Journalists, we’re told, shouldn’t become the news. So why should editors?

For writers of colour, recent events have revealed the hollowness of media standards, which present as moveable goal posts

Phillip Dwight Morgan
Content image

Stacked newspapers close up. (Stefan Wolny/Shutterstock)

Stacked newspapers close up. (Stefan Wolny/Shutterstock)
(Stefan Wolny/Shutterstock)

“Everything that we do must be honest, unbiased and unflinchingly fair. We deal with the facts that are demonstrable, supported by sources that are reliable and responsible. We pursue with equal vigour all sides of a story.”
-Canadian Press Stylebook, 14th ed.

A few weeks ago, we were told by Kathy English, the public editor of the Toronto Star, that “journalists do not take public stands on public issues or become the news.” Amid Desmond Cole’s well-publicized exit from the Star, English took the opportunity to clarify the newspaper’s position on the matter, arguing that “journalists must not cross over into direct activism and personal participation.”

On paper, English’s position is not only consistent with the Toronto Star’s Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Manual, but also the Canadian Press Stylebook, a writing and editing guide that has served as the edicts for Canadian media content since 1917. But—as many noted in the aftermath of Cole’s exit—the policies are rarely applied equally in practice.

Honest, unbiased and unflinchingly fair: these are the principles to which Canadian media allegedly calibrates its compass. Desmond Cole’s actions, we have been told, went beyond his latitude as a columnist and compromised the integrity of the organization. “No news organization that cares about its integrity,” English wrote, “should make or amend policy on the fly simply to accommodate one voice or any one cause.”

Yet, as many commentators quickly pointed out, Naomi Klein and Craig Kielburger are just a few examples of journalists whose political activism did not elicit claims they overstepped their role at the Star. It would seem that, based on these precedents, it is not activism but rather particular types of activism that attract scrutiny. And yet these particular types of activism are never named. It would appear that ideals such as fairness and integrity are shifting goal posts in the Canadian media, conveniently narrowing when certain marginalized writers speak truth to power.

MORE: The ‘benevolent liberal racism’ behind Cole’s Star exit

On Thursday night, editors and writers from some of this country’s most heralded magazines, newspapers and broadcast networks advocated for an “appropriation award” on Twitter, stemming from an article entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize,” by Hal Niedzviecki in Write, the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine. In his essay, Niedzviecki states unequivocally that he does not believe in cultural appropriation, adding: “I’d go as far as to say that there should be an award for doing so.” Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times reports that many of the contributors to that issue—many of them Indigenous, who had written pieces about their experiences—were “startled” to see the editorial, which they felt misrepresented and violated the voices of the other contributors. The fallout was immediate: Niedzviecki resigned, and the Writers’ Union issued an apology.

MORE: On diversity, Canadian media is throwing stones in a glass house

It is worth saying that the Star, the recent source of controversy after Cole’s exit, did not appear to be among the outlets whose employees participated in the public support of this appropriation award. But the CBC, Maclean’s (as well as the head of Rogers Publishing, which includes Maclean’s), the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and Le Journal de Montréal were all represented. These are organizations that, one would assume, have a commitment to the guiding principles of the industry, the principles against which Cole was most recently measured. Yet without any advance notice to their own newsrooms, some journalists and editors from these outlets took to Twitter to crowd-fund such an award.

Their actions made them the story on an important public issue that writers of colour have fought tirelessly to see covered in an honest way. Rather than giving other people voice, these established editors blithely advocated for a prize that would not only exclude writers of colour, but also reward those who steal from them with skill and acumen.

Certainly, magazines differ from newspapers. They tend to take a more advocacy-oriented approach to their work, publishing pieces that are intentionally polemical and provocative. But provocation should not be the same as oppression—a distinction to which the parties embroiled in this scandal seems acutely unaware. Further, magazines and newspapers are united by the fact that decisions about their content flow from the top down. It is the editor that determines which stories are deemed acceptable, which are too political, and when a contributor’s tone is too adversarial or too apologetic.

With their Twitter pile-on, some of this country’s most prominent broadcasters, editors, and journalists effectively deemed cultural appropriation acceptable—even worthy of acclaim. Many of the people holding the levers of power in Canadian media did not hesitate to put their names, money, and various other forms of privilege behind a glowing endorsement of cultural appropriation. In a media landscape where journalists like Desmond Cole are being told by their editors that they cannot be “both actor and critic,” how can we justify having editors who publicly support an appropriation award? If, indeed, we are to take the Star seriously in its claim that the problem was that Cole became the news, what say you to these editors?

It is telling of a hollowness in many of the media standards that shape our national conversation. We have seen, time and time again, that “advocacy” is a flexible term that is often mobilized primarily against marginalized writers. It is impossible to ignore the fact that all of these editors and journalists—some of whom have begun to issue rather lacklustre apologies—are all white.

Writers of colour like myself know all too well the discrimination that permeates the editorial processes and newsrooms around this country. Occasionally, we share these experiences with the public only to receive hate mail, or to be gaslit: you’re imagining these things, we are told. Our families and loved ones know in detail the challenges we faced. Episodes like Thursday night’s Twitter thread expand the conversation beyond our inner circle and made the oppression publicly visible.

MORE: How the nature of activism has evolved for Black Canadians

For too long, the Canadian media has trafficked in doublespeak. The experiences of marginalized writers are routinely deemed “too political” or “biased,” while other writers peddle oppression under the guise of freedom of speech. After all, as Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay wrote in a tweet on Thursday night: “The mobbing of [Niedzviecki] is what we get when we let identity-politics fundamentalists run riot. Sad and shameful.”

Mobbing, fundamentalists, riot, sad, shameful: is it just me or are these words better suited to describing issues like carding, boil-water advisories, and immigration detention? Should we not reserve our anger these kinds of issues, human rights issues affecting vulnerable populations, rather than protecting someone pushing for a racist award?

Marginalized writers have been let down by CanLit and Canadian media. It’s nothing new—but something about these last few weeks does seem particularly egregious: the editors became the news. Cole’s exit from the Star stemmed from the obstruction he faced while highlighting the gross injustice of carding. Niedzviecki’s hurtful words sat atop an issue devoted to showcasing Indigenous writers in this country. The entire controversy involving several mainstream media outlets has moved the conversation even further away from the Indigenous writers at the heart of the issue. Rather than having their experiences, insight, and talent celebrated, marginalized writers have found themselves on the ropes once again. As you filter through headlines and hashtags about the #appropriationaward, I encourage you to seek out the work of the Indigenous authors overshadowed by this latest controversy. Their words are desperately needed in a media landscape where they barriers they face are, indeed, nothing short of sad and shameful.