The Young Journalists Workshops: Efforts to Engage Visible Minority Students in University Level Journalism Education in Canada—A Case Study

By Ross Perigoe

About the author

Ross Perigoe is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Concordia University.

Room 4.303, C/J Building, 7141 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal, QC, H4B 1R6

Email: perigoer@hotmail.com

Abstract

Visible minority journalists in Canada account for only a small fraction of the reporting community. Their absence in Canadian media caused the federal government in 2007 and 2008 to underwrite a series of day long workshops at five universities oriented to this group.  Results at Concordia University indicate that 6.5 per cent of the students who started their course work in the years immediately after the workshops were visible minorities who had attended one of the workshops. University of Regina and Ryerson University continue to reach out to First Nations and at-risk youth respectively.  However, there is no long-term support for visible minority journalism candidates at either the provincial or federal level, despite their growing population base nationally.

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One of the important elements in the creation of the Canadian myth is its professed openness to “the other.”  There is a general sense in this country that Canada takes a degree of pride in extending itself to visible minorities.  This can be seen in Canada’s immigration policy, which accepts more than a quarter of a million new arrivals each year (Government of Canada, 2009), and in the general acknowledgement that the country is largely composed of immigrants.  In Canada’s federal government, the minister in charge of immigration is also responsible for two other areas: citizenship and multiculturalism.  Clearly, the integration of new citizens and the celebration of difference is a priority at the federal level.  The vast majority of new immigrants are visible minorities, causing Laxer to describe the country as “a nation of multiple identities and two main languages” (2003, p. 36).  According to the census of 2006, 15.2 per cent of Canadians are visible minorities (Statistics Canada, 2009) and 3.6 per cent of Canadians are aboriginal or First Nations peoples (Statistics Canada, 2006).

Despite the comparatively large number of visible minority and aboriginal citizens, surveys of the staffing of Canada’s newsrooms in 1994 and 2004 indicated that journalism, and most particularly print journalism, had a disproportionately low number of visible minorities working as reporters, editors and managers.  In 1994, Canada’s print newsrooms were comprised of only 2.1 per cent visible minorities, including aboriginal peoples (Miller, 1994; Miller & Prince, 1994).   In 2004, Canada’s print newsrooms were comprised of 3.4 per cent visible minorities, again including aboriginals (Miller & Court, 2005).  While this more recent finding reflects an increase in the number and proportion of visible minority journalists, the growth is slower than the rate of their growth in the population at large.

The situation in broadcast is somewhat more reflective of the community. The reason is, at least in part, that the Canadian Radio and Television/telecommunications Commission requires radio and television stations and networks to outline their visible minority hiring policy as part of the licence-renewal process.

In 2006, the federal government, in co-ordination with the Young People’s Press, initiated a series of outreaches to the visible minority community in collaboration with five university journalism departments across Canada (King’s College [Dalhousie], Ryerson, Regina, Carleton, and Concordia) in an effort to sensitize visible minority students to the possibility of journalism as a field of study and a career.1 Most were one-day events that combined hands-on training; meeting with visible minority graduates of the program; and discussing with department representatives when and how to apply to the program.

The hands-on training included attending a mock press conference and writing a story; writing and reading scripts on radio and television; and learning how to write for Internet users. Each school had a slightly different approach to the workshops. Concordia University held a community forum the evening before the first workshop that involved approximately 40 people discussing diversity issues in journalism with the editor of the Montreal Gazette and Professor John Miller of Ryerson University. Miller has written extensively on the topic.  Concordia held three, one-day symposiums over a three-year period, with students who were in junior college or registered at university in other programs.  Ryerson University put participants’ work created during the workshop on a website at www.versecity.com. The University of Regina invited students from First Nation communities and an aboriginal cook prepared the lunch; it continues to offer an introductory program each year.  Dalhousie University’s King’s College worked with adult minority mentors in high school, and bused students in from across the province. The Carleton University workshops included a trip to the Ottawa Citizen to see a newspaper in operation and to talk to journalists.

Over the two years of the funded gatherings at the five universities, over 300 students attended workshops.  Of that number, 82 attended the Concordia workshops.   Concordia continued the program for one more year, following the students who attended to see how many applied to the journalism program, how many were accepted, and how many began their studies.  Students entered in 2008 and in 2009.  None of these students has graduated.

