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Do you see yourself in those who shape the news?

Column space in Canadian newspapers remains dominated by middle-aged white males – even while our communities become increasingly more diverse.

Dylan Robertson, a freelance journalist, recently published a piece on J-Source citing a survey that showed new evidence of distorted age and gender representation among Canada’s newspapers columnists.

Seventy three percent of the 339 news and general-interest commentators at 76 English-language daily newspapers looked at in the survey were male at an average age of 58. Women weighed in as the clear minority, numbering only 27% for both national and regional columnists.

The statistics are disappointing, but they should not be surprising.

In a similar study entitled “Who’s Telling the News” from 2006, John Miller analyzed demographic data on news gathering staff at 37 daily newspapers in Canada. He found a similar pattern, where the majority of columnists were white, male and middle-aged.

The J-Source study results have been receiving some attention in social media where some, like, PressProgress, have jokingly (but accurately) pointed out that if you have a penis, you’re much more likely to be a columnist at a national daily paper in Canada.

I’m glad to see that more than a few are up in arms over this latest study. But what surprises me more is that more Canadians aren’t concerned. Why does it matter if the majority of columnists are white, middle-class males?

It matters because readers pay attention to what columnists say – not just what is said, but how it is said. The way columnists present social issues helps frame how discussions on social topics are informally presented around the water cooler as well as more formally in discussions surrounding important public and social policy in the public sphere. Like it or not, people not only read what columnists say, they take it seriously. They assume that columnists have achieved the ability to covet that 700-word space every week due to their intellectual agility and talents.

To become a columnist, social capital is important – connections and prestige do not hurt. Systemic and institutionalized networks of power make it more likely that a white middle-aged man can become a columnist compared to a woman of colour. In my own research with women journalists of minority backgrounds, I found that many of them persistently tried to gain access to the corridors of power in newsrooms, in the hopes of becoming a columnist, but regularly faced systemic obstacles to their success.  In a classic neoliberal twist, I found that there were more women than ever before in newsrooms in my early studies of television newsrooms in the early 2000s. However, one need only to look up the ranks to see that the presence of women dwindled in more senior management roles.

This is also, sadly, not just a Canadian problem – the lack of women in columnist roles is evident in other developed nations as well. Some papers argue that they offer guest column space and Op Eds to ensure a greater diversity of viewpoints, but again this doesn’t get at the source of the problem – that a handful of columnists in Canada have weekly access to sound off on a range of social issues from their own personal perspective.

Some are trying to find other ways around this problem to garner space in Canada’s national newspapers. Shari Graydon, of informed opinions, offers female academics training with media, helping them learn how to navigate the minefields of journalism, offering lessons on how to write op-eds, for example. This is a laudatory intervention to be sure, but it can’t do much to counter the institutionalized racism and sexism present in our newsrooms. It puts the onus on individuals, rather than focusing on the real problem – the systemic inequality that exists in newsrooms and who has access to offer their personal interpretations of social reality. These interpretations are skewed by the writers’ own personal experiences.

The bigger issue is how studies like this continue to be conducted, illustrating again the larger problem of lack of representation among columnists, but few are investigating how this lack of representation isn't necessarily troubling to readers, or troubling to media managers more broadly. There still isn't a connection that links greater diversity with wider perspectives and in turn audience gain. This myopic worldview is hurting papers rather than helping.

Privilege continues to be taken for granted, and the benefits and opportunities it provides to certain groups in the news media remain largely unacknowledged.  I’d like to provide more optimistic advice to the young women who now populate my journalism classroom by more than two-to-one compared to men. The situation is sobering indeed.

Minelle Mahtani is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Geography and Program in Journalism, University of Toronto Scarborough and a Broadbent Institute Fellow.