Reckoning: Journalism's Limits and Possibilities
By Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young. Oxford University Press, 288 pp, softcover
When a large crowd of sympathizers of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs surrounded the B.C. legislature on February 11, shutting down the morning session, there was palpable indignation from some white male journalists and white male politicians.
Some of the media coverage and many comments on Twitter practically screamed "how dare they?" to this act of civil disobedience on behalf of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.
These chiefs maintained—and their many supporters agreed—that their unceded traditional territory had been "invaded" by the RCMP, who were enforcing a B.C. Supreme Court injunction obtained by a pipeline company.
Over the next few days, British Columbians heard a lot of talk about the "rule of law".
There was also an onslaught of coverage in the corporate media about "good Indians"—i.e., those hardworking people who support the pipeline project and are financially benefiting from it—and "bad Indians" and their allies, i.e. those "layabouts", who were blocking roads, ports, and railways, including the West Coast Express commuter rail service, in solidarity with hereditary chiefs.
Some of the harshest media and political criticism was visited on a white "apostate", Victoria councillor Ben Isitt, who openly sided with the hereditary chiefs.
In a telling moment, the premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, told reporters that his thoughts about Isitt were "unprintable".
One of the most memorable media images—played on TV again and again—featured Chrissy Brett, who was born into the Nuxalk Nation, which is based on B.C.'s Central Coast, and who was adopted out in the Sixties Scoop.
Brett was seen shoving a feather in the face of white woman, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, preventing her from going to work.
Corporate-media coverage of the blockade at the legislature was mostly devoid of any mention of historical injustices that have created such an unlevel playing field for Indigenous people in the 21st century.
These injustices include the Sixties Scoop, genocidal violence against Indigenous women and girls, the Indian Act, the theft of Indigenous land, and abusive church-run residential schools created under state policy.
Of course, there was no exploration of how Brett's personal history might have led her to be at the legislature that day.
All of this media coverage unfolded as I was in the midst of reading White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo.
In it, the U.S.-based academic explores how race profoundly shapes the lives of white people—and the multitude of ways in which white people avoid acknowledging this.
"The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic," DiAngelo writes in her book. "To move beyond defensiveness, we have to let go of this common belief."
White masculinity shapes narrative
In that spirit, two UBC associate professors of journalism, Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young, have written a scholarly new book, Reckoning: Journalism's Limits and Possibilities, that challenges conventional beliefs about media objectivity.
Callison is from the Tahltan Nation and was raised in Vancouver; Young describes herself as a white settler raised in southern Ontario.
They posit that the pervasiveness of "white masculinity" in newsrooms has shaped the media's prevailing notion of objectivity—i.e. "the view from nowhere".
Moreover, they state that this is ultimately "rooted in masculinity's power to disassociate itself from its implicatedness", which helps perpetuate perceptions of neutrality in the minds of practitioners.
"What we hope becomes clear in this book, with evidence and argumentation, is that what journalists think happened is deeply related to who they are and where they're coming from in broad and specific senses—and that there are multiple truths and perspectives that contribute to understanding what 'really' happened," Callison and Young write. "Recognizing individual and collective social and historical location needs to become part of the methodology for journalists in order to situate themselves, their knowledge, and expertise within a wider web of relations and entanglements."
They also make a convincing case that journalism has done a great deal of harm through the decades by reinforcing colonialism and gendered structures. And they highlight research demonstrating, in stark terms, the under-representation of minority journalists in North American newsrooms.
"Racialized young journalists are 17% less likely than white young journalists to get a steady job within a year of being in the job market," Callison and Young write. "And as the economic crisis in commercial journalism continues (in this case, declines in ad revenues, downsizing, and restructuring of news organizations), the percentage of minorities across news organizations is beginning to decline."
Objectivity can be exclusionary
Reckoning is not an easy book to read—it is a meticulously footnoted academic treatise, after all, based on five years of research. In addition, there's tremendous attention paid to epistemology.
I, for one, have real difficulty with the authors' canonization of U.S. writer Janet Malcolm after reading U.S. author Joe McGinniss’s rebuttal to her attack on him in her book, The Journalist and the Murderer. I also question why they devote an entire chapter to the local media startup Discourse. But these are trifling concerns in comparison to the book's many strengths.
There's an illuminating exploration into the growing impact of Indigenous journalism, showcasing the efforts of several leaders in this field and their views on what constitutes objectivity.
There's also a deep dive into how the Toronto Star's notion of objectivity clashed with former bimonthly columnist Desmond Cole's idea of community service.
Cole, a brilliant chronicler of racial injustice, had to choose between writing for the newspaper or engaging in activism to advance Black liberation.
Readers can't help but wonder if the media's notion of objectivity is, in itself, racist—or at the very least, highly exclusionary. Especially if this "view from nowhere" ends up marginalizing someone of Cole's immense talent.
Callison and Young are proponents of recognizing the reality of "situated knowledge"—i.e. that journalism is always produced from somewhere, and that this "can be a form of expertise rather than a bias".
They suggest that Indigenous journalists' perspectives can provide them with better insights into the effects of climate change on humanity and the natural world.
Examples of "situated knowledge" can be found on Straight.com in Stanley Q. Woodvine's Homeless in Vancouver posts and in Gurpreet Singh's columns on the Indian diaspora's reactions to Narendra Modi's rise to power in India.
Similarly, white, middle-class, and upper middle-class male journalists can bring their own frames of reference to the table, as demonstrated by the way the Indigenous-led resistance to the Coastal GasLink project has been portrayed.
Book intentionally interrupts racism and sexism
Reckoning also serves as a wake-up call to media scholars and executives who've tended to link the industry's financial crisis to technological advancements and social media rather than to its embedded structural inequality.
Callison and Young portray the proliferation of digital-media startups as a positive counterweight to the corporate media, which is largely overseen by white men and which primarily delivers content to the dominant culture.
Given the reality and pervasiveness of white fragility, the ideas presented in Reckoning may encounter resistance not only in the media, but also in the academy.
Yet as Robin DiAngelo has written in her penetrating book, interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality.
This is the core of Reckoning—and is what makes it such an important contribution to journalism studies. It also interrupts institutional sexism.
"To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs white people to be really nice and carry on, smile at people of color, be friendly across race, and go to lunch together on occasion," DiAngelo states in the conclusion of White Fragility. "I am not saying that you shouldn't be nice. I suppose it's better than being mean. But niceness is not courageous.
"Niceness will not get racism on the table and will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off."
Bring it on, Callison and Young seem to be saying in Reckoning. Let's hash it out, reveal our strengths and our blind spots, and not be afraid of the consequences.
Isn't that what journalism is supposed to be all about?