Tackling racism in Canadian media


By Natasha O’Neill


Ishani Nath: The people at the top of most Canadian media organizations are white men. If you don’t have diverse representation at every level of that newsroom, then that’s going to influence what gets covered and what doesn’t, and what stories are valued and what aren’t.

Audio: Slow fade in and out of piano music overlapping Ishani Nath.

Natasha O’Neill: You just heard the voice of Ishani Nath, who you’ll hear more about later.

Today, we take a deep dive into newsrooms across Canada and reveal that lack of diversity is a large problem. Journalists are the watchdogs of the public. They find stories that need to be told and that affect their community. But what happens when some stories are valued over others? Those equally important stories go unnoticed and undiscovered. If women of colour continue to be underrepresented in our media landscape through newsrooms and in the higher powers of conglomerates, the less those important stories will get told. So, what if people are starting to stand up and realize to do good journalism there needs to be more diversity? Well, often the women I spoke with said they are faced with barriers that prevent them and other journalists of colour to start the conversation.

Natasha O’Neill:  The women I spoke with are all from different backgrounds and different parts of the industry. Something they all have experienced are barriers in their career.  Barriers are as people, biases and outright racism.

Nadine Yousif is a mental health reporter at The Toronto Star. She’s covers stories from assisted suicide, abortions and opioid overdoses. Today, she’s been mostly focusing on the effect of CoVID-19 on mental health. Born and raised until she was 10 in Iraq, Nadine is able to connect with Arabic-speaking people in the community and has been a very good asset in newsrooms.

Nadine Yousif: When I first started my journalism career and getting into newsrooms, the big story of the day was Syrian refugees. And so I was a really good fit in newsrooms, because I was able to tap into issues that other people weren’t simply because of the language barrier, that I was able to break with my, you know, just my background. And, so, I think that it was a challenge in several newsrooms to be able to break away from that, and be able to be taken seriously as a reporter, like, a lot of the times when I first started, I would be put on human interest pieces. Like, I wouldn’t be sent to cover politics or, you know, police briefings or that sort of thing. And I think I had to fight hard to prove to employers that I deserve to be telling those stories too.

Natasha O’Neill:  Toronto-based freelancer Sohini Bhattacharya came into the world of journalism from a public relations background. Her drive to write stories comes from the importance of journalism. As a freelancer, she pitches ideas to organizations on stories she thinks should be told. However, she echoes the feeling of only getting to report on stories that are for women and feeling like she has to prove herself more.

Sohini Battacharya: The kind of freelance writing that women get lobbed with are, you know, writing about children, being a parent, you know, or writing about fashion, you know, writing books, food, writing about, you know, art, these are sort of the women’s issues, right? So, we don’t write about sports, we don’t write about cars, we don’t write about, you know, hard hitting politics or something like that. Or we write about, you know, celebrity and body positivity and sex and feminism, but we’re not writing about like the men’s issues, right? So, there’s a clear demarcation there and that I find, very, very evident. And I feel like to a certain extent, like, I never written about cars, or like the men’s issues, but I would love to.

Natasha O’Neill:  The industry has definitely come a long way from where it first started, but the underlying issues still remain. The main one is the lack of coverage on people-of-colour-focused stories. Often those stories will be about crime, or poverty or tragic incidents. Tiffany Mongue is freelance editorial assistant and a new graduate of Ryerson’s School of Journalism. As a Black journalist she wants to write stories that represent and uplift her community. When Tiffany pitched a story about a Black owned barbershop persevering through COVID-19 lockdowns, the editor she was working with gave her the cold shoulder after she sent it in.

Tiffany Mongue: I wrote the story and everything and, like, he wasn’t being responsive. When I wrote for other stories, like, about other stories, like, he was responsive, he was quick and everything and understand he might be a busy person. So, he kind of just took time to look up my, my, my story, and so a couple of days later, he gets back to me and he basically tells me that I need to go see a professor to look over my work. And I was like, you know, at this point, like, I’m in a really good spot in my career I find, so, for you to kind of, like, to lower me down and  tell me to go review my stories with a professor, like, I’m not at that level anymore. Like, you can’t talk to me like that because I know my worth. For you to not even take on your role as an editor to tell me what’s wrong with my story, but to go assign that responsibility to somebody else.

