Sarah: Everyone brings themselves to work. Even journalists, who’ve had the idea drilled into them through journalism school, through experiences in newsrooms, that they need to be quote unquote “objective.” For journalists of colour, this can look a lot like being forced to legitimize views that denounce their very existence in the name of journalistic balance. It looks like being required to set aside racist acts against you, both subtle and avert, just so you can file by deadline. In a recent essay Radiyah Chowdhury, the assistant editor of Chatelaine, says this is an impossible ask. Her essay cut to the heart of what’s wrong with media today. It assumes its entire readership is white. Which, beyond the obvious problem of erasure, might be a bad business move, given that people of colour will make up at least a third of Canada’s population by the year 2036. It insists on debating the existence of systemic racism instead of hiring journalists of colour, never mind promoting them decision making roles. Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, news outlets have been taken to task on all of this. But as the media cycle turns on, what’s going to actually change? I’m Sarah Boesveld, sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Radiyah Chowdhury, as mentioned, is assistant editor at Chatelaine, and she’s also the winner of this year’s Dalton Camp award, a prize for the best essay on the subject of media and democracy. Hi Radiyah. Thanks so much for being here.
Radiyah: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: I’m going to throw out a journalism term hair right away and talk about your lede, which for those of us listeners who don’t work in this field, as Radiyah and I do, it’s the opening line of your essay. And there you write that you had been thinking about grappling with the decision to leave journalism for a while now. And you’ve only been in it almost maybe about four years now. Can you tell me about when that idea first entered your mind?
Radiyah: I would have to say it’s probably journalism school. When I was going through the field, I sort of started at J-school question. And the question was, how can I bring myself, and my identity, and my lived experiences to this job that I do? And I thought that I would get an answer to this question by the time I graduated, but I didn’t. I went through four years of journalism school. Most of my professors were white, so they couldn’t really give me any advice on this particular issue. I graduated and then I thought, well, I still don’t have an answer. Maybe if I work in the field, I’ll get an answer. So then I started to work in the field. And I’ve worked in TV and print and a radio. So I’ve tried a bunch of different mediums and I still couldn’t find an answer to this question. And then I met other journalists of colour who have been in this field for a lot longer than I have 15, 20 years. And they didn’t have an answer to this question either. A lot of it was just, it seemed to be a sacrifice. It always came down to a sacrifice, where if you’re going to be a journalist, then there are just parts of you that you have to put away. And sort of bringing all of you to the job just wasn’t– it didn’t really fit within the mold of journalism as it’s practiced today. So, I mean, I’ve done it for four years and I think for me, the biggest issue is that I feel a little bit muzzled in this experience. And, you know, you’re not really– you’re not paid well as a journalist anyways, as a young journalist. And there’s not a lot of job security. So in my head, I’m like, well I’m suffering for a job, an industry that’s not really going to pay me well, and I could just jump ship and go do something else and get paid better.
Sarah: Fair enough. I mean, but that’s especially hard to hear. I imagine that journalists who’ve been in the field for 20 years were like, it’s something we have to do, or it’s an expectation of us. How did that feel to hear that from them?
Radiyah: Disappointing. It’s not just even how you feel. It’s also about the industry itself. It’s about who works in the newsrooms, to hear a lot of these people say that, you know, we’ve been at this newsroom for this long, and it’s always still been majority white people who work here, or the senior board level people who work here are majority white, and we’ve been on the diversity committees, and we’ve been doing the work and we’ve just, you know, eventually you come to the stand still where it’s just very surface level and there’s no real attempt to address the issue and actually make change for generations that come after. So to hear that I think was, for me, I just felt like fatigued. I was like, you’ve been here and you’ve been doing this work for so long and I don’t want to– I’m not a hero, you know? I want to do meaningful work and be happy.
Sarah: You want to get in there and tell the stories and–
Radiyah: Right. And lead a fulfilling life and not be upset and sad all the time. So, I mean, yeah, that’s sort of just been something that has been very disappointing for me to hear.
Sarah: Can we go back to idealistic Radiyah, who was thinking about a journalism career, I don’t know how young it started for you. Can you tell me about what sparked that interest to begin with, to rewind a little bit there?
