Sonya Fatah and Asmaa Malik take first steps in long-term study to hold journalism accountable to standards of workplace inclusion
“As much as journalists like to hold other people accountable, there’s really been a lack of accountability within newsrooms.” That’s according to Asmaa Malik, one of two Ryerson University journalism professors who have received a research grant to shine a light on diversity — or the lack thereof — in Canadian newsrooms.
Malik and her colleague, Sonya Fatah, secured the grant to design a diversity survey as Phase 1 of a planned long-term study. The study is being conducted with the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) an organization experienced with diversity surveys in other workplaces.
The grant comes after Malik and Fatah jointly penned an article for The Conversation in late January summarizing the findings of a study they’d conducted. That study looked at how columnists at news outlets self-identified. They tallied terms of self-identification such as, “I, middle-class white lady” or “(as an) affluent white woman” that showed up in the op-eds and compared them against 21 years of census data. The conclusion: as the demographics of Canada have shifted, neither employees of news outlets nor the content they generate have reflected that shift.
The first phase of this new study looks to quantify those stories into hard numbers. “We think that if things aren’t actually measured and we don’t actually have data on the state of Canadian newsrooms, that nothing’s really going to move the needle,” Malik said. “We just have anecdotal stories.”
The lack of data means getting any kind of picture on diversity has relied on guesswork and those anecdotes, Malik said. She added that just because people aren’t aware of the problem doesn’t mean it isn’t there. She pointed to other research on critical issues that neglected race in the data collection, citing the current pandemic as a comparison.
“It makes me think of the COVID data when it comes to race,” Malik said. “It makes me think of things we weren’t collecting before, and we’re not collecting them that well, even when it comes to health.”
Malik said that right now, a large part of data collection issues are coming from spotty news outlet participation. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, requires broadcasters to report on diversity figures. New outlets like podcasts and legacy outlets like newspapers that don’t fall under the oversight of the CRTC report diversity statistics voluntarily, if at all.
Malik said that’s where the CCDI comes in. Together, Fatah, Malik and the CCDI will develop the survey over the course of a year. It’s hoped that the CCDI’s experience with other sectors will secure participation from the executive levels of news organizations.
Malik said it was important to keep the process participatory rather than imposed. “We don’t have all the answers for what kind of actionable information we need to get from newsrooms,” Malik said. “We want to develop the survey through a consultation process with organizations like the Canadian Journalists of Colour, Canadian Association of Black journalists, Indigenous reporting groups, also working with people in the industry.”
That way when it comes time to deploy the survey, it’s hoped the view of it will be “we came up with this together,” Malik said.
“Our hope is that we create it, we deploy it and then we track progress over time,” Malik said. “I want things to change, but I’m also aware that nothing’s going to happen overnight. If we keep our eye on it, and we’re actually able to measure it, if four years down the line, we’re like ‘nothing’s changed,’ well that’s a huge story.”
Fatah says the time is ripe for the study. “We are at a point in time when there is a growing awareness of systemic challenges to the practice of journalism,” she said. Fatah and Malik’s article in The Conversation enumerated some of that growing awareness, such as Sunny Dhillon’s stepping down from the Globe and Mail in 2018 due to criticism of stories told through a “colour-blind lens” and freelance columnist Desmond Cole’s decision to retire his Toronto Star column in 2017. Cole had been told that it was the paper’s policy that editorial employees must “avoid active participation in community organizations and pressure groups that take positions on public issues.”
Malik pointed to more recent incidents, such as Rex Murphy’s National Post column in early June after Canadian protests against anti-Black racism. Murphy claimed that “to any fair mind, Canada is a mature, welcoming, open-minded and generous” and “is not a racist country.”
Vanmala Subramaniam, then with National Post and now with The Logic, took it upon herself as a “privileged, middle-class journalist of colour in this country with a platform” to fire back at Murphy. Subramaniam highlighted one incident where Murphy’s Black one-time colleague Dwight Drummond was handcuffed by police at gunpoint and made to lie on the ground for resembling a suspect description.
Fatah said that tackling that kind of problem is challenging because “systems are not easy to change in ways that go beyond tokenism.”
Malik — who says she hates the term “tokenism” — nevertheless agreed with the sentiment, saying that newsrooms favour the people who are already there. “We see a lot more racialized people, people from marginalized communities in newsrooms now, but really often at the junior level,” Malik said. “The die was cast a long time ago in terms of who makes decisions at senior levels.”
Malik doesn’t see the study stopping any time soon, either. The goal is that the study can keep going indefinitely as new phases are deployed, taking a cue from the American Society of News Editors in the United States. That organization has been doing a similar long-term diversity survey for over 40 years.
Malik said the hope is that this kind of “state of the newsroom” survey will one day be seen as something “nobody wouldn’t do.”
Disclosure statement: Matthew Best is affiliated with a separate research project overseen by Sonya Fatah. That research project and the research project outlined in this article have no relation to one another. Best was not aware of, nor did Fatah make Best aware of, the nature or status of the research project detailed in this article prior to it becoming public knowledge.