outlets exist across Canada, but few are ever seen beyond the specific cultural communities they serve.
Ethnic media ranges from “mom-and-pop” operations to larger outlets like Sing Tao Daily, the largest Chinese-language newspaper covering Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. These news outlets tend to service their linguistic communities exclusively.
In recent years, however, politicians have increasingly turned their attention toward ethnic media to ensure they understand the conversations taking place within those communities.
This was one of the considerations driving the creation of an online tool, DiversityVotes.ca, which profiles coverage of the recent federal election campaign in Canada’s ethnic media.
The website, created in June, helps fill gaps in mainstream coverage by spotlighting community-specific issues, and diving into the vast range of views within these groups.
Over the course of the election, a team of media consultants amassed stories related to the campaign and posted weekly round-ups on the website highlighting key themes, from foreign relations to climate change.
The website features samples of headlines from ethnic media and maps indicating where these outlets are operating across Canada’s provinces and cities. The website further uses charts and statistics to show how immigrant populations are represented in each electoral riding to underline their potential stake in the vote.
Blythe Irwin, a media analyst based at Multilingual International Research and Ethnic Media Services (MIREMS), says the website was created to deepen audiences’ understanding of Canada’s diverse populations and their political priorities.
“We thought that the election would be a good time to test out the idea of bringing greater awareness of ethnic media and Canada’s various immigrant communities,” Irwin says.
Diversity Votes represents a partnership between Andrew Griffith, a former director general with the Immigration Department, and MIREMS president Andrés Machalski. MIREMS is a firm that tracks and translates stories from more than 800 ethnic media outlets in 30 different languages across Canada.
Ryerson University journalism professor April Lindgren, who leads the Local Media Journalism Project at Ryerson, says ethnic media hosts distinct conversations, especially for those who have limited proficiency in English or French.
“Ethnic media allows the community to see themselves in the news,” she says. “In many cases, they don’t see themselves in mainstream or traditional media because of continuing and long-term issues with representing diversity.”
Over one-third of ethnic media outlets in Canada use Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), South Asian English or Punjabi, Griffith wrote in an article for Policy Options. Another third use European languages such as Spanish, Italian and Russian.
Ethnic media has long played a part in integrating immigrants into Canada, Irwin says. “When newcomers arrive in Canada, they can get the news and feel more integrated in Canadian society by having access to media in their native language,” Irwin says. “That allows them to participate in really important things like elections, and to be able to get news about government policy and services that they may not otherwise have.”
Foreign-born residents make up nearly one-fifth of Canada’s population, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report. Those numbers are projected to increase significantly in the coming years, with the proportion of foreign-born individuals expected to reach 25 to 30 percent by 2036.
The team at Diversity Votes sought to identify what political topics were most important to different communities. One issue that resonates across all of the immigrant communities is immigration, according to Irwin.
“[Ethnic media] are talking about it a lot more extensively,” she says. “It’s very personal because it really matters to them. They’re asking themselves, ‘Is this going to make the difference in terms of, can they bring their parents, or their grandparents, or maybe sponsor a child [to come to Canada].’ ”
In an article for Policy Options, Diversity Votes founder Griffith notes that the People’s Party of Canada, with its focus on limiting immigration, received more than twice as much coverage in the ethnic media as the New Democratic Party and Green Party combined.
Another theme is seeing the pride in community, with Greek media focusing on the four Greek-Canadian MPs elected, and Korean media noting the election of the first Korean Canadian MP Nelly Shin of Port Moody-Coquitlam.
Ethnic media outlets also focused on voter participation, with many platforms encouraging people to get out and vote. Sherry Yu, a journalism professor at University of Toronto, says the basics of voting information was key to her 2010 study of how Korean newspapers in Vancouver outlined the steps of how to vote.
“For a majority of Canadians, the assumption is that people know how to vote, she says. “But some of that information is new to minority voters. So ethnic media are trying to fill the gap.”
Neighbourhoods with local newspapers foster community engagement and may be more likely to vote as a result. A 2019 study found that areas served with local news coverage had a higher voter turnout – another reason why Irwin at Diversity Votes sees the ethnic media as playing a central role in encouraging people to cast their votes.
The website further shows the diversity of views within certain communities, as seen in the Punjabi-language media’s coverage of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh who is of Indian descent. One Toronto newspaper, Daily Hamdard, wrote that some Sikh community members were disappointed that Singh failed to strongly oppose Quebec’s controversial Bill 21. Another newspaper, Khabarnama Punjabi Weekly, wrote many Punjabi immigrants have received Canadian visas since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, suggesting they may be inclined to back the Liberal leader.
Madeline Ziniak, chair of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association, suggested that overseeing ethnic media is good, as it ensures interactions between ethnic communities and politicians are more transparent. “The fact that ethnic media are monitored is a good thing. The more research we have, the better all around for ethnic media,”she says.
Funding continues to be a fraught issue, and Yu is embarking on a project to see how mainstream and ethnic media can work together more collaboratively to solve this.
“Availability is one thing,” Yu says. “Accessibility is another because we are not only a multicultural, but also multi-ethnic and multilingual country. So the gap is obvious and my argument is that the mainstream and ethnic sectors should make their content more available to each other.”
Diversity Votes has ceased monitoring activity, but Yu says there needs to be more attention paid to the ethnic media between elections. “When it comes to elections, when it comes to certain hot topics and national events, then there tends to be outreach to ethnic media [but] … It’s not an ongoing effort.”
Yu believes the ethnic media deserves a constant presence. But as mainstream news coverage faces its own challenges, so will ethnic media.