Racial Stereotyping in the Canadian Media

07/11/2010 12:40

Dominika Uhríková (Black Literatures and Cultures in Canada, Winter 2009)

Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

          The last century has seen an amazing impact of the media on all spheres of the society. Newspapers, radio, television and the Internet are constantly influencing our behaviour and perception of reality, and not necessarily in a positive manner. It is, therefore, not surprising that media representations of the world should be an object of particular attention when it comes to such issues as racism, ethnic stereotyping or immigration.

          As an attempt towards contributing to efforts that build media awareness among the public, this paper will examine some of the problems associated with the portrayal of ethnic minorities in the media. In order to limit the scope of our analysis to manageable proportions, we have focused our interest on Canadian English-language media and their attitude to the local Black community. In the following pages, we shall try to provide a critical review of expert opinions as well as our personal reflections on the subject and answer these questions: ‘Are Canadian media racially biased?’, ‘Do they ensure adequate space to Blacks?’, ‘Is it possible to intervene in this area through legal regulations?’ Though we shall primarily be interested in groups of individuals of African and Caribbean origin, most of our observations are generally applicable to all minorities in Canada.

           The worlds second biggest country, Canada is an example of multicultural society par excellence. The 2006 national census enumerated more than 200 different ethnic origins in the country, and more than 5 million individuals were designated as belonging to a visible minority[i], accounting to 16.2% of Canadas total population.

            The number of those identifying themselves as Black, the third largest visible minority group, accounted for 15.5% of the visible minority population and 2.5% of the total population in 2006. Almost 45% were Canadian-born, with ancestors who migrated to Canada either a few hundred years ago or in recent decades. Of those who were foreign-born, most came from the Caribbean and Africa, mainly Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Ethiopia, or Somalia.

             Looking at the above figures, one would anticipate that within a society composed of so many different cultures, the ethnic mosaic in the media would be as colourful as possible. It seems, however, that evidence to the contrary is accumulating. Researchers dealing with racial stereotyping in the media (Anderson, Crawford, Dunn, Feral, Jiwani, Karim, Mahtani and others) almost unanimously agree that media depiction of Canadian minorities is “mixed at best, and deplorable at worst” (Fleras 1994:267, cited in Mahtani 2001). It has been pointed out that ethnic groups are either largely absent from the Canadian media or negatively mis-represented. Dunn and Mahtani (2001), for example, mention a 1994 study of ethnic minorities’ representation in Canadian entertainment by the MediaWatch media-tracking and analysis centre, which monitored eight Canada-produced dramatic series and discovered that only 4% of the female characters and 12% of the male characters were non-white. Joynt (1995) describes another study, conducted by John Miller and Kimberly Price in 1994, which assessed the amount and tone of the coverage of visible minorities in six major daily papers:

Only one paper, The Gazette, carried a higher percentage of photos and local news coverage of visible minorities than those groups represent in the local population. (...) Stereotyping and negative coverage were common. In all papers, photos of visible minorities were rare in the business and lifestyle sections (...) and common in the news and sports sections (...). And, overall, the local stories were 49% negative, while 42% were positive and the rest neutral. The overall impression was that nonwhites are athletes, entertainers or criminals.

It is, indeed, rather obvious that the Canadian media tend to be xenophobic. The problem is whether we can really conclude from these findings what “the overall impression” on the reader is, or, in other words, whether public opinion demonstrably changes according to the level or manner of representation of ethnic groups in the media. We therefore believe that broader and long-term sociological research in the field is necessary, which would include a careful analysis of the actual role of the media in the racial attitude formation.

As for the Black community in Canada in particular, it does not appear that it would be more favoured by the Canadian media than other minorities. Wilson and Sparks (1999) show that research supports the general findings about diversity coverage by demonstrating empirically that Blacks are underrepresented and stereotyped in media messages, adding that the patterns of negative black representation are magnified for black women.

Joynt (1995) offers an interesting testimony of a person that is, so to say, on both sides of the front line: Cecil Foster, a black Canadian journalist who has worked at The Globe and Mail, The Financial Post, The Toronto Star, CBC TV and Radio, and other periodicals. In an interview, Foster said: “I have been working in mainstream media in Canada for about 12 years and I am still an outsider. I can count on two fingers or less the number of people I can count as friends that I have made in the media.” He also added that news decisions too often reinforce stereotypes, such as the belief that all Jamaicans are criminals or that Blacks are poor: “Why does it have to be a black woman? What's wrong with using an English person as the example in some of these stories?”

