Last Monday, Dr. Erin Tolley, an assistant professor and the associate chair in UTM’s political science department, hosted the Race Still Matters in Canadian Politics event, which focused on the media coverage of race in Canada.
Tolley was interested in this topic because Canadian political scientists don’t talk about race very often. Perceptions of race and racial diversity influence people’s experiences of politics, while racialized assumptions within structures in the field of journalism influence how journalists do their job. Research shows that there is a distinct, qualitative difference between the coverage of racialized candidates and the media coverage of white candidates.
“This really suggests that race still matters in Canada, and that our democratic playing field isn’t necessarily level,” says Tolley.
“Media coverage is often racialized,” she continues. “Perceptions of race and racial diversity really influence people’s experiences of politics and how media reports politics.”
For her book Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics, Tolley researched 980 media stories of candidates who ran in the 2008 election. She examined how the candidates were quoted, whether there were photos of the candidates included in media coverage, how the stories and photos were framed, and whether the coverage was positive or negative. She also analyzed the coverage of all minority members of Parliament in Canada from 1992 to 2012 within three major newspapers, and tried to understand racial mediation. Racial mediation is when a candidate’s race influences how the media will portray them.
When it comes to women, the media tends to focus on appearance. With race, it is generally only newsworthy if it relates to someone who is not white. If an individual featured in the media is white, their race is not mentioned, but if individuals featured are from racial minorities, then their race is almost always mentioned.
The media also makes judgements about what is important.
“Media are going to sift through reality and present a version of it, and that’s good, that’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Tolley argues that “Even though there have been some successes with diversity within politics and there is a higher number of minorities in Parliament than ever before, this doesn’t mean the racial differences have been washed away.”
Within media coverage, white politicians are portrayed as being able to succeed on their own. Non-white candidates are viewed as successful because of or in spite of their race, with no regard to their experience or qualifications. The difference in how actions of minorities and whites are viewed can be seen in media coverage surrounding Muslim MPs who abstained from the vote on sanctions against Israel. There were 43 Liberal MPs who skipped the vote; however, the media focused on the eight who were Muslim, suggesting that their decision to abstain was related to their religion. One article suggests that conservative members who missed the vote must have done so for logistical reasons, but doesn’t express that reason as a possibility for the eight Muslim MPs who missed the vote.
Positive viability includes the view that the candidate is likely to win, framing them as the frontrunner. Tolley found that overall, candidates received approximately the same amount of viability coverage, regardless of race. The discrepancy in media coverage was revealed when examining how the non-incumbent candidates, those who had never won an election before, were portrayed.
Within non-incumbent candidates, white candidates tended to receive positive coverage, but racial minorities had to earn positive coverage.
“Racial minority candidates have to prove themselves with an electoral win,” says Tolley. “Once they’ve proven themselves, they tend to receive equal amounts of coverage by the media.” The idea that racial minority candidates must prove themselves where white candidates don’t is a demonstration of racial mediation, and the role race still plays in Canadian politics.
Tolley also examined whether or not candidates who are equally viable are being portrayed in the same way. She compares the objective level of viability—whether they won the election—to portrayals of candidates within the media. She compared the least viable racial minority candidates and the least viable white candidates. Tolley found that white candidates were shown to receive twice the level of positive coverage in relation to racial minority candidates.
Tolley read a guidebook for reporters on how to report on different topics in a way that avoids bias. The chapter discussing the process behind reporting on gender is called “Sexism”—however, the section on how to report on topics relating to race is not called “Racism,” but “Race and Ethnicity.” This demonstrates that “Journalists are not forgetting about race, but are not thinking critically about how race influences their news judgements and reporting.”
Tolley concludes that news judgement is applied differently when the subject of the story is a racial minority, and it is important to question the effect that has. The media has a large role in providing information for citizens, and it affects the inclusiveness of political institutions. “It’s important to talk about the way race enters into news stories and to not shut discussion down by saying we’re colour blind.”
“Many Canadians look to the South, where there are discussions about preventing Muslims from immigrating and about building walls,” says Tolley. “In this light, Canada looks better, but our standard should not be, ‘Well, we’re less racist than others.’”