Radiyah: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I will admit that going into journalism has never been like my lifelong dream. I think it occurred to me in high school, in like 11th or 12th grade where I had to pick a major, and I liked to write. And so I thought, what could I do that can make money in? And I don’t want to go into English because everyone told me you can’t make money as an author. And I also had this distaste with the media, and from that very young age, from 15, 16 years old, because of the way that I saw mainstream media cover the neighbourhood that I’m from, which is Malvern in Scarborough. And anytime Malvern was in the news, it was always about crime. It was about shootings. It was about things that didn’t define our community, but if you read anything about Malvern in the newspapers, or you watched any TV segments about it, that’s the idea that you would have. So a lot of the work that I did in high school was, like in leadership conferences and whatever it is, was about addressing the way that the media saw Malvern. And how could we get our stories out there? All of our like artists, or poets, or musicians, all of our events, all of these cool things that we create here that nobody ever cares to come and actually cover. How can we get those stories out? So I think that I got into journalism because I didn’t like the way that I saw journalists cover my community. And you know, I guess at first it was a lot of idealism. It was, you know, I can go in here and I can sort of make a change. And then as you get older, that desire sort of wanes because you’re faced with so many roadblocks.
Sarah: I would argue though, that you’re making a change with this essay and we’ll get to that later. I hope so. I really, I think though that a lot of people read it and they said, This is an impactful piece that kind of really encapsulates what a lot of the industry is talking about grappling with right now, you know, whether there we’re going to see meaningful action, I really hope so.
Sarah: But when you go back to thinking about what you observed when reporters came to your neighbourhood, they were, I imagine, mostly white reporters. What were they bringing, or not bringing, that you think– you know, was it also sort of a systemic thing? Like the news is only– there has to be conflict or tension or something like quote unquote “bad” that made them focus in that way, rather than stick around and invest and get to know people? Like, was it kind of fly in and then go back to their white, you know, newsrooms and their white suburban lives, like?
Sarah: Can you tell me a little bit about sort of like your observations of what they were doing that was like so harmful?
Radiyah: I think it’s a couple of things. I mean, something that we learned in J-school was if it bleeds, it ledes. There’s that, like, familiar sentence. And you know, if there’s a shooting, it’s quite a big affair, people are gonna come cover it, because it’s crime. But part of it is that there’s a sensationalism, I think, in that regard, as to covering things like that, and just covering what happened as opposed to the nuance and really thinking about how does my one sided coverage of this neighbourhood actually affect the people who live here? So just that oversight completely. And I think that has a lot to do with the people who are in the newsrooms. People who work there, who might have experience with this, who come from neighbourhoods similar to mine, who might be able to say, Hey, we’re really only going into Malvern when bad things happen, but you know, last week this person from Malvern did this really amazing thing and we didn’t cover it because it wasn’t important to us. It’s only important for us to cover Black and Brown bodies when it has to do with crime or poverty. And that’s sort of the widespread narrative around a lot of these issues. So that’s, I mean, those are a couple of things, but also a lack of understanding and a lack of even attempting to understand what it’s like to be from one of these communities, coming in with absolutely no knowledge of the people who live there. And like you said, yeah, sort of fly in journalism. You come in, you cover something terrible that happened, and then you leave and you never think about the effects of your coverage on those people. And that’s not something that is afforded to me. I’m always going to think about that, because I’m one of those people who’s affected by that type of coverage. And there are so many other people like me, like mine is not a unique story. There’s so many people like me who also have that and can bring that to the job. But it’s hard to– for one thing, it’s hard to break into the field. Still widespread, very white. Also there’s this, like, I don’t know what it is, it’s almost like this faux politeness, or like inability to really be clear and blunt about racism and systemic racism, almost as if we’re afraid to offend our readership. And I think partially it’s because we think of our readership as majority white, like white is the norm. So we’re afraid to even broach those types of topics, or for example, like why is there crime in a particular neighbourhood? What are the things that are set up in that neighbourhood that have created these circumstances where people are low income? Like everything has a story and has a context, and there’s so little thought and care when it comes to covering that context, which is why I’ve said like time and time again, like it’s not just about the facts, it’s about the story. If you’re going to be accurate about coverage then you have to be accurate about the actual story and everything that story encompasses. I got into journalism because I wanted to bring that thought and that experience to it. But obviously I’m having a hard time finding a balance.
