Blog by John Miller

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Let's get it right

How can Canadian news organizations recognize and cure systemic racism?

It’s hard work. But it’s work that needs to be done.

Prompted by Black Lives Matter protests and fueled by years of empty promises to make themselves more representative of society, some news organizations and schools of journalism are wrestling with demands for change.

Some, like the CBC, are hemorrhaging in public, with the resignation-by-Twitter of Indigenous broadcaster Christine Grenier (over what she claimed was systemic discrimination) to the suspension of superstar Wendy Mesley (who used a racially charged word in a story meeting and was called out by her colleagues).

Others, like the Toronto Star, are making yet another attempt to change from within—hopefully after studying why several previous efforts at diversity did not get off the ground.

Still others, like the schools of journalism at Carleton and Ryerson, are facing demands from Black students for more diversity education and support. Demands include mandatory unconscious bias training for faculty, courses in anti-racism and Black history for all students, and more diverse professors and guest speakers.

Clearly, each of those institutions must find its own path to enlightenment and change.

The first step is recognizing they have a problem. Of all the organizations mentioned above, only one—Carleton’s school of journalism—has openly admitted it has a systemic racism problem. A statement put out by the outgoing and incoming heads of the program said: “We have a responsibility to acknowledge the role we have played in the perpetuation of systemic racism in the education of young journalists.”

So what does systemic racism look like? How do you begin to address it? What are you prepared to give up to change it? What outcomes do you want to achieve?

The most common mistake people make about racism is to think of it solely as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. Yes, that still happens, but it is easy to recognize. We often do not think of it as systemic—a web of interlocking, reinforcing habits and values that serve to marginalize or exclude people who are not white. Some of these are invisible or unintentional, others are unfair measures to perpetuate white hegemony.

I’d like to share what happened when the faculty of Ryerson’s School of Journalism undertook this task in the early 1990s.

When I took over as chair of the school in 1986, Ryerson was well established as one of Canada’s leading journalism schools even though we were a polytechnical institute competing with universities like Carleton. We wouldn’t gain university status until 1993.

Competition to get into Ryerson was so tough we turned away nine out of 10 students who applied. To identify the best candidates, we had an elaborate and labor-intensive entrance procedure. Candidates came to the school to be interviewed, we vetted their portfolios of journalistic work, we had them write an essay on journalism to gauge their interest and keyboarding skills, and had them write a current events quiz and a grammar test. We spent the month of May evaluating and arguing about who we’d admit. Our mantra was “Ryerson admits the best.”

As Toronto’s demographics changed rapidly around us, our all-white faculty was slow to realize that our student body was falling out of step. More than 15 percent of the GTA population was non-white in those days, but few Blacks, Asians, Filipinos or South Asians were sitting in our classrooms.

At the time, I was talking regularly with newspaper editors and broadcasting executives, many of whom visited our school to recruit students. A few said they were coming under pressure from community groups to have more diverse staffs, but what were they to do when journalism schools like ours weren’t turning them out. In other words, they were using us as their excuse.

I posed it to our faculty as a problem. Why did our students not reflect the demographics of our community? I did not use the term “systemic racism” because that was not a term I understood at the time and I didn’t see us ready to deal with it. I presented it as a representation issue. Who could argue with it? Toronto’s population was rapidly heading for where it is today—better than 50 percent non-white.

“You’re suggesting we should no longer admit the best?” someone asked, perhaps fearing that I was about to suggest some kind of quota for non-white admissions. I wasn’t, and think it was a mistake for Brodie Fenlon, CBC's News editor-in-chief, to promise this week that 50 percent of new hires would be from underrepresented equity groups. That may change the numbers but it won’t address any structural discrimination in CBC’s hiring practices. And it will expose these journalists to accusations that they are only there as “diversity hires,” not because they have the qualifications to do the job.

Instead, I asked the faculty at Ryerson: “How do we know we’re admitting the best?”

We had measurable outcomes—marks, and graduation rates—to tell us who was successful in our program. Why not co-relate that to admission scores? A faculty member volunteered to do that. It showed that none of our entry tests—not the current events quiz, not the essay, not the grammar test, not the personal interviews—was a reliable predicter of who would be a successful student. High school marks were the best indicators, although we knew that marking standards varied.

Okay, so let’s say we get rid of the time-consuming testing process. What qualities or experience should we be looking for in applications? “Is previous journalism experience all that we should value?” I asked. “How about travel, or knowledge of a second language, or volunteer work in the community?” Yes, we should value that too, everyone agreed.

But we still didn’t know what our problem was. Did we have a recruiting problem, or a selection problem? Each called for vastly different solutions.

With the approval of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, we got permission to have applicants voluntarily check off their racial or ethnic origin. When we calculated the results, we found—lo and behold—that our applicants actually reflected the diversity of our catchment area almost exactly. In other words, we had a selection problem, and I felt our new approach to entrance screening might produce different results.

It did—and how. Our first-year classes instantly became more diverse. Whatever unconscious biases had been at work previously, they’d been corrected. Four years later, I sat on stage at convocation and counted more than 30 non-white graduates get their diplomas in a class of 100. Some were among our highest achievers. That more or less matched the demographics of Toronto at that time.

What’s more, the presence of so many diverse students led the school to start hiring diverse faculty. Today, five professors in a faculty of 16 represent Indigenous or non-white groups. It also led to curriculum change—notably a course on Covering Diversity which was mandatory for seven years starting in 1997 (but has since been discontinued) and taught all students how to recognize stereotypes in news coverage, apply the same news judgments to all groups, and find contacts and story ideas in diverse communities.

Did we do it all right? No, we failed to notice groups within that diversity that remain underrepresented to this day, notably Aboriginal and Black males. And having solved a problem in the early 1990s, the school may have let its foot off the gas.

The lack of attention to Black issues has resulted in a student petition that has attracted over 3,500 signatures online today. It says “Sign this petition to support Black students’ success in Ryerson’s journalism program and the future of more Black journalists in Canadian media. Sign this petition to ensure their stories are heard and valued within mainstream media. Sign this petition to support the hiring of more Black faculty and professors, to bring in more Black guest-speakers within the program. Sign this petition, to diminish passive biases around Black people and the stories written about them in Canadian media.” 

They are demanding a new course that sounds remarkably similar to the one Ryerson phased out 15 years ago, one that teaches students how to deconstruct stereotypes and report on matters related to Black Canadians. Covering Diversity (discontinued before 2010) is the only course in Ryerson’s history that won national recognition—the 2003 Award of Excellence for anti-racism from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

That’s the recurring problem with systemic racism. It is so engrained in institutions that it must be given constant scrutiny, or else it can creep back in.

Let’s hope today’s media industries and journalism schools can get it right.

NOTE: This week, the chair of Ryerson's journalism program, Janice Neil, announced the school would act on the petition by creating a course specifically aimed at reporting on Black Canadians to launch this fall.