Why are visible minorities invisible in Canadian media?

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Photo: flickr/4lexandre

"The world we inhabit is a world of representation. Media do not merely present a reality that exists 'out there'; nor do they simply reproduce or circulate knowledge. As active producers of knowledge, media construct and constitute the very reality of our existence." -- Augie Fleras and Jean Lock Kunz, Media & Minorities; Representing Diversity in a Multicultural Canada

Recently, a former Quebec journalist argued that Canada's mainstream broadcasters were hypocritical for seeming to lend a sympathetic ear to those opposing the proposed Quebec Charter of Values.

"Not a kippahijab, cross or turban in sight. Religious symbols are, quite simply, not part of the TV news uniform; never have been," wrote Michael Dean in The Globe and Mail. And while he's right that there are few Canadian journalists sporting symbols of their faith, the premise for his argument needs to be turned on its head.

Rather than justify the Parti Québécois's bid to limit freedom of religion in its public institutions -- and eventually throughout the general workforce -- the media's lack of representation of diverse communities must be called out for what it is: a letdown for democracy.

Considering that one in five Canadians is a member of a visible minority, it's shocking that broadcast and print media are grossly under-representing this significant segment of our population.

Why is this happening?

For starters, the percentage of visible minorities working in newsrooms is tiny. Researchers John Miller and Caron Court found that the percentage of minorities working in daily papers is more than six times lower than their presence in the general population. Their 2004 study illustrated that editors are simply not that concerned in hiring minorities. In fact, compared to their 1994 study, commitment to improving diversity dropped in half to 13 per cent over that ten year time span. A majority of managing editors blamed a lack of interest from diverse communities, saying "minorities just don't apply here," but as the researchers noted, "only one mentioned taking any steps to ensure they were attracting minority candidates, such as recruiting at journalism schools or ethnic publications." 

When young people from diverse communities don't see themselves adequately represented in the news, it also may make them unable to imagine a career in the media. As well, many cultures devalue journalism as a career choice because it doesn't guarantee a sufficient income like becoming a doctor or engineer would (especially these days). Add that to the reality that journalism is either little respected, or downright dangerous in most developing countries where immigrants hail from. But are these the only reasons for the dismal representation?

Anecdotally, one senior journalist told me that with most medium-sized newspapers cutting back on staff just to survive, even covering stories from diverse communities is low on the priority list. "It's a miracle the paper gets out every day," she remarked.

No diversity in the entertainment sector

That may be true; however, this doesn't justify the dismal representation of diversity even beyond Canadian newsrooms. A 2011 study of entertainment programming concluded that "…the dominant dynamic in Canadian television shows is that White people make up the majority of the main characters while racialized characters play secondary roles, despite the incongruity of this representation with census statistics and the experience of the majority of Canadian in the world outside television."

The report by Media Action analyzed several primetime shows and is an enlightening, if not slightly depressing, read. Its authors conclude that while there have been strides in certain programming for showing Canadian society as it is -- "a robustly multi-racial and multi-religious nation," -- it is the "White, Judeo-Christian Canadian experience [that] is the desired and superior norm."

It isn't as though various legislation, policies and benchmarks promising and promoting fair and equal representation haven't been declared over the years. From Canada's constitution, to the Multiculturalism and Broadcasting Acts, to various public notices by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), to stated policies by private broadcasters as well as the CBC, everyone has agreed that reflecting "the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada" is important -- in principal at least.

In fact, a recent job posting for a national parliamentary reporter at the CBC includes this line, "In becoming the leader in expressing Canadian culture and enriching democratic life, we need to be as diverse in every way as the country we serve, both within our workforce and on air."

No one would deny that the CBC has indeed made valiant efforts to represent Canada's diversity. And it hasn't hurt them.

Little Mosque on the Prairie, for example, was hugely successful for the broadcaster, breaking records with over one million viewers on its opening night.

But are these efforts enough, especially considering stereotyping plays a big role in such progressive programming?

Why this matters

Writing in Canadian Ethnic Studies over a decade ago, University of Toronto associate professor and past journalist Minelle Mahtani noted that media researchers have found that the invisibility of minorities "perpetuates feelings of rejection, trivializes their contributions and devalues their role as citizens in their nations."

In her 2001 article, Ms. Mahtani surveys much of the relevant literature to conclude that even when diverse groups were represented in the media, often they were stereotyped and marginalized. "The narrow range of images of ethnic minorities has effectively decreased the ability of minorities to be seen as positive contributors to Canadian society. Media researchers have pointed out that these negative stereotypes are cause for concern, because it creates a divide between ethnic minorities and so-called 'real' Canadians. Visible minority Canadians are seen as 'others' or 'foreigners' who potentially have the power to threaten the nation," she writes.

At the forefront of this discourse is Augie Fleras, author and sociology professor at the University of Waterloo. In his most recent book, The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada, he writes that "[…] mainstream media exist primarily as channels of persuasion whose primary objective is implicitly consistent yet expertly concealed -- namely to convert and co-opt audiences into 'seeing like the media' as if this media gaze was untouched by bias or perspective."

In other words, it's incumbent that we, as consumers of the media, be aware of the omission and stereotyping of minorities so that we do not internalize these biases.

A new superhero

One might argue that ethnic media can fill the gap, as well as correct these stereotypes. But this is problematic because ethnic media are not consumed by mainstream society, they are equally, if not more economically challenged by changing media realities than their mainstream counterparts, and the breadth of such media is limited in both scope and effect.

Popular culture has a great power to shape attitudes and this cannot be underestimated. Marvel Comics in the U.S., for example, is set to help shatter stereotypes with a new superhero. Ms. Marvel is now Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old second generation Pakistani-American girl who lives in New Jersey.

However, these small steps forward are not enough. As the comic's main writer, G. Willow Wilson, acknowledges, "There's a burden of representation that comes into play when there aren't enough representatives of a certain group in popular culture. So the few ones that do exist come under increased scrutiny and pressure, because they're expected to represent everybody."

Wilson is right, of course. It isn't going to take one actor, one reporter or one comic book hero to adequately represent whole communities.

What it will take is renewed commitments by the media to engage with underrepresented groups to find innovative ways to include and weave them into North American narratives. Funding from both public and private coffers is key in encouraging and promoting storytelling from within minority groups including Aboriginals, women, racialized communities and others. That funding could support outreach, training, and programming.  And where funds are scarce, editorial efforts to seek out and empower diverse voices in thoughtful and nuanced ways will still make a difference.

Success will lead to a healthier democracy in which more people see themselves positively reflected and respected as full-fledged, contributing citizens. 

As for the Charter of Values? It wouldn't stand a chance in that kind of media environment.

Amira Elghawaby is a freelance journalist and human rights advocate in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter at @AmiraElghawaby

This piece originally appeared on New Canadian Media and is reprinted with permission from the author.

Photo: flickr/4lexandre

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