News Media Perpetuation of Racism in a Democratic
SocietyCanada is internationally renowned for its commitment to multiculturalism. In fact, Canada was the first nation to officially adopt a multicultural policy. However, while the Canadian government has developed a broad-based multicultural mandate that includes a national human rights code and increased penalties for hate-motivated crimes, and most Canadians oppose overt forms of discrimination and hate, racism continues to exist in Canadian society, albeit in a subtle fashion.
Many theorists lay blame for the perpetuation of racism in Canadian society on the mainstream news media, arguing that racist preconceptions are reflected and reinforced through the use of racialised discourse in news-casting. For example, Augie Fleras and Jean Elliott, in their analysis of multiculturalism in Canada, note that the treatment of people of colour, aboriginals, immigrants, and refugees in Canada ranges from mixed to deplorable, arguing that the news media frames non-whites as criminals and social nuisances.1 Similarly, Mikal Muharrar, in his analysis of racial profiling, notes that news media categorises non-whites as criminals through the use of subtle stereotypes and profiling techniques, and that this negatively impacts on how society perceives people of colour. 2 Moreover, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, in a government brief, identifies the mainstream media as playing a fundamental role in the perpetuation of racism due to its inability “to prevent racist misconceptions in defiance of existing human rights legislation.” 3
This article will examine the perpetuation of racism in Canada by the mainstream news media by examining three elements: (1) the impact the news media has on mainstream society (i.e. how it shapes thoughts and behaviours), (2) modern manifestations of racism, in particular subtle forms of racism, and (3) the use and impact of racial discourse (such as racial stereotypes and the framing of criminal and deviant behaviour as a racial problem) on society. This article argues that the news media not only reflects and reinforces racism in society through racialised discourse, but also creates and perpetuates subtle notions of bias and exclusion.
The Impact of the Mainstream Media
In order to identify how the mainstream media perpetuates racism, we must first understand its impact on society beyond serving as a critical communication link. In theory, the news media (in a democracy) is expected to nurture an informed audience by providing balanced and impartial reporting of events and issues. However, theorists contend that the news media has a much larger role in shaping the way members of a society think and behave. For example, Wilson and Gutierrez argue that the news media plays a central role in defining society (by virtue of its surveillance and informer functions) through the reinforcement of standards, norms, and values. 4 Likewise, J. R. Ponting, in his analysis of stereotyping of Aboriginals in Canada, notes that the news media imposes a culturally racist model of Canadian society by using ethno-specific values and norms. 5 In addition, Todd Ferguson, a Montreal-based social activist, argues that the news media constructs status quo reality through the process of legitimisation and reinforcement of standards and norms. 6 That is, the media transmits and reinforces culturally specific standards (i.e. beliefs, images, norms, and values) by selecting value-laden news coverage.
Augie Fleras and John Lock Kunz further the argument, pointing out that what appears as mainstream and unbiased is, in actuality, socially constructed. Fleras and Kunz point out that news items (i.e. the events or issues that are covered) are chosen by personnel (such as editors) on the basis of personal, institutional, corporate, and commercial priorities. 7 In other words, the news media is market driven. The mainstream news media, therefore, are not merely a tool to inform the public sphere; they are also mechanisms that construct social reality through the placement of coded messages that reinforce an idea of what is good, acceptable, and desirable. E.D. Nelson and Augie Fleras note:
A media-dominated society such as ours elevates the electronic and print media to the position of arbiter in deciding what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. Those in control of the media to a large extent define the beliefs, values, and myths by which we live and organize our lives. They impose a cultural context for framing our experiences of social reality, in the process sending out a clear message about who is normal and what is desirable and important in society. 8
Fleras and Kunz refer to this inherent, yet subtle, bias as “mediacentrism,” noting that it “is neither an exception nor deliberately pursued, but systemic to how mainstream media go about their business.” 9 Fleras and Elliott note that, “as defenders of ideology, the media constitutes ‘machineries of meaning’ in the sense that they convey powerful albeit coded messages about what is acceptable or not.” 10 News media sources, therefore, are not value-neutral, but rather they are agenda driven and ideologically biased, serving to advance corporate interests.
