In Jan. 2020, two national media organizations focused on prioritizing Black journalists—Canadian Journalists of Colour (CJOC) and the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ)—released a joint document listing Calls to Action for Canadian news outlets.
“The absence of representation in newsrooms across Canada has become impossible to ignore in light of recent events,” it read. “We want the media industry to be equitable and truly representative of Canada’s racial diversity.”
A joint press release from the organizations sent out in June further outlined the specific gaps in Canadian media organizations.
“Not only are there too few Black journalists in Canadian newsrooms, and a dismal number of Black managers at all levels, but the industry persistently refuses to report on itself,” the organizations explained.
“Disaggregated demographic numbers are not released by Canadian media companies; while white-centered and biased coverage is disseminated to listeners, readers, and viewers, the industry resists even the barest measures of accountability.”
The CJOC and CABJ’s Calls to Action document was intended to bridge those gaps, and provide a clear course of action for newsrooms across the country. Among the calls, the organizations asked for increased demographic self-reporting, increased representation in hiring, and more journalists of colour in management positions.
Until George Floyd’s murder in May, those calls were largely ignored.
This past summer saw a flood of new promises across North American industries in response to protests following the police killing of Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis.
The Canadian news industry was no exception. Increased discussions about how newsrooms further anti-Black racism led many media outlets to make new commitments to internal diversity and improved reporting on marginalized issues.
Suddenly, the CJOC and CABJ calls were being read.
Corus Entertainment, the parent company of outlets including Global, Slice, W Network, Food Network Canada, and HGTV Canada, announced in June that it would be conducting a review of employee experiences and internal culture.
Brodie Fenlon, the editor in chief and executive director of daily news for CBC News, penned a blog post where he promised the national broadcaster’s newsroom is “committed to change.” He listed his department’s pledges, including prioritizing hiring marginalized journalists and ensuring staff monitor unconscious bias in their reporting.
It's June 2006, my 1st week hosting the @CBCOttawa drive home show. A dream job. My 1st permanent gig. I'm back in my hometown. A respected journalist in the newsroom says to my face I'm a token. I'm paralyzed. I say nothing. I vow that'll never happen again. #BlackintheNewsroom
— Adrian Harewood (@CBCAdrianH) June 8, 2020
At the Toronto Star, commitments from the publication and the Torstar news organization include monitoring demographics, hiring more Black and Indigenous employees, and consulting external advisors. Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, called the publication’s commitments “just the beginning.”
From outlet to outlet, a new focus on how newsrooms across the country are framing and prioritizing Black voices is emerging.
Meanwhile, on university campuses and online, student journalists were asking themselves the same questions, and making public commitments to Black readers. From The Martlet in Victoria, B.C. to the McGill Daily in Montreal, Que., campus papers published editorials describing how they would incorporate inclusion into their newsrooms.
“We have an obligation to challenge and dismantle the systemic racism that impedes the voices and stories of racialized individuals from coming forward,” Kate Korte, The Martlet’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an editorial. “Canadian media, including The Martlet, must look within ourselves and honestly reckon with how we reproduce and reinforce racism.”
As campus papers undergo many of the same transitions towards equity as legacy media outlets, some Black student journalists say they’ve seen more of a willingness to learn from their peers than from editors at established media organizations.
Mahad Arale is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ont. He told The Pigeon that his experience with The Ryersonian, a campus publication produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, was far more inclusive than what he experienced in a recent internship.
“I don’t feel discomfort pitching stories focused within the Black community on campus. In fact, I actually feel that the editors [at the Ryersonian] actually look for that and welcome ideas that reach an array of inclusive communities,” Arale said. “For my internship [at a professional media outlet] I haven’t really gotten that same feeling of inclusivity and comfort in pitching Black stories.”
Arale attributes this difference to the fact that his peer editors at the Ryersonian are open to learning.
“I think in campus media, you’ve seen that universities and colleges encourage more critical thought, so you have more students that do critically think about certain issues,” he explained. “I think that does play a role in more stories [about Blackness] being accepted by editors.”
Making concrete commitments to the Black community is the logical next step for Catherine Abes, the editor-in-chief of The Eyeopener, an independent, student-led publication at Ryerson.
Abes told The Pigeon that while The Eye’s newsroom has been exploring its role in giving a platform to Black voices and issues for some time, last summer was—ironically—eye-opening.
“[Black representation] was always going to be a thing that we thought about,” she said. “Of course, with everything that happened over the summer, it became more than just a good practice, [but] a crucial one.”
Some of the concrete changes The Eyeopener has implemented moving forward include consulting more with Black student groups, developing closer relationships between journalists and sources, and thoroughly fact-checking articles before they go to print.
The Eye stands in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter as folks across North America are standing up against police brutality, systemic racism and the oppression of Black lives. In light of this, we want to highlight the voices and experiences of Black community at Ryerson. (thread)
— The Eyeopener (@theeyeopener) May 31, 2020
Part of this process also includes facilitating dialogues with student groups who didn’t trust campus media previously.
