Jaskaran Sandhu: Mainstream Media Does Not Understand The Realities Of Ethnic Media
We must not allow the mainstream media to gatekeep, or set the litmus test for, which ethnic media outlets or journalists can ask questions at a government news conference
April 1, 2021 | 5 min. read
We must not allow the mainstream media to gatekeep, or set the litmus test for, which ethnic media outlets or journalists can ask questions at a government news conference.
This past Friday, on March 26, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was in Brampton speaking about the 2021 budget and phase two of the Peel Memorial Integrated Health and Wellness Centre (Peel Memorial). As with any announcement of this sort, a news conference followed. Being an event in Brampton, multiple ethnic media outlets were also present, including the large players Prime Asia and Punjabi Post.
After journalists from the likes of the Brampton Guardian and Global News were called upon, Jagdeesh Grewal, owner, editor, and journalist with the Punjabi Post, as well as the host of one of the most popular Punjabi radio shows, was invited to ask a question:
“It’s no secret that Brampton has been neglected by previous governments and as a result, Brampton has been left without the resources needed to deal with this pandemic. While previous governments have forgotten about us. Premier you, Minister Sarkaria, and MPP Sandhu have finally delivered hope to Bramptonians. My question is simple, what has pushed your government to finally make Brampton a priority?”
What followed this clearly biased question in favour of the Premier was an immediate visceral reaction from mainstream journalists.
In a viral tweet, CTVNews Toronto’s Queen’s Park Bureau Chief, Colin D’Mello, suggests that because Grewal has a partisan history, in this case as a former federal conservative candidate, he should not have been called upon to ask a question due to a conflict of interest. He was sure to follow that tweet with another one suggesting that while the mainstream media appreciates a diversity of outlets, picking Grewal was an “abuse” of the process.
D’Mello’s tweet was probably the most shared of the reactions that day, however, this issue is far more complicated than any of the mainstream journalists retweeting or sharing his position believe it is. Before I unpack why, I wish to first make clear my position on two other intersecting journalism issues.
First, Grewal’s question at the Brampton news conference was biased. It was not professional, and as a veteran ethnic media actor, he should have known better. Second, the Ontario government should take seriously allegations of manipulating question queues. It does little in building confidence amongst the press and the public that the government is willing to be held accountable.
Now, back to exploring my bigger point.
I have personally been one of the more vocal critics of ethnic media, but where the mainstream loses me is when they believe they can set the test for which ethnic media outlets are worthy of asking questions at a presser. Specifically, that a partisan history is enough to disqualify an ethnic media actor. This sounds great in principle but comes from an understanding that ignores the practical realities of the industry, the differences between the two media landscapes, and the shortcomings of mainstream media.
The mainstream’s knowledge of the ethnic media landscape is incredibly superficial.
Ethnic media and mainstream media are two different things, and treating them otherwise is a false equivalency. The former is often made up of hobbyists and part-timers (as well as some professionals) working off the side of their desks operating what can be defined as passion projects. You will be hard-pressed to find many ethnic media journalists and actors that do not have some partisan history - either as candidates, staffers, or supporters across the political spectrum.
If you apply standards as defined by the professional and full-time mainstream media, such as no previous partisan history, as a pre-requisite to participating in press conferences you will disenfranchise an industry filling a market gap the mainstream media has never shown any serious interest, or competency, engaging with. We will have effectively shut out a disproportionate amount of ethnic media outlets that serve a critical and unique role in speaking to, and being a voice for, minority communities that are often neglected, or even at times maligned, by the mainstream.
I have spent a good part of a decade engaging with the local ethnic media. Whether that has been through my work in campaigns across the political spectrum and levels of government, as the Press Secretary for Brampton’s Office of the Mayor under Linda Jeffrey, or as a long-serving member of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
I learned quickly that ethnic media journalists are not welcomed members of the larger journalist fraternity.
I have seen with my own eyes, and have heard with my own ears, on multiple occasions, mainstream journalists mocking ethnic media journalists at press conferences or events. It is often mean and malicious, and at times racist. I know that is not the case for most mainstream journalists, but I have seen it enough to believe that it is not an outlier perception of those in the industry.
To hear the mainstream pontificate against ethnic media actors on conflicts of interest at press conferences only to learn that very same day that reporters at Queen’s Park had mostly looked the other way as a fellow journalist failed to declare a significant conflict, is also a great example of the double standards that exist. The mainstream is happy to punch down on ethnic media while remaining silent on their own related faults.
As Sikhs and Punjabis we have also unfortunately grown used to haphazard coverage at best, and outright racist reporting at worst, from the mainstream. However, it still bothers many of us that the mainstream media have regularly failed to ask politicians the tough questions that impact our community.
How many mainstream journalists have ever asked Prime Minister Trudeau about the signing of a security framework with the fascist Modi government? How about the flawed public safety terror report which maligned the Sikh community? Ethnic media, including Grewal, spent weeks holding the federal government regularly to task before most in the mainstream media even noticed what was going on with that particular issue. It does then feel a little jarring when mainstream journalists turn around and call out ethnic media journalists for asking softball questions and wasting time. The mainstream has continuously failed us with all the time in the world.
There are many issues with ethnic media, including issues around partisanship and bias in reporting. However, that is for us, the community, to debate and shape. The mainstream media has no right to design litmus tests that ignore the realities on the ground and to police the relationship between ethnic media and the government.
Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Senior Consultant at the public affairs agency Crestview Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_
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