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Giving migrants a voice -- and others a history lesson

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A man ice skating in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Image: Brendan Church/Unsplash

National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States is demonstrating the importance both of giving a voice to migrants in media, and of ensuring the independence of the public broadcasting platform.

As reported by another public broadcaster, the BBC ("The Immigrants Telling Stories History Missed" February 10, 2020), two young radio producers, one with Iranian and the other with Palestinian backgrounds, are leading a new podcast series that highlights stories that most people have missed in their history lessons.

As the article explains, "In their show, Rund and Ramtin try to talk about people who are underrepresented in American society. Their stories, related to current news, feature forgotten people, events, trends and policies." These have included their own stories, the conflicts that forced their families to move to the U.S., as well as stories of people who moved out of the U.S. because of slavery -- and because of its abolition.

The program is not without controversy -- even over how the presenters say their names. Most of the time, names on air are "anglicised" to appeal to the audience, but NPR "supports their on-air staff who want to pronounce their names as they would in their native language."

In their program, Throughline, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah aim to draw "a line from the past to the present," not to identify victims and scoundrels, but to widen knowledge about how past actions affect current societies.

The program "helps minorities see themselves along with their contributions and struggles in that show."

"And for others it is an opportunity to see things differently."

According to its website, NPR is an independent, non-profit media organization that was founded on a mission to create a more informed public. Its network of local member stations collaborates to deliver "an increasingly rare and vital mix of rigorously reported local and national stories."

A large portion (currently 68 per cent) of NPR's revenue comes from dues and fees paid by its member stations and underwriting from corporate sponsors that do not influence NPR's coverage. Nor do NPR journalists have a role in selecting corporate sponsors.

For now it's a model that seems to be working. In 2018, five NPR programs won national Edward R. Murrow awards, which are among the most respected journalism awards in the world.

The clamour for racial diversity in the newsroom is growing, not just in the United States but in other migrant destination countries like Canada. Last January 28, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ) and Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) issued a call to action for media diversity, stating that "Canadian newsrooms and media coverage are not truly representative of our country's racial diversity."

It noted that even at the CBC, the nation's public broadcasting company, people of colour and Indigenous peoples comprise less than 15 per cent of staff, "which is not representative of the more than 20 per cent of people of colour who make up Canada's total population."

There hasn't been any data on Canadian newsroom demographics since the mid-2000s, said CABJ and CJOC.

Ryerson University journalism associate professors Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah attribute this to the resistance of Canadian news organizations to self-report staff statistics. In the absence of such data, Malik and Fatah have embarked on a study examining the op-ed section of Canada's three largest publications, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post, where journalists often disclose their identity.

Preliminary findings of Fatah and Malik's 21-year study of columns, written by 89 journalists from 1998 to 2018, showed that Canada's demographic shift "was not reflected in the makeup of Canadian columnists." In fact, "as the proportion of white people in Canada's population declined, the representation of white columnists increased," they said.  

"Between 1998 and 2000, 92.8 per cent of columnists at The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the National Post were white, overrepresenting corresponding census statistics by four per cent," said Malik and Fatah. "And during the 2016-18 comparative period, while overall representation of white columnists dropped to 88.7 per cent of the columns pool, those numbers over-represented against the census numbers by 11 per cent."

Their study also noted that "not one of the publications had an Indigenous columnist who appeared regularly," and only three Black men and no Black women met their criteria for columnists.

In urging the media industry to be "equitable and truly representative of Canada's racial diversity and commitment to multiculturalism," the CABJ and CJOC issued seven calls to action to help Canadian news outlets establish measurable and attainable goals to diversify their newsrooms. These include self-reporting of newsroom demographics on a regular basis; increasing representation and coverage of racialized communities and hiring more editors and reporters of colour; creating "leadership tracks" for journalists of colour, consulting with racialized communities about news coverage on an ongoing basis; "identifying and confronting systemic barriers that journalists of colour face;" creating scholarships and mentorship opportunities targeted towards aspiring journalists of colour, and; addressing diversity and inclusion in journalism schools.

"Beyond the moral imperative, there are strong business and civic cases for racial equity in the Canadian media," they emphasized.

Sara Speicher is WACC deputy general secretary. Originally from the United States, she moved to the United Kingdom in 2003, where she set up an independent media and communications consultancy, working with organizations such as the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, World AIDS Campaign, Cordaid and World YWCA. WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. It is a member of the ACT Alliance. 

Image: Brendan Church/Unsplash

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