Journalism, Identity Politics And The Pursuit of Truth

Josh Dehaas
January 6, 2020
The New York Times had an award rescinded after its reporters were conned by the Canadian fabulist Shehroze Chaudhry, who claimed he had committed atrocities in Syria on behalf of ISIS. Scrutinizing the claim that racism is rampant in Canadian journalism, Josh Dehaas concludes the real scourge is identity politics.

Journalism, Identity Politics And The Pursuit of Truth

Josh Dehaas
January 6, 2020
The New York Times had an award rescinded after its reporters were conned by the Canadian fabulist Shehroze Chaudhry, who claimed he had committed atrocities in Syria on behalf of ISIS. Scrutinizing the claim that racism is rampant in Canadian journalism, Josh Dehaas concludes the real scourge is identity politics.
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Hardly a year goes by anymore without another round of headlines declaring that Canada’s news media are racist. The latest claims centre on an upcoming study by Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah, who are respectively Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director, and Assistant Professor, at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto. The duo arrived at their incendiary conclusion simply by comparing the percentage of Canadians who are non-white with the percentage of columnists at three big-city daily newspapers who are non-white.

Malik and Fatah found that, “Between 1998 and 2000, 92.8 per cent of columnists at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post were white, over-representing corresponding census statistics by four per cent. And during the 2016-18 comparative period, while overall representation of white columnists dropped to 88.7 per cent of the columns pool, those numbers over-represented against the census numbers by 11 per cent.”

Meager statistics and flawed methodology: Ryerson journalism profs Fatah (l) and Malik (r).

These figures hardly seem revelatory, especially given the narrow and small sample size. But a number of journalists, including Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, latched onto the study as evidence of a conspiracy among Canada’s editors and publishers to keep non-white people from getting jobs in journalism, in order to maintain a pro-white bias. Soraya Roberts summed up this view in a self-pitying Longreads essay: “[Canada] is racist and its media is racist and its journalists are racist”, and this is leading to “an entirely misinformed public.” The solution, according to Roberts, is for white journalists to quit “hogging all the power positions” and “step aside.”

Commentators such as these are working from the assumption that if a racial group is numerically under-represented in journalism, that is evidence of racist hiring practices – and of racist journalism to boot. It certainly appears to be what they want to believe. The lengthy online article in which Malik and Fatah plug their upcoming study approvingly cites the existence of “racialized” journalists as a counterweight to all this ubiquitous Canadian racism.

Racialized journalists are writers and broadcasters who are not merely members of non-white races, but who have dedicated their careers to “driving diversity conversations”, i.e., advancing identity politics. In other words, they are political activists rather than journalists. The article admiringly cites one journalist’s decision to quit his job over disgust at his editor’s insistence on viewing issues through a “colour-blind lens.” To a “racialized” journalist, it seems, well-meaning attempts to be non-racist are themselves evidence of racism.

Canadian Journalism has an Equality Problem and it’s Not Racism 3
Racist because they’re white? Canadian columnists (l-r) Jonathan Kay, Chantal Hébert, John Ibbitson, and Margaret Wente.

Given such a worldview, it’s unsurprising that the people who now pass for academics in the field of journalism assume without question that Canada’s news media need to be numerically representative of all ethnic groups in order to properly tell their stories. Of course, this also oddly implies that a black-skinned person couldn’t tell a white person’s story well, or that an Asian person is incapable of understanding a North American Indigenous person’s perspective.  

Yet even if one accepts such a sad perspective – which requires casting aside the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that all people would be judged on the content of their character, not the colour of their skin – the statistics do not, in fact, show that members of visible minorities are being passed over in hiring for Canadian journalism jobs. The evidence suggests that if anyone has cause for concern about discriminatory hiring practices, it’s whites.

Judged by the content of our character: Martin Luther King Jr., delivers his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Freedom March in 1963.

The Ryerson study’s central methodological flaw is its failure to account for the fact that writing opinion columns is not an entry-level job and, therefore, the related positions skew towards older demographic cohorts. Most of Canada’s big-name columnists are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. Malik herself said on Canadaland that the average age of those in her study was about 54. If that’s correct, then one should expect columnists to be proportionately “whiter” than the blunt overall Census data the researchers chose. That’s because mass immigration from non-white countries is a relatively new phenomenon. Accordingly, the average age of non-white Canadians in 2016 was just 33.9. That’s fully 10 years younger than the average non-visible-minority person, and about 20 years younger than the average newspaper columnist.

To know whether white people are actually over-represented among opinion columnists, one needs to look at the racial makeup of Canadians who are roughly the same age as columnists. According to Canada’s 2016 Census, 81.7 per cent of Canadians aged 45-65 were white in the census year. That suggests a 7 percent representation gap, not 11 per cent. (The Census’s racial statistics may seem surprising to many readers. They suggest either that Canada is markedly less racially diverse than the United States, that “white” is defined more broadly in this country, or that Census statistics are inaccurate due to people misreporting or refusing to disclose their race.)

If you’re concerned about genuine racism, then it’s far less important to nitpick over the racial makeup of people hired decades ago than to examine whether non-white people were passed over in hiring. For that, we need to start by looking at the racial makeup of Canada at the time today’s columnists were hired. Let’s assume today’s typical 54-year-old big-city columnist launched his or her career in 1996 (a reasonable assumption if you check out their biographies). If so, then their current 88.7 percent white makeup is hardly surprising, for that year, Canada itself was still 86 percent white people. White people do not appear to be racially “over-represented” in the historical hiring of newspaper columnists at all, and the Malik-Fatah gap (never that impressive to begin with) appears to be an artifact of poor statistical analysis.