Racism in the Modern Context
Canada has a long history of racism and discrimination, ranging from the mistreatment of Aboriginals through the barring of Blacks to services and employment and restrictive immigration policies that excluded Jews, East Indians, and Chinese from entering Canada. 11 For example, during the Second World War, the federal government prohibited Jews (fleeing from persecution in Europe) from entering Canada and Asians were interned in prison camps and banned from voting until 1947.
As noted by Peter Li, a Canadian sociologist, racism continues to exist in Canada because it is deeply embedded in the Canadian collective consciousness and belief structures. Li notes:
State responses have largely failed to achieve the goal of eliminating or even controlling racial bias and discrimination because racism and notions of racial superiority are deeply embedded in the collective belief system and in the norms and practices of Canadian society. 12
Several theorists, in particular Li and Fleras, argue that Canadians generally lack commitment to policies promoting diversity and multiculturalism. For example, Li points out that recent studies indicate that Canadians show a “strong ambivalence” towards multiculturalism:
Symbolic, folkloric expressions of cultural identity are viewed as acceptable as long as these activities are limited to the private domain, or to specifically designated cultural events and other public ethnic celebrations. A little colour is ‘tolerated’ and even encouraged, providing vibrancy and vitality to what remains as the ‘core’ culture and maintenance of a cultural-racial hierarchy based on hegemonic Western values and principles. 13
Fleras further notes that, while Canadians support multiculturalism in principle, they do not in practice, arguing that Canadians promote diversity in so far as it does not upset the status quo and jeopardise middle-class privilege. 14 Fleras refers to this antipathy as “subliminal racism,” arguing that this form of racism may profess sympathy for disadvantaged groups and express disdain for more overt and explicit forms of racism, but that it opposes the implementation of equalling measures that require personal sacrifice or run counter to societal norms. 15 Similarly, Anthony H. Richmond, a professor of sociology at York University, notes that, while Canadians appear to reject explicit forms of racism, many tacitly endorse implicit racist attitudes and practices. 16
However, mainstream society is not entirely at fault for the ambivalence towards multiculturalism and social equality. In fact, policy makers and cultural institutions have inadvertently assisted in the development of an ambivalent attitude towards multiculturalism. Theorists argue that, by reinforcing the belief that Canada is a paragon of diversity and social equality and dismissing acts of racism as the actions of a few individuals existing on the margins of society, policy makers have relieved the status quo of the responsibility for the continued existence of racism. Li argues that, by pushing blame for racism to the margins of society, the government (and the news media) reinforces the belief that mainstream society fully supports multiculturalism and diversity and that there is no need to alter mainstream society to encourage social equality. 17
Spears similarly notes that racism has undergone a fundamental change in the twentieth century, in effect evolving from overt forms of racism based on biological principles (in the pre-World War Two period) to subtle forms of racism based on cultural differences that are deeply (and sometimes covertly) embedded in institutional structures and societal values, referring to modern manifestations as “neo-racism.” 18 Spears argues:
Neoracism rationalises the subordination of people of colour on the basis of culture, which is of course acquired through acculturation within an ethnic group, while traditional racism rationalises it fundamentally in terms of biology. Neoracism is still racism in that it functions to maintain racial hierarchies of oppression. 19
Although racism has changed in form, Spears argues that the purpose and impact has remained the same. Neo-racism, like that of biological racism, serves to appease the white working and middle class by maintaining white-advantage over exploited groups.20
In comparison, Frances Henry and Carol Tator refer to subtle forms of racism embedded in institutional and cultural structures in the contemporary social context as “democratic racism.”21 Henry and Tator note that democratic racism is sustained through the use of racialised discourse, arguing that racial constructs (i.e. framing and stereotyping) “gives voice” to racism in the modern context. 22 Henry and Tator further argue that racism in Canadian society is manifested in the “systems of cultural production and representations and in the codes of behaviour and norms of the dominant culture.”23 Racialised discourse includes words, images, and categorisations that reinforce an understanding of reality in which people of colour and immigrants are recognised as having a lower social status than whites. In other words, racialised discourse incorporates pre-existing negative judgements and categorisations about people of colour and minority groups and that these judgements are used to construct rules and institutional structures that maintain white power and privilege (i.e. to rationalise differential treatment).
