| photo: insidehighered.com
In Maclean’s 2010 university rankings issue writers Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Köhler pushed the boundaries of responsible journalism.
In the article ‘Too Asian’? Findlay and Köhler explore the demographics of Canadian universities, yet do so with biased racial overtones cloaked in their presentation of a supposedly widely-held viewpoint.
One of the core tenets of quality journalism is responsibility. Journalists have a responsibility to engage their readers in thoughtful debate and provide necessary context to controversial ideas or events. If the media provides a free marketplace of both good and bad ideas eventually the good ideas will prevail and become common wisdom.
However, fringe or discriminatory ideas need not be given equal weight if they are clearly inaccurate. This is why media outlets like the CBC now refuse to include climate change skeptics as counterweights to scientists in global warming articles.
Maclean’s had no obligation to focus so heavily on this belief that Canadian universities are suffering from increasing ‘Asian’ enrolment. A specific population of foreign citizens becoming a large presence at many of the nation’s top universities might warrant a news feature. Yet, the insidious thing about this article is that both Canadian (Canadians from an East Asian background) students and foreign ‘Asian’ students are lumped together, blurring the line between the two and bringing into question such Canadians place in the national fabric.
“‘Too Asian’ is not about racism, say students like Alexandra : many white students simply believe that competing with Asians—both Asian Canadians and international students—requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make,” stated the article. After attributing this view to white students, the term ‘Asian’ is used to refer to both Canadian citizens and international ‘Asian’ students.
The article tries to create conflict between two vast and poorly delineated groups of students in an attempt to construct news value. Do the reservations some white Canadians have about working hard to get into a prestigious university warrant a news feature detailing the humanity of their struggle? It may, if students come from disadvantaged backgrounds or are overcoming adversity in some way. But to juxtapose the plight of lazy students against hardworking students from different ethnic backgrounds hardly strives for one of journalism’s crucial goals of informing the citizenry.
The annual university issue is arguably Maclean’s most popular each year, and the editors must have known the ramifications of putting this article in this issue. There are more than two thousand comments in response to the article online and numerous blogs, print and broadcast media have discussed whether or not it crossed the line. Maclean’s was clearly more focused on stirring up controversy – and publicity – than bringing anything constructive to the national conversation on multiculturalism.
The article is premised on the belief that the racist opinions of a select group of students can be extrapolated to represent a larger group of Canadians. Twice the article quotes a professor saying that ‘Asians’ are being treated like Jews were in the early 20th Century. This scary parallel does not prompt the authors to examine this discrimination, but through direct quotes from other sources they give voice to it.
The reporters are uncritical in their use of the term ‘Asian.’ Journalism is supposed to push the public discourse forward through objective and accurate reporting. By using the term Asian prominently, the journalists neglect their duty to provide context and accuracy.
The Asian continent contains more than half of the earth’s population. An ‘Asian’ could come from countries as diverse as Japan, Kazakhstan or Bangladesh. If one of the purposes of the article was to spark debate, then a more constructive one could be initiated by first casting a critical eye on such a problematic word.
The article cites a study commissioned by the Ontario provincial government and released in October. This study is more thoughtful than the Maclean’s article in using the ‘Asian’ tag and instead refers to students “who immigrated from East Asia.” Even a small distinction like this improves public discourse by deconstructing a monolithic term like ‘Asian.’ If journalists around the world stopped reducing diverse places into singular labels like ‘Africa,’ people might be better informed and able to grasp the complexities of the world outside their borders.
Latent prejudice is peppered throughout the article, where the authors alternately praise the Canadian post-secondary education system and then raise open-ended questions about its current state as “too Asian.” The article stated, “Canadian universities, apart from highly competitive professional programs and faculties… rely entirely on transcripts. Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.” The readers are left to decide whether a concentration of ‘Asian’ students is desirable.
By following “Likely that is a good thing,” with “And yet,” casts a negative light on the second sentence. Journalists should not tell readers how to think about a topic, they are only there to provide what to think about. Again the article repeats this “dilemma” facing Canadian institutions: act as meritocracies yet receive too many ‘Asian’ students.