Covering diversity

by Jeff Heinrich

I have been covering the diversity beat full time since creating it at The Gazette in 2002, and am one of the few Canadian reporters to make it a specialty.

Essentially, I report on the new immigrant, aboriginal and visible minority communities of Montreal and Quebec, often in the context of wider developments in immigration and ethnicity in Canada generally, as well as of events happening internationally.

In a typical year the subjects I’m likely to cover include religious discrimination (bans on hijabs and kirpans, for example), the economy (the causes of high rates of unemployment in black communities), pop culture (Quebec soap operas and the few non-“Québécois-de-souche” in them), party politics (why the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois recruit minorities to run for office), and aboriginal affairs (the policing crisis in Kanesatake, a Mohawk community west of Montreal).

My goal, always, is to uncover news in places most journalists don’t have the time or inclination to look. That means getting into under-reported communities without a voice of their own (and which sometimes don’t want their conflicts known). It means getting beyond the agenda of official multiculturalism, parsing the truth from studies and putting a face to statistics. It means never repeating jargon like “cultural communities” and “inclusiveness” without saying what they mean.

Above all, covering diversity means staying eclectic, as the word implies. And in Montreal, where the usual immigrant mix is leavened by another ingredient — the French language — that can get quite disorienting.

The choice of subjects covered in the last couple of years speaks for itself.

In 2005, I wrote on people like Mohawk leader James Gabriel, one year after his house was burned down and he went into exile after a riot by local opponents; on a Statistics Canada study that showed Montreal immigrants have the highest rate of public-transit use in the country; on racism on a big Quebec farm that had been condemned by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, even though the judge hadn’t even visited the place; on a big, taxpayer-subsidized construction project in Chinatown in which conflict of interest was alleged; and on a film festival that prides itself on screening anti-authoritarian documentaries but secretly accepted a $2,000 grant from the government of Iran.

In 2006, the beat has been just as diverse. The year began with an election campaign report on how the big four federal parties spend millions translating their ads and running minority candidates to cater to the so-called “ethnic vote.” Then came a long and noisy “mega-trial” of Mohawks charged with forcible confinement of police officers during the 2004 riot. Then a Supreme Court ruling on kirpans. And on through the months.

There were stories of how Montreal city hall subtly switched the jargon it uses to refer to “ethnics” (they’re now “communities of diverse origins”); features on minority history, like the early 19th century Quebec village ledgers that detailed spending by black slaves; and many stories on international events impacting Quebecers: Italian elections held here for the first time, visits by controversial Haitian and Rwandan leaders, local Kosovars upset over the death of Slobodan Milosevic (they wanted him to rot in jail instead), Tamil Tiger financing schemes, and of course the war in Lebanon.

As a senior staffer, I have a lot of latitude to write what I want; almost all my stories are self-assigned. But sometimes I’m called off the beat to work on feature projects that require weeks to complete. Most recently, that meant taking an in-depth look at Canada’s gun laws after the Dawson College shootings (coincidentally, the killer was from an immigrant family). At other times, I go off to foreign places of interest to me and my readers; 2004-05 was a very “Semitic year,” for example, as I was in Israel and the Palestinian Territories twice, as well as in Poland (specifically, Auschwitz). These international trips – either on assignment or on fellowships – are something I’ve done all my career, but the diversity beat has allowed me to channel a lot of what I’ve learned in foreign fields into coverage of the international communities around us locally.

I don’t think covering diversity need be a complicated affair. The news values are the same as any other reporting: accuracy, breadth, balance. The challenges are the same as in other beats, too: getting people to talk to you, not adhering to any one line, staying independent.

News organizations should resist the temptation to assign stories in ethnic communities to reporters who come from those communities, a kind of stereotyping much resented by anyone who’s been put in that position. That said, knowledge of a multiplicity of languages should be standard in any newsroom, and that means hiring people who speak them. We should have “go-to” people for Arabic, for Spanish, for Creole.

In our coverage, we should pay particular attention to the newest and fastest-growing groups of immigrants, such as South Asians, who are not well organized and look to the media to reflect their concerns. But we should not be uncritical, either. Racism is not something particular to elements of the majority population; it’s also exercised between minorities, too. Similarly, there’s nothing discriminatory about pointing out divisions in communities – for example, on the issue of Muslim family arbitrators, or on the resentment legitimate immigrants feel towards people who queue-jump through the refugee process. That’s where diversity reporting can excel: less advocacy and more illumination.

Of course, being a lone specialist in diversity in a major metropolitan newsroom means only scratching the surface of things. That’s the one frustration of the job. There’s so much out there that I’m not covering. But each little bit counts, and after all, that’s what the daily news business is about.

One story, one day at a time, and every day is different. Like diversity itself.