Advocacy and activism can be exhausting, Desmond Cole admits. But it’s less soul-searing than the systemic racism endured every day by Canadians who are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.
Those who report on such things – and on anything, really – need to be aware of their biases and society’s prejudices before they go into the field, said Cole, journalist, commentator and award-winning author of The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power.
Cole will be the featured speaker Thursday evening via Zoom at the 2021 Clissold Lecture, presented by Western’s Faculty of Information & Media Studies, which will focus on thinking critically about bias in journalism.
“My big concern for journalism students and for people thinking about media is there’s no such thing as objectivity, and definitely not in corporate media,” he said. They need to recognize that media corporations are in the business of earning money for shareholders, not dismantling a system that benefits them, he added.
Cole has been at the forefront of challenging police, municipalities and media outlets for entrenched racism. He has condemned the police practice of “carding” (asking for identification in street checks), calling it anti-Black racism and a violation of civil rights.
He has written for numerous publications, including The Walrus, The Tyee and BuzzFeed. Previously a columnist for the Toronto Star, he resigned after his editor told him he had breached the newspaper’s rules against journalist activism.
On the day insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, Cole took part in a vigil for Jamal Francique, a Black man shot by Peel Regional Police a year ago. A day later, he was reflecting on a settlement Peel police had just reached with the family of a six-year-old Black girl they had handcuffed in her classroom in 2016.
Add to that six months of images, played on an endless network-news loop, of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police last May, which provoked Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests across the whole of North America.
“We watch a 21st-century lynching and believe we’ve made progress,” Cole said. “We haven’t made progress. George Floyd was not put on this Earth to be an object lesson.”
Journalists have to ask themselves what personal, corporate, institutional and societal biases exist in how they cover these stories, he said.
As tough as it is for him to speak at vigils and challenge the system daily, the alternative is unthinkable: “The truth of the matter is it’s difficult for the people who are going through this every day. We are all going through it as Black people, and there’s really not much to do but to keep fighting.”
The Clissold lectures honour the legacy of Edward Clissold, editor of the London (Ontario) Advertiser newspaper for three decades. A bequest in 1984 from the estate of Clissold’s grandson Robert Blount and his wife, Rose, enabled the Graduate School of Journalism to create the annual lecture series.