I’m Kinda Over Trying to Conform to Canadian Journalism Standards

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

I was an intern at MuchMusic and CTV when Niedzviecki’s appropriation prize article came out. I remember laughing at my desk while I watched journalists “donate” to a cause meant to make my entire existence as a storyteller irrelevant. The laugh was a product of petty vindication. The illusions, repeatedly fed to me and other Black and racialized journalism students by white professors, about “things being better now”, was just proved wrong by the only people they’d believe or respect; white mainstream-legitimized journalists. I always struggle with what to say in the subject line of an email, but I wish I sent the articles showing their donations to my professors with one word: “See?” Nothing had changed, the industry had just become more sinister.

I’ve been warned about burning bridges, but what did I have to lose if they (Niedzviecki, benefactors and the quieter believers) didn’t want me there? Journalism standards weren’t meant to function with non-white people at the helm, so of course I didn’t belong either. Since journalism standards are built within a white supremacist framework, discouraging my engagement or moulding my identity to its benefit was a part of its efficacy. But refusing to conform was my disruption, whether I’m in the thick of it or not. Okay true, right now I’m not, and yet that still hasn’t stamped out my passion for storytelling and the creative.

One of my biggest grievances, that led to my disgust in Canada’s mainstream media industry, was its lack of initiative. Like the rest of Canada, it’s soft, passive and in a perpetual game of catch up. Unconventional ideas aren’t explored until they’re trending elsewhere and issues, like anti-Black violence, that plague this country are ignored in preference of covering it in America. The Canadian media is complicit in the gaslighting comparison between America and Canada and the ahistorical narrative that “we don’t have systemic deep roots” of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

Canadian media has no interest in creating stories; they simply report. And so there is no room for originality or for too many Black journalists. In their effort (unconscious or nah) to maintain control, this is how newsrooms cultivate and justify tokenism. We are reminded every time we’re told “we don’t have the audience for this” or when our ideas are rejected because another [insert BIPOC identity here] person has done something “like this.” Under the white gaze, the Black voice is monolithic, and in this small industry (that doesn’t have to be small) there’s not enough room for us all, even though our various perspectives can lead to unexplored narratives.

With this refusal to evolve or expand beyond their bland imagination, it’s expected that we conform. Soften our voices and language and alter our, sometimes confrontational, angles to be palatable to the white target audience. When you force people to conform, you strip them of their intuition and insert priorities that don’t serve their communities, visions or them. Radiyah Chowdhury wrote, in her award winning essay,“To retain our jobs or to uphold a legacy of traditional journalism taught to us, we are asked to erase ourselves.” In our fight for the redundant “seat at the table” and to earn the right to speak plainly (without the filtered tones of white-centric media organizations), our identities deteriorate under the pressure of the status quo.

For some people, that aforementioned fight starts in journalism school. You don’t need to be in j-school to be a journalist, but for my fellow journalism friends and I, the dismissals and microaggressions started there. In our joint program with University of Toronto and Centennial College, we were made to feel helpless and reminded that if we wanted to make it, we had to conform and tolerate transgressions. When we were taught about the importance of objectivity or photojournalism, we were taught through an invasive white lens that moves through the world feeling a default protection and sense of authority. We are being asked to unquestionably embrace practices, like exploitative photojournalism under the guise of truth telling, that are not safe or fair for us (BIPOC journalists, subjects and audiences) all.

And when you reflect concern or disagreement with these practices, you are lulled into a weird, slightly off topic conversation that makes you want to leave their vicinity and never bring up the issue again. We were surrounded by professors that didn’t understand or protect us. Many times we watched the stability and well-being of white students in our program given consolation and grace, while we were expected to power through, as we would in “the real world.” Along with igniting my desire to see programs revised and professors stripped of their positions, it warned me that things were not “better” in the journalism industry as my professors tried to convince us. A fellow journalism grad, Renee Allen, pointed out that, “if j-school ‘prepares’ students for the journalism world, [and] if the journalism world is inherently filled with white supremacy, the unintentional and intentional purpose of j-school is not only to educate, but to indoctrinate.” We were being taught how to suitably conform and not threaten the norms in Canada’s journalism industry. But these past few weeks, journalists are exposing these institutions and I’m truly glad to see it.

Reading all these journalists’ powerful and infuriating stories gave me chills. I hope they felt satisfied in being released from the weight of dominating silence. But I was also reminded to trust myself. I rejected entering mainstream media because I knew what to expect based on my time in j-school, at MuchMusic and CTV. I’d be vulnerable, impressionable and convinced into thinking I had to pay my dues.

But it seems to me that paying your dues is the amount of years a Black journalist has to work to be taken seriously; to be allowed to create without an obstacle course of justification. I knew in my gut I’d be surrounded by colleagues, like I was in university (half our class was Black, Brown and Asian students. The other half were white students), who wouldn’t have my back and would even participate in the gaslighting and condescension. I knew being in these spaces would take a toll on my mental health and my well-being wouldn’t be prioritized. If journalists already deep into the industry were leaving, what could I look forward to? I didn’t want to feel like my voice was being strangled by my need for income or social acceptance.

Post-graduation, I took a break from engaging professionally with the media to create on my own terms. I was able to participate in projects that indulged my interests, including co-creating a zine and volunteering for an online magazine. My passion for journalism never went away, and I continued to rant about the industry online and even at a conference about Canadian storytelling, but I slowly started to doubt that I had a role to play here.

I guess I’m realizing, now, how important it is to follow my intuition, to not allow the industry to fog my mind with doubt. I’m disappointed I allowed strangers from school and professional spaces to convince me that I was too much. Discouraging me from engaging and dismissing my instincts is part of white supremacy’s goals, in order to maintain the status quo. But recent events have taught me that I was on the right track. I might not have had the best approach or the best words (despite wanting to be a writer, my communication is shit. Why do I still want this lol?), but my gut was on to something.

At the same time, I didn’t see my rejection of the industry as giving up, I saw it as a form of disruption and refusal to force my way into a space that actively combatted Black, Indigenous and journalists of colour. Those just aren’t the vibes I can prosper in, and, as my mom constantly reminds me: “what is for you, is for you.” To be honest, I don’t know where I’ll go from here. I just know I wanted to share my story and finally do the work. But I don’t expect prominent media organizations to do the same.

Right now, they’re drafting strategic plans to follow up their anti-Black solidarity statements. They’re trying to make amends for the reports of abuse within their institutions and they’re creating 2020 versions of their “diversity and inclusion” statements. But I feel like they’re doing this more for their protection than for the benefit of incoming and existing Black and racialized journalists. Until they commit to actions, including and beyond “invitations to the table” (aka hiring plans), their actions will remain a bare minimum response to placate the anger of journalists who have been abused, silenced and mistreated. They’ll passively support us but lowkey rage at seeing us take up space or gain power from platforms they can’t control. Until white journalists are prepared to step aside or assist in completely dismantling white supremacy within Canadian media, demands for change will be met with inch-by-inch actions to soothe harm. And until then, when will these new plans be executed, how limited will their scope be to align with the ignorant sensibilities of their white target audience, and when will creatives be given more opportunities to create unrestrained?

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