Natasha O’Neill: Journalists like Tiffany are working to get more diverse stories in the media. But it’s hard when those stories are seen as unimportant. The World Association for Christian Communication has a program called the global media monitoring project This, project gathers data on media representation. In their latest poll in 2015, they reported that 45 percent of women make up the media landscape in Canada, as reporters. Across different outlets, newspapers had the lowest representation of women at 42 per cent, and television had 55 percent of women represented. In 2016, a census was taken, and it reported that 13,050 people identified as a part of the media, of those 42 per cent were women.

The piece missing is: how many of these women are also women of colour? The most recent and small data done was by Dr. Wendy Cukier, Prof. John Miller, Dr. Kristen Aspevig, Dr. Dale Carl, all who are white and a part of Ryerson University. They used statistics from the ‘90s,  which at the time of their sample and today is still the most concrete data we have of people of colour in the media. Their sample of the most popular papers and television casts in Toronto, they found 289 leaders. Of those leaders, only 4.8 per cent were visible minorities.  This is the extent of knowing exactly how under represented women of colour are in the news media.

Sadiya Answari is a freelance journalist who’s written for Maclean’s, Chatelaine and the Toronto Star. She is also a co-founder of the Canadian Journalists of Colour organization and is a member of the Toronto-based chapter, which has more than 1,000 members. Each chapter has a private Facebook group where journalists run ideas past each other or give job posts for those hiring.  In the past they organized face-to-face conferences at big newsrooms like CBC, HuffPost and Vice. She explains how networking is the lifeline in this industry and how in her experience, so many jobs are being given to those who have the right connections.

Sadiya Answari: You know, the thing I found really frustrating after a few years into my career was like this whole idea that I could see there were some managers who’d be, like, I’m like, they don’t want to sit and have a beer with me, they’re so uncomfortable with me, you know, and someone they do want to sit and have a beer with is going to get X job because it just automatically makes them seem like more likeable or something, you know? But there’s this like likability factor or comfort factor, you know, that can sometimes be about race. And it’s very, very difficult to pin those things down. Basically, like, what, what I can tell you anecdotally is that, you know, the industry is overwhelmingly white, and especially at the upper echelons of power, right? Like, the people who are really making the decisions are mostly white. And you see a lot of on air-talent that’s diverse, but that’s very different from, like, the person who’s, like, making a decision about a budget or what have you.

Natasha O’Neill:  Miriam Valdes-Carletti is currently a video journalist with CTV Saskatoon. Before, she lived and worked in Toronto doing various newsroom jobs. One of her most memorable experiences was being a digital content creator for CTV News national.

Miriam Valdes- Carletti: My last job as a, as a digital content editor… I, their team was pretty diverse. There was me, there was two Black women and they were actually both full-time, which is great. There’s an Indigenous person, a Chinese person. And, so, within that job, that was the most diverse I’ve seen. But here for example, in Saskatoon, I’m like the only person of colour who’s on air.

Natasha O’Neill:  It is important to have diversity in newsrooms. It’s important because it’s nice to be watching the news and seeing someone who may have a similar background to you. Journalists of colour also are connected to different communities, giving the broader news more important stories to be told.

Miriam Valdes- Carletti: Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve made, I’ve actually reached out to people who I know who are people of colour. I joined like a Hispanic Facebook group on Saskatoon telling them, I’m a journalist, let me know if you have any stories. I do my part. I feel like to really do my best to diversify my stories. And I think that that’s also should be a requirement of white people.

Natasha O’Neill:   Journalism school can also be just as harsh as the real world for reporters. Some journalist’s got through barriers in school to get their voices heard. For Rachel CrowSpreadingWings, now a CTV News Winnipeg video journalist, journalism school was difficult.  On her first day of school, she was asked why she wanted to be a journalist, and the response her teacher had was horrific.

Rachel CrowSpreadingWings: On the first day, he asked me the basically the same question you just did. And the teacher whose class I was in, when I said, I want to be the next Oprah, he laughed at me, he laughed at me in front of the entire class and told me why that was horrible. And that it would basically never happened for me. And I was like, OK. There was another few teachers along the way, that really made it hard, that told me that because I was Indigenous, I would never make it. Because I’m a mom, I would never make it. Because I’m an Indigenous mom, I would never make it. They feel like if they tell you that it’s not gonna work, or they tell you that what you want is never gonna happen. And they feel like putting you down to try harder. I personally don’t come from that perspective, but some people do. And maybe that was them. I don’t know. But it was definitely a challenge.

