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University of Wisconsin–Madison

When Colour Matters: Depictions of South Asians in the mainstream media

The day the RCMP foiled a large-scale plot to bomb Toronto was a day of rude awakening for Canadians. It was a day when many realized that Canada is not a neutral ground, immune to the conflict going on in the world. Coincidentally, the first news day of the thwarted Toronto terror plot was also my first day as an intern in one of Canada’s top national newsrooms.

In the morning story pitch meeting, discussions centered around a potential story for the evening line up – an interview with Cheryfa Macaulay Jamal, the wife of Qayyum Abdul Jamal, the alleged ring leader of the ‘terrorist’ group. Cheryfa had converted to Islam after meeting her husband.

The producers in the room and on conference call from Toronto were discussing whether or not the story was going to be in the evening line up. In attempting to determine the story’s newsworthiness, one of the producers in Toronto asked if Cheryfa Jamal was white. When the producers in the room answered yes, the producer on the phone asked, “Yes…but does she look white?”

This could simply be my impression of things, but it seemed the implication was that the story would be most interesting to the show’s audience if the woman was white-looking. Perhaps if the woman had been of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent, with ‘brown’ skin, the story may not have been newsworthy enough to make the evening news. The producers seemed mostly interested in the woman’s reasons for converting to Islam.

It is possible that the discussion may have evolved differently if the producer on the phone had been in the room and had seen that the new intern – namely me – was not white. But the impression I walked away with was that, in this newsroom, a white woman in a burqa is a relevant news story. A brown woman in a burqa is not.

From my perspective, I couldn’t understand why an interview with the wife of the ringleader of a thwarted, large-scale terror plot wasn’t newsworthy in and of itself. It was difficult for me to understand how the woman’s skin color was the determining factor for the story’s newsworthiness.

I never considered bringing any of this up in the meeting. Apart from being the greenest person on the floor, and a somewhat nervous and eager-to-please intern, I was also one of the only non-white people in the room. I didn’t think that a discussion instigated by me about why brown women aren’t newsworthy would be welcome.

After the meeting, I was taken aside by one of the producers who first asked me if I was Muslim, and then explained to me, with the best of intentions, that this was the ‘real world,’ not the idealistic haven of university, and that the newsroom was a safe place for journalists to vent their own fears and frustrations – so long as those emotions didn’t make it into the news, of course.

I don’t want to demonize the newsroom I was working in, because this sort of experience appears to be more norm than exception for journalists of colour in Canada’s newsrooms.

The great unanswered question, says John Miller, former chair and current professor at Ryerson University’s school of journalism, is whether or not there is a connection between the diversity of journalists in a newsroom and that newsroom’s diversity of coverage.

In 2004, Miller completed a ten-year study examining diversity amongst the staff at Canadian newspapers. He found that the number of minority journalists had gone up slightly – from 2.6 per cent to 3.4 per cent in a decade.

Based on his research, Miller believes that “most people accept that diversity in the newsroom leads to more conversations in the newsroom, more contacts and broader coverage. Even if [minorities] are not covering the stories, they’re talking with the people who are.”

But minority representation in newsrooms hasn’t come close to keeping pace with the growing minority population, so the percentage of minority journalists has actually fallen behind. Also, minorities are almost completely absent among the ranks of editors and producers – those in decision-making positions in the newsroom.

Major metropolitan newspapers over the last 50 years have been subject to declining circulation numbers and shrinking newsrooms. But the ethnic media is one sector of the industry displaying the reverse trend.

Ben Viccari of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association says that Canada’s ethnic media has seen extraordinary growth since end of World War II, “from about seventy newspapers, magazines and radio programs to around 1,000, now including TV and Internet.”

Many immigrants turn to newspapers and programs in their mother tongue for news from their home country, says Viccari. But often editors in the ethnic media sector cite unfair depictions of their community in the mainstream as a reason for starting their publications.

Rana Vig is the founder of Mehfil magazine. Mehfil is a popular, fourteen-year-old English language magazine aimed at the South Asian community in the Lower Mainland.

“Mehfil is 100% a response to mainstream depictions of South Asians,” says Vig. “We started the magazine because we got tired of people thinking that Indo-Canadians are taxi and truck drivers. Clearly we’re not. We’ve had a great hand in building this country from the arts to business. Indian people today are in very influential positions. That’s why we came up with Mehfil – to highlight the positives in the Indo-Canadian community.”

“As the young generation matures, if all you see is the negativity – your community being portrayed in a certain way – you very much feel that that’s what we must be,” says Vig, who immigrated to Canada with his family in the 70s, when he was still a child.

Many journalists working in the ethnic media sector worked for mainstream media in their home countries. Rattan Mall, the outspoken editor of the Indo-Canadian Voice in Vancouver was a correspondent for the Times of India – one of India’s top national newspapers. London-born Veeno Diwan is currently an associate editor at Apna G newspaper in Surrey. He began his career as a producer at the BBC. Both express disillusionment with mainstream depictions of the South Asian community in Canada.

The problem, says Miller is that journalists are as prone – if not more so – to exaggerated fear of ‘the Other’ based on unbalanced coverage. “Minorities are depicted as the other bringing alien traditions to our fine community, and if an incident is serious enough it almost becomes a moral panic situation where you get columnists talking about ‘send them back to where they came from’, or ‘lets set up detention camps,'” says Miller.

“That’s certainly been the case in Toronto and it’s amazing how the coverage goes off in that direction, sometimes at the expense of accuracy.”

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