Under the White Gaze of Today’s Media – TheTyee.ca
[Editor’s note: Under the White Gaze originally ran as an exclusive Tyee email newsletter last fall. We’re republishing the full series of essays on our site this month. This essay, the first in the series, was originally titled “Don’t Look at Me Like That!”]
Tyee reporter Christopher Cheung here to share with you my big journalism fear.
My name might be Christopher, but I worry about being a kind of Columbus.
It’s easy to fall into that trap. Our profession demands that we find fresh stories that grab eyeballs. And sometimes, in service to “average Canadian” readers, we end up introducing them to people and places through the lens of an outsider — or worse, a colonizing power.
I found an old story of mine where I said that a neighbourhood — a landing place for immigrant residents for decades, from Poland to the Philippines — wasn’t “established” until an artisanal ice cream shop moved in. Eek! Columbus alert: assuming a place is a jungle until someone from the outside world discovers it.
In another story on an Indian restaurant with vast offerings, I led with the boring, stereotypical description of a “smell of hot curry and spices.” Ah! Way to flatten a huge country’s food, Chris.
Just yesterday, I wrote the phrase “mainstream Canadians” with white Canadians in mind. Does that imply that everyone else is a weird outsider?
I started to wonder: why was I looking at the world in this way?
When I entered journalism seven years ago, it seemed like an optimistic time for diversity and inclusion.
Newsrooms were keen to show that they served all people by hiring new writers and publishing more coverage of underrepresented groups.
My friends and I, Canadianborns of immigrant parents, have craved more representative journalism all our lives. When I entered the profession, I proudly wrote about various Vancouver neighbourhoods that didn’t get a lot of media attention, to show what they’re really like.
But over time I noticed that some journalists, when writing about our city’s diversity, would fall into a common way of looking at the world, just as I did. I had trouble describing the specifics of this gaze, but I knew its effects:
Stories that treated groups like “Asians” in a homogenous way.
Stories featuring immigrant seniors, quoting them saying things like, “I like to make the friendship.”
Stories on cultural holidays, homing in on the most exotic aspects and their most ancient history. Dragon dancing! People jumping over fire! Hm, but where’s the coverage the other 364 days of the year?
Non-white characters in news stories are sometimes portrayed in this old-world, Orientalist, National Geographic way, as if they’re all harmonious people, part of homogenous tribes, dedicated to inscrutable traditions. A bit like the stereotype of the “noble savage.”
We journalists are very much dedicated to objectivity as a pillar of our profession. So how do these examples of dehumanization creep in?
Media scholars have a term: the “view from nowhere.”
Many journalists strive to report from it, to present information that’s fact-based, neutral and balanced.
As I started my career, I had trouble reconciling this view. Don’t we make every choice in our reporting? What stories to tell, who to quote and even which quotes are included?
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who thought it impossible for people to do journalism without a “view from somewhere.”
“No matter how far it pulls back, the camera is still occupying a position,” media scholar Jay Rosen once said.
“We can’t actually take the ’view from nowhere,’ but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it — both are real. And realism demands that we acknowledge both.”
Crack open any news story, and you’ll find three perspectives that shape how it’s presented: the author, the audience, the actors.
The author decides what to show and share.
The audience is who the story is catered to, from the topic chosen to the context included for their benefit.
The actors have their appearance shaped by the author, from what they do to what they say.
These three perspectives can work very well together. A smart author will deliver to the audience exactly what they need to know, and present what actors say with big-picture context.
But imagine if the author has internalized a white gaze and is writing for a white audience about people who aren’t white.
If the author doesn’t do their homework, it’s easy for the coverage to be infused with ethnocentrism.
We get stories where people who aren’t white are viewed as “ethnic.”
We get stories where foods like sandwiches are described as normal, while others like hummus are pegged as exotic.
We get stories about Indigenous people with a relentless focus on “disaster coverage” and little else from within their communities.
We get stories aplenty about European heritage since contact, but very little about the millennia of Indigenous history before that.
We get stories that say neighbourhoods are “emerging” when new condos or chic restaurants show up, never mind the immigrant families who’ve called them home for decades.
