When burnout is the elephant in the newsroom part 3: Why representation matters
I’m still unravelling my feelings about leaving my newspaper job. The task feels as daunting as working through a giant skein of wispy yarn full of knots and tangles. Every time I feel like I have freed the spider-web thin strands from the most stubborn of knots, I find myself facing an even bigger knot just a few inches along. I sigh deeply and put the skein, and my feelings, away for a time.
This unravelling is a longer process than one would think.
When I started my internship in 2014 I was very aware of the fact that I was the only non-white reporter in the newsroom. People of colour notice when we’re the only one like us in a room. It’s hard not to feel the absence of people who look like yourself. Black, Indigenous and racialized people always take stock of others like us when we walk into a room, looking for kinship, allies and safety in numbers.
The other intern who worked with me that summer, a photographer, was also a person of colour. We took comfort in each other during those few short months. We excitedly discussed collaborative projects we wanted to pursue to highlight diversity in the region, something that felt so lacking in the place we worked.
When the summer ended, she left and I had an opportunity to stay. I took it. I look back now and wonder why I didn’t take a risk to pursue something else. But when you’re in your late 20’s and want to start a family and save money, a stable job in a city with roots is a safe place to be. I made the safe choice, which was the right choice for my family at the time.
But staying meant continuing to be the only racialized person in a predominantly white newsroom. It meant not having the kind of mentors or allies I not only craved, but really needed even if I didn’t recognize it at the time.
I felt alone a lot. I continued to do my best because it felt like such a privilege to be in that space. It felt like I had to keep working to earn my spot in the newsroom. And THAT is one of the problem’s with inadequate representation - it drives workers away and makes it difficult to attract new, diverse ones.
Black, Indigenous and racialized people belong in newsrooms. We won’t truly feel like we belong if there is only one, or two, of us in those often unforgiving spaces.
Spring 2021: When lines were drawn
Difficult conversations happen in newsrooms when all angles of a possible story are discussed, debated, challenged and questioned. The job demands this scrutiny, but it also demands an evenhanded, fair and responsible approach.
Journalism also requires the ability to hold oneself accountable when coverage strays from one’s duty to be fair and responsible. I felt this accountability slip during the last few years.
In April 2021, an editorial was published lauding Waterloo Regional Police Service’s new diversity cruiser campaign as a step in the right direction. The “diversity cruiser” was plastered with images of people of different faiths and cultures - the very people the police have historically targeted and typecast.
The editorial was called into question by the public as well as people in the newsroom. The paper’s approach was insensitive and proved just how easily tokenism is taken at face value. The response to this fair criticism was not met with kindly.
OK, so editorials are opinions and we don’t have to agree with them, so one way to fairly balance this issue in a newspaper would be to write a story about an online petition calling for the police service to remove the offensive decals and to highlight the perspective that was missing from the editorial. This idea was pitched at a news meeting and promptly dismissed. It was a ludicrous decision — not a fair, responsible one — and made from a place of arrogance. Anyone can see the public interest in such a story. It was worthy news. An unsolicited op-ed was later published to act as balance to the paper’s own close-minded stance.
White supremacist. That is what people started calling the paper as part of a boycott of The Record that quickly unfolded that spring. Sources refused to speak to us. People canceled subscriptions.
Instead of acknowledging the harm that editorial and similar coverage caused the racialized community, some in the newsroom made the issue about themselves; white fragility in action, folks.
I don’t want to libel myself or compromise anyone’s privacy, but I can safely say this was a crucial moment for the newsroom. This was a moment when a line was drawn in the sand, when true natures were revealed, and when some of us rallied all the way to the top of the corporate chain only to fall right back down empty-handed. The diversity cruiser editorial was just one example of a series of insensitive blunders that were quickly dismissed without an opportunity for thoughtful discussion or any attempts at remediation.
A small group of newsroom folk got together and wrote a strongly worded letter to the paper’s owners to share our concerns with decision-making in our newsroom. It was sent. Meetings were had. Then silence. The issue didn’t seem to matter enough and it was back to business as usual. To say the experience was deflating is an understatement. Our internal systems failed to defend fairness, responsibility and accountability in our journalism. What is left then?
One reporter quit that spring, frustrated with the lack of care in the paper’s coverage among other reasons. The rest of us - co-signors of the letter - lost an ally and colleague. Our will to continue the fight (which we did) wore us all down over time.
