Rachel Pulfer is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.
CTV News has explained that its shocking move to end its contract with Lisa LaFlamme, who was the chief anchor of one of Canada’s most-watched newscasts, was a “business decision.” Based on the audience the show commanded, that justification seems questionable. But regardless of the motivations, Ms. LaFlamme’s departure has certainly been one of the most dramatic expressions yet in this cultural moment in which women journalists in Canada have been sidelined – sometimes aggressively.
Consider the vicious online hate and credible threats that women journalists have recently faced in Canada, including Rachel Gilmore, Erica Ifill and Saba Eitizaz. This targeted hate, much of which has consistently shared the use of certain phrases and patterns, has been so pervasive that the Canadian Association of Journalists has petitioned media organizations’ leaders and police to protect women journalists who now fear for their safety, as well as for their families.
If women and, in particular, racialized women, are attacked simply for doing their jobs and promoting their work and brand on social media, all but the bravest women will likely disengage, even though their male colleagues are mostly free to promote their work, opinions and brand online without the same level of harassment.
Some have shrugged the moment off. In the case of Ms. LaFlamme, it’s just a matter of “changing viewer habits,” as CTV said. Others may dismiss the threats as a so-called “women’s issue,” and nothing more.
But societies lose when women are driven out of public life. When they are sidelined, everyone suffers – the Taliban’s “leadership” of Afghanistan being perhaps the starkest proof. Meanwhile, studies by the Economist, the Gates Foundation and the Grameen Bank are among those that have shown that when women lead, we all benefit. When women are not oppressed – when their voices and leadership in public narratives are normalized, and when they play leading roles in public discussions – societies are more likely to experience peace. When women speak up and take their place at negotiation tables, outcomes can improve, too: in 2015, the International Peace Institute found that women’s participation in a peace process makes it 35 per cent more likely that a peace deal will last more than 15 years.
At this particular moment of increasing political polarization, Canada simply can’t afford to go backward on women leading the way in journalism.
The value of women’s voices and leadership makes it all the more important to normalize the practice of women being quoted as leaders and experts in public. But a 2016 content analysis by Marika Morris for Informed Opinions found that despite women’s progress into top roles in Canadian journalism, men are still overwhelmingly the ones being quoted; of more than 1,400 pieces of Canadian news media content studied, 71 per cent of the quotes came from men.
There is an ethical, democratic and business case to be made for journalism that looks and sounds like contemporary Canada – that is, 50 per cent women, and 25 per cent racialized people. Ultimately, if you don’t have women covering the news, you’re only getting half the story, as award-winning Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong put it. And then if only white women are covering the news, you’re not getting fully balanced coverage of diverse perspectives.
To achieve that balance, more women must be put in decision-making positions in newsrooms, which still shape so much of the public narrative. Many newsrooms, including at The Globe and Mail, are already making changes to ensure women and racialized women are promoted and platformed.
Yet online attacks on female journalists persist in a disproportionate way. Some politicians have even poured gasoline on the fire: Pierre Poilievre, who is running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, recently posed with a man driving hate against Ms. Gilmore, and when Mr. Poilievre was asked for comment, he attacked her in a press release.
From Afghanistan to the Philippines to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Journalists for Human Rights has documented situations in which politicians condone or encourage campaigns where women journalists are targeted with hate and death threats. The result has been a chilling effect on the full public participation of half the population.
If things continue this way for Canadian women in journalism, the marginalization of women’s much-needed voices and leadership will only worsen. That’s not just a problem for Canadian women – that’s a problem for all Canadians.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.