Blog by John Miller

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Cure for "too white"

Shree Paradkar sure knows how to launch a column.

The Toronto Star has chosen her to write a new weekly column on race and gender, and she courageously focused very close to home for her first one – on the unbearable whiteness of newsrooms, including her own. She even criticized her editor-in-chief for being wrong about how accurate such newsrooms can be when they write about other cultures.

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. But blunt courage like this may be required to make newsrooms more reflective of their communities. The honest truth is that, as newsrooms shed staff to keep afloat, the few non-whites hired in newsrooms over the years run the risk of being squeezed out.

There's no proof of this because nobody's keeping count. The last research into the diversity of newspaper staffs was my own, which I did with Caron Court in 2004. The findings showed that racial minorities were more than five times under-represented in daily newsrooms. Moreover, the commitment of editors to change their hiring patterns had declined, not risen, in 10 years. One of the reasons they gave was that “journalism schools are not producing them.”

Luckily, institutions can change if they really want to. As an example, Ms. Paradkar briefly pointed to my experience as head of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. I'd like to say more about that.

In 1994, the editors actually had a point. Ryerson is located in the most multicultural city in North America, but our student body at that time hardly reflected the diverse population of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Other journalism school were even less diverse. I set a goal for our school to change that.

The problem was, we didn't know what our problem was. Were non-white students just not applying? We drew applicants from across Canada and our standards for acceptance were high – high A averages and previous media experience were pretty much the norm. We turned away 10 students for every one we admitted. We certainly didn't want to sacrifice quality, which would be unfair. If we had to mount a nation-wide recruitment drive for visible minority applicants, we would need expert advice and it might take years for anything to change.

So we decided to act like journalists and get to the bottom of this. I secured approval from the Ontario Human Rights Commission and we asked all students applying to our school the next year to self-identify whether they were Caucasian, Black, Asian, South Asian, Aboriginal, etc.

Guess what? We found our applicant pool almost exactly reflected the percentage of each of those groups in the GTA.

Our problem was that we were not selecting them.

So what to do? Not everyone on faculty agreed with me that we needed to look at our admissions criteria. Why change anything, some said. Many minorities are under pressure from their parents to become doctors and lawyers, not journalists. Continue to admit the best. Period.

“But how do we know we're admitting the best?” I asked.

Faculty member Gail Scott volunteered to track the performance of our best students and cross-reference back to their scores on entry tests. She determined that graduating averages from high school (which made up 50 percent of our entry criteria) were strong determinants of success at our university. We decided not to change that. But the other 50 percent (made up by a current events test, an interview, and previous experience in media) had little connection to subsequent success. So we decided to rethink that.

I didn't say it out loud, but I suspected that our entry criteria actually acted as an institutional barrier to students who came from non-Caucasian cultures. There were no visible minorities on faculty. The literature we published about ourselves showed no students of colour attending class. The current events test usually focused on mainstream Canadian politics, sports and entertainment. It was labour-intensive for us to mark and Gail's research told us it didn't really tell us anything valuable. So we agreed to drop it.

Then I asked: “Is there anything we should be valuing in incoming students that we're not?”

Previous experience in journalism or writing still seemed to be important. How about knowledge of a second language? Or world travel? Or volunteering for a community organization? We agreed those should be added to the mix, and we picked students for the following year using a new yardstick.

The change in the make-up of our first-year classes was remarkable. We still admitted the best but the best looked different. By updating our value system, we opened the door to students who better reflected Canadian society. Within four years, our graduating class was 30 percent non-white. And I can tell you that those students won more than their share of achievement awards.

We also introduced diversity to the curriculum. Covering Diversity, a course I designed as a result of my research (and also my frustration that newsrooms weren't changing), was compulsory for all journalism students for many years and won for Ryerson the coveted Award of Excellence from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. The citation read: “"The winning program was distinguished by the long term impact that Ryerson journalism students will have on the quality of reporting as they enter their profession. Congratulations to John Miller, designer of the course, for an extraordinary and courageous effort towards bringing a higher level of balance to journalism."

Still, there were gaps. We discovered that few Black males applied to our school or were chosen.

An opportunity to do something about that came in 2004 when I organized a panel at Ryerson on Youth at Risk, part of then-mayor David Miller's community safety initiative. The chair of the mayor's advisory panel was Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, who was impressed by someone I invited to talk about engaging young people in media projects. Adonis Huggins for years has headed Regent Park Focus, which produces a newspaper and video projects for his community. What would it take, McMurtry asked, for something similar to happen in other disadvantaged communities? Could Ryerson help?

As it happened, a new faculty member, Vinita Srivastrava, was already interested. An online journalist who joined us from New York Times Magazine, she began work on what eventually became Verse City, a program aimed at getting racialized and marginalized youth interested in pursuing careers in news media.

A tip from lecturer Cathy Dunphy put us in touch with East Metro Youth Services, which was working with youth from Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods who face multiple barriers to education and employment. Together we got funding from the Pinball Clemons Foundation and in 2008 Vinita created the Verse City Workshop, a series of workshops held in Scarborough and at Ryerson culminating in a four-day intensive multimedia camp. The program produced a newspaper (the VIP Voice) and a magazine (Say Word). Some of the young people who participated were in gang recovery programs.

More importantly, it took less than a year for the first graduate of Verse City to be admitted to our full-time program.

You can read more about our Boot Camp here, written by Omair Quadri, one of the students Vinita recruited to help in training. Faculty members were proud of how well our students quickly morphed into fellow teachers of journalism.

Newspapers that say they can't afford diversity, or that “minorities just don't apply here,” are hiding from reality. They can do something about it, just as we did. All it takes is will.