The challenges of bringing diversity into a newsroom: SAJA panel examines how South Asian stories are covered in Canada

By Eric Mark Do

By Eric Mark Do

It doesn't take a South Asian reporter to report on South Asian issues in Toronto, but in a few cases, it can help with getting access to certain communities or getting past a language barrier, Toronto Star reporter Noor Javed said. At the same time, she added, reporters don't want to be “pigeonholed” into covering issues just because they happen to be of the same background as the interview subjects. There's also a real danger for reporters covering their own communities if its members sense they were negatively portrayed.

Javed, along with Nicholas Davis, manager of program development for CBC Radio, and Stewart Bell, senior reporter at the National Post, were panellists for a discussion on “South Asian Stories in the Newsroom,” held last Thursday and moderated by Globe and Mail reporter Rita Trichur.

The event was co-sponsored by the Toronto branch of the South Asian Journalists Association and the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. The discussion brought consensus that more diversity is needed in the newsroom to better reflect the city, and to bring a new perspective to the table.

Fair coverage

Audience members mentioned terrorism and honour killings as examples of sensationalized or unfair coverage of the South Asian community. One attendee asked: Why is it that the faith of terrorists is prominent in news coverage?

“When an act of terrorism happens, the first thing that people want to know is, 'Why?'” Bell said, adding that a lot of recent terrorist events are religiously motivated, however misguided the perpetrators may be with their beliefs. “When a group … puts Islam in its title, when it puts a video saying, 'We did this act of terrorism because we're defending Islam,' and things like that — do we ignore that?”

While covering the trial of Abdullah Khadr, whose brother is convicted terrorist Omar Khadr, Javed said she realized that faith does affect people's actions. She said if she was writing about any other community, she would have included those details. “You can't hide the stuff that you don't want to be presented because we're from those communities. I think you have to be fair.”

That also extends to situations like the Shafia murders, Bell said. He added that aggressive coverage of ethnocultural-based issues, such as Tamil protests in the GTA and the Shafia murders, is encouraging because it shows that the media aren’t ignoring the issues. “We're saying, this is happening in Canada, so we're going to report on it no matter who, no matter what.” He added that so-called ‘honour killings’ and honour-motivated crimes are fairly new in Canada, and that's part of the reason why the the media tends to pay more attention to it. Still, the act of categorizing stories as “South Asian” or other ethnicities is a mistake because it “ghettoizes” the community, he said. “These are Canadian stories.”

From the community, for the community?

But balanced coverage begins with fair representation in the newsroom, Davis said. If you're telling a story about a community you should understand it in a real way. At the very least, a voice from that community should be in the newsroom, if needed, to advise the direction of the story, he said. For example, he said he would have asked Javed, who wears a hijab, for advice on a story about hijabs. “[That way] I'm getting it from someone who lives it, who knows it, who experiences it, and at least the perspective I'm getting comes from a real place, not a perceived place.”

Seeking advice is one thing, but constantly assigning South Asian stories to a South Asian reporter is not ideal, Javed said. Another South Asian journalist echoed the sentiment, recalling that she had to fight with her editors to show them that certain stories didn't require a South  Asian reporter covering it.

She said the Toronto Star makes a conscious effort — it's in its mandate — to reflect the diversity of the city, but that can be problematic.

“Often, the South-Asians in the newsroom don't want to be writing South-Asian stories because they don't want to be pigeonholed,” Javed said. “It was a real struggle for me because as a junior reporter I didn't want to be known as a Muslim reporter: I wanted to be known as a reporter who happened be Muslim, who might pitch a really good Muslim story once in a while — if she felt like it.”


There's another reason why ethnic reporters may not want to cover issues about their communities — there's a perceived expectation of positive bias in the reporting, so criticizing one's own community can be deadly.

In 1998, Indo-Canadian Times journalist Tara Singh Hayer was murdered in an act of revenge over an editorial he wrote. In 2007, Mississauga journalist Jawaad Faizi was beaten with a bat after writing columns criticizing the Pakistani leader of a religious group. Javed's investigative reporting on polygamy in Toronto's Muslim community sparked a firestorm that included Toronto Police advising her of a death threat against her, and a letter writing campaign suggesting it was improper for a Muslim reporter to do such a story.

“My reporting was honest, I had a good intention, it got people talking about polygamy when no one had ever talked about it in the community,” she said. “It [the backlash] came down to the fact that I wore a headscarf and people have an expectation [of you] when you look like a really visible member of your community.”

The way to stop editors from pushing visible minorities to write about their communities is to bring more people of colour in the newsroom, Javed said.

“I think that if we have more diversity in newsrooms, there'll be less desire for editors and for people in power to put people in different boxes, because the more people there are of different backgrounds, then it's just another story of the city,” she said. “It won't be like, 'Okay, we need a Muslim reporter to write a Muslim story.' It'll go beyond that.”

Disclosure: J-Source associate editor Tamara Baluja is the Toronto coordinator of SAJA. J-Source editor-in-chief Janice Neil edited this story