Data on Students Attending the Young Journalists Workshops at Concordia University 2

Number of students                                    April 2007            January 2008          January 2009

Attended a Workshop                                     39                              53                  56 (+ 5 in p.m.)3

Applied to Journalism program                    21                              10                                    15

Accepted into Journalism program               15                              7                                       8

Were refused admission                                    64 3                                       7

Accepted our invitation                                      3                               7                                       8

Attended Workshop; did not apply                 18                             43                                    41

Visible minority students                                  16                              19                                      7

Visible minority applications                             5                               3                                       7

Visible minority students admitted                  55 3                                       6

Visible minority students attending                 16 3                                       6

Commentary: April 2007

To reach out to the potential communities, Concordia sent posters to guidance teachers at our junior colleges (known as CEGEPS), mounted posters on bulletin boards at McGill and Concordia, and spoke to classes that produced the student newspaper at several CEGEPS. For the first symposium there were 16 applicants who self-described their minority status as Afro-American/African (8), South East Asian (2), Chinese (2), Lebanese (1), Arabic (1) Jewish (1).  One described himself as “mixed.”  They spoke Vietnamese (1), Chinese (2), Italian (3), Spanish (6), Portuguese (1), Polish (1), Hebrew and Yiddish (1), Armenian (1), Creole (1), Oriya (1), and Arabic (3).   The day concluded, as it did with each of the sessions, with students being given guidance on the process of applying to the department.  But it was made clear to the applicants that they would be evaluated on the basis of their skill, knowledge and motivation, without reference to ethnicity.

Concordia’s Journalism Department invited 15 of 21 students who applied to the program after attending the workshop.  Nine opted to go to Concordia, but in other disciplines.  In that sense, the university benefited from the workshop even if the department did not.  Three students accepted our invitation, and two of them self-identified as visible minorities.  One identified herself as “Black-African.”  A second Arabic student later opted for Communication Studies alone. The department ended up with one visible-minority student who started the program as a result of the workshop.

January 2008

The posters were re-designed for the second year, and once again, they were delivered to guidance counsellors at five CEGEP colleges (Dawson, John Abbott, Vanier, Marianopolis, and Champlain) and mounted on bulletin boards at both McGill and Concordia universities.  There were also interviews on Kahnawake Radio CKRK-FM and Global TV’s multilingual cable channel in English and French in an effort to spur interest.

In 2008, there was a larger group of students (58), of whom five were Muslim high-school girls who attended for the afternoon.  The 19 self-described “minority” students, who attended all day, spoke 23 languages other than English or French: Arabic (2); Armenian (2); Chinese (2); Farsi (1); Greek  (2); Hebrew (1); Italian (3); Polish (3); Slovak (1); Spanish (5); and Urdu (1).

Seven of 10 students who applied to the program after attending the workshop were invited.  All accepted the invitation.  Three were members of visible minorities.  They all began the program.

January 2009

A total of 56 attended, and of that group, 15 applied to the program, including seven visible minorities.  We invited eight of the 15 applicants who had attended the workshop. Six of the eight were minority students (1 Chinese, 1 Vietnamese, 2 Hispanic, 2 Arabic). Sixty-five students started the program in the fall of 2009.  Thus, 12.3 % of the students who started the program in September 2009 had attended the workshop, and three-quarters of that number were visible minorities.  Put another way, nine per cent of the entire student population who started in the fall were visible minorities who attended the one-day workshop.

This is not to say that without the workshop, these students would not have applied or been accepted.  Nevertheless, of the 10 visible minority students who were enrolled to start in the fall, six had attended the workshop.

Comparison of those attending the symposiums versus those selected: 2007 – 2009

# Total attending the entire day                           148

# Attending who applied                                       46 (or 31%)

# Attending who were accepted                           30 (or 20.3%)

# Visible minorities who attended                       42 (or 28%)

# Visible minorities accepted                                11 (or 7.4%)

# Visible minorities started                                   10 (or 7%)

Comparison with all entry level students in Journalism

In the fall of 2008, four visible minority students who attended the workshops in either April 2007 or January 2008 began their studies. That year, 88 students were accepted.  Thus, visible minorities who had attended a workshop accounted for 4.5 per cent of the first-year student body. The following year, the department reduced its intake of first year students.  Sixty-five students began the program, of which six were visible minorities who had attended the one-day course.  They accounted for just over nine per cent of the first-year class.  While the raw number of visible minorities attending had dropped, they were seen as more desirable by the department and chose to attend in greater numbers.

