Ottawa

Carleton grad's essay about being a journalist of colour wins award

The idea of journalistic objectivity made Radiyah Chowdhury nervous in journalism school at Carleton University. Now, her essay on the topic has won a prestigious award.

For Radiyah Chowdhury, the notion of journalistic objectivity is a complicated matter

Radiyah Chowdhury, a graduate of Carleton University's journalism program, says she's had trouble navigating her chosen field while remaining true to her identity as a Muslim woman. (Scarlet O'Neill)

When the topic of objectivity first came up in journalism class at Carleton University about four years ago, Radiyah Chowdhury felt anxious. She remembers wondering if any of her classmates felt the same way.

Chowdhury wrote about that experience in her essay titled, "The forever battle of a journalist of colour," winner of this year's Dalton Camp Award for the best essay on media and democracy. The prize is awarded by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and comes with a $10,000 cheque.

The idea of journalistic objectivity is getting a lot of attention these days, but Chowdhury told Ottawa Morning that when she was studying, it was presented as less of a choice and more of a professional imperative to remain neutral or apolitical.

Set up to fail

Guest speakers at school left her with the impression that she couldn't be a proper journalist if she was also engaging in politics, she said.

"But the issue with that is that when you're racialized you are politicized, and that's by no volition of our own. It's just something that happens to you," she said. "I felt that in that structure, I was set up to fail."

One example Chowdhury cited was when Islamophobia came up in the news, and specifically Quebec's secularism law, which bans public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols while on duty. 

As a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, Chowdhury said she wasn't sure what she was allowed to say in public. She disagreed with the law, and yet felt she couldn't freely express her views.

"That was a difficult line for me," she said. 

She worried that if she voiced her opinion, it would jeopardize her career. "Because people would see that and think, 'Oh, she's not a journalist, she's an activist or a pundit.'" 

'It's not just about the facts'

In an ideal world, facts would be facts, Chowdhury said. But in reality, she believes the current model of journalism fails to acknowledge that it creates difficulties for people of colour. 

Chowdhury grew up in Malvern, a neighbourhood in Scarborough with a large South Asian population. She said the only time Malvern made the news was when there was a shooting.  

"You could say that there was a shooting, and that's a fact," she said. But that's not the whole picture. 

"When you only come and report on shootings in a neighborhood like Malvern, that becomes the one narrative that exists of this neighborhood," she said. "Not the community events and the barbecues and the basketball tournaments that our team wins year after year." 

Chowdhury is now an associate editor at Chatelaine magazine. She said she doesn't have all the answers yet, but she does know "it's not just about the facts." 

"There is a greater truth to the story," she said. "The way that you report on something affects the communities that you're reporting on."

With files from Ottawa Morning

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