In April 2015, Baltimore was burning. A twenty-five-year-old Black man named Freddie Gray had died after a week-long coma following his violent arrest and “rough ride” in the back of a Baltimore Police Department van. Anger at police brutality had spilled out onto the streets.
I flew to Baltimore to cover the city’s history with police brutality for a documentary I was making for CBC Radio. I arrived the day after Baltimore state attorney Marilyn Mosby announced charges against the six police officers involved in Gray’s arrest. (They were never convicted.) The charges were considered so rare a sign of accountability that they prompted celebration in Gray’s West Baltimore neighbourhood, the first place I headed with my recorder and notebook. It was a partly cloudy day, and a block party was alive with music blaring from massive speakers. DJs, parents, and youth held signs in honour of Gray. This past May and June, I watched more sombre versions of this scene play out with crushing familiarity as, in all fifty US states, crowds of protesters took to the streets with signs commemorating more victims of police brutality.
I stayed till night fell, keeping my eye on my watch. The city was under a 10 p.m. curfew, and helicopters were beginning to circle overhead. Just as I was heading into the subway station to go to my hotel, a young man stopped to ask me what news organization I was with. He seemed keen to talk. I turned my mic on, asked him what his name was—Lonnie Moore, I jotted down in my notebook—and asked him about his own experiences of police encounters in Baltimore.
As we talked, another man walked up and, without missing a beat, joined the conversation. I asked him his name and spelled it out loud to him as I put it in my notebook: J-A-R-E—“No,” he corrected me, “J-A-R-R-O-D Jones.” These two men were strangers to each other, but as they shared stories, they were soon completing each other’s sentences, saying words in unison, and mirroring each other’s accounts, including incidents of being called the n-word by various officers. Jarrod Jones recounted unwarranted personal searches. “The police will grab you, make you pull your pants down in front of people,” he said. “You know? They tell you, ‘Lift your sack up.’” He also said something prescient, though I wouldn’t know it until I returned home: “I think that people think we’re making this stuff up.”
I returned to Toronto after a whirlwind thirty-six hours in Baltimore, eager to showcase the stories I’d heard, including Moore’s and Jones’s. But the executive producer at the time didn’t want to air my interview with them. She asked whether I had called the police to respond to Moore’s and Jones’s accounts of mistreatment. I had tried, but the department—and its union—hadn’t returned my calls or emails. Then came the next question: How can you verify that these men gave you their real names?
That’s when I learned that, in Canadian media, there’s an added burden of proof, for both journalists and sources, that accompanies stories about racism.
I’d worked in journalism for six years by then, and the skepticism toward Moore’s and Jones’s identities—let alone their experiences—was the first time I’d seen my interviewees’ claims met with such a high degree of mistrust. (The executive producer at the time says she regularly asks reporters for verification of sources’ names and their accounts. This is the first time I remember her asking it of me.) I trusted the men’s names and their experiences because, all around us—including my very presence in Baltimore, specifically in Freddie Gray’s neighbourhood—were signs that these experiences were not uncommon. The raw forcefulness with which they spoke was an indication that they were telling me the truth. But there was one more clear sign that I offered to my executive producer about how I knew they had given me their real names: Jarrod Jones had corrected my initial spelling of his first name, which, to me, was proof that he hadn’t lied about it. (The executive producer did not recall this part of the conversation.) She seemed unswayed and instead began to remind me about the importance of accuracy and verification as core principles of journalism.
I came out of my executive producer’s office with a look on my face that caught the attention of an older white male colleague, who asked me if I was okay. I told him what had happened. He spoke to the executive producer on my behalf. She relented.
I’ve since faced several such roadblocks in my journalism career. Combined with the experiences of other racialized journalists, they represent a phenomenon I’ve come to think of as a deep crisis of credibility in Canadian media. There is the lack of trust toward the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people whose stories we are supposed to cover as a reflection of the world we live in. Then there is the mistrust of the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized journalists who try to report on those stories. Our professionalism is questioned when we report on the communities we’re from, and the spectre of advocacy follows us in a way that it does not follow many of our white colleagues.
There is a reckoning underway that has spared almost no industry, sparked by an alarming succession of killings of Black people in the US: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many more. The violence of those deaths, and the inescapable racism that underpinned them all, incited a tidal wave of anger and fatigue from Black people who had long been calling out the discrimination that they face in their daily lives. From academia to theatre, the beauty industry to major tech corporations, Black and other racialized employees are publicly coming forward and detailing how their organizations have perpetuated racism against them.