We get stories about racialized people who aren’t interviewed for the story at all, instead privileging the voices of white characters talking about them.
We get simplistic tropes recycled again and again: the good Indian, the model minority, the bad immigrant, the damaged newcomer, the perpetual foreigner.
If that’s all the coverage there is, isn’t it obvious that the audience would begin to form stereotypical impressions about these people?
Many great minds have pondered the concept of gazes — from Jean-Paul Sartre to Toni Morrison, who coined the term “white gaze” — and used the idea to understand how powerful parties consider others in the world.
Think of the privileged gaze common in reporting on poverty, with journalists highlighting crime and decrepitude, accompanied by photos of needles in puddles.
Think of the male gaze common in cinema, with filmmakers sexualizing women whose only role is to accompany heterosexual male characters and please the hetero male audience.
These gazes determine what we see and how we see it.
We happen to live in a country with Anglo colonial roots, and our most spoken official language is English. Is it really a surprise that our news media takes a white perspective for white audiences when reporting on Indigenous people or “ethnic communities”?
Even the term “ethnic” is a product of the white gaze, assuming that being white is the baseline by which all other people and cultures are measured.
Real representation in news media is about more than just “visible minorities” seeing faces like us on a page or on the screen. It’s about everyone seeing people like us as part of society.
Disclaimer: I’m not trying to solve racism, life, the universe and everything.
I’m trying to investigate the roadblocks to do with race and representation that I keep running into during my reporting.
I just used the term “visible minorities,” but what to do with loaded language like it? How to introduce cultures to English readers with sensitivity and accuracy? How to convince people not used to sharing their story that their voices matter? And of course, what to do when white readers belittle stories that mention race, and say that we should be focusing on the “real” crises like climate change and runaway capitalism instead?
Readers have told me proudly that they “don’t see race” and that I shouldn’t waste my time writing about it. Well, if they don’t see race, no wonder they don’t see that racism exists, and how it’s intertwined with other crises. Just look at our unequal pandemic. Racism won’t go away just because some of us cover our eyes.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” poet Charles Baudelaire once said.
It’s the same with racism and privilege. Advantaged or disadvantaged, we all play a role. And it takes some tough introspection to see this.
Hey, I’m not white, and I barely noticed that I internalized the white gaze myself.
So has my mom.
When I was a kid, I took a bite out of a sesame ball and asked what the sweet paste inside was. It was red bean, but my mom, hoping to relate to Canadianized young me, told me it was “Chinese chocolate.”
Ahh, the white gaze, and its ability to erase cultural knowledge of desserts!
More seriously though, this incident taught me that information is shaped by who’s doing the presenting and who’s being presented to. That’s an enormous power.
By the time you finish reading the articles in this series, I hope you’ll learn to catch the distorting effect of the white gaze in Canadian news media, and how journalists can strive for representative reporting that encourages equality.
We at The Tyee first published this series as a newsletter, subscribed to by over 5,000 people, whom we invited to ponder discussion questions and offer us their thoughts. We’ll be including some of those along the way. Thanks for joining this journey.
- How have you seen the white gaze at work in the journalism that you consume?
- Has news media ever led you to form stereotypes about people, places or cultures?
- Have you ever had journalism misrepresent the place or culture you’re from?
Ken McFarlan: “I’ll start by saying I’m white — and male. I wake up white, can urinate while standing up and I never give it another thought in my day having to assess whether I’m being treated as ‘less than’ or have a multitude of assumptions/observations made about me that have the potential for any interaction to become stressful or cause for anxiety. I cannot say you’ve chosen an easy assignment, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives. If you nudge the needle a bit into the territory of people examining their language to be inclusive and welcoming to every reader, then that will be a good thing.”
Twitter source code partially leaked online, court filing says – Al Jazeera English
GitHub removed code shared without permission after request by social media giant, court filing says.
Twitter’s source code has partially leaked online, according to a legal filing by the social media giant.
Twitter asked GitHub, an online software development platform, to remove the code after it was posted online without permission earlier this month, the legal document filed in the US state of California showed on Sunday.
