Race and Political News Coverage
My book, Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics, is wake-up call for those who think that race does not matter in Canada. My extensive analysis of print media coverage and in-depth interviews with elected officials, former candidates, political staffers, and journalists demonstrate how racialized frames and assumptions influence political news coverage. Framed received the Canadian Political Science Association’s 2017 Donald Smiley Prize, which recognizes the best book published in Canadian government and politics; it also was selected as a Hill Times best book of 2016.
The idea for the book grew out of my work as a policy analyst in Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration. As part of this job, I received a daily dossier of news clippings related to immigration, multiculturalism, and citizenship. On the one hand, these clippings demonstrated what Canada has done to welcome diverse people—people from all countries and backgrounds—but at the same time, I detected what I thought was a racial tenor, not that stories were explicitly racist but that they were formulated differently when the subject or subject matter was an immigrant or racialized minority.
This was in stark contrast to what I saw as a sense of Canadian smugness about racial issues in the United States, this feeling that what we saw happening south of the border in terms of race riots and violence couldn’t happen in Canada, even though the United States had by then elected a Black President, and our country has never had a Prime Minister who was not white. I wanted to look at that, to answer questions about how the media portray race in Canadian politics, and to see if they write stories differently when political figures are white versus when they are racialized. So, I set off to do a Ph.D., and that research eventually became Framed.
I show that while overt racism is relatively rare on the pages of Canadian newspapers, assumptions about race and diversity influence media coverage in more implicit ways. Consequently, as reporters go about selecting which political issues and events to cover, who to quote, and how to frame stories that will resonate with the public, they give racialized minorities less prominent and more negative media coverage than that of their white counterparts. Moreover, racialized politicians are more likely to be portrayed as products of their socio-demographic backgrounds, as less interested in pressing policy issues, and as less electorally viable.
The problem is particularly acute for non-incumbent racialized candidates: these are candidates who are entering the political arena without a proven electoral track record, and their coverage is markedly negative. Importantly, the coverage of non-incumbent racialized candidates differs significantly from that of non-incumbent white candidates. Even though they have comparable levels of political (in)experience, white non-incumbents are portrayed as electorally viable, while racialized non-incumbents are portrayed as long-shots and inexperienced outsiders. What is notable is that these differences disappear among incumbent candidates, suggesting that once racialized politicians have, in effect, proven themselves, journalists cover them in much the same ways as white politicians. In other words, the electoral playing field is uneven. If you are a political newcomer and you are white, your media coverage is qualitatively different than that of a racialized political newcomer, a finding that reveals much about racialized dynamics in Canada.
I argue that journalists are engaging in what I refer to as racial mediation. They are relying on stereotypes and cognitive shortcuts that cause them to judge racialized candidates differently than white candidates. My interviews with journalists suggested this is not necessarily intentional, but a function of a number of intertwined factors. First, news values emphasize conflict and novelty, which can lead reporters to focus on race when the subject has a racialized background. Second, news organizations—like nearly all workplaces—are embedded in systems of institutionalized whiteness. Most journalists are white, and while this is changing somewhat, the culture is not always accommodating to diverse perspectives. Third, journalists receive very little guidance when it comes to reporting on race, and they have different standards when it comes to determining whether or not race is “relevant” to a story. A racialized candidate’s background may be seen as relevant—an explanation for that candidate’s behaviour or success—but that calculation is rare when it comes to reporting on white candidates.
My findings are drawn from an examination of the Canadian political landscape, but they mirror what we know about racial appeals in American politics. Journalistic practice is similar in other countries, and the practice of racial mediation has relevance beyond Canada. The book also raises broader questions about the inclusion of racialized minorities in electoral politics. In my current work, I am looking at parties’ candidate recruitment strategies and find that racial dynamics play a role here as well. I am keen to explore how the federal New Democratic Party’s recent selection of Jagmeet Singh as leader alters or entrenches the relationship between race and politics in Canada.
Framed pushes readers to consider the political salience of race. My conclusions are somewhat pessimistic, but I make a number of recommendations for challenging the racial assumptions that underpin news coverage. Many of the journalists I interviewed noted steadfastly that their reporting is “colour-blind,” but my results suggest that is not the case. Racially mediated news coverage undermines Canada’s commitment to a robust, inclusive democracy, but by drawing attention to the ways in which race continues to matter, Framed provides a foundation for achieving more equitable outcomes.
– Dr. Erin Tolley, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University Toronto. Her research examines the impact of socio-economic diversity on Canadian politics and political institutions. Her book, Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics, was the 2017 winner of the Donald Smiley Prize. The Donald Smiley Prize is awarded to the best book published in English or French in the field relating to the study of government and politics in Canada.
Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique asked Dr. Tolley to discuss the research in her award-winning book.