Racism and Media

It’s up to media to lead society and humanity in the pursuit of justice, equality and progress”
Gerald Levin, Head of Time Warner

Media, is our biggest challenge of the new millennium – it represents one of the most powerful institutions in a democratic society – the key instrument by which lives and policies are made or broken. It can demonize saints and sanitize Satan. We are living through a period of time when racism in media is alive and well around us. Racism in any form is evil, but in media more so because the evolution of technology has forced us to base our decisions on what the media delivers.

Democracy depends on a free press. We need unbiased information to live our lives as parents, workers, educators and most of all, as global citizens given that the world has now become a global village tying us all together with technology. Media is a key provider of information, so it’s critical that this coverage – whether print or electronic – be fair and balanced.

The form of racism used in media is subtle, rooted in terminology and hidden under the veneer of political correctness. Scratch the surface and the racism rears it’s ugly head.

The most recent example of racism in media, is that of Avery Haines, the CTV anchor and host who made appallingly offensive and openly racist remarks about women, racial minorities and people with disabilities. Reactions were quick – Haines was fired and she apologized which was taken to mean that the matter is closed.

The most shocking outcome was the way in which people rushed to support Haines and brush off her remarks as being a joke. However, there is nothing funny about racist remarks whether they are made on the air or privately.

Maybe ten or 15 years ago, remarks like the ones made by Avery Haines could have gone un-noticed. But today media must reflect the multicultural diversity of Canada where in another few years, approximately 50% of the population will be non Anglo Saxon. However demographics and statistics don’t change the make-up of newsrooms which even today are made up of largely middle class white males who have little or no interest in diversity or employment equity issues. Until recently, only two newspapers across the country said they have an ombudsman, who is essentially a watchdog for media.

One positive result of the Haines debacle was that some soul searching did take place. Arguments were made that the hiring practices of media organizations be examined to see if they reflect the diversity that is Canada today. Two students of anthropology at York University who are also currently involved in an in-depth study of print media for the Canadian Race Relations Foundation uncovered racism in everyday discourse in newspapers. Their analysis is that there is heavy reliance on stereotypes that serve to re-enforce negative images of minorities.

Racist discourse in media consists of words and images strung together as an understanding of a few people who have no knowledge of the world outside their own focus.

For example the overuse of the word ‘ethnic’ – anyone who is non-Anglo or non European is ethnic – in other words, we are all lumped together. Media continues to label Asians as exotic, third world as primitive, those who don’t agree with the establishment are radical and Muslims are terrorists or fundamentalists. Media is divided in use of the word we – as in the white dominant culture and they – which is everyone else who looks different or has a different set of values.

Two Toronto academics, Professor Scott Worley of University of Toronto and Professor Frances Henry of Ryerson’s School of Journalism have gone one step further and accused Toronto’s newspapers of practicing unconscious apartheid, using one standard for white criminals and victims and another for visible minorities. Professor Henry says that there is subtle racism in media. They do not take an overt or explicitly racist stance. Yet they publish report after report in which derogatory cultural characteristics are highlighted.

According to research done by a leading columnist, when media was criticized for their role in perpetuating stereotypes and racism, they responded with the following:

  • we can’t do PR for minorities
  • we cover institutions and not people
  • media reflect the preferences and prejudices of society

Having established that there is racism in media, let’s not paint only a picture of doom and gloom. Let’s talk solutions. We have to empower media to take some positive steps and:

  • change demographics of newsrooms to fit the changing face of multicultural Canada by hiring more women and minorities
  • bring diversity and cultural sensitivity training into newsrooms across the country
  • we must try to educate before we complain
  • work interactively with media to criticize and appreciate

The above is an excerpt from Raheel’s speech on March 21, 2000 at the Holiday Inn, Yorkdale for the Equity Department of the Board of Education on the occasion of the International Day of Elimination of Racism)