“We’re still in the stage of mending relationships with the Black community at Ryerson,” Abes said. “We [are] at that stage where we’re making it known that we’re trustworthy, which is a really important step.”
As a non-Black leader, Abes is very conscious of her role in furthering dialogues about Black newsroom representation. She’s also prioritized the wellbeing of Black editors on her team, especially when it comes to choosing who reports on issues of trauma in the Black community.
“What I can do as an editor, especially as a non-Black editor, is make sure that [newsroom] spaces are safe, in the sense that [Black reporters] don’t feel like they have to be the person to talk about these things,” Abes said. “I think having a newsroom where it’s clear that people can set boundaries and protect themselves, especially with these overlapping crises that we can’t seem to avoid, [is important.]”
Abes thinks having Black representation on The Eyeopener’s masthead has been key for affirming the paper’s commitment to marginalized voices. In fact, much of the student newspaper’s essential coverage of issues relevant to Black students has been taken on by Black editors themselves.
In Feb. 2019, The Eyeopener released “The Blackout Issue,” a special edition of the paper spearheaded by then-communities editor Lidia Abraha with articles written exclusively by Black Ryerson students.
Last year, former communities editor @lidiabraha and a team of all Black writers created our first ever Blackout Issue. “This is a small taste of what the Black experience at Ryerson looks like.” Read the stories here: https://t.co/AW7FgEzAZc pic.twitter.com/JNx4YEcpx5
— The Eyeopener (@theeyeopener) May 31, 2020
Libaan Osman, The Eyeopener’s news editor, recalls being a part of “The Blackout Issue” as a pivotal moment in his student journalism career.
“I wrote about what it was like to be a Black man on [Toronto’s transit system],” Osman recalled in an interview with The Pigeon. “That was my first time really writing about my experience as a Black man. But it was dope.”
Participating in “The Blackout Issue”—and seeing other Black people on The Eyeopener’s masthead—inspired Osman to apply for an editorial position at the paper in his third year at Ryerson.
With encouragement from then-sports editor Peter Ash, Osman applied for the 2019-20 sports editor position. After being hired, Osman said he immediately felt welcomed in The Eyeopener’s newsroom.
“At The Eye there were three of us [who were Black] in my first year there,” he recalled. “It felt inclusive.”
“I felt like I belonged.”
Now the news editor, Osman is excited by the changes he’s seen in the student publication. He’s especially encouraged by the fact that The Eyeopener has published stories not just about Black trauma, but about Black success.
“No one tells the story of Black excellence in sports that much […] That was my specialty when I was covering sports,” he said. “Black stories are important. They’re beautiful. And they need to be told.”
For Black student journalists, positive change is long overdue.
Danni Olusanya is the culture editor at The Ubyssey, the student paper for the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, B.C.
Olusanya has seen The Ubyssey change dramatically in the five years she’s worked with the paper.
“When I was in first year I did not talk to another Black student until October. It was just a place where there were just no people like me,” she remembered. “One of the [Ubyssey] editors, [Olamide Olaniyan], was the sports editor at that time.”
“He was the only Black person I saw in a leadership position in my first year.”
Now in her fifth year, Olusanya looks around The Ubyssey’s offices and sees more consideration for Black voices than before. As culture editor, she’s happy to have participated in that change.
“I think the section that I am now editor of has changed so dramatically, because culture was not seen as a section that spoke about diversity,” she said. “I think a lot of the change in the Ubyssey over the last three years has been generated within the culture section. And that kind of changed the way other sections have run and the things that they consider.”
“It’s been a slow and gradual change. But I believe it’s shaped by the people who end up in a position of power.”
Reflecting on this summer, Olusanya acknowledged that a lot has changed in the way media outlets cover issues affecting Black people, but added that these changes were a direct result of Black labour—years of it.
“I’m not happy that the summer happened,” she said. “I don’t think you can find a Black person who’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so happy that people did this.’ It was a disproportionate amount of labour, emotion, and distress that Black people were put under [in the past few months].”
“Yes, there is a change in the way that people are talking about things. Yes, there has been a change in the discourse. Yes, that’s super important. But the things that are being said by mainstream media or legacy media [are] what activists have been saying […] for years.”
A fear also persists among Black student journalists, including Olusanya, that covering issues relevant to Black communities won’t be “trendy” anymore in a few months.
“Although it’s more popularized and more understood, that discourse also has a time limit,” Olusanya said.
Osman echoed a lot of Olusanya’s sentiments.
“It feels like the movement has died down since George Floyd. When George Floyd passed, it was like a numbing feeling for me. I see this all the time, I see this is happening in Toronto, it’s happening to people that used to live in my neighbourhood.
“It’s 2020. It’s about time [for change]. It took this long.”