Sometimes if you need to wander into a forest to look for something, you can’t find it. But you’re often so busy looking, you miss something more important — like a hungry bear stealing up on your flank

That’s what happened to one of my favourite journalism sites, J-Source. “Canada’s National Newspaper Awards have a diversity problem,” it announced recently, following an analysis of the National Newspaper Award winners for the last 10 years.

What sounded like a worthwhile test of representation went awry, however, when it presented its findings: Men, not women, were being honoured as the best in their fields in overwhelming numbers.

The actual breakdown: Since 2007, there have been 157 male winners (68 per cent of the total) and 74 women (32 per cent).

First you should know that the National Newspaper Awards honour the best print journalism of the year. They are Canada’s version of the Pulitzer Prizes. They honour the people who wrote the best stuff about the most significant news of the year.

The J-Source article named several categories in which women were being shut out . For instance, “in the last ten years, no woman has won the award for news photo, editorial cartooning or news feature photo. In fact, no woman has ever won an award for editorial cartooning since the award was established in 1949.”

It advanced several theories about why men win so often, including a suggestion there might be a male bias on the part of judges, although it said “NNA staff try to ensure diversity in age, gender, region, race and ethnicity among judges.”

But the article got a couple of things wrong in its analysis of diversity at the NNAs. 

For one thing, women winning 32 per cent of the awards probably more or less reflects the percentage of women working in newspaper newsrooms today. Granted, we don’t know this for sure because no one is keeping count. The industry association, now called Newspapers Canada, has long resisted tracking the demographics of who works in its newsrooms. The last academic research on the subject was done in the late 1990s by Gertrude Robinson, a mass communications scholar at McGill University. Then, women made up 28 percent of Canadian newspaper newsrooms.

It’s not clear what has happened since, although more up to date research in the United States (the 2015 diversity census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors) shows a higher figure for women in U.S. newsrooms — 37 percent — but it notes that percentage is largely unchanged since 1999.

Second, women are overrepresented, not under-represented, on the NNA judging panel. This year, 34 women and 32 men served as judges in the various categories. This is the result of hard work by NNA consultant Ray Brassard to make the judging panels more balanced. In 2012, when he took over the job, there were 28 women and 41 men, which he felt was too wide a gender gap.

“My priorities were gender balance and bilingualism,” Brassard, a retired managing editor of the Montreal Gazette, told me by email. “Geographic balance is a must, for obvious reasons. Bilingualism is a requirement if we want the French-language media outlets to realistically compete. And gender balance is important, too.”

But — and here’s the hungry bear they may have missed on their flank in the forest — why has no one thought about prioritizing racial and ethnic diversity?

Only one, just one, of the 66 judges is non-white. Asmaa Malik, a former newspaper editor, now a journalism professor at Ryerson University, is certainly qualified to judge entries in her category of international reporting. But I can think of many other non-white journalists equally qualified in other categories. Kamal al-Solaylee, former theatre critic of The Globe and Mail, would be an excellent judge of critical writing, for instance.

While J-Source painstakingly counted the number of women winners over the last 10 years, it did not track those who are non-white. It would have made for a much better story, I think.

Much has been made of the lack of racial diversity in Canada’s newsrooms, and how it puts newspapers out of step with the increasing diversity of the population. But if geography matters, and language matters and gender matters to the people who adjudicate the best of this country’s print journalism, why doesn’t race?

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say anyone declared it NOT a priority,” Brassard said. “Every year, when I thank judges for their service, I ask for recommendations for future judges. I specify the regions and bilingualism. I could have, and perhaps should have, mentioned visible minorities. I did not. I will mention this to my successor.”

Fair enough. No one thought about it.

But even a cursory examination of past winners indicates that the National Newspaper Awards — and print journalism — have another kind of diversity problem. Minority winners are a lot rarer than women.

In the breaking news category, you have to go back to 1996 to find non-white winners. Philip Mascoll and Donovan Vincent shared an NNA with Dale Brazao of the Toronto Star that year.

In international news reporting, the last non-white winner appears to be The Globe’s Jan Wong in 1992.

In columns, Richard Wagamese won in 1990 for the Calgary Herald. That’s it.

Other categories are dotted with non-white winners, but they are rare. Vinay Menon of the Toronto Star won for critical writing in 2014. The Star’s Jennifer Yang won for explanatory reporting in 2010. The Globe’s Omar El Akkad shared with Greg McArthur in investigations in 2006. Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star won in sports reporting in 2003.

If you have to go back 25 years in some categories to find non-white winners, that’s a stark reminder that our daily newspapers remain just about as white as the paper they’re printed on.

The last census of Canadian newsrooms was done by me, more than 13 years ago. Who’s Telling the News 2004 showed that visible minorities made up just 3.4 percent of the newsgathering staffs of 37 daily papers (meaning they were six times under-represented when compared to the 16.7 per cent of visible minorities and Aboriginal people in the Canadian population in that period).

It’s anyone’s guess what has happened to those numbers since, at a time when almost every newspaper newsroom has been either cut or merged or closed.

It is time for Newspapers Canada to act. An annual census of newsrooms, such as is done in the U.S. by ASNE, is long overdue in this country and would help spotlight misrepresentations and track progress.

Image: Flickr/unfcc

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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...