As Cecil Foster talks about his career, the pain in his voice is haunting. During his dozen years in journalism he has worked as The Globe and Mail , The Financial Post, The Toronto Star, and CBC TV and Radio, written dozens of magazine pieces and two nonfiction books due out later this year, and taught at Ryerson and Humber College. Yet he says, “I have been working in mainstream media in Canada for about 12 years and I am still an outsider. I can count on two fingers or less the number of people I can count as friends that I have made in the media.” He’s never joined the Canadian Association of Journalists; no one ever asked him. And on the few occasions he went to the Toronto Press Club, he felt excluded. “You get a sense of being invisible, of your presence being tolerated, but not expected.”
Foster, who is black, says he’s not the only one to have experiences like this, that others feel excluded too. It’s not surprising when you look at the newsrooms. “There are so few minority reporters in the mainstream media that they are almost unnoticeable,” he says. “Although they do some very good work, it is almost impossible for them to break the barriers that would allow others to follow.”
The problem of invisible is discouragingly familiar. Foster recalls that when he came to Canada from Barbados in 1979, members of the black community were already sensitive to this issue. “People were even auditing Sears and Bay catalogues to see how many models there were, and I remember people saying if I saw a black person on television it would be an American station.” However, 10 years later, when he left The Globe and Mail, he was the last black person in the newsroom. “That was six years ago and there has been another. When I left, 100 percent of the black staff went out.”
In 1993, when the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association finally studied the racial composition of member papers’ newsrooms for the first time, the results confirmed Foster’s experience. At the 41 papers that responded to the poll, only 2.6 percent of newsroom staff, or 67 people, were nonwhite. That number looks bad compared to the roughly 13 percent that visible minorities represent in Canada’s total population. It looks far worse when you realize that many of the dailies surveyed published in large cities, where the percentage of minorities is much higher. For example, more than a quarter of Toronto’s and Vancouver’s populations are nonwhite. But Foster says the tiny number of minorities on staff is just one of the problems in newspaper newsrooms.
The other is news decisions. He points out that there are very few stories about minorities, and the ones that run often reinforce stereotypes: Jamaicans afoul of the law, poor blacks. “Why does it have to be a black woman? What’s wrong with using an English person as the example in some of these stories? Aren’t there whites on welfare? ” Foster asks, frustrated.
“The Imperfect Minor,” and April 1994 study by John Miller, chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson, and his assistant, Kimberly Prince, substantiated Foster’s view about how minorities are represented in news stories. Miller and Prince audited a random week’s editions of six major daily papers: The Vancouver Sun, the Calgary Herald, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and the Montreal Gazette. They were assessing the amount and tone of the coverage of visible minorities.
Only one paper, The Gazette, carried a higher percentage of photos and local news coverage of visible minorities than those groups represent in the local population. While visible minorities and aboriginals make up almost 13 percent of the population in the Montreal area, The Gazette devoted 21 percent of its photos and 18 percent of its news coverage to them. The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press came close to matching their communities in percentage of photos, though none carried a similar percentage of local news stories.
Stereotyping and negative coverage were common. In all papers, photos of visible minorities were rare in the business and lifestyle sections (three and six percent respectively of the photos featuring minorities) and common in the news and sports sections (43 percent and 36 percent). And, overall, the local stories were 49 percent negative, while 42 percent were positive and the rest neutral. The overall impression was that nonwhites are athletes, entertainers or criminals.
Because the number of visible minorities in Canada is growing quickly, these two problems—underrepresentation in newsrooms and the poor reflection in coverage—will only increase. In a 1992 study, Carleton demographer John Samuel projected that Canada will be 18 percent nonwhite by 2001. He also estimated that the proportion could be as high as 45 percent in Toronto, 39 percent in Vancouver, 25 percent in Calgary and Edmonton, and at least 20 percent in Montreal and Winnipeg. As Monika Deol, a Canadian South Asian who is an on-air personality at Toronto’s Citytv, says, “I am the face of mainstream.”
