Journalists in B.C. are calling for local news outlets to amplify the perspectives of BIPOC employees and stories
By Sena Law
When journalist Aaron Hemens was working in Creston, B.C. a couple of years back, he was told by an unhappy reader one day that he should be “metaphorically lynched.”
This racially charged comment came as a result of a story written by Hemens, who is half Filipino and was one of the only reporters in Creston.
“What better way to threaten a person of colour, who’s in a journalism position for a little community, than to say these harmful things to scare them off from reporting,” Hemens says.
Hemens was offered the job in the summer of 2020 by Black Press, his employer at the time, running a one-person weekly newspaper called the Creston Valley Advance. During his months working in Creston, Hemens says he feared for his safety daily. According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census data, the town’s population of 5,100 is 86 per cent white.
Conversations about diversity in the journalism industry have been brought up increasingly in recent years. In 2021, a new race- and gender-based study from the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) found that “almost half of all Canadian newsrooms exclusively employ white
journalists.” The study also shows that nearly 75 per cent of working journalists in Canada are white.
Kiran Singh is an associate producer for CBC Radio’s The Early Edition, and their pop-up bureau reporter in Surrey. He says that change needs to happen in journalism, and that it starts with a newsroom’s demographic makeup.
“It’s a painful process,” says Singh. “You have to let go of old journalists and old journalistic ways to make way for new diverse voices.”
Singh’s three-month position as a pop-up reporter is part of an initiative where CBC sets up a journalist in a diverse city that is lacking detailed coverage, so the journalist can report on the community in a hyperlocal fashion.
Singh has been a journalist in Surrey for almost five years. He immigrated from South India to Canada 10 years ago and is part of the queer community. Singh says these intersections in his life make it important for his journalism to amplify the voices of others who might have had similar life experiences.
“I like to tell stories of marginalized people. I like to tell stories of people who look like me. I like to tell stories of people who talk like me—because I have seen a lack of those stories historically,” says Singh.
Singh and Hemens are not the only BIPOC journalists in B.C. advocating for
institutional change. Other reporters, including Sunny Dhillon and Andree Lau, have also spoken up about their experiences and treatment as racialized journalists working in non-diverse newsrooms, pushing for media managers to rethink how space can be made for journalists of colour.
Dhillon quit his job working for The Globe and Mail in October 2018, stating in a piece published for Level that he felt the perspective he brought to the newsroom as a brown journalist “did not matter.” Dhillon concluded by urging local media outlets to reflect upon diversity within the industry.
Change, where it is happening, is happening slowly. Hemens’ situation and treatment by locals in Creston was not looked at by his employers at the time with a sense of urgency. After expressing concerns for his safety in January 2021, Hemens says it took nearly three months for him to be transferred out of Creston, as Black Press searched for a journalist to take his place.
“I feel like there is a gap in knowing what it’s like to be a person of colour in a small town running a little newspaper,” Hemens says, noting the difference in levels of sensitivity between his boss and himself.
“I think [my boss’] main concern was getting the paper out; making sure the paper was being published instead of me getting out of there as soon as possible. Having a racialized boss, they probably would have understood.” Even in bigger newsrooms, Hemens says it can feel isolating as the only person of colour, and that it’s important to have racialized journalists as colleagues who can relate experiences and “have each others’ backs.”
“Canada is a diverse country. But the media industry here is still very whitewashed and traditional,” says Hemens. “I think a big part of it is hiring more racialized people here because then you can turn to them and you feel safe turning to them, like they understand your struggle.”
Singh also says the need for diversity in a newsroom goes beyond the treatment of racialized journalists. He says historically, there has not been enough diverse voices when it comes to storytelling—whether it’s racial, sexual, gender or language diversity.
“We’re trying to bring those [diverse] people on board so they can connect with people the way male, cisgender, straight white journalists probably can’t,” says Singh. “Point of views are
as important as the variety of stories, and they cannot just come through a singular lens.”
Singh says he is seeing changes in the journalism industry as more marginalized people are being brought forward and hired in newsrooms. But the most important shifts have to be made on a management level. Those who are making executive decisions are ultimately going to make the biggest difference in forcing the journalism world to be more accepting and diverse.
“It’s changing, and it’s a good thing. There is so much space available for all colours, genders, and all kinds of journalists,” Singh says.
“If you want a diverse Canada to read your web stories, to listen to your TV stories—you need to have diverse voices telling those stories.”