GitHub complied with Twitter’s request to remove the code after the social media company on March 24 issued a subpoena to identify a user known as “FreeSpeechEnthusiast”, according to the filing with the US District Court of the Northern District of California. San Francisco-based Twitter noted in the filing that the postings infringe on the platform’s intellectual property rights.
The filing was first reported by The New York Times.
The leak of the code is the latest hiccup at the social media giant since its purchase by Elon Musk, whose tenure has been marked by mass layoffs, outages, sweeping changes to content moderation and heated debate about the proper balance between free speech and online safety.
Musk, who bought Twitter for $44bn last October, said recently that Twitter would open the source code used to recommend tweets on March 31. Musk, who also runs Tesla and several other companies, said the platform’s algorithm was overly complex and predicted people would find “many silly things” once the code was made public. It is not clear if the leaked source relates to the code used to recommend tweets.
“Providing code transparency will be incredibly embarrassing at first, but it should lead to rapid improvement in recommendation quality,” he wrote on Twitter. “Most importantly, we hope to earn your trust.”
Utah is first US state to limit teen social media access
Utah has become the first US state to require social media firms get parental consent for children to use their apps and verify users are at least 18.
The governor said he signed the two sweeping measures to protect young people in the state.
The bills will give parents full access to their children’s online accounts, including posts and private messages.
Under the measures enacted on Thursday, a parent or guardian’s explicit consent will be needed before children can create accounts on apps such Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
The bills also impose a social media curfew that blocks children’s access between 22:30 and 06:30, unless adjusted by their parents.
Under the legislation, social media companies will no longer be able to collect a child’s data or be targeted for advertising.
The two bills – which are also designed to make it easier to take legal action against social media companies – will take effect on March 1, 2024.
Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, wrote on Twitter: “We’re no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth.
“As leaders, and parents, we have a responsibility to protect our young people.”
Children’s advocacy group Commons Sense Media welcomed the governor’s move to curtail some of social media’s most addictive features, calling it a “huge victory for kids and families in Utah”.
“It adds momentum for other states to hold social media companies accountable to ensure kids across the country are protected online,” said Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media’s founder and CEO.
Similar regulations are being considered in four other Republican-led states – Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana – and Democratic-led New Jersey.
But Common Sense Media and other advocacy groups warned some parts of the new legislation could put children at risk.
Ari Z Cohn, a free speech lawyer for TechFreedom, said the bill posed “significant free speech problems”.
“There are so many children who might be in abusive households,” he told the BBC, “who might be LGBT, who could be cut-off from social media entirely.”
In response, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it has robust tools to keep children safe.
A spokesperson told the BBC: “We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.”
There has been other US bipartisan support for social media legislation aimed at protecting children.
President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February called for laws banning tech companies from collecting data on children.
Last year, California state lawmakers passed their own child data law. Among other measures, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act requires digital platforms to make the highest privacy features for under-18 users a default setting.
The passage of the Utah bills coincides with a bruising congressional hearing for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.
The digital media rollup dream is dead for the moment — now it’s all about core brand strength
When a marriage or an engagement fails, it’s common for the participants to take time to work on themselves.
That’s where the digital media industry finds itself today.
After years of focusing on consolidating to better compete with Google and Facebook for digital advertising dollars, many of the most well-known digital media companies have abandoned consolidation efforts to concentrate on differentiation.
“What you’re finding is companies are trying to find a non-substitutable core,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Integrated Media, which specializes in digital media investments. “The era of trying to put these companies together is over, and I don’t think it’s coming back.”
A 90% decline in BuzzFeed shares since the company went public in 2021, a failed sales process from Vice, the collapse of special purpose acquisition companies, and a choppy advertising market have made digital media executives rethink their companies’ futures. For the moment, executives have decided that more concentrated investment is better than attempts to gain scale.
“Right now, everyone’s trying to get through a tougher market by focusing on their strengths,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said in an interview with CNBC. “We’re in this period now where we should just focus on innovating for the future and building more efficient, stronger, better companies.”
