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How diversity in media could help combat misinformation during COVID-19

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many people have been spending less time socializing and a lot more time staying at home glued to their digital devices. The act of obsessively checking the latest news updates during coronavirus has even garnered its own term: “doomscrolling.” 

But consuming more information doesn’t necessarily result in being better informed. A 2019 report from the Digital Democracy Project studying misinformation in election coverage in Canada found that consuming high amounts of news through social media or traditional news outlets was also associated with higher levels of misinformation. For media to be as effective and accurate as possible, it also needs to be of high-quality and backed by strong reporting that includes perspectives that represent the full breadth of Canadian experiences.

We’ve already discussed the importance of fact-checking and the need to prevent harmful stereotypes when consuming news, but how can media structures themselves change to ensure their reporting is as accurate as possible?

One solution is to begin effectively addressing the issue of diversity in Canadian media. When it comes to COVID-19, diversity in how stories are sourced and reported helps to make sure all communities are being represented and served by health authorities. As it stands, Canadian media still has a long way to go.

Currently, very few recent metrics measuring diversity in Canadian media exist, and many news organizations have been unwilling to share their own data. In 2016, Canadaland reached out to 18 newspapers across the country asking them to participate in a diversity survey. Only three news organizations agreed. 

What little information we do know shows that Canadian media is overwhelmingly white. A 2019 Ryerson University study found that white op-ed columnists were overrepresented in Canadian media outlets relative to the population of Canada, and that the gap had increased over time. An earlier 2004 study of 37 Canadian daily newspapers found that “racial minorities are more than five times underrepresented in daily newsrooms” across all sections. 

Fighting misinformation also means allowing diverse voices to tell their stories in their own terms. Toronto-based filmmaker Sherien Barsoum is a founding member of the Racial Equity Media Collective (REMC), tasked with advocating for BIPOC media creators. REMC works mostly in film, documentary, and television, where BIPOC creators may face barriers when trying to break into the industry. “Newsrooms and boardrooms and executive suites are sadly not filled with diverse voices. They are overwhelmingly homogenous. And, you know, I think that means that we often get stories that are repeated and that are told from just a handful perspectives,” says Barsoum.

Diversity needs to extend beyond the journalists who tell the stories, and also include the experts, researchers, and community members interviewed for the stories themselves. When it comes to COVID-19, drawing from diverse sources at the reporting level will provide more accurate insight into what is happening on the ground. 

Early-on in the pandemic, before the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention was tracking the racial disparities of COVID-19 infection rates, Black doctors raised concerns that communities of colour were not being given adequate testing and treatment. They turned out to be entirely correct: data now shows that Black and Hispanic people in the United States are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Black writers were also at the forefront of highlighting these issues. CityLab writer Brentin Mock laid out the long history of racist beliefs behind the myth that Black Americans were somehow immune to COVID-19. Back in April, Ibram X. Kendi, an author and the director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, wrote in The Atlantic about the need for more data on the demographics of COVID-19 infections and deaths in order to understand the “racial pandemic within the viral pandemic.”

More diverse newsrooms make it less likely that perspectives like these fall through the cracks. The Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour have recommended increasing “representation and coverage of racialized communities by hiring more editors and reporters of colour,” in a recent list of calls to action for increased diversity in Canadian newsrooms. “A more diverse news team translates into more diverse coverage,” the organizations stated.

There are some signs of change. The media landscape’s shift to digital has, in some ways, made it possible for a greater plurality of voices to come to the fore through a variety of methods, like making it possible for writers to grow their audience through Twitter or using online resources to connect to new opportunities. The recent worldwide protests surrounding racist police violence have also had an effect, forcing media publications to have difficult conversations about the diversity of their staff and how they report on race.

“I actually am really hopeful,” says Barsoum, citing promising progress in the media’s view on how diversity can add to their programming. “It’s not just essential so things become better for people of colour, it’s for all of us — we all benefit. It makes for a more human experience of the world.”