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Television must play key role in public attitudes on diversity says CAB study
11/12/2004
by Ian Sutton

 
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CRTC - television
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A SOLID CONSENSUS IS GROWING around the major role that television must play in better reflecting the Canadian mosaic.

What viewers of all ethnic origins see on TV also has a lot to do with how they see themselves as Canadians. Meanwhile, broadcasters are being told that diversity is good for business.

Industry representatives, including broadcast professionals, along with members of minority communities, are now anxious to work together and put into effect action plans that have emerged from an exhaustive two-year study on how visible minorities are represented and portrayed on the small screen.

Broadcasters in major metropolitan areas, mid-sized markets and in the north all have a role to play in ensuring that minorities -- including the rapidly-growing aboriginal population -- are accurately and fairly represented in television and that their stories are told without resorting to stereotypes.

The report of the Task Force for Cultural Diversity on Television, a nine-member group assembled in 2002 from broadcast industry and visible minority communities, was released this summer. The study group was formed by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in response to a directive from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission calling for a detailed examination of how television broadcasters represent and depict Canadian minorities.

There appears to be almost total buy-in on the part of broadcasters in terms of hiring practices and how stories involving visible minorities are told, says Madeline Ziniak, co-chair of the task force. Broadcasters have improved their representation of minorities in recent years -- partly to appeal to that sizeable market � but, she insists, there is clearly a need for more progress.

"We've often heard that Toronto and Montreal are different," Ziniak says. "But there's also diversity up north and there's diversity in Red Deer. Diversity exists everywhere and we're just trying to change attitudes and say: why not look at different kinds of talent everywhere it's available?"

The 59-page report, Reflecting Canadians: Best Practices for Cultural Diversity in Private Television, with its 40-page research study, is the most comprehensive and precedent-setting analysis of the television industry globally. The two-year study, prepared by Solutions Research Group of Toronto, involved consultation with 54 stakeholders from the broadcast industry, ethnocultural groups and aboriginal communities, plus 20 focus groups and a qualitative analysis of 330 hours of television programming.

The report points out a number of "presence gaps" in on-screen representation of visible minorities, particularly Asians, southeast Asians and native Canadians. Based on the 2001 census, Canadians of ethnic, racial or aboriginal origins on television fall far short of their proportion in the population.

Three critical presence gaps were identified in six English-language and five French-language programming categories, particularly news and English-language drama. (See sidebar: What's Wrong, below) Minorities were better represented in both English- and French-language children's programming.

A list of recommended best practices covering 10 areas, from recruitment, hiring and training to news, information and entertainment programming content, was suggested on a station-by-station and company-by-company basis. A "one-size-fits-all" approach will not work in a broadcasting system as geographically and linguistically diverse as Canada's, it says. (See sidebar: Some ways to fix it)

The report does not recommend hiring quotas as a means of bolstering numbers of under-represented ethnic or racial groups.

"Targets or quotas that are imposed from above, rather than designed and implemented from the ground up on an internal basis, are not an effective means of bringing about change," it says. "The reality is that effectively changing and improving the dynamic of cultural diversity in Canadian television requires deep, long-term commitment. Imposed targets provide at best an artificial band-aid, and as a result cannot bring about effective lasting solutions."

The fact that broadcasters have been heavily involved in the task force's work is highly significant, says Ziniak, vice-president and general manager of Toronto-based OMNI Television.

"That's important that we're getting the support of this buy-in (from broadcasters) and that they've been involved from the very beginning," Ziniak explains. "That's why we feel it's not just another doorstop of a report. Everything that's been recommended is very practical and doable."

The task force had to recognize that television is highly competitive and license holders are always conscious of the bottom line, Ziniak states. But most of the best practices being recommended don't involve major costs.

"It's really an investment of time and attention," she points out, adding that what needs to happen involves decision-making on news coverage or assigning speaking roles in television dramas. "It's very much a mindset...sometimes things look simple, but they actually speak volumes...some of the things we're recommending are building relationships with different organizations and taking the time to identify experts in various communities who can speak on a variety of issues."

What news stories are covered and how assignment editors decide who covers them are critical considerations, Ziniak adds. It's not always the best practice to have a black reporter cover a story that involves the black community.

"It really has to be cross-culturally integrated," she says. "There was a lot of comment that 'you only look at us when there's stories of violence and negative stereotyping.' There needs to be a more integrated approach."

Among initiatives she particularly favours is an outreach to aboriginal communities through school systems to get the message across that there are genuine career opportunities in television for Canada's young native people.

The task force has recommended the CRTC initiate another thorough review of progress by broadcasters in three years. But Ziniak says the industry wants to continue working with minority communities, as well as other stakeholders such as the writers' and directors' guilds, to implement much-needed change. It already has held preliminary discussions on the subject with the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), she says.

Mike Omelus, a member of the RTNDA Canada executive and the association's diversity committee, kept the issue on the front burner long before the CAB task force report was released because he believes the whole diversity idea is good for news broadcasters and for their employers.

"It's a priority for our organization," he says. "We think it's important that our news programming reflects the true nature of Canada, so we would welcome any opportunity to work with the CAB on furthering this effort."

Omelus, general news director of Broadcast News, endorses the task force position that broadcasters should not be forced through regulation into hiring quotas to achieve diversity goals. Instead, they should be aware of the strong common-sense business case for reflecting the populations they serve, he points out

"Regulation is not the way to do it," he insists. "We think there are valid reasons for diversifying newsrooms and news programming, but people have to been keen to do it. There's untapped advertising revenues and, if for no other reason, broadcasters should be tapping into these markets."