That is increasingly true, but what are papers doing to reflect the changing colour of Canada? So far, not much. And most don’t even seem very interested in the issue. In a 1993 poll conducted by the CDNA, publishers ranked diversity only 19th among their concerns, after such issues as computerization and competing with Canada Post for flyer business. Miller, chair of the CDNA diversity committee, says he hasn’t heard anything since to make him think things have changed. Members of his committee made suggestions on how the papers could improve their coverage of visible minorities. The points are pretty motherhood. “Every editorial staff member should know that the paper is committed to reflecting its community” is one. “Newspapers should always hire on merit….[But] a network of contacts in a minority community or a different life experience…are also assets that should be counted on the merit scale” is another. Enlightened self-interest underlies one suggestion: “If minorities don’t see themselves represented in newspapers they will see us as ’the other’ and won’t trust us with their business.” But after addressing a meeting of publishers last September, Miller said, “They just aren’t listening.”
At least most news executives aren’t. On exception is Ian Haysom, editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun. He serves not only on the CDNA diversity committee, but also on its counterpart in the U.S., created by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “I’ve spent some time speaking to people on diversity,” he says. “It makes good business sense and it’s the smart thing as well as the right thing to do.” He think there’s some improvement in publishers’ attitudes, but not enough: “Now at least it’s becoming part of the agenda for a lot of newsrooms in this country, but whether it’s top of the agenda is debatable,” he says. He recalls one publisher asking him if diversity would help him sell more papers.
Selling more papers was exactly what the Montreal Gazette had in mind when it set out to improve its coverage of visible minorities several years ago. “We have a huge cultural population in Montreal,” says city editor Catherine Wallace. “For us it’s a source of future readers. Because most cultural communities in Montreal are bilingual, they could read either the French paper or they could read us.” The Gazette set up a committee two or three years ago that assessed content and recommended ways to improve diversity coverage. As a result, says Wallace, “I think that our coverage is a lot better than it was five years ago.” Today the paper has two reporters on the immigration, refugee and cultural communities beats, and all departments strive to represent minorities; for example, the business department has been doing more on visible minorities businesspeople, while entertainment now covers a wider variety of cultural groups and special concerts important to certain ethic communities.
The Gazette has managed to achieve a good level of coverage even though its approximately 200 newsroom employees include only five nonwhites. In the Miller study, The Gazette’s local news stories affecting minorities were 72 percent positive. By contrast, the Calgary Herald’s coverage of visible minorities was judged 75 percent negative. Editor Crosbie Cotton says content audits have some value but he is skeptical of this particular one, based as it was on a one-week sample. And while he does admit the Herald still has quite a way to go in terms of serving visible minority needs, he feels his paper is doing a much better job than it used to. He notes the Herald was honoured by the Hindu community last year for its extensive coverage and that the Asian community voted the paper its corporate citizen of 1994. He also points out that the paper recently expanded its religious coverage beyond Christianity in response to requests.
Cotton says the Herald is very conscious of diversity issues, but with the Ralph Klein spending cutbacks dominating Alberta news these days, diversity is not a major concern. “I hold the theory that issues that are important are important to all members of our community, and they are not segmented along lines of race or colour of religion. They are very important issues: how to make a living, how to raise a family, how to be a good citizen, how to prosper and grow.”
Still, Cotton believes that “newspapers should be as diverse as their community and we will attempt to get there.” But like many dailies, the Herald isn’t doing much hiring. Its staff has shrunk from 215 to 140 in the past three and a half years. Cotton estimates there are 10 to 15 visible minorities on the news side, including three Asian graphics staffers.
Hiring limitations are commonly cited as the reason papers have put their diversity plans on hold. Haroon Siddiqui, editorial page editor at The Toronto Star, says that for the past five or six years, his paper has been hiring visible minority students for at least a quarter of its summer internships. Traditionally, the paper kept on half of the interns. Since the recession, however, no students have stayed on. At present, of the Star’s 331 full-time editorial employees, 19 are visible minorities. Dorothy Whiteside, the Star’s employment administrator, will only speak cautiously on this issue. All she’ll say is, “There is much groundwork to be done with the unions about visible minority hiring, especially on the issue of promotion and seniority.” Whiteside says the Star only hires on merit, and the massive newsroom downsizing has already stressed union members.
