These journalism grads wanted Canadian media to do a better job on Black stories. So here's what they did

These four Ryerson graduates didn't see Black communities properly reflected in Canadian media. So they launched a petition and prompted their school to act with a brand new course launching this fall.

Ryerson University responded to thousands of signatures with a brand new course this fall

Tiffany Mongu, top left, Sara Jabakhanji, top right, Breanna Xavier-Carter, bottom left, and Rosemary Akpan, bottom right, launched the online petition about a week ago, racking up thousands of signatures — and managed to get their school to act.  (CBC)

When it comes to journalism, the people who decide what stories we see and hear matter just as much as the stories themselves.

That's the message from a group of four young, diverse graduate students at Ryerson University in Toronto.

They're behind a petition to push their school to launch a course on how to responsibly report on stories affecting Black Canadians — one that dismantles stereotypes and explores how various tropes have had a hand in perpetuating racial bias.

Breanna Xavier-Carter, Tiffany Mongu, Rosemary Akpan and Sara Jabakhanji launched the online petition about a week ago, racking up thousands of signatures — and managed to get their school to act.

"I'm hoping that other young Black journalists will feel like they belong. A lot of times when you don't see yourself in the program or see people coming to speak to you that are already in the industry, you're going to feel imposter syndrome," Akpan told CBC News.

Incoming journalism students can now thank these four graduates for the newest addition to the school's curriculum: "Reporting on race: The Black community in the media."

This week, the chair of the school's journalism program, Janice Neil, announced Ryerson would act on the petition by creating a course specifically aimed at reporting on Black Canadians to launch this fall.

"This course is just the first step as the RSJ faculty and staff examines our professional practices, thinks critically about bias and systematic racism, and how we can all enrich our own learning and teaching," Neil said in an email to students. 

In their petition, Xavier-Cartier, Mongu, Akpan and Jabakhanji point to a 2010 study out of Ryerson University that examined the representation of visible minorities in leadership roles in Toronto, including in the media. 

"In media organizations, only 4.8 per cent of board members and executives were visible minorities. Visible minorities were also under-represented among newspaper columnists and as hosts and experts on supper time broadcasts," the study found.

That's despite Toronto being one of the most diverse cities in the world, with 42.8 per cent of its citizens identifying as visible minorities at the time of the study.

"The result of this is Black stories, perspectives, and voices aren't being given the platforms they equally deserve. Their own narratives are being published by the white writers, editors and producers that make up mainstream newsrooms, ultimately showing the systemic racism which builds most of our institutions," the students wrote in their petition. 

A recent example, says Mongu, is the reporting on the recent shooting death of Toronto rapper Houdini. Mongu points to a cover page by The Toronto Sun that prompted criticism by many online. 

"That was truly offensive," Mongu said.

"You cannot make comedy out of somebody's death, especially a young Black man who was shot and killed," she continued, adding that the timing was especially upsetting because it came just after the killing of George Floyd in police custody sparking demonstrations against anti-Black racism in policing across North America.

The course on Black-Canadian reporting isn't the students' only demand. The petition also calls for better recognition of Black students at the school, with scholarships and award opportunities for Black journalism students in particular. 

Jabakhanji says she's been encouraged to see the school taking steps to make that possible. 

For now, the students say they're looking forward to watching as students this fall embark on the course they were able to make possible by speaking out. 

"I'm really excited to hear the feedback from the students themselves, both Black and non-Black students," said Xavier-Carter.

"Getting to hear some of the voices of the students who are sitting in it definitely will be something that will kind of touch the heart, because being a student just a few months ago, it's something I would have loved to have engaged in."

Akpan's hope for young Black students like herself: "That they can feel like they truly are journalists."