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Journalism has become ground zero for the vocation crisis
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April 6, 2021, 1:03 p.m.

This J-school is old. Its first-ever diversity and inclusion chair is new.

“What I want is for them is to be absolutely confident. That’s what I want. Confidence in their skills and to feel confident that they will be valued both for their lived experience, and for their expertise as professionals.”

Last June, a group of 21 students and alumni from Canada’s Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication published a call to action directed at the school, saying that it has “created an environment where BIPOC students feel that they do not belong.”

“The school’s often non-existent approaches to tackling systemic issues within the institution — particularly whiteness, colonialism, and racism — create a body of graduates that is ill-prepared to serve the Canadian public,” the letter says. “If students are not equipped to address systems of oppression within the media and in the world, oppressed and disenfranchised groups will be continually misrepresented through stories produced by graduates of the journalism program.”

According to the letter, the journalism school had started an equity and inclusion committee in 2019, and while students were often consulted, they didn’t see any real change. The letter also includes anonymous testimonies from students and alumni about their experiences at the school. Some professors allegedly used anti-Indigenous and religious slurs with students and negated the existence of racism all together. Another student was told not to speak out about racism on social media, and that they could be fired from a job for doing so. International students were told they would struggle in the industry because of their accents. Students of color were wrongly assumed to be international students when they were not.

A few days after the letter was published, Carleton responded to the letter with several promises to do better. Chief among them was hiring a new position — the Carty Chair in Journalism, Diversity and Inclusion Studies.

Nine months later, the school announced that Nana aba Duncan will be the Carty Chair. It’s a new role at Carleton (whose journalism school, launched in 1945, is the oldest in Canada) and one of just a handful of such positions at journalism schools in North America.

Danielle Kilgo, for example, is the John & Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Alicia Nails is the director of the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity at Wayne State University.

Duncan is currently a William Southam Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, where she’s researching leadership experiences of journalists of color in Canadian media, and the executive director of Media Girlfriends, a podcast and network she started to support women and non-binary journalists. She previously worked for CBC Radio for 14 years.

At Carleton, Duncan will be re-examining the current journalism curriculum and how it approaches issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. She’ll also design a course on decolonizing Canadian media and continue her research into media leaders of color. Her first day will be July 1.

I spoke with Duncan about the path that led her to Carleton, the double standard applied to objectivity, and what journalism education for the next generation of journalists could look like. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Hanaa’ Tameez: How did this role come about, and how did it come your way?

Nana aba Duncan: One reason I wanted to do the [fellowship at the University of Toronto] was to look at leadership. I took a business school course where we were asked to look at our aspirations, our opportunities, and our capacity. Working on the year-end assignment for that course, I was drawn to the idea of a mission.

I ended up writing out my personal mission: To foster a new environment in Canadian journalism, such that racialized [The term “racialized” is used in Canada to describe people who are not white — Ed.] journalists feel psychologically safe and that they can take it for granted that their perspectives and communities are as legitimate and worthy as the perspectives and communities of white people.

The [Carleton] job posting went up, and someone gave me sent me the link to put on social media through Media Girlfriends. I was also putting it out through my own network. And that same person was like, “You should apply.” It had not occurred to me to even look at it as an option. I’m sure there are lots of reasons for that, but I know that one of them was that it just seemed too big, too senior for me.

But I looked at the job and saw that it would be a way for me to actualize my mission at a higher level with bigger impact. I was scared through the process, and I had some really tough moments of worthiness, but I have a mentor who said two things. One, work on it a little bit every day. Two, he said, imposter syndrome is not allowed here.

The job interview process usually includes a campus visit where you have to do a sample lecture, present your research, do an interview, and then dinner. We did that all on Zoom, and throughout the process of doing it I realized, of course I can do this. Of course I can be a teacher. Of course I can care about the students. Of course I can come up with projects and more research for our industry. Of course I can do it. And I feel proud of that.

Tameez: What are some of the moments in your journalism career that have prepared you for this role?

Duncan: The moments that have prepared me for this role are the bad ones. Moments like being told that I was getting more opportunities to host because I’m a Black woman. Having someone approach me to touch my hair without my permission. People using “Black accents” that you hear on TV to address me. I was wearing something colorful and somebody said, like, “Is that from Jamaica, mon?” I’m not from Jamaica, and also, I didn’t appreciate the accent. And also, it was just a really nice, colorful dress! [Laughs.]

Anti-Black racism in journalism is manifested in questioning a person about their motive and their bias when they present stories that have to do with Black communities. As a Black journalist, this has happened: You’re in a room, and someone uses the N-word, and it’s not immediately addressed unless you say something. Imagine having to endure that. That experience very quickly tells a person that where they come from and who they belong to are not on the same level as the white people in the room. It has the effect of devaluing the experience and expertise of that person. It can have a really bad effect on their confidence, their psyche, their enthusiasm for the job, for their work, for the industry. There’s the potential of losing that person, and that perspective, from the richness of the media that we could have.