Even if you believe that Canada’s news media should numerically duplicate the nation’s ethnic makeup – and the age, experience and merit of individual practitioners be damned – focusing on columnists is still an odd way to test whether that’s happening. If the researchers were truly seeking accurate information about representation in hiring – if the journalism “professors” were doing actual journalism, in other words – they would try to find out whether there are racial barriers to those entering the trade.

The defunct StarMetro papers‘ writers were considerably “less white” than the cities they covered.

The declining newspaper industry, granted, currently offers few entry-level jobs, and that would make for a small sample size. The hiring that has happened in recent years, however, looks fairly diverse. Scanning the masthead from when Torstar Corporation (publisher of the Toronto Star) revamped its StarMetro brand two years ago suggests a lineup of young reporters who appear more diverse than some of the cities they served. Half of StarMetro’s Edmonton reporters, for example, appeared to be non-white in a city that is two-thirds white. Malik and Fatah could have studied these kinds of positions just as easily as big-city daily opinion columnists. Then again, StarMetro has already stopped printing, so perhaps we shouldn’t focus on an apparently dying news media segment – newspapers – if we want to test the thesis that Canada’s media workforce doesn’t reflect Canada’s diversity.

Instead, we might look at the publicly-available data from the only place that still hires journalists in large numbers: the CBC. At the heavily subsidized Crown corporation, the ranks of visible minorities who are members of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) union increased by 45 percent from 2015 to 2019. The ratio of visible minorities rose from 9.2 percent (319 out of 3,483 members) to 13.4 percent (345 out of 2,497). Noteworthy is that the absolute number of visible minority members rose substantially even as the overall membership plunged.

At the CBC, visible minority members are increasing in numbers and proportion even as overall employment plummets.

Among management (not including the top executives, who are excluded from the CMG data), the percentage of non-white people rose by 56 percent, from 13.5 percent (57 out of 422) to 21 percent (81 out of 386). Again, non-whites increased in absolute as well as relative terms as the overall total shrank. The trend was similarly upward for Indigenous people, with the ratio and the numbers in the CMG increasing, from 2.2 percent (77 out of 3,483) to 4.2 percent (106 out of 2,497). This suggests that visible minorities, including Indigenous people, are now far more likely to be favoured in hiring and far more likely to be protected from staffing cuts. If the CBC is discriminating based on race, it’s certainly not in favour of whites.

And even if one adopted the view of people like Malik and Roberts that columnists are particularly influential and that papers like the Globe and Mail should favour non-white people in their hiring, the results might not be as hoped for. They simply might not find many who are qualified. That’s because the combined pool of people from all races who are capable of being good columnists is extremely small. Further, the number of non-white Canadians who are interested in journalism jobs may actually be smaller than their share of the population.

The shallowness of the potential columnist pool became clear to me when I worked at Maclean’s from 2010 to 2014. Part of my job was to seek commentary from students for our post-secondary education section. I scoured student newspapers daily looking for talented writers, paying extra attention to apparently “non-white” names whom I could develop into freelance columnists. Non-white writers were particularly difficult to find.

This was very puzzling until the third or fourth time I heard the same story from my non-white colleagues, who were children of immigrants. They would beat hundreds of other applicants to gain a prestigious internship or staff job, only to hear their parents say, “Fine, when are you going to get a real job?” Many non-immigrant parents regard journalism as a dream job for their kids. For many immigrant parents, however, only doctor, lawyer or engineer will do.

Just ask Globe and Mail columnist Rita Trichur, who recently tweeted: “My mother in 1993 when I started j-school at Carleton: ‘I didn’t immigrate to Canada with only eight dollars for you to become a journalist’…I was supposed to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer – or at least agree to marry one.” Either way, the sad truth is it’s almost impossible to find people of any race who can produce high-quality columns that regularly connect with readers. Out of the hundreds who wrote for me over four years, only one (yes, one) regularly produced this kind of work: Robyn Urback.

Rita Trichur’s parents would have preferred her to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer rather than a journalist.

Roberts and Brown have both implied that the Globe made a racist move when it decided to hire Urback rather than a non-white person like Desmond Cole or Vicki Mochama. But those two talented black Canadians already had columns at Torstar which they couldn’t manage to keep (Cole left the Star in a huff to focus on his “activism in the service of Black liberation”), and both would be too far left for the Globe and Mail’s centrist audience. Had the Globe hired either, it would have risked losing more subscribers than it gained (just as it would had it selected a far-right commentator like Ezra Levant or Faith Goldy). A better fit might have been Josephine Mathias, a Nigerian-Canadian centrist who produces excellent videos for the National Post. But Mathias is far less experienced than Urback.

All three of these talented non-white potential columnists, it should be noted, are still making a living as opinion journalists, and have opportunities to share their views widely. Mochama is a podcaster and regular contributor to CBC; Mathias is freelancing for the Post; Cole is on the radio and promoting his book. They might not show up in a study like Malik and Fatah’s, but their voices are being heard. The fact that they weren’t hired by the Globe isn’t evidence that Canada’s media are racist, and the latest Ryerson “study” doesn’t reveal much other than the ideological bias of its authors.

Josh Dehaas is a freelance writer and law student at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Find him on Twitter @JoshDehaas.

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