Newsrooms in the US and Canada, for their part, have been forced to acknowledge that they have to do better: in who they hire, who they retain, who gets promoted, what they cover, and how they cover it. This moment has resurrected a question that’s haunted me since I returned from Baltimore: How can the media be trusted to report on what Black and other racialized people are facing when it doesn’t even believe them?
In many American cities, the protests calling for justice following the killings of Black people like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor have been met with violent responses from police, who have tear-gassed, chased, shoved, beaten, and arrested protesters and journalists. In May, Omar Jimenez, a Black CNN reporter, was handcuffed and led away by police while the cameras rolled.
Watching the recent police violence against protesters unfold reminded me of how my interview with the two men in Baltimore had ended. It was 10 p.m., meaning the city-wide curfew was now in effect, and we were standing just outside a subway station in the Penn North neighbourhood. Lonnie Moore, the young Black man who had first approached me, had just left. I was putting my recorder away when police came rushing into the block. They told Jarrod Jones and me we had to leave. We tried to enter a nearby subway station, but a police officer blocked the entrance. We tried to turn down a side street, but another officer told us we couldn’t go that way either. We tried every escape we could think of, but we were boxed in.
“…there is the mistrust of the Black, Indigenous, and other racialized journalists who try to report on those stories”
Suddenly, one officer began charging at us, his baton out, swinging, shoving Jones and cursing at him. We ran away from him as fast as we could, my bag with my recording equipment bouncing clumsily behind me.
None of this made it to air. I had made the rookie mistake of turning off my radio recorder as soon as the interview ended. But I probably would not have worked it into the documentary anyway; as a journalist, you want to avoid becoming part of the story. One of the core elements of journalism is for reporters to maintain a distance from those they cover, which is meant to provide a sense of objectivity. For many white journalists, that distance is built in to their very life experiences. But, for many other journalists, there is no distance between what happened to George Floyd and what could have happened to them. Distance is a luxury.
When I got back to Toronto, I told my deskmates about my time in Baltimore in hushed tones. I felt at the time that to speak of it more openly would somehow implicate me, that my story could be seen through the lens of advocacy instead of hard-and-fast reporting. I also knew you never want to end up on the wrong side of police, especially as a racialized person, and leave it up to others to decide how your actions may have justified violence against you.
In journalism, as in predominantly white societies at large, questioning police narratives is complicated. “The police play a very powerful role in defining what the nature and extent of crime is in our society,” says Julius Haag, a criminologist and sociology professor at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus. “Police also recognize that they have a powerful role in shaping public perceptions, and they use that ability within the media to help . . . legitimize their purpose and their responses.”
A. Dwight Pettit, a Baltimore-based lawyer I interviewed for my documentary in 2015, told me something about why police accounts are rarely questioned by the media that stayed with me. Juries seem to have trouble confronting the violence in police-brutality cases, he said, because so often, people have grown up seeing police doing right by them and have trusted police with their safety. This is especially true for white people, who are less likely to be treated unfairly by police. Putting police on trial would be asking people to challenge their lifelong beliefs.
Anthony N. Morgan, a racial-justice lawyer in Toronto, says this same dynamic plays out in Canada in both “obvious and indirect ways.” Racialized people can tell you about water cooler conversations they’ve had with white colleagues about racism they’ve experienced and witnessed, which “often end up in the ‘Did that really happen? What were they doing? Maybe we need to see more of the video?’ territory,” he says. “These kinds of frankly absurd ways of justifying and excusing murder or harm done to Black and Indigenous people play out in society more generally, and I think they play out in journalism too.”
On May 27, a twenty-nine-year-old Black Indigenous woman named Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell from a twenty-fourth floor balcony in Toronto while police were in her apartment, responding to the family’s call for help with her mental health crisis. Police were the only ones there during the fall, and questions about the moments before her death remain unanswered. The tragedy has also boosted calls from racialized journalists to challenge the media’s overreliance on police narratives.
It wasn’t until the next day that media reports included any of her family members’ voices or began questioning the role of police in Korchinski-Paquet’s death. Not because the family didn’t want to talk to the media: the family’s social media posts are what had raised initial awareness about Korchinski-Paquet’s death. One journalist described arriving at the scene to talk to family members and seeing other reporters there. (This gap in the reporting may have stemmed from some family members’ initial social media posts, which effectively accused the police of killing Korchinski-Paquet and would have been impossible to independently verify at the time. The family’s lawyer later clarified their initial statements, saying they believed police actions may have played a role in Korchinski-Paquet’s death.)