Reinforcement of Racism by the News Media
Although it is erroneous to identify all criticisms of minorities and immigrants as racially motivated, the mainstream news media continue to be accused of promoting and reinforcing racism. Fleras and Kunz argue that, while incidents of media-based racism have declined in recent decades, the mainstream news media endorses structures and values that promote racism and result in the exclusion of minorities:
Racism in the mainstream media is more likely to embody seemingly neutral acts of behaviour that have the unwitting but real effect of perpetuating an unequal social order. 24
One of the primary complaints of the mainstream news media is that they continue to use racial stereotypes. According to Wilson and Gutierrez, the news media recognises its primary audience (i.e. the status quo) as white and, as a result, uses stereotypes to describe groups outside of the status quo.25 Although Wilson and Gutierrez identify the perpetuation of racism (via racial stereotypes) as unintentional, the use of generalisations by the mass media (as a common content denominator to which a white audience could relate) reinforces pre-existing negative conceptions of visible minorities and immigrants. Wilson and Gutierrez argue:
These symbols were a useful shorthand for the mass media to capsulize much more complex personalities and issues in a shortened character or term. The symbol was the term that called up a whole set of characteristics ascribed to those associated with the term in the minds of the mass media. It was those characteristics that become the stereotype in the mentality of the audience.26
In other words, stereotyping is a cognitive-shorthand used to convey complex sets of issues or characteristics.
However, some theorists and activists are critical of the assertion that the mainstream news media lacks intent and argue that the use of racial stereotypes are by design and are much more nefarious. For example, Spears argues that media-based stereotypes are crude and categorical negative symbolisms that are akin to spoken slurs and smears and are used to defend interests of the dominant culture.27 Henry and Tator also criticise the mainstream news media as a purveyor of a racist discourse that supports a “powerful white political, economic, and social elite” and acts as “a vehicle for reinforcing racism in Canadian society.”28
Another complaint of the mainstream news media is that they tend to ignore minority groups and people of colour in news items unless they are involved in criminal activities or atypical events (the highlighting of race in issues of crime and deviant behaviour is referred to as ‘framing’). Stephen Balkaran, in an article on the media and racism, argues that mainstream news media sources tend to report stories that involve conflict and issues of race while ignoring the underlying social and economic factors of a given event.29 This is due to the fact that the news media are largely conflict driven, preferring to focus on issues outside of the norm in order to captivate the interest of the audience. Wilson and Gutierrez note:
The news media rarely covered activities in minority communities unless, in accordance with the media’s surveillance function, they were perceived as posing a threat to the established order.30
In other words, news stories about minorities tend to focus on negative issues such as crime rather than on positive issues such as individual or community success stories. For example, a study of three major newspapers (Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Sun) by Frances Henry found that, of 2,622 articles mentioning Jamaican-Canadians, 45% of the references were about sports or entertainment, 39% were about crime, and only 2% were about success, indicating that the mainstream media does not offer balanced coverage of minority issues. 31 Moreover, the mainstream media tend to highlight race as a central issue during crime reporting, but only when people of colour are involved in crime. Fleras and Elliott note that the mainstream news media typically frame minorities by making them visible in negative domains (such as crime and poverty) and at the same time ignoring minority contributions in positive domains.32 (In addition, whiteness is considered to be a default category in that mass media sources tend not to highlight race when crime involves a white person; thus providing a skewed view of negative issues.) That is, the news media racialises negative news events by ignoring underlying factors and highlighting race or ethno-cultural identity.