Gail Lem, president of the Southern Ontario’s Newspaper Guild, is equally circumspect. She will only say that as a union, SONG supports the principle of employment equity. “It’s important that the people who write the city’s, province’s and nation’s news come from a diverse pool,” she says. But Zuhair Kashmeri, a former editor of the SONG newsletter and senior editor of NOW magazine until January, says the union hasn’t offered enough support. “When it comes to actually doing things, I don’t think the union members feel it’s a big priority. Minorities got the shaft in terms of employment equity and minority hiring when the union of women. There was so much emphasis given to that, there was virtually no time left to look at minorities and minority hiring.”
Improving minorities hiring is one of the principal goals of Ontario’s Employment Equity Law, which came into effect last September. Private-sector companies with 50 or more employees must now file action plans, then show progress by meeting specific deadlines. Cecil Foster welcomes the new law, but wonders if it has the strength to enforce minorities hiring: “Where you have the legislation and you don’t have the political will to carry it out, nothing will be done.” Meanwhile, at the Star, Siddiqui says he is pleased with the new law, and adds that a recession is a good time to start planning minority hiring. The newsroom employees who lost their jobs during the downsizing may not agree. As Ian Haysom says, “You can’t just fire half your newsroom to make way for more diversity.” That’s why, despite his strong interest in the issue, only seven of The Vancouver Sun’s 174 editorial staffers are visible minorities. “Far too white,” in Haysom’s view.
In the opinion of Lorrie Goldstein, senior associate editor at The Toronto Sun, journalism schools’ enrolments have only recently begun to reflect the numbers of visible minorities in the general population. While the Sun newsroom has about 3.5 percent visible minorities, a bit higher than the national average, he says it’s important to hire more qualified people now. Otherwise, he fears that equity laws will force newsrooms to hire less qualified people, to meet a quota.
The six university-level journalism courses across Canada, whose total population is roughly 1,500, currently have about 150 visible minority students. Crosbie Cotton, however, thinks journalism schools are already turning out too many graduates. “The industry is shrinking. The number of openings for junior-level reporters is minimal.”
Yet, amid all the talk about shrinking newsrooms, there is still some hiring going on. So is it just dumb resistance to diversifying that makes papers choose whites for these few positions? Are papers too busy or too lazy to search out talented minorities? Or, as Cecil Foster suspects, is it racism?
Staffing is one part of the issue. The other is coverage. Here the problem is negative reporting, although some communities say they are simply ignored. For example, Raynier Maharaj, editor of The Caribbean Camera, a weekly Toronto tabloid, is also a columnist at The Toronto Sun. Last December, in a Sun column titled “Brown: The Invisible Colour,” he discussed how the Indian community feels about being overlooked by media: “When ethnic origins are being discussed, you only hear and see white, black and Oriental, no browns even though they’re everywhere in town.”
Tony Ku, editor-in-chief of the eastern Canadian edition of Sing Tao Daily, feels the same. He says sometimes the mainstream newspapers completely miss an event that is very important to his community. He understands the mainstream newspapers have a different viewpoint, but he says the country has been changing.
Other communities resent the way they are represented in papers. Franz Leung, news editor at Ming Pao, a Chinese daily published in Toronto and Vancouver, says the mainstream newspapers still don’t understand his community. “Take crime stories, for example. There is almost a cliché in all news stories whenever an Asian has been killed or shot. You will always see a line in the newspaper saying that ’police are investigating whether this is gang-related.’ To me this is a leading statement. It’s maybe money related, or family-conflict related or maybe it’s an accident,” he points out.