Instead, the very first news stories about Korchinski-Paquet’s death were based solely on a statement from the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), the civilian-oversight agency in Ontario that is automatically called to investigate circumstances involving police that have resulted in death, serious injury, or allegations of sexual assault. Some journalists asked their newsrooms and organizations to explain why early coverage excluded the family’s narrative. I know one journalist whose editor questioned her for reporting what the family had told her in the early hours.
Korchinski-Paquet’s death is just the latest reminder of why some journalists have long been arguing that police versions of events—whether their own actions or the actions of those they police—should be subject to the same levels of scrutiny other powerful bodies garner, and that their accounts cannot be relied on as the only source. “The police are not, in and of themselves, objective observers of things,” said Wesley Lowery—who was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of fatal shootings by police officers—in a Longform Podcast interview in June. “They are political and government entities who are the literal characters in the story.”
Nor do police watchdogs offer a sufficient counternarrative. The SIU has long been plagued with concerns about its power and credibility. Former Ontario ombudsman André Marin released a 2008 report stating that Ontario’s system of police oversight has failed to live up to its promise due to a “complacent” culture and a lack of rigour in ensuring police follow the rules. More recently, the limited powers of the SIU have been made clear in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of D’Andre Campbell, a twenty-six-year-old Black man with schizophrenia, who was shot by a Peel police officer in April after he called the police for help. So far, that officer has refused to be interviewed by the SIU and has not submitted any notes to the police watchdog—nor can the officer be legally compelled to do so.
In 2018, I would see these obstacles play out in my own reporting. I had helped produce a series of live town halls on racism across the country. The Vancouver edition focused on racism in health care, with one conversation centring the experiences of two Indigenous nurses. Diane Lingren, provincial chair for the Indigenous leadership caucus of the BC Nurses’ Union, recounted how she often saw non-Indigenous people who appeared to be intoxicated be “told to settle down, and then they get a cab ride” to an overnight shelter. With Indigenous people, she said, “I see the RCMP called. . . . I see them handcuff their ankles to their wrists so they can’t walk. . . . I see those people get taken away in the police cars.”
The RCMP denied that account; their response included a statement about their practice of a “bias free policing policy.” In response to that statement, the executive producer on the series wanted to cut the Indigenous nurses’ anecdotes from the show entirely. (The producer could not be reached for confirmation.) My co-producers and I fought to retain them, to present them along with the RCMP’s statement. This shouldn’t have been a battle: our very role as journalists is to present all the facts, fairly, with context. But, in many newsrooms, police narratives carry enough weight to effectively negate, silence, and disappear the experiences of racialized people.
That it’s racialized journalists who have had to challenge police narratives and counter this tradition is an immense burden—and it’s risky. “The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral,” Wesley Lowery wrote in a June op-ed in the New York Times. “When Black and Brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded, or robbed of new opportunities.”
That last point rings entirely too true for me.
In July 2017, I was guest producing on a weekly show for a brief summer stint. One story I produced was an interview with Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, an Emmy-nominated journalist who was in Jerusalem covering protests that had sprung up at the al-Aqsa mosque. Worshippers were praying outside the mosque, instead of inside, in an act of civil disobedience against the installation of metal detectors following the killing of two Israeli police officers by Israeli Arab attackers. In the interview, he explained the source of the tension, what the front lines of the protests looked like, and also touched on press freedom—Shihab-Eldin himself had been stopped, questioned, and jostled by Israeli security forces while he was reporting. From the moment I pitched having him on the show, the acting senior producer showed keen interest in the story. This enthusiasm made what happened next all the more confounding.
We recorded the interview on a Friday. Shortly afterward, that same senior producer told me the segment was being pulled from the show and that she would not have the time to explain why. She had consulted a director, and together they had ultimately decided to kill it. The story never went to air.
I spent a week trying to get an explanation. It wasn’t lost on me that the interview would have included criticism of Israeli security forces and that I was coming upon the intersection of two issues here: the media’s aversion to criticism of law enforcement coupled with its deeply ingrained reluctance to wade into the conversation about Israel and Palestine, especially if this means critiquing the Israeli government’s policies or actions. Bias or one-sidedness shouldn’t have been a concern: I had planned on incorporating the Israel Defense Force press office’s response into the story. The story couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have run without it.