Theorists also argue that simplistic coverage of events serve to stigmatise minority groups as criminals. By lacking context and detail, the news media provides a one-dimensional image of minorities that reinforces pre-existing biases and stereotypes, reinforcing the idea that people of colour are a threat to white society. For example, in April 2002, The Record printed a series of articles about ‘home-grown’ marijuana operations in Canada, arguing that, “growers are most often people of Vietnamese descent.”33 Although the articles stressed national identity on several occasions, they did not explain whether the individuals arrested where Canadian citizens, born in Canada, or all connected to a single criminal organisation or family. (For example, the articles noted that the majority of the 91 houses raided in Waterloo Region were operated by people of “Vietnamese descent,” but did not mention that all of those arrested of Vietnamese descent were from a single family; thus giving the impression that home-grown operations are a widespread problem in the Vietnamese community.) Moreover, the articles did not address the underlying social and economic factors that contribute to the drug trade. While the articles stressed the ethno-national origin of the people caught growing marijuana, it failed to mention the fact that 74% of all illicit drug users are white; further reinforcing the preconception that the drug trade is an issue confined to minority groups (i.e. a non-white issue).34 As Fleras and Elliott argue in other contexts:
When presented without context, actions seem to reflect personal choices. This serves to gloss over root causes and structural solutions. By alternatively denying and exaggerating the presence of minorities in Canada and abroad, the media are circulating mixed messages that racialise antisocial behaviour and at the same time criminalize ethnicity.35
Fleras and Elliott further note that simplistic coverage of news events reinforces the image that minority groups are inherently dangerous, effectively driving a “psychological wedge between minorities and Canadians at large” and opening minorities “up to attack.”36 Likewise, Wilson and Gutierrez point out that a lack of detailed or alternate coverage “could easily become the reality in the minds of the audience.”37
Although the mainstream media provides simplistic coverage of events, do they have an impact on society? As noted Wilson and Gutierrez, studies indicate that the influence of the media is “limited and complex” and have their greatest impact when they reinforce (rather than attempt to change) the preconceptions and beliefs of the audience.38 In other words, media stereotypes and framing help to justify racial preconceptions rather than to dispel them. Wilson and Gutierrez argue:
Studies indicate that negative, one-sided or stereotyped media portrayals and news coverage do reinforce racist attitudes in those members of the audience who do have them and can channel mass actions against the group that is stereotypically portrayed.39
Similarly, Fleras and Kunz note:
The end result is that racist assumptions and discourses not only erode any pretext towards balance or impartiality, but a racialised discursive framework also contributes to racism in Canada by articulating and transmitting powerful yet negative messages about minority women and men that unwittingly intensify their marginalisation and denigration.40
The problem lies in the fact that much of society considers media portrayals of events and issues as a reflection of the real, and that stereotypes and framing stigmatise groups as criminal or deviant, ultimately leading to unequal treatment. For example, Richmond argues that stereotypes lead to the profiling of crime and that this may lead police and immigration officers to detain and harass innocent individuals because they appear to fit the category or description.41 As noted by many theorists, non-whites (in particular those of Middle-Eastern descent) have been targeted as potential terrorists due to the use of profiling by police and security agencies in the post-Sept 11th environment.
Although some progress has been made in eradicating hate and discrimination, racism continues to be manifested in a variety of ways in Canadian society. Through stereotyping and framing, mainstream news media functions as agents of social control, effectively reflecting and reinforcing a pre-existing racist ideology. While some theorists, such as Li and Fleras, argue that the perpetuation of racism by the mainstream news media is unintentional (i.e. operational racism or ‘how they go about their business’), it is nonetheless real and has an impact on how society thinks and behaves. In recognising the influence it has on society, the mainstream news media must therefore move towards developing a policy of multicultural media coverage. That is, the mainstream media must move away from treating people of colour as ‘the other’ and eliminate the use of whiteness as a default category and highlighting race in negative issues. The mainstream news media must provide inclusive and unbiased media coverage.
