This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign
By Dylan C. Robertson
Data collected late last year suggests Canada’s columns have grown even more unrepresentative since a similar 2014 J-Source columnists survey.
Canada’s news and general interest columnists are overwhelmingly male, white, straight and middle aged, according to a J-Source survey of 125 columnists.
“The results are virtually identical, and I don't really have reason to think that things are going to change any time soon,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, J-Source’s ethics editor.
Over a six-week period this winter, J-Source contacted 296 news and general-interest columnists at Canada’s 77 English-language dailies, as defined by Newspapers Canada.
Among the 72 national columnists surveyed, just 33 answered.
Less than half of all national columnists who responded are female. Of the 90 regional columnists who answered J-Source’s queries, 37 per cent are female.
The median age for all responding columnists is 57.
That makes the columnists who answered our survey quite different from the population as a whole. According to Statistics Canada, just over half of Canadians are female, and the median age is estimated to be 40.6 (though columnists come with lived experience, and the national median includes toddlers).
Visible minorities accounted for 11 per cent of respondents. There were more visible minorities represented at national newspapers surveyed than regional ones—but both fall short of the 2011 census tally that 19 per cent of Canadians are visible minorities.
Just four per cent of respondents said they live with a disability, compared with 12 per cent of Canadians who live with a disability (half of whom have mobility issues).
But Indigenous and LGBTQ Canadians were slightly over-represented among responding columnists.
Indigenous Canadians represented six per cent of responses, none of whom came from the national newspapers. That outweighs the 4.3 per cent of Canadians who identified as Indigenous in the 2011 census.
One-tenth of all respondents said they were LGBTQ.
That’s compared with Statistics Canada’s 2014 Canadian Community Health Survey, which found 1.7 per cent of Canadian identifying as homosexual, and 1.3 per cent identifying as bisexual. There is no national data on gender minorities.
Smith Fullerton, who has researched newsroom diversity, said these figures are far less diverse than the journalism and communication courses she teaches at Western University in London, Ont.
“It's a time that's it's even more important that our public discussions encourage people, from an enormous diversity of backgrounds, to be speaking up about how they see the world and our communities.”
About the survey
We visited the website of every English-language daily newspaper and compiled a list of all news or general columnists that appeared between late October and early December. About six newspapers do not have columnists.
Each columnist was emailed with at least two follow-ups, including one in January. They were asked their age, and which of these five categories they identify with, using terminology from the Ryerson Employment Equity policy:
a visible minority or racialized person
an Indigenous person in Canada
a person with a disability
a gender or sexual minority (LGBTQ)
Midway through the survey, after respondents expressed privacy concerns and J-Source noticed a slow response rate, we pledged to anonymize individual responses to only reveal trends. We individually contacted some respondents to quote for this story.
Among national columnists (who file to The Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star and Toronto Sun), 33 of 72 replied, while two declined to participate. For regional columnists, 85 of 224 replied, while five declined.
Our survey excluded columnists with a main focus on art, health, history, sports, lifestyle and business. Some columnists with a specific beat, like environment or religion, were included if they only appear in the editorial section.
Questions about diversity persist in other sections of the newspaper, such as a Toronto Star movie critic who mistakenly coined the term “coat-switching” last fall.
The survey excluded reporters who have occasional columns, local politicians in small communities and globally syndicated columnists like Gwynne Dyer and David Suzuki. We excluded news-analysis reporters who sometimes appear in op-ed sections, like the Calgary Herald's Don Braid and the Ottawa Citizen's David Reevely.
J-Source has inevitably left out columnists by mistake, as many websites do not list their columnists; we tried in good faith to list all who had regularly contributed in recent months. At least a dozen had their columns cancelled due to cutbacks over the course of the survey; they were excluded in the results.
Smith Fullerton said she’s alarmed that J-Source had fewer columnists to query three years after the last study. “Columnists are usually people who have spent considerable time in the newsroom,” she said.
“Where are young reporters supposed to get that mentorship and contextual learning, that frankly education programs aren't going to be able to offer them?”
The reasons for diversity
Anne Rector has lived with a spine injury for almost two decades, and has suffered some arm injuries. That makes her type slowly, and she often can’t write. For 10 years, her Ontario newspaper gives her a deadline to file a timely column, while banking some less time-sensitive ones if she can’t file in time.