In the end, the director, who had been the one to make the final call to not run the interview, wrote an apologetic email to Shihab-Eldin and me, which read, in part: “Our hope was that further work on our end would allow us to give our audiences more context so that they would not leave your interview with unanswered questions. . . . We ran into unexpected difficulties in doing so.”
I had heard nothing about the story needing more context, or about questions that the director and senior producer felt were unanswered, before the decision was made. Nor did I have a clear understanding of what these “unexpected difficulties” were. (The senior producer and director say they felt the interview was too opinionated.) For his part, Shihab-Eldin responded to the senior director with: “Unfortunately I’m all too familiar with ‘unexpected difficulties’.”
It was the first and only time in my ten years of journalism that a story was pulled—let alone without an open editorial discussion or transparency. And I did not realize just how much this experience would mark me and my future in this profession.
To be a journalist in any media organization or newsroom is to navigate the crush of the daily news cycle; the relentlessness of deadlines; and the pressure, care, and complexity it takes to craft a story well. To be a racialized journalist is to navigate that role while also walking a tightrope: being a professional journalist and also bringing forward the stories that are perhaps not on the radar of the average newsroom but are close to home for many of us. And it takes a toll.
The stories I’ve recounted are the ones that stood out the most over my ten years in journalism. There are countless other, smaller fights that took place. When asked to comment for this article, Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs at the CBC, wrote in an email: “We are actively reviewing our journalistic standards to ensure we are interpreting policies and practices through a more inclusive lens. . . . It is just one of several recommitments we have made including hiring more Black, Indigenous and people of colour within our teams but also into leadership positions. We can point to a half dozen recent hires and promotions that show that pledge to do better, is both authentic and genuine.” His email also referenced existing initiatives, such as the CBC’s Developing Emerging Leaders Program, “which identifies and trains people of colour, as well as Black and Indigenous people, who are indeed taking their rightful place at our leadership tables.” (I am a graduate of the inaugural cohort of that program.)
Diversity is a feel-good term that is often held up as a goal and priority by industries from media to law to academia and beyond. It’s supposed to be the antidote to the experiences I’ve described and a signal that employers value and seek a range of perspectives, backgrounds, world views, and experiences that run the spectrum of age, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, race, and ability. If that feels like a massive umbrella of goals and classifications, that’s because it is.
Just take a look at any Canadian newsroom, even in Toronto, a city that is over 50 percent nonwhite. As a starting point, our newsrooms do not reflect the world outside of them—which does not bode well for accurately representing the breadth of stories playing out every day. As a result, from the second so many racialized journalists walk into news organizations, we are still often the Only Ones in the Room. And, where there are racialized journalists at all, there are even fewer Black and Indigenous journalists. As you go higher up the ladder of these organizations, it’s not long before Black, Indigenous, and racialized journalists aren’t in the room at all. Meanwhile, news organizations regularly see our mere presence in their newsrooms as successful examples of so-called diversity even if our roles are overwhelmingly junior and precarious.
This setup often ends up placing the responsibility on the Only Ones in the Room to guarantee a spectrum of experiences and stories in news coverage and to point out where coverage misses the mark, including when there is a story involving the actions of police. The responsibility is heavy.
It’s a dynamic that Asmaa Malik, a professor at Ryerson University’s school of journalism, sees playing out regularly. Her research focuses on race and Canadian media as well as on the role of diversity in news innovation. “There’s an idea in many Canadian newsrooms that, if you have one person who checks the box, then you’re covered,” she says. “So the burden that puts on individual journalists is huge.”
Everyone who’s been the Only One in the Room knows what it’s like. The silence that falls when a story about racism is pitched. The awkward seat shifting. The averted stares. We’ve felt it, and internalized it, and expected it. We know that there is often an unspoken higher burden of proof for these stories than for others, a problem that has long been exacerbated by the fact that race-based data is rarely collected in policing, health care, and other fields. Yet it is on us to fill this void and “prove” the existence of racism. As a result, we overprepare those pitches. We anticipate your questions. We get used to having the lives of our friends and families and the people who look like them discounted, played devil’s advocate to, intellectualized from a sanitized distance.
A long-time producer at a major news organization, a Black woman whose name I agreed not to use because of fear for her job security, bristled at the suggestion that to cover stories that hit close to home, including anti-Black racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, is to somehow engage in advocacy. “There seems to be the assumption that we cannot coexist with the journalistic standards of being fair and balanced and impartial. Really, what we are fighting for, what we’ve always been fighting for, is just the truth.”
