Newsroom diversity not the only problem

It will take more than a few black reporters to change how the media portrays Nova Scotia’s black communities.

by Monica Mutale

It will take more than a few black reporters to change how the media portrays Nova Scotia’s black communities

by Monica Mutale

Chad Lucas inside the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs
Chad Lucas inside the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs. Photo: Monica Mutale

 Wallace Smith, Jr. has lived in North Preston, Nova Scotia, his whole life.

“It’s a great place to live,” he says, while acknowledging “non-residents would disagree with that.”

Those non-residents might have read some of the recent newspaper headlines coming out of the community:

“Man shot in North Preston…”

“Man in hospital after shooting: 24-year-old may have been hit leaving North Preston party…”

“22-year-old gunned down in North Preston…”

Smith nods, taking a moment to remember each incident. “Oh, yeah,” he murmurs, after several different headlines. “I know him.”

But the community he knows—his hometown, the site of Canada’s largest historic black community—is far more than the dangerous, violent place portrayed in the media.

Who is Wallace Smith?

Wallace Smith, 47, is the son of Rev. Wallace Smith Sr., the long-serving pastor of Saint Thomas United Baptist Church in North Preston, and the family’s roots in the community go deep.

Smith has worked as a construction engineer with the Department of National Defense for almost 20 years. Construction could be considered a family business, as he often enlists his sons to help with jobs in the community.

During the 1980s, the Smith family helped found the Gospel Heirs, a popular Preston area music group that has toured the country. 

Settled more than 200 years ago by freed American slaves, the community of 4,000 is located on the edge of urban Halifax, roughly 10 km. north of Cole Harbour. It’s not only rich with history, Smith says, but has also produced athletes, entertainers, community leaders and respected academics. 

He names a few. North Preston resident Evangeline Cain-Grant graduated from Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law. Marko Simmonds graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston with a degree in music production and audio engineering. Rose Fraser is a registered nurse. Anne Simmonds has built a career as a social worker. Dwayne Provo has played in the CFL and NFL, worked as a teacher, and is now involved in provincial politics. Two of Wallace Smith’s own children are in university now. His niece was the first black valedictorian of Cole Harbour High School, and was part of the school’s largest black graduating class. The list could go on. 

Why, then, does the media not show this side of North Preston?

There are, to be fair, all sorts of reasons.

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For starters, Smith says, outsiders hesitate to come to North Preston. That includes reporters.

John Miller, former editor of the Toronto Star and a former chair of the Ryerson journalism department, has witnessed this reluctance firsthand.

“I took part in a project with CTV doing diversity training,” he says, on the phone from Toronto. “I visited a Halifax newsroom… and asked what places (participants) wouldn’t want to go to. North Preston came up right away.

“Right away,” he repeats. “That’s the attitude people have toward the community.”

Most of those people, of course, are white. Nova Scotia newsrooms are predominantly white.

Many believe that’s one important reason the broader community story doesn’t get told. Miller has done research on this theory. He founded the Diversity Watch website at Ryerson, a resource for journalists who want to provide better coverage of diverse communities and people.

Miller produced a 2004 study called “Who’s Telling the News? Race and Gender Representation in Canada’s Daily Newsrooms.” It revealed surprising facts about the ethnic breakdown of employees at Canadian newspapers.

Of 2,119 employees at 37 newspapers across the country, only 72 were identified as minorities. Twenty-two of those 37 newspapers had no minorities on staff in 2004.

The total number of minorities in newsrooms across the nation increased between 1994 and 2004, but not as much as in the Canadian population. In 1991, visible minorities only made up 11.7 per cent of the population. In 2001, they made up 16.7 per cent.

To make matters worse, Miller found that, in 1994, 26.8 per cent of editors felt “a ‘very strong’ desire to hire a diverse staff.” By 2004, only about 13 per cent of editors felt the same.

The problem isn’t lack of desire, according to the Chronicle Herald’s director of news content, Dan Leger.

“Every newsroom wants to reflect the diversity that exists in their community. It broadens the conversation and any story can be enriched by it.”

However, he says, “We don’t have a lot of applicants coming from the African Nova Scotian community.”

As director of news content, Leger is not in charge of hiring. However, he says the paper makes an effort to get more black journalists in its newsroom.

“The Herald is an equal opportunity employer. We post employment opportunities according to the terms in the union agreement. We post jobs and we hope we’ll get a variety of applicants.”

It hasn’t worked. “Unfortunately,” acknowledges Leger, the paper now has “only one” full-time black reporter.

“I know there’s not any proof that representation leads to better coverage,” Miller acknowledges. “But it’s common sense that if you’re not represented at the table, you don’t get to eat the meal.”

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Wanda Taylor of East Preston knows exactly what it’s like to be the only black face at the table.