Natasha O’Neill:  These challenges from early on in their careers sometimes lead young journalists of colour to self-censor or participate in conversations that they may not necessarily be the best to give that opinion on.  Ishani Nath has been the only person of colour in a newsroom and often would be placed with the task of offering the person-of-colour perspective on things. She is now freelance entertainment and lifestyle journalist with bylines in FLARE, Maclean’s, Chatelaine and more.

Ishani Nath: I was in some situations looked to, to kind of be the voice of not only, you know, my own Indo-Canadian community, but in some situations more than that, and kind of give that like, quote, unquote, diverse perspective, which I wasn’t always, or I would say often wasn’t, you know, the right person to be asking certain questions or to be, you know, responding to certain things, but because I was in some situations the only person of colour in the room or the only woman of colour on staff, I was looked at as an expert in things I was maybe not an expert in, and also I was quite junior at the time. So, I didn’t realize I should have, I should have definitely taken a step back and did, like, I don’t, I don’t think I should be answering these things. But I just wanted to; I was trying to make it the best I could as well. So I think looking back at my career, there are things that I wouldn’t have done. Like, I wouldn’t have, for example, agreed to be the point person on Black History Month. I would have advocated to have an in-house, like, a guest editor, or if we didn’t have any, unfortunately, Black journalists on staff, which is a larger issue, but at least have a guest editor come in and and run initiatives like that. But unfortunately, like, those things were were given to me.

Natasha O’Neill:  There are some amazing women trying to move the industry forward in terms of diversity and education. They are determined to close the gap for any racialized people trying to make it in this industry.

We go back to my conversation with Sadiya Answari as she explains the reason behind the Canadian Journalists of Colour organization and how it came to be. She co-found it with Anita Lee and Natasha Grz and aimed to create a safe place for journalists of colour to connect and network in the industry.

Sadiya Answari: We were thinking of starting something like this, because, you know, we were in this industry, you know, kind of struggling a bit and like looking for opportunities to support other journalists of colour. My interest was like, how can journalists of colour also just, like, connect each other with work opportunities, right? So, for me, a lot of it was kind of like, we talked about the old boys’ network, and, like, you know, the old white man club. And, and to a degree in media, especially, it’s like, you’re not going to be able to enter that club, right? I really saw in my career, how people got jobs, because they knew somebody, you know, and it doesn’t mean they weren’t talented or whatever. It’s just, they’re not that many jobs in media and from a hiring manager’s perspective. I can see how it goes. It’s like, wow, I really want to make sure I make the right hire because it’s so time-consuming to make a hire. And we have so few spots, right? And so for me, it was like OK, well how can we make our own club?

Natasha O’Neill:  Sarah Krichel, social media manager for the Vancouver based magazine The Tyee, found love in leading and mentoring young journalists of colour through her position at Ryerson University’s school paper, The Eyeopener. As a BIPOC journalist herself, she produced a very affordable Patreon account which can give advice or corrections to BIPOC journalists. Her starting monthly fee is $1.50 to $12 a month where you can access more personalized mentorship and her newsletter.

Sarah Krichel: I realized how much I loved leading and guiding and mentoring for lack of a better word, young journalists, especially BIPOC journalists and journalists from other marginalized communities. I’m going to have to reconcile with the fact that the industry, as it exists today, is not necessarily what I want to align myself with. And I’m going to have to create my own version of journalism and invent my own approach. And that’s primarily what my Patreon is for: to help young people who want to do the exact same thing do that and empower them to get creative and make mistakes and experiment.

Natasha O’Neill:  These journalists are all looking forward and trying to create a safer space for young reporters from all communities. Many spoke about the need for diverse hiring, and putting their voices in power and not just in newsrooms but in editor and manger and CEO positions. By creating an industry that is more inclusive of all voices, jobs as journalists and communicators of stories become more representational of the public they serve.

Audio: Overlapping piano music to fade out