Q&A WITH RADIYAH CHOWDHURY, WINNER OF DCA 2020
Radiyah Chowdhury is the winner of the 2020 Dalton Camp Award and $10,000 prize, presented by FRIENDS, for her essay The Forever Battle of a Journalist of Colour. Radiyah's essay is a powerful first-hand account of the systematic barriers faced by racialized journalists in Canada.
As an early-career journalist and person of colour, Radiyah has first-hand experience as well as invaluable insights into the challenges awaiting people like her as they make their way in Canada's media industry. Her essay gained national attention, further amplifying conversations on the urgent need for better diversity and equity in newsrooms, particularly for historically marginalized communities. We asked Radiyah to share some thoughts on writing the essay and what's happened since she won the award.
FRIENDS: Writing an essay critiquing Canadian journalism must not have been easy for you as a working journalist of colour. What was it like making that decision—first to write it and then to submit it where it will be widely read by a national audience?
Radiyah: When I first came across the contest and read that the essay had to be about media and democracy, my immediate thought was, "Okay, what does democracy really mean?" I was taught in school that a free press is crucial to an effective and accurate democracy, which means they are always linked. But if this free press doesn't actually reflect the people who live in this democracy, are we really upholding that notion? I definitely considered other topics because it wasn't lost on me that I was taking a risk, writing this piece and also being an early career journalist. But my essay opens with a truth: this dilemma I've had about leaving the field. And then the essay is meant to explain how that dilemma came about in the first place. I could have written about something else, but this felt like the most honest route—and if I was going to spend time writing something, I wanted it to be genuine. Also, I didn't think I'd win, so that helped reduce any stress associated with submitting it.
FRIENDS: You must have had many conversations about the topic of newsroom diversity by now. Can you tell us about one conversation that stood out to you and why?
Radiyah: I don't want to give specifics out of respect for the privacy of the person I was speaking with, but I have a friend who works at a prominent news organization in Canada and she was telling me over coffee one day about pitching this story during an editorial meeting and having it get shut down because it was "too niche." The story in question dealt specifically with immigrants—particularly Black immigrants. It made me think of all the instances I've been asked to brainstorm ideas that "appeal to the general." It took a little bit of time for me to recognize that as coded language, that what they were actually asking me to do was find stories or angles that appeal to white people. A Black Canadian's experience is a Canadian experience, a Muslim Canadian's experience is a Canadian experience, I think that's always already been in my head but the conversation really did prompt me to think more about what's the "norm" and what's a "niche."
FRIENDS: Beyond these difficult conversations, what changes have you noticed happening in newsrooms in Canada since your essay was published?
Radiyah: I'm seeing a lot of change in leadership at various organizations (both in Canada and USA), which is good but it also worries me because I'm afraid those freshly anointed have been left to pick up the pieces of messes left by their predecessors. I'm also seeing a willingness to think more about systemic racism in newsrooms and innovative approaches to address internal issues and diversify the content being put out. It's too early to tell whether these changes will make meaningful change, though. It's easy to shift with the tide and then forget about it completely, but I'm really hoping this change in mindset and commitment to dismantling systemic racism is permanent. A big thing for me, as a j-school grad, is seeing the shift in curriculum at journalism schools and hiring of professors who are Indigenous, Black and people of colour.
FRIENDS: Imagine a journalism student of colour who just graduated and is entering a world where journalists of colour are no longer silenced, tokenized or relegated to writing from the margins. What would be waiting for them as they take their first steps into the industry?
Radiyah: Hopefully the ability to focus on the work, to focus on the stories. Hopefully a fair shot.
Radiyah is a writer, producer and poet from Scarborough, Ontario with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Carleton University who currently works as Assistant Editor at Chatelaine.