Taylor interned at the CBC while studying journalism at the University of King’s College. Hired shortly before graduation, she produced the lifestyle show Living Halifax until its cancellation in 2009.

Choosing to stay at the CBC, Taylor was placed in the newsroom.

 “When you’re in story meetings in the morning and you’re looking around the table, and nobody else looks like you,” she says. “How do you make sure your stories get heard? And not only get heard, but get told in a way that leaves a positive perception in the minds of people?”

 “You’re always thinking about it,” says Chad Lucas, “about how the media is reflecting your community. Lucas, an African Nova Scotian and 2001 King’s journalism graduate, worked at the Herald until 2009.

He says he never felt like his role was different from anyone else’s. Although his editors sometimes asked for black-related “ideas or to cover things… I didn’t become the cultural reporter. The Herald has done well to not rely on one reporter to look after those issues.”

During the well-publicized layoffs at the Chronicle Herald in 2009, Lucas chose to take a buyout and leave the newsroom. He now works for the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs, and freelances a weekly parenting column for the paper.

Was it hard to leave, knowing that few black reporters would remain at the paper? “To some degree,” he says. “It was tough to leave knowing there’d only be one African Nova Scotian reporter left. But anytime you lay off one third of your newsroom, you lose certain valuable perspectives.”

Over at the CBC, Wanda Taylor felt a bit more hesitation when she left in 2009 to go back to university. “There was a struggle with it,” she says. “I didn’t jump up and leave right away.”

Taylor wasn’t sure who would fight to show Preston in a positive light.

 “Positive stories are very, very hard to sell in a newsroom. The news wants that shock-value, and they want gore and they want murder,” she says. “They don’t want to hear that this little black community raised $10,000 for something that’s going to enhance their community.”

 For example, Taylor pitched the African Nova Scotian Music Awards to the CBC several times, hoping that they would cover the event.

“CBC covers the East Coast Music Awards. I thought if we’re covering awards shows for the East Coast, we have to cover everything.”

Taylor eventually covered the event herself, and pitched it again in the newsroom. “I said, ‘look at the community. Look at what we’re doing.’ It wasn’t a sell.”

Wanda Taylor is a former CBC producer and reporter
Wanda Taylor is a former CBC producer and reporter

Wallace Smith says he has seen this happen, too. North Preston community members celebrated his father’s 10-year anniversary as pastor at Saint Thomas Baptist Church in October.

“We wanted to get some coverage, but they weren’t available,” he says. “No one. Not SNAP (Halifax) magazine, nothing.

“Then, two days later, there was a shooting in the area… It was in the paper.”

Although Wanda Taylor fought to show the Preston she loves, she’s not sure that was her job.

“I’m a black woman,” she says. “I’m also still an individual, and my views are always going to be my views… Although I did what I could to speak for the community, it doesn’t mean that I am the community spokesperson.”

Well, then, whose job is it?

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[pullquote] Because we don’t own mainstream media, we have to hold them accountable.
Dr. Afua Cooper James R. Johnston Chair, Dalhousie University[/pullquote]

Cooper, who recently moved to Nova Scotia from Toronto, is the new James R. Johnston Chair at Dalhousie. The position was created to ensure the black community is represented at the academic level.

On one hand, she says, the media has to work harder. “We don’t have alternative images. The images we are presented with are black people as entertainers and sports people. Not black people in their everyday, doing whatever.”

John Miller echoes this statement. “With North Preston, you might get crime and sports. But how often do you see minorities interviewed about the weather, for example?

 “Journalists tend to propose stories they’re familiar with,” he says. “No stories about black people often means they have no contact with the black community. That results in the kind of stereotypes we’ve seen.”

Cooper adds that the community has to take action.

“Because we don’t own mainstream media, we have to hold them accountable. Having more diverse representation is probably just part of the solution; it is not the solution. The black communities have to empower themselves to challenge this, and it can be done.”

James R. Johnston Chair Dr. Afua Cooper
James R. Johnston Chair Dr. Afua Cooper believes the black community must take action. Photo: Monica Mutale

According to Dr. Afua Cooper, it’s everybody’s.

“The same way we have parent groups who watch television and say, ‘this video – we don’t want our kids to see. You’d better pull that video.’ These are parents who’ve lobbied and they’ve been fairly successful in terms of content that comes on TV.”

Wallace Smith Jr. agrees with this point.

“As a kid, we didn’t have running water. We didn’t have paved roads or proper washroom facilities. We are a community that fought for justice and were determined to see that all the things other areas had, we were going to have.”

Now, he says, “We have those things.”

“We don’t need anybody feeling sorry for us; we need to come together and create our own positive stories. We need to fight against ourselves until we can thrive again and strive to be looked at as a positive community.

“It’s not fair to expect the media to do favours for us if we’re not doing anything for ourselves.”