Toronto Star newsroom c. 1964. Credit: Norman James / City of Toronto Archives

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Canadians have a snapshot of just how few people of colour and Indigenous journalists work in the country’s newsrooms.

Why should it matter? Because those journalists are not present to offer their perspective on important stories involving race and the increasing multiculturalism of Canada.

The snapshot was taken by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), a volunteer organization that today (Thursday, Nov. 25) released its inaugural measurement of the diversity of people who assign, cover and present the news. Nothing should take away from the fact that the CAJ has performed a valuable and selfless public service, giving Canadians free access to the demographics of the people who cover us in our communities. You can check it out here.

Sadly, it’s not a very representative picture since a majority of newsrooms — including the most popular broadcaster and most of the largest newspapers — either refused to participate or turned in statistics that the CAJ deemed unreliable or could not categorize. Amazingly, CBC News and the Postmedia newspaper empire said they did not know the racial identities of 965 journalists in their employ. They were simply listed as “Unknown.”

What the CAJ did measure were 3,873 news people at 209 media outlets, making it the largest-ever survey of the demographics of television and radio broadcasters, online news operations, and daily and community newspapers.

“The data we’ve currently collected does make certain things clear,” the CAJ survey says. “For one, the typical Canadian newsroom is not representative of the Canadian population.”  Among the findings:

  • Almost half of the newsrooms surveyed employ only white journalists.
  • Industry-wide, of the journalists whose race data is known, 74.9 per cent identify as white compared to 18.6 per cent who identify as a visible minority, and 6.4 per cent who identify as Indigenous. While on the surface this compares favourably to the latest population data, most of the diversity is concentrated in a few larger newsrooms, and 400 newsrooms did not fill out the survey at all.
  • Newsroom managers tend to overestimate the diversity of their newsrooms. Seventy per cent of respondents indicated that their newsroom is somewhat or very representative of its audience. In fact, when compared to the latest census, less than a third actually were.
  • Some newsrooms are wildly at odds with the diversity in their communities. Managers at Metroland’s community newspapers (serving the Greater Toronto Area) reported that 93.3 percent of its journalists are white. But only 48.3 per cent of Torontonians identify as such.
  • Ninety per cent of newsrooms across Canada have no Latin, Middle Eastern or mixed race journalists on staff. Eight in 10 newsrooms have no Black or Indigenous journalists.
  • A large majority of the 638 news outlets surveyed either refused to participate or were unable to provide information that fit. Only 147 of those questionnaires were returned, representing 209 newsrooms. Fifteen others refused to participate, and 379 simply did not reply.
  • On the hopeful side, women outnumbered men overall in the newsrooms — the first time that has been recorded in Canada (52.7 per cent women compared to 46.7 per cent men and 0.7 per cent who identify as non-binary).
  • According to the CAJ, many newsrooms said this was the first time they had surveyed their staffs about racial identities. That is ironic, since many news outlets have done stories pointing out diversity gaps in businesses and governments they cover.
  • Visible minority journalists are less likely than their white colleagues to be working full-time. One quarter of all part-time interns happen to be Asian, for example.
  • For those looking to make the media industry more diverse, there is at least one reason for optimism. Newsrooms with more diverse leadership tend to have more diverse workforces. At the present time, however, more than 80 per cent of supervisory roles are held by white journalists.

Clearly, Canadian newsrooms are very far from “getting it” about representing the diversity of their local populations. Public pressure may be needed to get them to step up their game in next year’s CAJ survey and honour the journalistic core value of accountability. “The truth is,” the CAJ’s report said, “Canada is late in collecting data on race and gender in our newsrooms — data which has been collected in the United States since 1978.” It noted that only two previous surveys of Canadian newsrooms had been done — both by me in 1994 and 2004 covering only daily newspapers. Despite my call each time for industry associations to do such surveys annually, that was never done. The CAJ and the report’s author, Zane Schwartz, deserve our thanks for stepping forward to carry out a task that news executives should have been doing for the last 20 years.

It’s also significant — and shameful — that some of the largest news organizations did not participate in the survey. CTV, Canada’s most popular television network, refused — not giving a reason — and Postmedia, despite being asked to provide data for each of the 120 newspapers it owns, decided instead to give company-wide figures, meaning readers were left in the dark about how reflective journalists are of the populations of some of the most diverse cities in the country. No data was available for papers like the Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen or Toronto Sun.

Without more co-operation from newsrooms, the CAJ said it is in no position to answer questions like “Are Canadian newsrooms becoming more or less representative of the populations they serve? Are some newsrooms improving? Are others regressing?”

These are questions that we should be addressing now. Who’s being left out of the Canadian conversation?

We also need to ask why some news organizations do not think it’s in their interest to have newsrooms that look and sound like the communities they serve. The CAJ pulls no punches in identifying which ones. Ninety-one per cent of the journalists employed by The Winnipeg Free Press identify as white, compared to just 60 per cent of the population. In Metroland’s Peel Division, which serves cities like Brampton, white journalists outnumber whites in the population by 72 per cent to 38, while Asians are underrepresented by nine per cent to 44.6. The Canadian Press wire service provides most Canadian news outlets with news from across the country, and its journalists are 14 percent whiter than Canadians are.  

Other news outlets keep unreliable statistics on who they employ. Example: the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, serves a region where people identify as a rainbow of different racial identities. White people years ago became a minority in the GTA. The paper has undertaken several diversity initiatives over the years, yet it still does not collect accurate numbers to show how many journalists it employs who belong to those groups. It only collects ranges — and responded to the CAJ survey by saying that it estimates its newsroom has only between one and four journalists who are either Middle Eastern, Black or Latin.

We also need to ask why Indigenous and visible minority journalists only find work in a handful of newsrooms. For example, 40 per cent of all Middle Eastern journalists, 47.3 per cent of all Black journalists and 50 per cent of all Latin journalists surveyed work at the CBC. Eighty-four per cent of newsrooms employ no Indigenous journalists.

In the conclusion of Who’s Telling the News, my 2004 survey of 2,119 journalists working at 37 newspapers, I wrote:

“Most troubling is the lower commitment editors in all papers seem to have to hiring diversity now, as compared to 10 years before. As newspaper circulation declines, as newspaper staffs fall further out of touch with the demographics of the population, and as news about immigration, religion, anti-terrorism issues, and racial profiling proliferate, one would expect editors to put a higher premium than ever before on making their news gatherers more diverse. But the opposite attitude is reflected in this survey, and we do not know why.”

I’m afraid we still don’t.

(Disclosure: I am credited in the CAJ survey report as contributing advice on methodology.)

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...