1 Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Nelson, 2002: 160.
2 Muharrar, Mikal. “Media Blackface: ‘Racial Profiling’ in News Reporting,” September/October 1998.
3 Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. The State of Canadian Broadcasting. April 23, 2002.
4 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 37.
5 Ponting, J. R. “Racism in Stereotyping of First Nations,” in Vic Satzewich ed., Racism and Social Inequality in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational, 1998: 269-298.
6 Ferguson, Todd. “None is still too many: The Media, Roma Refugees, and the Canadian Response,” (unpublished paper, no date).
7 Fleras, Augie and John Lock Kunz. Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multicultural Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 2001: 44.
8 Nelson, E. D. and Augie Fleras. Social Problems in Canada: Issues and Challenges. Scarborugh: Prentice Hall, 1995: 384.
9 Fleras, Augie and John Lock Kunz. Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multicultural Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 2001: 43.
10 Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Nelson, 2002: 160.
11 Ponting, J. R. “Racism in Stereotyping of First Nations,” in Vic Satzewich ed., Racism and Social Inequality in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational, 1998: 269-298.
12 Li, Peter eds. Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999: 88.
13 Li, Peter eds. Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999: 96-98.
14 Fleras, Augie. Personal Interview. 24 April 2002.
15 Fleras, Augie. “Racialising Culture/ Culturalising Race: Multicultural Racism in a Multicultural Canada.” Unpublished work (2002): 11.
16 Richmond, Anthony. “Refugees and Racism in Canada.” Refuge 6 (2001): 15.
17 Li, Peter eds. Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999: 90.
18 Spears, Arthur. “Race and ideology: An introduction,” In A. Spears ed., Race and Ideology: Language, Symbolism, and Popular Culture. Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1999: 11-59.
19 Spears, Arthur. “Race and ideology: An introduction,” In A. Spears ed., Race and Ideology: Language, Symbolism, and Popular Culture. Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1999: 11-59.
20 Spears, Arthur. “Race and ideology: An introduction,” In A. Spears ed., Race and Ideology: Language, Symbolism, and Popular Culture. Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1999: 11-59.
21 Henry, Frances and Carol Tator. “State Policy and Practices as Racialised Discourse: Multiculturalism, the Charter, and Employment Equity,” In P. Li ed. Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999: 88-115.
22 Henry, Frances and Carol Tator. “State Policy and Practices as Racialised Discourse: Multiculturalism, the Charter, and Employment Equity,” In P. Li ed. Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999: 88-115.
23 Henry, Frances and Carol Tator. “State Policy and Practices as Racialised Discourse: Multiculturalism, the Charter, and Employment Equity,” In P. Li ed. Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1999: 88-115.
24 Fleras, Augie and John Lock Kunz. Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multicultural Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 2001: 43.
25 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 42.
26 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 43.
27 Spears, Arthur. “Race and ideology: An introduction,” In A. Spears ed., Race and Ideology: Language, Symbolism, and Popular Culture. Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1999: 50.
28 Tator, Carol and Frances Henry. Racist discourse in Canada’s English Print Media. Canadian Race Relations Foundation: Toronto, 2000.
29 Balkaran, Stephen. “Mass Media and Racism.” The Yale Political Quarterly No. 1. (October 1999).
30 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 43.
31 Citied in Fleras, Augie and John Lock Kunz. Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multicultural Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 2001: 30.
32 Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Nelson, 2002: 162.
33 “Growers are Most Often People of Vietnamese Descent.” The Record 13 April 2002: H2.
34 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Risk and Protective Factors for Adolescent Drug Use: Finding From the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Accessed: http://www.samhsa.gov. 3 May 2002.
35 Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Nelson, 2002: 164.
36 Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Nelson, 2002: 171.
37 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 44.
38 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 44.
39 Wilson, Clint and Felix Gutierrez. Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995: 45.
40 Fleras, Augie and John Lock Kunz. Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multicultural Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 2001: 30.