The trouble with diversity journalism

posted on July 14, 2018

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

I’ve been covering ethnic, religious, sexual orientation and other so-called diversity issues most of my newspaper career.

I’ve always been curious about different people, world views and cultures, aiming to report on them with fairness, balance and respect; embracing pluralism, while also probing for that elusive journalistic objective known as truth.

Diversity journalism has now become a big thing. Along with it has come a cadre of people who make a living telling others how to handle difference and social exclusion. The goal is positive, but there is often a strong ideological component, with prefabricated morality.

The diversity industry has now made its way into journalism. Not only in North America. Last year, I took part in a conference of the International Association of Religion Journalists in Indonesia, where most students in attendance were taking courses in “diversity journalism.”

Diversity articles are common now. But, to my mind, they are often flawed.

I recently heard one archetypal example while listening to CBC morning radio and a piece titled: “The Adventure Gap: Why minorities are less likely to pursue outdoor recreation.” Created by outdoors columnist Ash Kelly, the radio feature asked, “Does the outdoors community have a diversity problem?” And the answer, to Kelly and the identity activists she interviewed, was definitely yes.

The range of outdoor activities in Canada is boggling. Surfing. Kayaking. Fishing. Hiking. Skiing. Cycling. Snowboarding. Archery. Climbing. Birdwatching. Scuba diving. Sailing. Hunting. Camping. Jogging. Mountain biking. Tai chi in the park. Nature photography. Target shooting. Swimming. Outdoor sports, like soccer, cricket, bocce and beach volleyball.

The assumption of the program, and of the diversity activists interviewed from an outdoors club and outdoors-supply business, was that people of colour, LGBQT people, women and Indigenous people are not proportionally represented in Canada’s outdoors. The program assumed those who enjoy outdoors recreation are largely “privileged” and are consciously or unconsciously denying marginalized groups access to the outdoors.

I’d suggest this representative illustration of diversity journalism contained a number of problems that are common to the emerging genre.

Lack of evidence
Are West Coast hikers, kayakers, skiers, etc., more white than the demographic norm? Are they mostly male and heterosexual, to a non-representative degree? No one knows, because there is precious little data. Anecdotes and expressions of discomfort are pretty well all we are going on here.

Generally, there is a dearth of solid evidence in diversity reporting. The lengthy CBC piece, while acknowledging a lack of Canadian data, cited just one statistic: That 85 per cent of the members of the North Shore Mountain Bike Association are male. But that’s just one outdoors group out of hundreds.

Even the CBC talk show host, Stephen Quinn, gently challenged Kelly’s assertion that whites dominate the local outdoors, remarking, “I see lots of families of colour out there. So what you’re talking about is the more hard-core outdoor enthusiasts.” Kelly acknowledged that might be a fair observation.

But no one really knows. Everyone has competing anecdotes.

Too little acknowledgment of financial ‘privilege’
The morally loaded and largely fluid term “privilege” has been over-used in recent years. There are a myriad ways to be privileged or not. But if there is one generalization about privilege that might stand up to scrutiny, it is about financial privilege. The middle and upper classes can often obtain things that those with less money cannot, including access to certain kinds of outdoor recreation. But the CBC report barely touched this angle.

Ignoring the importance of ‘choice’
Even if there was evidence that ethnic Chinese, South Asians, Filipinos, Iranians and Indigenous people in, say, Metro Vancouver, do not head out to the outdoors in proportion to their numbers, we do not know the causes.

The CBC report stressed members of such groups are being systemically marginalized. But it seems conceivable, if not obvious, that some ethno-cultural groups don’t care as much about being in the great outdoors as other ethno-cultural groups.

Immigrants and members of certain ethnic groups, for instance, often openly express pride in how their cultures emphasize the value of hard work, financial success and educational excellence. Some people of colour have told me focusing on outdoor pursuits seems frivolous.

The emphasis that some minorities place on getting an education, rather that getting outdoors, is paying off in regards to status and access. Statistics Canada figures consistently show people of colour have greater levels of higher education than whites.

Here’s an anecdote, since that is basically all we have at this point. One of my family members dated a wonderful young hard-working B.C. Muslim man for about two years. She loved to go for long walks. He didn’t. He apologized to her because he said, in his Lebanese culture, recreational walking was not common.

Over-reliance on American specialists
Canadian journalists covering diversity often rely on U.S. specialists, which outdoors columnist Kelly did by giving prominence to James Mills, the African-American author of The Adventure Gap, who maintains that American people of colour are constantly asking themselves if others in the outdoors “will do something to harm me?”

But the ethnic demographics of Canada are dramatically different from the U.S., where 14 per cent of the population is black and there is a history of slavery and discrimination. Is it possible the main reason it appears few blacks enjoy the outdoors in B.C. is simply that less than one per cent of B.C.’s population is black?

Too many diversity activists
In the name of diversity of opinion, diversity journalists must strive to do more than quote diversity activists or professionals. It takes effort to obtain the voices of a spectrum of minority community members — across incomes, educational levels and world views — to reach the often-unheard majority, many of whom are unfamiliar with diversity jargon and don’t necessarily buy it.

Ethical inconsistency
Diversity programs are designed, at least in theory, to train people to avoid stereotyping others based on colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability etc.. So it’s unfortunate that diversity advocates in the radio program zeroed in on young women feeling “intimidated” by the mere presence in the outdoors of “older white males.” It’s hard to imagine a reporter highlighting the fears of someone feeling apprehensive in the midst of older Arab males, black males or almost any other cohort.

Turning ‘diversity’ into a religion
This is my turn to lean on an American specialist, in this case the African-American scholar John McWhorter. He is among many lamenting how anti-racism, the key aim of diversity programs, has become for many a fundamentalist belief system. In his essay “Antiracism: Our Flawed New Religion,” McWhorter says anti-racism is important, but its downside is that it has turned into an absolutist orthodoxy that can’t be questioned, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and humiliates those with doubts.

This column is sure to annoy some diversity specialists. But that’s the way it is: The diversity business can be a divisive one. Stephen Quinn alluded to that in his conversation with Kelly, when he asked how a couple of B.C.-based diversity initiatives were being received by local outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

“It’s going about as well as this conversation is going,” Kelly replied ironically, with amusing candour. “There are lots of accusations flying around.”

Read more