But resentment is strongest in the black communities. Jules Elder, the Tobagoborn managing editor of Share, a Toronto weekly, says what coverage there is of his community is overwhelmingly negative. He accuses The Toronto Sun, for example, of making no attempt at balanced coverage. The Toronto Star’s coverage is a bit more sensitive since it hired more visible minority reporters, he believes. Fennella Bruce, a newswriter for Breakfast Television on Toronto’s Citvtv and former senior editor of Pride, a Toronto weekly for the black community, says she can’t even bring herself to pay money for The Toronto Sun. “I think a lot of times they try to push that sentiment that immigrants are doing crime or are a burden on our social policy, [that] immigrants are doing all the ills in society.”
Lorrie Goldstein admits some black people boycott his paper, and that some black writers are discouraged by their communities from writing for the Sun. But he says it’s hypocritical to tell the Sun to change and then criticize it when it tries by adding other voices. According to Goldstein, his paper doesn’t believe in diversity committees or content audits. In fact, Goldstein objects strenuously to the audit done by Miller, partly due to its small sample. When asked if the Sun has a minority contract list, he answers scathingly: “We do and all the wrong people are on it.” He does admit, however, that management asked all editors a year or two ago to try to diversify their voices.
As one of those voices, Raynier Maharaj says the Sun is trying to bring in more ethnic minorities. He thinks the paper realized its market niche was too narrow and is making efforts to become more sensitive. While Maharaj acknowledges The Toronto Sun’s racist reputation in his community, he says “a newsrooms that is mainly white has difficulties being sensitive—it doesn’t know better.” He admits he expresses reservations to the paper from time to time over what it does in its editorials. But he also believes his fellow columnists, even the ones with controversial views on minority issues, are entitled to their opinions. “I prefer to know what someone is thinking,” he says. Maharaj predicts that when change comes, too slowly for some, it will be driven by economics.
Other visible minority journalists say their jobs are harder than those of their white colleagues. They say whites of their white colleagues. They say whites can simply do their work, while they find themselves defending minority sensibilities at news meetings, struggling to avoid stereotyped coverage, and then going home to criticism from their community about how their paper covers certain stories. Several visible minority journalists refused to be interviewed on this topic. Some were worried about insulting their employers and jeopardizing their jobs. Others said the topic was too stressful. One would only talk off the record about the relatives and friends who had berated her for working in what they called a racist environment instead in her own community.
Cecil Foster believes this pressure of never just doing your job and always representing your community causes many people to burn out. And he believes this will only increase with employment equity. He fears minorities will feel they have to prove they got their jobs on merit, not on quotas.
Haroon Siddiqui, who has served for many years on various diversity committees at the Canadian Advertising Foundation, the CDNA and at The Toronto Star, has felt the pressure too. He is seen as an ombudsman for visible minority people, although he really just wanted to go ahead and do his job. Instead, he has appeared on many panels, written articles and made countless diplomatic speeches about diversity. One result of this is that he has been ridiculed by Frank magazine as a PC crusader.
There’s nothing silly, though, about the rapid growth in the number of ethnic publications, growth that’s partly due to how badly mainstream newspapers are covering visible minorities. In 1986, according to Fidelis Ifedi, project manager of periodical sand newspapers at Statistics Canada until very recently, there were 81 minority newspapers in Canada. By 1989 there were 131 and Ifedi believes that number is much higher today, although StatsCan does not yet have those figures. Even during the early nineties these publications were expanding while mainstream newsrooms were cutting back. There are now three Chinese-language dailies that published in Vancouver and Toronto, each with a circulation of roughly 45,000. In Toronto, Ming Pao and Sing Tao both struggled to bring their ad/edit ratios down from 80/20 to 70/30 throughout the recession.
It is that sort of success that will capture the attention of mainstream papers. As Jules Elder says, “Don’t let anybody fool you: newspapers are all business and they’re trying to lock into a niche in the market. I doubt there are people at the head of corporations that run newspapers like The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun who aren’t paying attention to what’s happening. Oh yeah, they’ll change.”
This is one point on which Elder might agree with Lorne Goldstein. “If you’re trying to be the community talking to itself,” Goldstein says, “you gotta go out and cover things that interest them. If the community has changed, never mind all this concern about being sensitive. If you don’t change and reflect things your readers find interesting, you die.”