Media Mavens of Colour
Women of colour have a lot to contribute to the journalism space, but are their voices being heard equally?
Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have started important conversations about diversity and sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond. But women of colour are still waiting for Canadian media outlets to let them bring the conversation concerning the absence of their representation to the mainstream.
Angelyn Francis and Maleeha Sheikh are both journalists who are women of colour (a term describing women who are not white). Francis is a TA at Ryerson University who has worked for many publications, including Maclean’s and Huffington Post Canada. And Sheikh is currently an on-screen reporter for CityNews who has who worked in TV for several years.
As a child, Sheikh always had a desire to tell stories, but found that the reporters on television did not reflect her Pakistani-Canadian identity. “Growing up, I saw a lot of women who were Caucasian and blond,” she said. “I wanted to be on TV because I did not see many people like me, so it was important to represent my community and tell their stories.”
Francis who is Jamaican-Canadian, has dealt with pushback when pitching stories that pertained to marginalized populations. She believes that a lack of diversity in newsrooms often implies a lack of awareness of the importance of telling stories of underrepresented populations.
Francis was working at a Canadian publication when University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson came into the news with his ideas about freedom of speech and not wanting to use gender neutral pronouns. Francis pitched covering the rally at UofT in support of the LGBTQ+ community, but her editors did not think it was a good idea.
“In my experience, when topics like this would come up, one of the concerns was whether the publication wanted to amplify the story by covering it or just ignore it,” Francis said. “This is very present in Canadian media and by not talking about these issues we are able to brush it off and assume that it’s a problem that is only in America.”
Sheikh has had a different experience when pitching stories. “There’s a lot of sensitivity in my newsroom and I think that’s good,” she said.
When certain culturally specific stories come up, Sheikh is sometimes asked to cover them. “For stories about Eid or Ramadan, I am looked at as the go-to person to do it,” she said. “You may feel like you’re being put in a box, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because I will make that story better then someone who is not familiar with the topic.”
Francis has been the only Black women in many of her media jobs, and in some cases the only person of colour. “All of the old legacy media outlets in Canada still look like they did 30 years ago,” she said. “Our newsrooms do not keep data on race, and if you don’t track it, it’s so much easier to ignore and not think about how accurately we are reflecting the public.”
WOC who achieve successful positions are often faced with criticism pertaining to merit, Sheikh is familiar with this. “The one frustrating thing that I deal with is people saying that I got the job because they needed a brown person or some diversity,” she said. “I’ve experienced that multiple times, where people will say, ‘Oh, they probably needed a South Asian.’”
In smaller newsrooms, Sheikh has also been expected to conform to a specific standard of beauty. “In past work experiences I’ve been asked to tone down my makeup and clothes. I’ve been asked to wear a navy-blue blazer and lipstick that may work if you’re white –but does not work for my skin colour,” she said.
Deanna Matzanke, who is the senior director of ideas, insight and innovation at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, believes representation of women of colour is a crucial part of news media. “If a person doesn’t see people who look like them in positions of power and places and that they aspire to be– they’re unlikely to feel welcomed in those places,” she said.
Dealing with Internet trolls
In the age of social media, journalists and reporters use platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share stories. Internet trolling is a type of bullying that journalists have come to expect. But WOC have a unique experience where they are targeted for both their gender and race.
Francis partnered up to do a video with a colleague about Bill 62, the niqab ban in Quebec, which attempted to put limits on women who cover their face in public places. When the video was released she received racist comments that were dismissive and hateful. “Because I’ve done video, you can see that I am a Black woman and that brings forth some trolls,” she said.
Trolls often use misogynoir language to target Black women though social media. One troll attacked Francis by saying that she has ‘Maxine Waters lips.’ Maxine Waters is a Black American politician who is often attacked on social media.
Although this has not changed the type of stories Francis chooses to cover, it has had affected her to some degree.
“There was a time where I didn’t want to put myself out there as much in terms of hosting videos,” she said. “It definitely made me a little reticent. It makes you think about your safety when someone threatens your life, but at the same time I still wanted to cover the stories that were important to me.”
Sheikh had similar experiences with social media. “I get trolled all the time. Just a couple of days ago someone tweeted at me, ‘you look like an East Indian hooker,’” she said.
Francis has some advice for WOC pursuing journalism. “Be confident; know that you are worthy and valid,” she said. “Canadian media needs your expertise whether you are writing a story about race or anything else.”