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The face of Canadian journalism is still white -- and it's time to push back

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As a journalist in my mid-20s, I should have plenty to feel confident about. After getting a masters degree in journalism from an Ivy League university, I moved to China, where I worked for a national newspaper and went on to my current job as a foreign correspondent at an international news wire.

My ethnicity and language skills are an advantage while I am based in Beijing. But I wouldn't feel the same about my prospects if I were to move back to Canada, where few people in the media industry look like me.

The vast majority of Canadian journalists across all media are white. In fact, a 2000 study from the Université Laval found that 97 per cent of journalists were white. A more recent national survey does not appear to be available for comparison, which suggests a lack of a sense of the importance of media diversity.

This is particularly disappointing, since this country is known for celebrating multiculturalism and pluralistic values. It is also puzzling because mostly white newsrooms simply do not reflect the demographics in our large cities. In Toronto, where visible minorities make up 49 per cent of the population, fewer than five per cent of media industry decision-makers are members of visible minority groups, according to a 2010 Ryerson University report. Visible minorities account for less than 20 per cent of people appearing onscreen or in print in Toronto, including broadcast hosts, reporters, columnists and experts speaking as sources.

It just doesn't seem like good business sense for companies to hire mostly white employees and to pass over the abundant supply of talented minorities. Journalists tend to tap the network of people around them to come up with good story ideas and sources. When your newsroom is filled with people with similar backgrounds and networks, it provides little competitive advantage.

Women who are part of a visible minority group are doubly disadvantaged. While the number of women and men in Canadian newsrooms are roughly equal, women are underrepresented in senior management and are likely to be underpaid when they reached senior levels. Even when a member of a visible minority gets a job, that person continues to face racism and isolation in mostly white workplaces -- and this has a real impact on the kinds of stories mainstream media will cover.

"Since working my first paid jobs as a journalist in 2007, I have been constantly told, explicitly and implicitly, that nobody will care about stories about people who are elderly, Aboriginal, racialized, queer, living with a disability or chronic health condition, or living with an active addiction or mental health concern," says Jackie Wong, former editor of Megaphone magazine and a writing instructor at the University of British Columbia.

The situation is not better in the world of literary writing. Publishers pressure Asian-Canadian authors to produce work that conforms to certain racial expectations, according to Allan Cho, president of the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop. "These tend to be titles that that cater to audiences who have a taste for 'chinoiserie,' an imaginary China or Asia that evokes romanticism and mystique," he explains.

Jan Wong, who was the Globe and Mail's first female and first ethnic minority correspondent in Beijing, became severely depressed after she was subjected to numerous racist attacks for a story she wrote about school shootings in Quebec. She had said the violence might have been related to problems of alienation in a society concerned with racial purity. The Globe eventually cut off Wong's sick leave and then terminated her employment in May 2008. She sued for wrongful dismissal, and a settlement was reached. Wong's 2012 book, Out of the Blue, documents her experience.

Wong (no relation to Jackie) now teaches her journalism students at St. Thomas University to proactively challenge the status quo. "Canadians like to tell ourselves that we're not a racist country, so there's no appetite to change when the people in power are mostly white men and they don't see any problems," she says.

The lesson here is to speak up and also expect a pushback. "As minorities, you need to push. They're not going to hand it to you, so you have to call them out and be in their face," Jan Wong says.

Joanna Chiu is China and Mongolia correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) international news wire, reporting on a wide range of topics including the economy, politics, the environment, status of women, legal reforms and social inequality.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Herizons Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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