The Current

'Missing voices and missing perspectives': Trudeau blackface scandal renews calls for newsroom diversity

Most of the journalists peppering Trudeau with questions about the brown and blackface images have been white. And many journalists of colour say when you’re covering an explosive story about race, that’s a problem.

Many say Canadian newsrooms must tackle race head-on — and employ more diverse reporters

From left: Tanya Talaga, Manisha Krishnan, Anita Li. (Steve Russell/Troy Manning/Ryan Walker)
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On Wednesday night, after the first brownface image of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau became public, all the reporters peppering him with questions aboard the Liberals' campaign plane were white.

Many journalists of colour say that lack of diversity has a negative impact on the way stories like these are covered. 

"There are missing voices and missing perspectives within the newsroom," Anita Li, a journalism instructor and the co-founder of Canadian Journalists of Colour, told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton. 

Manisha Krishnan, a senior writer for Vice, said she was frustrated watching the scrum aboard the Liberals' plane, because the questions seemed more focused on how these images would play politically than on the racism and impact of the images themselves.

The newsrooms are totally not reflective of Canadian society whatsoever.- Tanya Talaga

"The questions were largely focused on Andrew Scheer and how would Justin Trudeau react if Andrew Scheer had done blackface," said Krishnan.

"There was really no one asking him, 'Okay, you didn't think it was racist, what were you thinking? Walk us through your thought process. Why you would think this was an appropriate thing to do?'" she said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau responds to questions on his campaign plane after a picture of him wearing brownface in 2001 were published by Time magazine on Sept. 18, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

While there is no recent study of newsroom diversity in Canada, a 2006 study of 37 Canadian newsrooms found that just 3.4 per cent of their journalists were Indigenous or people of colour, compared to 16.7 per cent of the general population.

"The newsrooms are totally not reflective of Canadian society whatsoever," said Tanya Talaga, Toronto Star columnist and author of Seven Fallen Feathers. "We see the lack of our voices, meaning the lack of coverage on everything."

Li said that led to stories like the Trudeau blackface scandal being covered in a reductive way that focused on "outrage and reactions," without enough context of the underlying issues behind the story.

"The Canadian public isn't even primed to understand [the story] because there wasn't ongoing coverage of race in a consistent way," Li said. "And we can't cover these issues in a vacuum."

Beyond this story, Talaga said since the start of the election campaign, she had seen a general lack of coverage on political issues affecting Indigenous people, like the impact of climate change on their communities, or missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

Trudeau is shown in this 2001 photo published in the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau was teaching at the time. (Time.com)

"When it comes to regular everyday issues, [and] the systemic racism that people in this country face every single day, that wasn't anywhere near any of the coverage," she said.

Krishnan said that the only fix to the problem was to have people of colour in decision-making positions in the newsroom. "Their opinions need to be taken seriously. They need to be at the table," she said.

And for the rest of the election, Krishan had this advice for white reporters who might be intimidated to talk about race: "Educate yourself."

"We are reporters. That's our job, is to do research," she said. "It's pretty straightforward. You just have to do that work."


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Allie Jaynes, Max Paris, Cameron Perrier and Julie Crysler.