The other thing that has prepared me for this moment is that I’m a communicator, I’m a performer. I know what it’s like to stand in front of crowds and I know how to communicate ideas. By having some of the great support I had at CBC, I’ve gotten good at communicating ideas plainly in ways can be understood. And also, I’m a nice person. The truth is that I am known for being affable, I’m known for being easy to be with … I think if my friends were here, they would say one of the things that prepares you is that you care care about the new people in the room. And that comes from me wanting to make sure that they have a good experience. I want them to be paid well, I want them to get their ideas out. I want them to come, I want them to stay excited. If we are able to get all racialized journalists, and any journalist who’s from a misrepresented community or underrepresented community, then it just makes our media richer, it’s as plain as that.

And what I’m saying is nothing new. What’s new in this case is that a journalism school has seen fit to make, or to give the power to an individual to help make, that change and to keep their foot on the gas. So, I’ve already told Carleton that I’m here to try some shit. And they have told me that they’re ready to support me … I’m not here to burn it down. I’m here to rev things up.

Tameez: What are some of the ways that journalism education in Canada has been exclusionary or harmful to students of marginalized backgrounds?

Duncan: I’ll turn your attention to two schools: Ryerson University and Carleton University. Both of those schools have had open letters from the journalism students to the faculty and administration and both letters talked about the experiences that they’ve had in journalism school, saying they had not felt included. A person said the N-word in class and the teacher didn’t address it well. Students of color were assumed to be international students. And for many, many students, all of their teachers are white. That can have an effect in and of itself.

Tameez: I hear that. I went to journalism school twice. I once had a professor tell me that I “wasn’t thinking about things objectively” during the Charlie Hebdo stuff when I said I didn’t think it was necessarily a matter of free speech and didn’t have journalistic value.

Duncan: That’s a real problem. There’s this idea that having emotions about something precludes you from having the experience to be able to talk about it. When it comes to certain things like race it becomes political very quickly. We don’t even do it for someone who cares about the climate. If someone is really about the climate crisis, it would take a long time before an editor would say, “You’re always talking about this, are you an activist?” If you’re a Black journalist or a journalist of color and a lot of your stories come from a racialized community, then you may be considered an activist.

Tameez: The announcement of your position says that the chair will focus on “anti-racism, decolonizing journalism and fostering greater equity, diversity and inclusion.” What does that look like in practice?

Duncan: We have a foundations of journalism course. It’s a second-year course and the first time students get to go out and actually start their reporting on, like, police cases and city council meetings.

So now, before they go out, we [want them to] consider questions like: What is my responsibility as a journalist when I know that there are different power structures? What do I need to know about the history between the media and this community?

We’re having this reckoning about anti-Asian racism. We’ve already talked about anti-Black racism. All of it has been brought on, literally, by murders. Is there a way that we can start thinking about these issues for certain communities, before a murder happens? Can we [as journalists] fix things or start to think of things before the police have to get involved?

I’m also going to be looking at the curriculum and thinking of ways to augment what is already there. How do we take the understanding that we have now about inclusion and apply it to journalism? How will that change journalism and who else needs to know about it? We also have to think about the folks on the other side of the student experience, [media companies] who are now going to be taking these students in — what do they need to learn real fast?

Tameez: What are your goals for this position? What does a graduate from Carleton’s revamped program look like?

Duncan: What I want is for them to be absolutely confident. I want them to have confidence in their skills and to feel confident that they will be valued both for their lived experience and for their expertise as professionals.

I want them to feel confident that they can go into a newsroom and that they can swing for the fences with their ideas. Anyone who’s new in journalism is going to have fear. Pitch meetings sometimes suck and they can be very scary. But I want every journalist to be able to go forward and pitch all of their ideas, even the ones that have to do with the communities that they represent, without fear.

Tameez:What do you think some of the challenges will be?

Duncan: One will be the tension between what the school wants to do, or says it wants to do, and what the students want.

Also, as a Black woman who’s inhabiting a position that’s never existed before that’s also a chair, I’m going to be called upon a lot to be on hiring committees. People will want me to speak, people will want me to be part of their different groups. When you’re the only one, the other “only ones” come to you. There will be a lot of students of color and students from other misrepresented communities coming to me, I imagine, for advice. I will need to take care of my own mental health as I do the job.

I’m sure you’ve seen that graphic about what happens when a woman of color comes into an organization. Everyone’s excited, and then there are some problems because she starts to speak up from the perspective from which they wanted her to speak up, and then she becomes a problem person, she gets tired and frustrated, and then she leaves. I don’t want that to happen here.

Tameez: What do you think are things that other journalism educators can do — now, next semester, over the next year — to advance equity and inclusion in their schools?

Duncan: Diversify the people you’re following. A lot of us journalists live on Twitter. That’s the easiest thing: Look for the journalists and start following them. Follow their stories and their beats, and then use their stories in your examples in your class. You don’t have to make it a big deal. if the lesson is on how a story is constructed, use a story from a journalist who’s brown. Make it normal.

Start to think about why or why not you think a story is a story. We have to start questioning ourselves about what makes a story and what objectivity is. Maybe spend a longer time on some of these questions that complicate things. We’ve just taken for granted. You know that there’s this idea in journalism, where it’s like you gotta be hard [and are expected to have thick skin]. You gotta take the punches and like, why? Why does it have to be that way?

It’s hard for me to want to tell journalism educators what to do, because I haven’t taught one class. I’m at the beginning of my journey.

Hanaa' Tameez is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@HanaaTameez).
POSTED     April 6, 2021, 1:03 p.m.
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