Sarah: It sounds like you really just wanted to bring humanity and justice to this work, which is really what this work should be about. You know, and I have to say that as a journalist, too, there’s capitalism and patriarchy and all sorts of structures, right? That if we want to get into those things, it’s white supremacy at the end of the day. It’s kind of this idea that this is a white audience, a white readership. The whiteness is the status quo. But you draw from a number of stats in your piece, too, that talks about, even just demographic-wise, that is not Canada. Canada’s changing in so many ways. And you know, if there’s going to be a solid future for this industry, can we not dismantle that white supremacy and actually brings some humanity and justice and investment into communities that make up this country?
Radiyah: Right. And even just addressing the problem, addressing that this is a real thing. Like the fact that we even are having conversations, like is systemic racism in Canada real? It’s just so tired and fatiguing for me, like, as a journalist, it’s like, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to sit around and debate whether systemic racism is real. Like I’d rather do something else, honestly, with my time that doesn’t make me so upset. So, you know, I think that if we could at least admit there’s a problem, maybe we can do something about it. But I’m still seeing hesitancy to even admit that it’s an issue.
Sarah: Yeah. And I mean, within the industry too, you know, and I know that you’ve been asked lots of times to talk about this idea of objectivity, which you raised, but I think I really like how you talked about it being a utopian idea, this concept. And I think we get a lot of utopian ideas in journalism school. That is where our idealism is trying– they’re attempting to foster it, you know. And it didn’t sound like that is really an effective tool at all to properly equip us for this work. And so can you talk a little bit about the tension between that inability for us to– for everyone as a journalist, but I mean, particularly journalists of colour, to bring themselves, their whole selves to their work, which is what I think gets a good story, is you bring your entire self and that pressure to be quote unquote, objective? What does that look like?
Radiyah: I mean, I think for one thing, objectivity in theory is different than it is in practice. So there was a Twitter thread recently by one of the authors of Elements of Journalism, which is a manual of journalism for all J-schools, anyone who’s gone to J-school probably owns a copy. And the author was essentially saying that objectivity was created to actually address a journalist’s bias, and it was created to verify facts, to ensure there’s an accurate process in terms of verification process, because it acknowledges that journalists have biases. And then over time it’s sort of become this completely different beast. So the things that I’m learning in J-school about like, this is what they say about objectivity, and then I actually see how it is in practice, is completely different. For example, we had people come in, guest lecturers come in, some talking about how they don’t even vote because that would be so subjective. And I’m like, I don’t have the luxury to not vote, because a lot of these policies that come out by a lot of these politicians makes it very difficult for me and the people I love to live in a democratic society. So I don’t have the luxury to not vote, where a white woman might have that same capacity, or a white man might have that same capacity. Thoughts like that, where it’s– we have this idea, we’re taught this specific thing, but then actually in practice, that’s not how it is at all. Even if you look at ethics standards at various organizations, like CBC, for example. I know people who have been reprimanded because they tweeted this person said something racist, and that person did say something racist. And I think it goes back to this thing where we’re afraid to acknowledge when people say things that are racist.
Sarah: That’s a fact.
Radiyah: Right. It’s a fact.
Sarah: It’s an actual fact that they tweeted.
Radiyah: It’s a fact, but it’s, you know, It goes down to while you’re being biased. And who gets to decide what bias is? Who gets to decide what objectivity is in practice? It’s the gatekeepers of journalism. Who are the gatekeepers of journalism? White people. Who are the people who control newsrooms and decide how to cover something? White people. And so it all goes back to, you know, this mold that was created for a certain type of person, and the rest of us are tasked with fitting ourselves into this mold. And it’s an impossible task. None of us will ever be able to do it. What happens is that we feel tired, burnt out, like we’re not good enough journalists, like we’ll never live up to the standard because we were set up to fail. So the notion, and how we actually approach what objectivity really is, needs to be shifted. And I think that’s an individual task for each newsroom because newsrooms differ from place to place. There are different mediums. CBC would be different than the Toronto Star. But I do think that that’s something that individual newsrooms really need to interrogate. They need to interrogate their own policies and how it affects the people who work in their newsrooms, who aren’t white.
Sarah: Yeah. Because if, like, the idea that racism is a thing or a systemic issue is up for debate, as it has been in the mainstream media, and even last year when the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls report came out, and all of the headlines were about whether or not there had been a genocide against Indigenous people.
Sarah: I think, yeah, there’s so much thinking and inward looking that white journalism has to do to really say, well, actually that is a fact. And actually that is an objective truth. So let’s then just let the journalists tell the stories and do the work. Right?
