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Minelle Mahtani
Minelle Mahtani

Minelle Mahtani

Canadian media: It's time to cover the undercovered Add to ...

The mainstream media let Canadians down last week.

Maclean's magazine published a reactive article about Asian students at Canadian universities. The Toronto Star gestured to this piece, with the headline Asian Students Suffering for Success, igniting further controversy. And if that wasn't enough, television news hotly debated the merits of a new Canadian reality TV show, Lake Shore - a Jersey Shore doppelgänger, with a cast of characters based on coarse ethnic stereotypes ("the Vietnamese," "the Albanian," etc.).

The Maclean's story was full of doom and gloom for the future of advanced education: "Canada's universities, far from the cultural mosaics they're supposed to be - oases of dialogue, mutual understanding and diversity - risk becoming places of many solitudes, deserts of non-communication."

The article made crude assumptions about Asian students, mostly through one or two semi-anonymous interviews with white students from elite schools. It was reminiscent of racist portrayals from the 1920s, where Chinese Canadians were imagined as foreigners and threats to the Canadian nation.

The article was revelatory - but not just because it fuelled racial stereotypes. What it did was reveal a growing crisis in news and current affairs storytelling.

Canada may have been ahead of the game by implementing multiculturalism as a policy four decades ago, but journalists have fallen behind on how to cover it. We've only to look at those ubiquitous examples of overly celebratory coverage - "calendar journalism" - a focus on superficial stories about ethnic communities, such as the Chinese New Year or Diwali.

But something has changed. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, and we're now seeing more and more stories that reflect a pervasive pattern of racism and stereotyping.

This past week's poor coverage doesn't fit with what we know about the future of journalism.

Several mainstream media outlets have asked me: How can we grow our audience? My response is always the same: Reach out to new audiences. Listen, learn and talk with, not just to, your desired demographic. Respect them and find reporters from those communities who speak their language and can communicate, discover and delve into those stories in detail.

Immigration is the story of this century. Immigrants are the new and growing audience. Yet, Canadian journalists struggle to cover our demographic reality.

Stories are combative - communities are mugged by a metaphor. Reporters are sent out with an assignment in search of a story. And the desired demographic is effectively alienated as a result. (Outraged comments appeared online in the Maclean's case, with many readers vowing to cancel their subscription.)

Covering diversity doesn't just make good moral sense but also good business sense. Research on immigrant audiences show they're big consumers of news in Canada. But they're becoming disenchanted with the coverage. Journalists waver between attempts to be politically correct and trying to find newsworthy stories on immigration.

Last year, I met a small group of international scholars and journalists at Stanford University to look at new trends in diversity and journalism. We concluded that journalists globally are scrambling to figure out how to cover rapidly changing patterns of demography.

Journalists are no longer simply truth-tellers. They're sense-makers. And one need only turn to the great journalism success stories of our generation - ProPublica, for one - to see that all audiences want in-depth, complex coverage that holds up a mirror in which all Canadians can see themselves reflected.

As journalism educators, we have a part to play. Journalists report the way they do in part because of the way they're trained at journalism schools. Most journalism professors were trained years ago. When you have journalists teaching the next generation about old-school journalism, with the same frames and unchecked biases, the result can be old, tired stories.

The U.S. has set up journalism institutions, such as the Poynter Institute, that focus on how to teach journalists to cover immigration differently, suggesting that ethical journalism honours the profession's commitment to truth, accuracy and balanced reporting. It means finding the untold stories about immigration, diversity and race and covering the undercovered.

Surely, if we're going to be a model for multiculturalism abroad, shouldn't we be thinking more critically about how we tell stories about multiculturalism in our media?

Minelle Mahtani, an associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, is the founding director of the Centre for Innovation in Diversity and Journalism and president of the Association for Canadian Studies.

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