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No Turbans on TV: Have News Anchors Failed Democracy?

03/21/2014 05:24 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Recently, a former Quebec journalist argued that Canada's mainstream broadcasters were hypocritical for seeming to lend a sympathetic ear to those opposing the proposed Charter of Values.

"Not a kippa, hijab, cross or turban in sight. Religious symbols are, quite simply, not part of the TV news uniform; never have been," wrote Micheal Dean in the Globe and Mail. And while he's right in that there are few Canadian journalists sporting symbols of their faith, the premise for his argument needs to be turned on its head.

Rather than justify the Parti Québécois's bid to limit freedom of religion in its public institutions -- and eventually throughout the wider workforce -- the media's lack of representation of diverse communities must be called out for what it is: a letdown for democracy.

Considering that one in five Canadians is a member of a visible minority, according to latest national figures, it's shocking that broadcast and print media are grossly underrepresenting this significant segment of our population.

Why is this happening?

For starters, the percentage of visible minorities working in newsrooms is tiny. Researchers John Miller and Caron Court found that the percentage of minorities working in daily papers is way lower than their presence in the general population -- more than six times lower.

Their 2004 study illustrated that editors are simply not that concerned in hiring minorities. In fact, compared to their earlier study in 1994, commitment to improving diversity dropped in half to 13 per cent over that 10 year time span. A majority of managing editors blamed a lack of interest from diverse communities, saying "minorities just don't apply here," but as the researchers noted, "only one mentioned taking any steps to ensure they were attracting minority candidates, such as recruiting at journalism schools or ethnic publications."

It may also be that young people from diverse communities just don't see themselves adequately represented on the news so can't imagine a career in the media. As well, many cultures devalue journalism as a career choice because it doesn't guarantee a lucrative job. But are these the only reasons for the dismal representation?

Anecdotally, one senior journalist told me that with most medium-sized newspapers cutting back on staff just to survive, even covering stories from diverse communities is low on the priority list.

That may be true however this reasoning doesn't justify the dismal representation of diversity even beyond Canadian newsrooms. A 2011 study of entertainment programming concluded that

"...the dominant dynamic in Canadian television shows is that white people make up the majority of the main characters while racialized characters play secondary roles, despite the incongruity of this representation with census statistics and the experience of the majority of Canadian in the world outside television."

The report by Media Action analyzed several primetime shows and is an enlightening, if not slightly depressing read. Its authors conclude that while there have been strides in certain programming for showing Canadian society as it is -- "a robustly multi-racial and multi-religious nation" -- it is the "White, Judeo-Christian Canadian experience [that] is the desired and superior norm."

Why this matters

Writing in Canadian Ethnic Studies over a decade ago, University of Toronto associate professor and former journalist Minelle Mahtani noted that media researchers have found that the invisibility of minorities "perpetuates feelings of rejection, trivializes their contributions and devalues their role as citizens in their nations."

In her 2001 article, Mahtani concludes that even when diverse groups were represented in the media, often they were stereotyped and marginalized.

"The narrow range of images of ethnic minorities has effectively decreased the ability of minorities to be seen as positive contributors to Canadian society. Media researchers have pointed out that these negative stereotypes are cause for concern, because it creates a divide between ethnic minorities and so-called 'real' Canadians. Visible minority Canadians are seen as 'others' or 'foreigners' who potentially have the power to threaten the nation," she writes.

Augie Fleras, author and sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, writes in his most recent book, The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada, that "[...] mainstream media exist primarily as channels of persuasion whose primary objective is implicitly consistent yet expertly concealed -- namely to convert and co-opt audiences into "seeing like the media" as if this media gaze was untouched by bias or perspective."

In other words, it's incumbent that media consumers be aware of the omission and/or stereotyping of minorities so that they do not internalize these biases in their day-to-day interactions.

Solutions?

The power of popular culture to shape attitudes cannot be underestimated. Marvel Comics in the U.S., for example, is set to help shatter stereotypes with a new superhero. Ms. Marvel is now Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old second generation Pakistani-American girl who lives in New Jersey.

However, the comic's main writer, G. Willow Wilson, acknowledges "a burden of representation that comes into play when there aren't enough representatives of a certain group in popular culture. So the few ones that do exist come under increased scrutiny and pressure, because they're expected to represent everybody." Indeed, it isn't going to take one actor, one reporter, or one comic book hero to adequately represent whole communities.

What it will take is renewed commitments on the sides of media producers to engage with underrepresented groups to find innovative ways to include and weave them into North American narratives. Funding from both public and private coffers is key in encouraging and promoting storytelling from within minority groups including Aboriginals, women, racialized communities and others. Funding could support outreach, training, and programming. And where funds are scarce, editorial efforts to seek out and empower diverse voices in thoughtful and nuanced ways will still make a difference.

Success will lead to a healthier democracy in which more people see themselves positively reflected and respected as full-fledged, contributing citizens.

As for the Charter of Values? It wouldn't stand a chance in that kind of media environment.

A longer version of this article was first published at New Canadian Media.

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