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Changing the make-up of the medium: Ryerson J-school reaches out to ethnic communities

By Amanda Hudson

Journalism schools across Ontario are changing the face of the media from the bottom up, rather than waiting for a miracle to fall from the top.

“In both their staffing and in how they depict minorities in print, most of Canada’s dailies are nearly as white as the paper they’re printed on,” writes John Miller, chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism in Media magazine.

Miller studied five major Canadian newspapers and surveyed 41 Canadian newsrooms last year. “I did for intellectual curiosity and a personal view from reading newspapers in this city that they don’t always seem to reflect the diversity of the community,” he explained.

His results were disturbing. Miller’s study showed only 2.6 per cent of Canadian journalists are non-white. He also found that minorities received only 14 per cent of the news coverage, even though they make up for 20 per cent of the population. His study also found that 49 per cent of the news coverage was negative, and only 42 per cent was positive.

Phil Bingley, assistant manager editor of personnel and training and chief copy editor at the Toronto Star, said the issue of hiring non-white journalists is a “moot point” because they are “not hiring (anyone) right now.” But he added that when they are ready to hire, the Star is very keen to have the make-up of the community reflected in the newspaper.”

John Downing, editor of the Toronto Sun, said that the issue of hiring journalists “should have nothing at all to do with religion or skin colour. In the case of a tie, however, schools and papers should be disposed to minorities.” 

Most editors do not seem to share Downing’s apparent enthusiasm.

“(I asked editors) if they thought increasing diversity of their newsrooms has to wait until the recession was over. They all said ‘Yes.’ Then I asked how many people have you hired in the new year? And they said 47. So, 41 people had hired 47 people. How many non-white? Three. So, they’re not practising what they’re preaching,” he said.

Most Canadian newspapers are owned and run by white males, which would explain why the non-white population is under-represented and misrepresented in major daily papers. Objectivity is good in theory, but impossible to practice. In addition, newspapers know which side their bread is buttered on. It’s all economics. If 80 per cent of the population is white, then who’s buying the majority of papers. Owners have a vested interest in keeping the newsrooms and stories more white.

Miller states Ryerson’s goal. “We want to recruit a student body as diverse as Canadian society,” he said. And we’ve achieved that in terms of numbers. We can do better than that.”

Five years ago, Miller says about 6 per cent of Ryerson journalism students were non-white. Today, it’s about 18 per cent. The change is attributed to raised consciousness at Ryerson. The faculty were told to view ethnic diversity as an asset and to take surveys to see who applies and who is accepted into the program. 

“We’re not admitting people who aren’t qualified,” Miller explained. “But we’re expanding our definition of who’s qualified.”

Two years ago, the number of non-white students dropped after the autobiographical essay was deleted from the admissions process. Miller and faculty are working to change the admissions structure to bring the numbers back up.

“In 90 per cent of cases, ethnic origin is evident from the application by either the name or autobiographical essay,” said Peter Desbarats, dean of the University of Western Ontario’s graduate journalism program. Like Miller, Desbarats wants to increase the number of non-whites in journalism and suggests advertising in ethnic papers could attract more applicants. He also feels journalism has only recently become a career choice in ethnic communities.

Ryerson’s Journalism School has just taken a significant step towards addressing some of journalism’s historical inequities. Last week, Dan David, an Aboriginal Canadian, became Canada’s first Chair of Diversity. His task will be to conduct research, recruitment and training so that Canada’s journalism schools and newsrooms can better serve the diverse communities who call Canada home.

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