Omelus holds the firm belief that Canadian television should be playing a more vital role in how society defines itself. Until now, he says, there has been a serious disconnect between broadcasters and visible minorities.

"If we aren't reflecting the country in our broadcasts, then there is sort of a detachment among various communities into how they see themselves and whether they see themselves as Canadians. In the long term, that's not good for Canada."

The RTNDA has already taken one major step towards promoting diversity among its 400+ members with development of a multimedia "diversity tool kit" to help news managers make the necessary changes in their product. The tool kit, expected to take about 18 months to roll out, will include a print workbook and DVD, interviews with people from diverse communities and positive case studies on how issues can and should be covered.

"We want to get people thinking and more aware of how they are covering diversity issues...we're really excited about it," Omelus says.

Anna Chiappa, executive director of the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, has high praise for the CRTC in calling for the diversity study and for the CAB in undertaking it. The report is an important document that will "set the baseline" for how television -- the most pervasive of mass media -- plays a critical role in how Canadians from all background see themselves, she contends.

"That's the underlying rationale behind all of this," she says. "And perhaps the report could have gone a little more into that. (Television) plays such an important part in how we form our understanding of who we are as a country and as people...it kind of sets the national tone."

Chiappa says her organization, made up of 32 groups from ethnic and minority communities, wants to partner with the CAB and other industry stakeholders to ensure the task force recommendations reach fruition. Aside from the need for greater emphasis on the relevance of diversity in Canadian society, she also would like to see greater pressure placed on broadcasters to make the necessary changes in how visible minorities are portrayed. It's more than just an employment equity issue, she says.

Chiappa welcomes all of the task force recommendations, plus its call for further review by the CRTC in 2007. She believes allocating as little as one percent of broadcasters' budgets to diversity training, mentoring and community outreach could go a long way.

"For the industry to do this (study) is a very important admission that they needed to do it," she says. "But I'm concerned about the next step. Who is going to be ensuring that those suggestions and commitments and best practices are being followed through...it's 'the how' I'm concerned about...we don't want to lose sight of these goals."

The CAB's president and CEO, Glenn O'Farrell, is confident that won't happen. The association looks forward to working with its industry partners in implementing steps the task force has recommended "to advance cultural diversity within all sectors of the broadcasting system".

"Canada's broadcasters are committed to assuming a leadership role in the implementation of industry-wide best practices," he added. "This commitment to advancing the reflection and portrayal of cultural diversity on television is critical to ensuring our television screens are truly responsive to Canadian audiences."

Martine Vall�e, director of discretionary services and social policy for the CRTC, says the commission may respond to the task force report this fall, once it has been carefully reviewed. Meanwhile, a preliminary report from another CAB group on how Canadians with disabilities are represented in television was due to be submitted to the CRTC by mid-August.

What's wrong
In its analysis of Canadian television, Reflecting Canadians used census data to compare the involvement of visible minorities in the medium against their numbers in the general population. Minorities make up 15.3 percent of the population outside Quebec and 6.9 percent in that province. The report identified a number of critical "presence gaps":

* Minorities account for 9% of all appearances on English-language news broadcasts.
* Minorities represent only 4.4% of experts or guests in English news programming.
* English news anchors or hosts reach 12.3%, but fall to 7.3% for other information programming.
* Aboriginals represent less than 1% in 10 of 11 program categories analyzed, excluding the Aboriginal People Television Network.
* Asians or southeast Asians, the largest ethnocultural group, are "significantly under-represented".
* Minorities have only 10.3% of lead speaking roles in English-language drama programs.
* Minorities account only 1.6% of all appearances on French-language news, with 0% as anchors/hosts and 0.7% as experts/guests.
* Minorities represent 7.1% in other French-language information programming, with 5.5% as anchors/hosts and 4.8% as experts/guests.
* Minorities are "somewhat more likely" to be associated with arts/entertainment programming or accident/disaster and war-related news stories.
* Minorities are "somewhat more likely" to be depicted in criminal, police or emergency personnel roles in English-language drama.

Some ways to fix it
Reflecting Canadians says broadcasters must develop their own tools to provide fair and non-stereotypical representation of minorities in their programming and employment policies. It lists a number of recommended best practices.
* Commit to accurate reflection and portrayal of minorities in news and information programs by reviewing and maintaining an editorial perspective that advances diversity.
* Diversify the use of experts from a broad range of ethnocultural backgrounds on a wide range of public issues, not only those related to these groups.
* Use advisory boards with representatives from diverse communities and create mechanisms for viewer input.
* Acquire or produce programming that fulfills a commitment to diversity, including creation of a database of ethnocultural producers, actors and directors.
* Ensure that human resources policies make a clear commitment to diversity by recruiting and retaining a diverse employee base and removing practices that act as systemic barriers.
* Incorporate diversity plans into internship programs.
* Set internal targets for hiring at every level of employment and for ensuring integration at all levels of the organization.
* Place recruitment advertisements in media targeted to ethnocultural and aboriginal communities.
* Provide diversity-related information on company policies, news, events and activities to all employees.
* Make known diversity practices and policies to education institutions and through other outreach initiatives.
* Measure achievements in diversity goals by not only tracking recruitment and retention of employees, but also appearances by experts.
* Ensure that all diversity polices are communicated to management and staff.
* Demonstrate a corporate commitment to diversity and report on diversity goals to shareholders and boards of directors.
 
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