A ‘healthy’ discussion on diversity

Are there too many “old white men” in the Toronto Star?

Right off the top, let me say that I have come to quite dislike that phrase. Like most labels, it is an overly simplified characterization — a stereotype that puts people in boxes and blots out human beings.

That said, it’s hard to dispute the reality that men, of the Caucasian race, of a certain vintage, dominate news coverage, just as they dominate the leadership structure of our workplaces, our city and our country. As a forever feminist, I know women and visible minorities have come a long way, but we still have far to go in creating a society and media that truly reflect our diversity.

Indeed, a 2009 UNESCO report tells us that at the current rate of progress, it will take another 75 years to achieve gender equality in media coverage.

Numerous reports have documented the serious underrepresentation of minorities in news content. Closer to home, the DiverseCity Counts project recently analyzed Toronto newspapers — including the Star — and concluded that, “In print, visible minorities are under-represented among columnists, experts and even stock background photographs in newspapers.”

That report included a content analysis of a week of Toronto papers on several measures, including the diversity of photos and sources. Of 2,036 photos, 476 (23.4 per cent) were visible minorities, with the highest percentage in the Sports sections. Among the 343 “expert” sources cited were 57 minorities — 16.6 per cent.

Questions about diversity in the Star emerged this week in a newsroom-wide email exchange touched off by graphics team editor, Catherine Farley, reacting to the front page of last Sunday’s paper.

“After seeing 5 pictures of old white men on the front page of the Sunday Star, I decided it was time for another head count,” Farley wrote, adding that her count of the news section indicated 22 photos of men to two of women.

In the Sports section, Farley counted 14 men to one woman, “plus an ad on the front with a babe selling what appeared to be online gambling.”

For the record, the Page 1 lineup Farley commented on was not overseen by an “old white male.” Deputy national editor Jane Davenport was in charge of that day’s front page, which featured as the main story and art, what I considered to be a terrific read — a poignant, exclusive interview with the “secret son” of Peter Gzowski, whose existence was revealed in a new biography of the late Canadian broadcasting icon.

The vigorous email discussion that followed Farley’s missive made clear that most everyone by now gets the importance of diversity — in theory at least. Editor Michael Cooke regarded the discussion as “healthy” in raising awareness of diversity in the Star. Still, as many pointed out, this is hardly a new issue. In the 1990s, the newsroom even had a “diversity committee.”

“The idea was that the media need to reflect and represent the many voices and faces of the community we serve,” said reporter Carola Vyhnak, who headed that committee. “That means including the perspectives and viewpoints of people from various races, cultures, religions, sexual orientation, age, gender, physical and mental abilities.

“It’s who our readers are. It’s also just good journalism.”

She’s right, of course. Diversity in the Star remains an ongoing vital issue for this news organization, a partner with the DiverseCity initiative launched last year by the Maytree Foundation and the Toronto City Summit Alliance. While the central goal of DiverseCity is to address the diversity deficit in the leadership of businesses, agencies, boards and governments in the GTA, it has also targeted Toronto’s media to prod us to better reflect Canada’s most diverse community.

“The Star is committed to reflecting our diverse communities. I think we do it better than other papers in Toronto and across the country,” Cooke said. “Can we do better? Yes.”

Cooke pointed out what many had already noted: You cannot judge the Star’s commitment to diversity by examining just one day’s news file: “Yes that paper featured a lot of photographs of newsmakers defined as ‘old white males.’ But it’s a far cry from that to not reflecting diversity in who we quote or report on, or from documenting widespread failure.”

Still, as the recent DiverseCity Counts report clearly indicates, this is not just a one-day issue and the Star can do better. We must continually ask ourselves if our news coverage reflects our community.

I agree here with what Cooke told his staff: Ensuring that the Star reflects Toronto’s diversity is the responsibility of the entire newsroom. It is achieved in the sources we cite, the people we photograph and the way we play the news.

“This is not a new issue. And it’s not rocket surgery,” Cooke said.

That’s true. Still, as this week’s “healthy” discussion shows, it never hurts to be reminded that the Star must continually strive to better reflect our diverse community.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on September 11, 2010.

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