In the meantime, when race and racism feature heavily in headlines, we are relied on to become sensitivity readers for our organizations, suddenly asked if things can be run past us or whether the show is hitting the right marks or whether we can connect other journalists to racialized communities and sources that are harder to reach. “This is in addition to the regular reporting that we do day-to-day. There’s just a level of work that goes unseen and unacknowledged,” the producer told me. “And the future of our institutions depends on us doing the work.”
Under the banner of diversity, we are told to bring ourselves and our perspectives. But, if we bring too much of them, we are marked and kept back.
I once applied to a senior editorial position after taking a leadership course only to be told I needed more training. I ended up taking on this role for nine months anyway, to fill in for a maternity leave. After that stint, in a meeting with a manager in which I expressed wanting to take on more leadership opportunities, I was told that I had to bide my time. (The manager remembers discussing other job opportunities but does not recall this part of the conversation.) At this point, I’d been at the organization for ten years, eight of which were at the specific show whose senior leadership I was applying for. The writing was on the wall for me. I left the organization less than two months later.
For many of us, that kind of coded language—about needing more training, about biding our time—is proof that we will never be deemed qualified enough to lead the news that is often not made with us in mind, as audiences or as creators. In June, Kim Wheeler, an Anishinabe/Mohawk reporter, took to Twitter to write that she had left her job at the CBC after a network manager said she would never be a senior producer at the show she worked on. A Black producer described regularly being asked to fill more senior roles, but only on a temporary basis.
It was only after I left my job that someone who had been on the hiring committee for the senior editorial role told me the reason I had been turned down. The director who had decided not to run the 2017 interview from Jerusalem had also been part of the hiring committee and had expressed concerns that I was biased and therefore should not be promoted, an opinion shared by some of the other committee members. And that was that.
There’s no way of knowing this with absolute certainty, but I can’t help but imagine how things might have been different if the hiring committee, which had been made up of predominantly white women, had had another set of eyes, experiences, and world views. The presence of someone else in that room might have challenged the notion that I was biased.
“Diversity” is a word that’s held up as a solution to the obvious gaps and inequities in media and other industries—in its most generous and naive interpretation, it’s supposed to encapsulate my experience, and yours, and hers, and his, and all of ours. Instead, the language of diversity and inclusion, to us, ends up feeling like we are being invited to a table as guests, but there are conditions to keeping our seats. Shake that table just a little bit, and you’ll soon find that your invitation has been rescinded.
Many racialized journalists have had enough with the diversity talk. It’s long been clear that Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people must be at the forefront of the change in leadership that newsrooms so desperately need—at the decision-making tables, with enough power and security to sit in their seats comfortably, shake the tables, or flip them entirely.
On an unusually hot, still day in June, while the world was in the early stages of the reckoning that remains underway, I sat with four women, all Black journalist friends of mine, on my back patio. Many of us had been fielding “Are you okay? Thinking of you” texts, phone calls, and emails for the past week and consulting one another on how to respond, if at all. We sat outside and talked as the sun set. It had been two weeks at least since we had been furiously keeping in touch in a frantic group chat, trying to keep abreast of all the world’s events and the shifting media landscape, but this was the first time I’d seen them in months, given the pandemic. We talked, ate, raged, commiserated, ranted, shared, and had tea until almost midnight. As it got dark, I brought out candles and looked at my friends’ faces in the glow. Everyone was so tired, so spent, so on edge, but so happy to see one another. The furrowed brows gave way to laughter, calm, relief.
We dreamt of what it would be like if we all got to work together. We dreamt, naively, about creating our own news organizations. We dreamt, perhaps more realistically, about getting to do the work we wanted to do in newsrooms that are truly reflective of the worlds we live in.
It reminded me of what the Black producer whose name I agreed not to use had told me: “It feels like such a weight to just make sure that the coverage we are doing on race and racism is good. We don’t have the luxury of pitching things that are just meant to bring us joy.”
It’s true. There is so much more to us, if only there were space. There’s so much more we want to talk about, so much more we want to do. But the burden is now on the Canadian media industry and its leaders to enable that work instead of questioning it. To get out of the way so it can happen.
Many of us have long been lectured to about journalistic standards and practices: verification, balance, objectivity, and accuracy. I find it ironic. In an industry that loves to talk to its racialized employees about accuracy when we pitch and cover experiences that mirror ours, what’s become clear is that media organizations themselves have failed these tests of accuracy. Their very existence and makeup has long been an inaccurate reflection of the world we live in. The accuracy problem was never ours to fix. It’s time newsrooms admit that they regret the error and put real work into correcting a historical mistake.