These results should be viewed with caution. It would be unwise to try to draw a direct causal relationship between the Young Journalists Workshop and the success the department had in attracting minority students.  We cannot state categorically that there was a direct relationship between those who attended the workshops and the number of visible minorities who applied and were accepted.  Would these students have applied and been accepted without the workshops?  We cannot say definitively that the Young Journalists Workshop alone directly increased the numbers of minority students who began their studies.

Furthermore, despite efforts to engage the local Mohawk community of Kahnawake, just a 30-minute drive from the Loyola campus of Concordia University’s journalism department, no First Nations students attended the weekend sessions and none was admitted during this two-year period.

There were concerns expressed within the Journalism Department that the workshop, which was open to all potential applicants of the Journalism program, would appear to be exclusionary.  This is why the title Young Journalists Workshop was chosen rather than something more limiting, such as Visible Minority Journalism Workshop.   The organizers made it clear in the literature that all were welcome and that we would be discussing visible minority participation in the journalistic process throughout the seminar. Department spokespersons also assured all students that candidates for the program would be evaluated on the basis of their ability, not their ethnicity.

The reaction of the department’s students is worthy of note.  No student objected to the orientation of the seminars. It is possible that these students were being politically correct in order to be polite, so as not to appear biased toward their fellow students.  But it is equally possible that our country’s youth have made an important, embracing philosophical change.  Many students said they appreciated getting a greater understanding of the current under- representation of visible minorities in the media.   Some went further, suggesting that if journalism contains elements of social change, the craft itself has to change demographically to reflect the population more closely.

One final element deserves a brief mention: these events created an unexpected outpouring of goodwill on the part of current visible minority students in the department.  Given an opportunity to reach out to other prospective students of colour, they spoke passionately and eloquently about their experiences in the department.  While it now seems like an obvious by-product of the workshops, it surprised some of us in the faculty who simply did not expect to hear such warmth associated with studying in the department.

So, where does it leave the outreach program?  It continues in varying forms, in at least two of the departments.  The University of Regina continues its one-day workshop for First Nations students.  Ryerson continues to have an outreach program, specifically targeted at the east end of Toronto.  According to John Miller (now retired), two applicants from that program have already started their degree in journalism as a result.   Concordia did not hold a program oriented to visible minorities this past year, choosing instead to return to a sports workshop funded by Sportsnet.  Four visible minorities attended.  They were either Sportsnet employees (2) or students already enrolled in the program (2).

Summary

The outreach to visible minorities had a significant, measurable impact, in the case of Concordia University.  But a single two-year funding formula cannot be expected to develop a long-term commitment toward achieving a more representative body of students.  In particular, First Nations students may well require specific, targeted and long-term underwriting in order to be

able to develop into writers and journalists who can reflect the concerns of their community.

Notes

  1. Funding of $105,324 was underwritten by the federal government’s Ministry of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women. Between January 2007 and February of 2008, each of the universities hosted two sessions.
  2. My thanks to Dr. David Secko, who shared the duties of organizing the second workshop with me and followed it up the next year alone while I was on sabbatical; and to Fred Francis and Sandra Cochrane for their provision of registration data.
  3. Five female high-school students from a Muslim private school in Montreal attended for the afternoon.
  4. One visible minority student was refused at Graduate level.  Another minority student applied for 2009 but was not accepted.
  5. Five minority students were accepted.  Three went on to other programs at Concordia.
  6. One Arabic language student who was accepted by both Journalism and Communication Studies in the Joint Specialization program chose Communication Studies.

References

Government of Canada. (2009). Facts and figures 2009 – Immigration overview: Permanent and temporary residents Canada – Permanent residents by category, 2005-2009. URL : http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2009/permanent/01.asp [June 15, 2010].

Laxer, J. (2003). The border:  Canada, the US and dispatches from the 49th parallel. Toronto, ON: Doubleday.

Miller, J. (1994). Report on minorities in Canadian newsrooms.  Toronto, ON: Canadian Daily Newspaper Association.

Miller, J., & Prince, K. (1994). The imperfect mirror. Toronto, ON:  School of Journalism, Ryerson Polytechnic University.

Miller, J., & Court, C. (2005). Who’s telling the news? Race and gender representation in Canada’s daily newsrooms. URL: http://www.diversitywatch.ryerson.ca/ [June 15, 2005]

Statistics Canada. (2006) Topic-based tabulations, Aboriginal identity.  URL: http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/index-eng.cfm  [June 13, 2010]

Statistics Canada (2006). Labour force activity (8) URL:  http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/index-eng.cfm [June 13, 2010]

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