Radiyah: Because at some point it does become offensive. It becomes offensive that you’re asking me if Islamophobia is real, and let’s get these different sides to discuss whether it’s real. Like, why are you asking a white man if some of Islamophobia is real? What does he have to say about that? So it becomes offensive when it’s your own industry who’s doing it and asking these stupid questions. And at that point, I think the frustration builds and a lot of people leave.
Sarah: Yeah. Cause like you said in your piece, your very existence is political in an environment where we can’t accept these truths as white majority population, as a white power gatekeeper system, right?
Radiyah: And we didn’t ask for our identities to be politicized, they just are. And so. We really have been sort of set up almost to fail in that way.
Sarah: Yeah. And also like if you’re interested in journalism and like just telling really rich stories that are untapped, I think there’s actually so much opportunity to tell those amazing stories, given the huge blind spot that white media has had, right? Like there are incredible people, incredible narratives, that are just untapped, right? Because of this white gatekeeping that’s, that’s been in place for so long, in so many ways, right?
Radiyah: Or even, seeing particular stories as niche. If it’s a story about a black community, then it’s a niche topic, but why is that the case, when when we tell other stories, it’s the norm. So even interrogating things like that, like why do you say that something about a particular community is niche when it only affects them, when everything else is fine, general stuff, if it affects majority white?
Sarah: So you wrote this essay in the early part of this year and I guess submitted it in March, right? And then you won it amidst this national– international conversation in the Western world sort of about Black Lives Matter, about interrogating these very problems in media and a lot of these institutions that we have to now, all of us interact with, whether we like it or not– policing. What have you seen going on, I guess since hitting send, when you submitted the essay.
Radiyah: Oh, it’s been a whirlwind. It’s been, I mean, when I submitted the essay, I was afraid. I didn’t think I would win. So I didn’t really consider the fact that it might be published and other people would read outside of the judges’ panel. But I was, you know, in my experience here in Canada, there hasn’t really been an openness or willingness to talk about things like this. And you do have to think, well, if I bring this up, did I risk my career? So that was a conversation that I had with myself. Like if you do win, are you okay with this potentially ruining any future job prospects? And I’m not a news reporter, but I think this is like a very big point of contention for news reporters especially. I wanted to be a news reporter in J-school, and I realized very quickly that it just isn’t gonna happen before me because I’m not– I can’t do it. Like I really respect Black news reporters and Indigenous news reporters and people of colour because yeah, I can’t do it. But yeah, so I already sacrificed that. I was like, I’m going to do something else where I have a little bit more leeway to actually say what I want to say. But so many people have come forth recently, like within these past couple of weeks. So many stories about what it’s like to work in Canadian and American media and the things that people grapple with on the daily, and taking their issues of racism, overt racism, in many cases, to HR, to their superiors and sort of being muzzled again, or being told to like, you know, this isn’t a big deal, being silenced, their experiences being erased from the newsrooms, or then being told you should be grateful to have a job. You should be happy to be here. You shouldn’t be complaining. I knew that this existed, I knew obviously racism and systemic racism exists in journalism, and this is something I talk about with my peers. But the amount of stories that came out, I was not prepared for. I almost felt like after all the stories came out and then my essay was published, like my essay didn’t really– it wasn’t as fiery as I had originally thought after seeing everything come out.
Sarah: Do you think the term as well– and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, like even the term diversity and media, do you think that’s problematic in itself? Like, does that assume in some ways that there’s– the white majority should prevail? I don’t know. I just was curious to ask you what you thought of that idea. And I mean, I don’t know what the alternative is, cause there needs to be a better one that is just like, we just need to have, like this industry reflect Canada and do a much more responsible job of telling the stories. I don’t know. Do you find that there’s a– does it connote tokenism in some ways too?
