By SAHAR FATIMA
The misrepresentation and underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups isn’t a problem exclusive to mainstream news organizations, concludes a new study that examined the content of ethnic media in the Greater Toronto Area.
The analysis of four GTA ethnocultural newspapers, conducted by Ryerson School of Journalism associate professor April Lindgren, found very little coverage of groups outside of the publications’ target audiences. In two cases, the research also pointed to negative portrayals of other groups.
“We’re entering a time in Canada and big cities like Toronto where the visible minority is going to be the visible majority by 2031, (predicted by Statistics Canada),” said Lindgren, who is the lead investigator for the Local News Research Project. “It’s important how media portray diversity because (journalists) have a real power to shape how people see other groups.”
Lindgren noted that editors and reporters who work in the ethnic media have indicated in many different surveys that part of their job “is to build bridges among communities and…to help their own community understand the place that they have recently immigrated to.”
“Diversity is such a reality now in a place like the Greater Toronto Area,” Lindgren said. “I think not to be somehow making the link between your own community and what’s happening in other communities and fostering some sort of mutual understanding is a great missed opportunity.”
Phase one of the study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Canadian Ethnic Studies, examined 2008 local news coverage of racial and ethnic groups in the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao. The second phase of research, conducted in 2011, extended the investigation to include the Korea Times Daily, Russian Express and Canadian Punjabi Post.
Representations of racial and ethnic groups other than the publications’ target audiences were examined according to three criteria: the amount of coverage of other groups; the subject matter of stories referencing other groups; and whether references to other groups were consistent with Canadian Press style standards. The standard says a subject’s race or ethnicity should only be mentioned in a story when it is relevant.
The study found that about 28 per cent of local news items in Canadian Punjabi Post and 25 per cent of stories and photographs in Ming Pao referenced other ethnic communities. This fell to 16 per cent in both Korea Times Daily and Russian Express.
In Ming Pao, 22 ethnic groups other than the Chinese community showed up in local news coverage, compared to 14 mentions of other ethnic groups in the Canadian Punjabi Post and 12 each in Korea Times Daily and Russian Express.
But a closer analysis revealed that the newspapers’ coverage may not be as diverse as these statistics suggest.
“The group that turned up most often was the white community and that after that, the mentions of other groups tended to dwindle,” Lindgren said.
In Ming Pao, for instance, half of the 22 groups mentioned only appeared once. While Canadian Punjabi Post published references to 14 other groups, 11 of these groups appeared only once or twice in news items.
The study also identified problems with racial stereotyping in two of the publications. In Ming Pao, police and crime-related stories dominated news coverage of the Vietnamese community, and also made up a significant portion of news about the black community.
Two-thirds, or six of the nine stories and photos that referenced the Vietnamese community, for instance, related to police or crime. In the case of the black community, 26 per cent of references were in police or crime-related news items.
While coverage of the black community in Korea Times Daily was limited (just four references), Lindgren suggested there was reason for concern because the coverage was limited to sports and crime stories.
“If all you’re covering about (a) community is crime stories, you create a really unbalanced perception of the community,” Lindgren said. Ideally, coverage of other groups would include a range of stories and photos dealing with different topics.
This stereotyping was reinforced in a number of cases by the identification of subjects by race or ethnicity contrary to the Canadian Press reporting standard. A story in Korea Times Daily, for instance, identified the shooters of a Korean community member as black when there was no reason to do so.
Examples of CP-style inconsistencies in Ming Pao included a story about a man charged in connection with three marijuana grow-ops who was identified as Vietnamese in the headline. In another case, a story pointedly identified a man shot in an SUV as being black.
Racial stereotyping was not evident in either the Canadian Punjabi Post or Russian Express, Lindgren found, but she suggested this might have to do with the nature of the news mix published in those newspapers. In both cases, she wrote, the papers “contained relatively little crime coverage and it is in crime coverage where problems associated with negative stereotyping are most pronounced.”
Time pressures and small newsroom staffs might explain the limited, and sometimes skewed, coverage of other racial groups identified by the study, Lindgren noted.
“It can take extra time and effort to ensure you are including people from diverse backgrounds in your coverage,” she said. “Many ethnic newspapers are small operations with limited resources.”
Ming Pao is a relatively large ethnocultural publcication, with a daily circulation of 51,000 and an editorial staff of thirty-five people. Of those, 15 journalists managed local GTA news content. The other three papers had a daily circulation of at least 14,000 but as few as four journalists on staff.
When Lindgren suggested in an April, 2012 presentation to ethnic newspaper journalists that their publications could better represent the city’s diverse population, her comments drew mixed reactions.
“As Caribbean people, we do intermarry with other ethnicities and do business,” said Gerald Paul, a journalist for the Caribbean Camera. “Right now, we are serving our specific target area. To get into that area, it will compete for space in the paper but that is something that we need to work on.”
Parry Long, reporter and marketing director for the Chinese-language newspaper Ads Guide, outlined some of the challenges he faced in trying to include more diversity in his publication.
“In our community, we are familiar with which event is an important one and most attractive,” he said. “For other communities, maybe there’s a big event, but we are not familiar with that so in that case, we cannot write too much about it.”
A new Ryerson University study of the GTA’s ethnic newspapers suggested strategies to increase diversity coverage. These include:
• Localizing stories – newspapers could discuss an issue or debate occurring in another ethnic community and examine how it is dealt with in their own community. For example, a Chinese newspaper could discuss the controversy relating to aborting baby girls in the South Asian community and examine how the issue plays out in the Chinese community
A summary of the study is available here.