The powers that be will always protect their own, and this is an example of how white supremacy protects and reasserts itself.
One line from the letter we wrote still rings true almost two years later: “It feels as if we are pushing against an immovable object.”
When diversity feels like a house of mirrors
I mentioned in “When burnout is the elephant in the newsroom” that I often felt like I was pushing against an immovable object. When I raised issues or concerns I had with coverage, or a story angle or a source, I was heard but not really listened to.
I started to feel like I was the one overreacting because, for example, I thought a reporter’s approach to an issue was wrong or insensitive. Or I thought a particular issue did not need as much coverage as it was given, or vice versa, an issue I thought needed more coverage wasn’t getting any. I was put into a position of “power” as an assignment editor to help shape coverage, right? Wrong. I raised alarm bells but I wasn’t always shut down, I was heard, heads nodded along in agreement, but then nothing came of it. This behaviour is almost worse than outright dismissal. It made me feel like I had some say in the decisions being made when I really didn’t.
Representation is not just for the sake of appearances but that is what corporate diversity initiatives tend to be.
When representation is a box to tick, the true meaning of representation and why it is important doesn’t seem to matter to the ones ticking the box. It means Black, Indigenous and racialized workers need to be listened to, not just heard. It means action, not just placating words.
Black, Indigenous and racialized people belong in newsrooms because we bring valuable insight, perspective and lived experience to our reporting. We can help broaden news coverage. I can’t count how many times I’ve interviewed a person of colour and heard that even though they have lived in this community for a long time, they don’t care about the region’s only daily newspaper. Why? I was often told it was because they never saw themselves in its pages unless it was about a tragedy, a multicultural holiday or a diversity issue.
Representation in the newsroom is so important and here is another reason why.
An incredibly infuriating article about one Kitchener elementary school’s decision to ‘cancel’ Valentine’s Day somehow became conflated with Islam and new immigrants. How did this harmful comparison make it past editors?
Maybe it’s because they’re all white.
“Canadian media failing Diversity 101 and you’re paying the price” by Shree Paradkar, Toronto Star, Nov. 2021
The Canadian Association of Journalists released its second diversity survey in December. You can check out the interactive graphic with diversity numbers from 242 newsrooms across Canada here.
A very brave and MUCH NEEDED article.I can relate to so many things that you felt as me being the only asian teaching in a high end school. The Canada I call home is changing and not in a good way.
Thank you for this thought provoking read.Diversity and Inclusion are an integral part of a fair society,It's talked about a lot but is truly missing in work places.We as Canadians need to re think and unlearn so its easier for our future generations.
This article was pretty intense. I had to read it twice with time in between. So many feelings but I liked it. Very raw, very personal and painfully true.
As a white person, in a majority white city run by a lot of other white people, it is really hard to know or understand the challenges someone of colour or a different culture has to deal with. Maybe if we (white person) were the minority, we would be hit in the face with it and develop a better understanding. I believe in earth, not countries, I believe we are all sisters and brothers and when I meet people I talk to the person, not the gender or colour. Or I try. But I have suffered bias in the past and maybe still do, and in all honesty, I don't think that's just a white problem but an ignorance of the world and other cultures. If we never leave our home, city or country how can you truly know? When I went to Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, and when I bought a property in New Brunswick, all culturally different from what I was accustomed to and none of it was a bad thing, I loved and embraced it and feel like I learned something every time. I hope to have a huge repertoire of culture "shocks" one day.
As a woman, I have also experienced being dismissed by males in charge more times than I can count or remember. I know that feeling, knowing you're right, knowing you can make a difference and basically given zero acknowledgment. Having more women in positions of power has helped, thank goodness for that.
My point, don't give up Anam, you learned a lot from that job, more than you know. You learned what you needed to learn to use one day in a position where you CAN make a difference. Change has to start somewhere and with the amount of people coming to Canada, change will happen. The white youth growing up with other cultures will be normal to them, they won't be afraid, they'll see past the colours and traditions because it won't be strange to them. Just like young men today are growing up to be more engaged husbands and fathers...it had to start somewhere.
It is literally women/people like you that can and will make those changes happen. What you don't finish, your daughters will. You and my daughters don't have to deal with the issues I did growing up, same will be for your daughters. They already have an advantage with a white father, brown mother, being raised with Muslim traditions while surrounded by Catholics and other religions. They ask questions, they are becoming more aware than you and I ever were. I'm excited to see them learn, grow and ask questions because they will carry our torches one day.