Radiyah: I think, yeah. I think that’s the big conversation with the term diversity. And a lot of people of colour are like, we hate that term. Because yeah, you’re right. It is a form of tokenism and it is a form of otherness and it does often– when people are hired, it’s very likely, they may be seen as a diversity hire. So it’s reductive to the cause in a lot of cases, where people are genuinely very good people, but say they’re getting hired now. It might be– it opens the gate for someone to say, well, you’re only being hired because we’re in this moment in time and they need a Black person or they need an Indigenous person, which is very offensive to them and to these individual workers and their careers. So that is an issue, but I also don’t know the solution. It should just be that I’m a journalist and I’m committed to the fourth estate and to democracy and to actually telling proper stories about this country. And if you are actually committed to those things and those ideals, then you should be committed to having an inclusive workplace that represents Canada at large. That should be it. But will people ever say that? Probably not. So what we have to work with is diversity. My issue is that it might be just temporary. That a lot of these things that are created are these like budgets that are allocated to freelancers or whatever it is, are just going to exist for a couple months, and then things will go right back to how it was before when you know, Black Lives Matter gets out of the news, and we stopped talking about anti-Black racism or systemic racism. And that is a very big fear that I have because it has been done before over and over.
Sarah: Well, If we know anything about journalism and media there’s cycles. And I think even The Globe and Mail’s union, when they issued a statement, said that there was a signatory there, a member of their union who had been on a diversity committee like 16 years ago. And here we still are with an extremely white masthead. The people making those decisions and editing and assigning reporters out are all white. And so I know in your essay, you said hiring is really not enough. So in terms of making sure this is a longterm commitment, is there anything that you would suggest the industry at large, and also these individual publications and outlets, really think long and hard about and actually bake into their practices and their processes of just how they do their jobs from day to day?
Radiyah: Well, I think the first thing is to acknowledge what’s happening in your newsrooms. And a lot of that is self reporting on demographics. In my essay, I sort of mentioned that a lot of newsrooms haven’t self-reported in years, in decades. So looking at the people who work in your newsrooms, what do they comprise of? If you can’t identify the problem, then it’ll never be fixed. So how do you know for sure that your newsroom is majority white people? You create a self-reported demographic report that shows that as a fact. And then you begin to address how you can switch that up. I think that another thing is the onus needs to go from people of colour, to white journalists and newsroom managers, because diversity committees, who are people who sit on diversity committees? They’re largely Black people, people of colour, Indigenous people who are asked to do additional labour for no extra cost, they’re still being paid their regular salaries. And I think that they need to be compensated for the labour that they do to help create more inclusive workplaces because that’s not their job. They are reporters most of the time, people who work there. That should be the task of the actual managers and people who run newsrooms, and the onus needs to shift. It needs to be more white people who are willing to do this work and who are critically analyzing their own newsrooms and their teams. And they’re doing that because they’re committed to fair journalism. And if you’re not committed to fair journalism, then you shouldn’t be a journalist. So yeah, the onus needs to shift. Definitely. Self-reporting. Looking at your coverage. What are the stories that you cover? What are the communities that you’re missing? Obviously, each newsroom and organization is different, depending on how you structure the newsroom, your budgets, that type of thing. In terms of– right now, I’m seeing a lot of like freelance budgets are being allocated to accommodate for more diverse representation, but freelance budgets are temporary. So you need to think about if we do create internships and fellowships, how do we actually retain those journalists? What are the avenues that we’ve created to ensure that they can be integrated into the newsroom after they finish, they complete their one year, two year term? Mentorship opportunities for them. Addressing the barriers that they face that white journalists may not face. I think that there’s been a rush recently about journalism schools in Canada and former students of journalism schools, sort of holding their schools to task and being like, well, when we were in school, you didn’t really take our experiences into consideration. A big thing is internships. A lot of the critique that comes out of that is a lot of the white students have the ability to do unpaid internships, whereas a lot of the other students don’t, because they just can’t afford to do it. And so they end up missing out on those crucial experiences that then affect them when they go into the workplace because they don’t get to have that on their resume. So looking at paid internships for students. So it starts from school. It starts from school, it starts from when you’re training young journalists, and then all the way up to the top. Things need to be changed. I love to tell stories, and that’s primarily why I got into here. And I would, I would love if I could just focus on telling stories and not have to focus on the rest of this stuff. I would love that. But I can’t do that alone. And like I said in my acceptance speech, you know, dismantling systemic racism is work for all of us. Not just some of us.
Sarah: Let’s get that work done. Thank you so much.
Radiyah: Thank you.
Sarah: Radiyah Chowdhury is assistant editor at Chatelaine and this year’s winner of the Dalton Camp award. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. How about writing to us to let us know what you think or tell us what you’d like us to tackle in a future episode? That email address is email@example.com. I’m Sarah Boesveld and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.
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