“The Belleville Intelligencer has been wonderfully flexible,” Rector said. “Being able to file columns either way, including last-minute change-ups, has proven key to enabling me to write weekly columns for my community’s main newspaper.”
To her, media who make the effort to accommodate such needs can offer their readers a wider range of perspectives. “Anytime we have an opportunity for a platform is great thing. In a democracy, we need that even moreso now.”
Gerry Chidiac, who is of Armenian descent, started as a blogger before readers suggested he approach the Prince George Citizen. He now appears in the paper, and the Troy Media wire service.
“I would strongly encourage women and people from other minority groups to begin writing and sharing their ideas. Honestly, that is how I started,” he said. “Everyone has an important voice to share.”
Gerard Veldhoven said that as a 76-year-old member of the LGBTQ community, he tries to highlight stories and issues that readers of The News in New Glasgow, N.S. might otherwise miss.
"My columns are written to engage, discuss, raise awareness and basically call for unity for all who live, work and co-habit our Canadian society," he said.
A wider idea of diversity?
Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert, who was raised in Ontario, noted the survey didn't ask about Francophone minorities.
Michelle Hauser, who won a 2016 National Newspaper Award for her Kingston Whig-Standard column, noticed she was among just two or three freelancers in a room with hundreds of guests. “Sometimes I feel like freelancers are the ugly step-kids of journalism,” she said. “We are making strong contributions, but most of us have no idea where we fit in.”
Tom Parkin, a left-leaning Toronto Sun columnist, participated in the study but questioned the value of surveying demographics and not viewpoints.
“If we have a diversity of people all writing standard, elitist opinions, how is Canada benefited? If we have a diversity of people all writing the same tedious opinions, is that better or worse than a uniform group writing the same tedious opinions? What is the point of opinion writing? Start with that.”
Meanwhile, Smith Fullerton believes newsrooms skew middle-class, but isn’t sure how that could be verified.
“Maybe part of the reason why journalists in the United States didn't pick up on the fact that Trump had real resonance with such an enormous number of people, was because the people who are Trump supporters are not represented in newsrooms,” she said.
“I hate to think it's going to happen in Canada, but it could.”
Smith Fullerton notes that Kellie Leitch gets disproportionate coverage “because what's she saying is so extreme to so many Canadian journalists.” But it’s unclear whether Canadians as a whole see her views as extreme, and whether the excessive coverage legitimizes or normalizes them.
“Maybe it's not extreme. Are we going to miss that story? And how do we go about making sure there is a range represented, given that our newsrooms are so narrow given our demographics?”
‘Handwringing over our differences’
Some chose not to participate out of privacy concerns, while others objected to the idea.
"Being a liberal, my policy is not to answer questions of this sort,” William Watson wrote.
Others, who chose not to participate, cited J-Source’s 2014 survey, which took stock of Canada’s “mostly male, middle-aged” columnists.
"To you, I am undoubtedly an 'old white guy'," wrote Toronto Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski.
Jim Sutherland, who writes for the Red Deer Advocate, bristled at the survey, noting he was younger when he started as an op-ed write 31 years ago.
"I looked at your 2014 link and discovered I should apologize for my demographic status, based upon the ensuing comments in the link,” he said. “I feel no need to feel guilty about my inclusion in the current demographic majority for columnists. Eventually we will be replaced by another group and life will move on."
Smith Fullerton said it’s bad sign for journalism when only 40 per cent of those queried respond, while others refused.
“They come across with this incredible chip on their shoulder. And saying ‘I'm being victimized,’ that's exactly the problem,” she said. “I think it takes real bravery to acknowledge that you speak from a place of privilege and still be willing to have those conversations.”
Smith Fullerton describes herself as “a white, middle-class woman who is tenured and teaches at a mainstream, reputable educational institution that protects my freedom to say what I have to say. And I try hard to use that freedom to increase diversity, to do my best to open doors for more people.”
“You're under no obligation – other than an ethical and a moral one – to speak up,” she said. “When we stop to talk about these things, we're heading into a very, very dangerous territory.”
Dylan C. Robertson is an Ottawa freelance journalist covering Parliament Hill, focusing on social policy and violent extremism. He has worked at three Postmedia newspapers and the Toronto Star.