Canada’s cultural mosaic is a point of national pride. One-fifth of Canadians are immigrants, and Statistics Canada predicts that by 2031, 96 per cent of the population will be visible minorities.
However, there is room to grow when it comes to diversity in Canadian media.
Devika Desai is a 22-year-old from Dubai doing her masters of journalism at Ryerson University. The representation of diverse cultures, she said, is necessary in the news industry to address minority issues. “You need that representation in the media because in the end, [minorities] are the people who can write about these issues and reflect the issues back to the public.”
There should be a demand for people of different backgrounds in the media industry, Desai said. “No one can really understand a South Asian issue better than someone who is South Asian. No one can understand an indigenous issue better than someone of indigenous ethnicity.”
There is certainly a battle going on right now in terms of people acknowledging and accepting their position in society.
Diversity is not just an ongoing issue in the media. It is an issue that, as a society, Canadians must overcome, said Nneka Elliott, a former reporter and anchor for Toronto news station CP24 who grew up in the Caribbean. “There is certainly a battle going on right now in terms of people acknowledging and accepting their position in society.”
Elliott said she never thought she would be in news media, although she always imagined herself doing something where she would be in front of a camera.
Race has “never limited my reach,” she said. “It never limited my vision or my dreams. Whether there is a limit put on my opportunities – it’s not something that I’m negating – but it’s not necessarily something I experienced.”
There are still obstacles to be overcome in this industry, Elliott said.
She said in her early career her accent “wasn’t a barrier, but it was something that I was constantly reminded of. People would say ‘you say that different. How come you pronounce it like that? We say it like this,’ always bringing that fact to my knowledge.”
In recent years, she says the public has seen a change in the faces and backgrounds reporting the news. However, many areas of the industry are still dominated with Caucasian personalities. “In sports, I don’t think I’ve seen a black female sportscaster or any other race besides white,” said Elliott, who left CP24 in late 2016 to work as a lifestyle blogger and YouTuber.
Elliott said that while no one will blatantly say that you need to stop speaking with an accent, if something is pointed out numerous times, you will do something to change it. “Which accents are being authoritative? Why is a British accent, over a Sri Lankan or Asian accent, not perceived with as much authority?” she asked. “Would somebody with a British accent receive the same kind of criticism that I do, with a Caribbean accent?”
One problem stems from the fact that students from diverse backgrounds choose not to enter journalism school because, within certain cultures, people are dissuaded from pursuing certain careers. For her undergrad, she studied English and economics at the University of Toronto. Her decision to pursue journalism came out of her passion for writing. Not everyone may feel they have that opportunity. “There are some cultures that prioritize certain careers over others,” Desai said. “South Asian culture, for example, is more science focused, at least it was traditionally.”
The lack of diversity in high-profile positions is another issue. “You have to look at the management, the people who are calling the shots and see the diversity up there, because that’s where a lot of the power is,” said Jessica Cheung, a media graduate from Western University who’s also pursuing a masters of journalism at Ryerson.
She said she believes the diversity of decision makers in the media industry is what will strengthen the diversity of news. Cheung said, “if you have a diverse newsroom then you are going to have diverse perspectives and you are going to have diverse stories.”
If you have a diverse newsroom then you are going to have diverse perspectives and you are going to have diverse stories.
While being a minority can be a barrier, it can also be a driving force behind the desire to become a journalist.
“A big reason why I want to be in an industry like this is because I’m Chinese,” said Cheung, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada when she was two. “There is not a lot of representation in this industry,” Cheung said. “There is so much room for us to grow in terms of representing minority groups.”
As the number of immigrants in Canada increases, their representation in the media should grow with it, Cheung said. “More minority groups’ stories should be shared, and the first step in doing that is to have those voices telling those stories.”
When it comes to job prospects and being a visible minority, Desai remains optimistic.
“Even though I am a minority, even though I am a brown woman, I’ve actually found that, so far, it has helped me.” Throughout her studies and while applying for internships, Desai said she uses her minority status to her advantage. “In my cover letter I actually used the fact that I’ve basically experienced three very different cultures,” said Desai. “That’s actually a reason why they should hire me.”
Elliott’s advice to aspiring media professionals from diverse backgrounds is “stay hungry”, don’t settle for where you are, stay true to yourself and always try to grow.
“Make sure you are educated in terms of doing your homework and staying abreast as to the changes in the industry,” she said. If journalism is “where your heart is and what you want to pursue, do it.”
This story first appeared in the EMERGE print magazine.