Compared to academic research, this personal experience may of course appear much less convincing. On the other hand, the psychological impact of racism can hardly be assessed otherwise than through interviews and questionnaires. After we scrutinised the available studies and expert observations, we have actually understood that the effects of minority marginality in the media on the psychology of the concerned individuals is one of the few issues that have been examined by Canadian researchers in a way that can be considered sufficient. The most often pronounced conclusion was: “Ethnic minorities in Canada do not see themselves mirrored in the media, and this perpetuates feelings of rejection, trivialises their contributions, and devalues their role as citizens in their nations” (Mahtani 2001).

Still, most experts agree that if we want to find a solution, it is not enough to note what the proportion of non-white coverage in the media is or how Blacks feel about it. The key to solving the problem is the understanding of the very processes through which media content is constructed: “The practices and routines of the newsroom and other sites of cultural production are increasingly being recognised as spaces where ethnographic methods of research can be directed” (Putnis 1994, cited in Dunn and Mahtani 2001). Miller (1994) points out that the manner in which most of Canada’s dailies depict minorities logically results from their staffing: “Responsible journalism surely requires fairness and thoughtfulness in news decisions. If most of those decisions are made by middle-aged white men, there are going to be blind spots.” He, for instance, has found out that in 41 daily newsrooms surveyed across Canada, the percentage of non-white professional journalists is five times lower than the percentage of nonwhites in the Canadian population and that only 16 out of the 67 non-white journalists working in Canadian newsrooms are black. Joynt (1995) quotes a 1993 poll conducted by the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association, in which publishers ranked diversity only 19th among their concerns on a list of 21 issues.

Now when it is clear where the source of the problem lies, the question inevitably comes up how it should be sorted out. The most obvious solution that probably comes to one’s mind is regulating media representations of minorities by law. At present, Canada’s broadcasting policy is regulated by the Broadcasting Act, established in 1968 and amended in 1991. Its third section states that the Canadian broadcasting system should “through its programming and the employment opportunities arising out of its operations, serve the needs and interests, and reflect the circumstances and aspirations, of multicultural and multiracial nature of Canadian society”. Researchers, however, maintain that racism continues to exist in Canada despite Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism and tolerance: “Minorities are still ascribed negative traits as the other and used to infer goodness and normalness on whites without actually defining them as such. Media has played an active role in perpetuating this racism through negative stereotypes.” (Crawford 1998)

Does this mean that the regulations should impose stricter rules on the media and their coverage of ethnic minorities? Should be the proportion of non-white newsroom employees enforced by law? Not really. We absolutely share Mahtani’s (2001) view, who affirms that too much regulation in this field should be avoided, as it can result in “more subtle forms of stereotyping and prejudice appearing in the media alongside blatant forms of discrimination”. Rather than pushing through new laws, Canadian activists should raise media awareness. Jiwani (1995) proposes a whole series of concrete steps that can be taken by any individual to fight against media bias and racism: boycotting racist media, lobbying for effective representation within media organisations, supporting progressive alternative media organisations, or creating a mediawatch organisation whose mandate would be to intervene at licence hearings and to lodge complaints with the authorities.

We of course do not object to the fact that all these efforts are likely to contribute to changing the state of the affairs in Canada; nevertheless, none of them can, in our opinion, survive without the solid basis of education. In fact, we believe that promoting multiculturalism through curricula and training is the first and foremost conditio sine qua non of getting rid of the racial bias in our society, whether it be in Canada or elsewhere.

To conclude, let us summarise the above remarks. Given the comparatively low percentage of Blacks in the Canadian population, it cannot be expected that they will appear in newspapers and on TV screens as often as the members of the dominant culture. From what has been said, however, it clearly follows that the Canadian media really tend to represent the world through a Western-centric prism. Not only they do not give Blacks adequate space, but their coverage is at the same time often prejudiced, which has a demonstrably negative impact on the self-esteem of the individuals in question. The current situation is most probably caused by the little or no presence of black professional journalists in the Canadian media as well as the lack of interest on the part of media managers. Since strengthening the existing regulations and imposing positive discrimination on the media seems counter-productive, enhancing the media awareness appears to be the only viable solution.

Understandably, fighting against xenophobia and racism is a long-distance run and it is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future. Still, this should not be an excuse to continue ignoring these issues. The most effective weapon in this war is critical thinking and the surest road to success, tolerance.


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[i] Canadas Employment Equity Act defines visible minority as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour”. Under this definition, regulations specify that the following groups are included in the visible minority population: Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, Arabs, West Asians, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Latin Americans, Japanese, Koreans and other visible minority groups, such as Pacific Islanders.