What’s happening in the digital media space echoes trends from the biggest media companies, including Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery. After losing nearly half their market values, or more, in 2022, those companies have emphasized what makes them different, whether it be distribution, brand or quality of programming, after years of global expansion and mega-mergers. Disney CEO Bob Iger said the word “brand” more than 25 times at a Morgan Stanley media conference this month.
“I think brands matter,” Iger said. “The more choice people have, the more important brands become because of what they convey to consumers.”
Making strategic decisions based on consumer demand rather than investor pressure is a pivot for the industry, said Bryan Goldberg, CEO of Bustle Digital Group, which has acquired and developed a number of brands and sites aimed at women, including Nylon, Scary Mommy, Romper and Elite Daily.
“Too many of the mergers were driven by investor needs as opposed to consumer needs,” Goldberg said in an interview.
The rollup dream’s rise and fall
From late 2018 to early 2022, the digital media industry had a shared goal. Pushed by venture capitalist and private equity investors who had made sizeable investments in the industry during the 2010s, companies such as BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine, and Bustle Digital Group, or BDG, were talking to each other, in various combinations, about merging to gain scale.
“If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money,” Peretti told The New York Times in November 2018, kicking off a multiyear effort to consolidate.
The rationale was twofold. First, digital media companies needed more scale to compete with Facebook and Google for digital advertising dollars. Adding sites and brands under one corporate umbrella would boost overall eyeballs for advertisers. Cost-cutting from M&A synergies was an added benefit for investors.
Second, longtime shareholders wanted to exit their investments. Large legacy media companies such as Disney and Comcast‘s NBCUniversal invested hundreds of millions in digital media in the early and mid-2010s. Disney invested more than $400 million in Vice. NBCUniversal put a similar amount into BuzzFeed. By the end of the decade, after seeing the value of those investments fall, legacy media companies made it clear to digital media executives that they weren’t interested in being acquirers.
With no strategic buyer available, merging with each other using publicly traded stock could give VC and PE shareholders a chance to cash out of investments that were well past the standard hold time of seven years. Digital media companies eyed special purpose acquisition companies — also known as SPACs or blank-check companies — as a way to go public quickly. The popularity of SPACs picked up steam in 2020 and peaked in 2021.
Deal flow accelerated. Vox acquired New York Magazine in September 2019. About a week later, Vice announced it had acquired Refinery29, a digital media company focused on younger women. BuzzFeed bought news aggregator and blog HuffPost in 2020 and then acquired digital publisher Complex Networks in 2021 as part of a SPAC transaction to go public. Vox and Group Nine agreed to a merger later that year.
BuzzFeed, generally thought by industry executives at the time to have the strongest balance sheet with the best growth narrative, successfully went public via SPAC in December 2021. Shares immediately tanked, falling 24% in their first week of trading. The coming weeks and months were even worse. BuzzFeed opened at $10 per share. The stock currently trades at about $1 — a 90% loss of value.
BuzzFeed’s underwhelming performance coincided with the implosion of the SPAC market in early 2022 as interest rates rose. Other companies that planned to follow BuzzFeed shut down their efforts to go public completely. Vice tried and failed. Now it’s trying for the second time in two years to find a buyer. BDG and Vox, meanwhile, abandoned considerations to go public. Vox instead sold a 20% stake in itself in February to Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone and Variety.
The industry turns inward
Consolidation was always a flawed strategy because digital media could never become big enough to compete with Facebook and Google, said Integrated Media’s Miller.
“You have to have sufficient amount of scale to matter, but that’s not a winning formula by itself,” Miller said.
Vice’s deal for Refinery29 is a prime example of a deal motivated by scale that lacked consumer rationale, said BDG’s Goldberg.
“The digital media rollup has proven successful only when assets are thoughtfully combined with an eye toward consumers,” Goldberg said. “In what world did Vice and Refinery29 make sense in combination?”
Vice is engaged in sale talks with a number of buyers that fall outside the digital media landscape, CNBC previously reported. It’s also considering selling itself in pieces if there’s more interest in parts of the company, such as its TV production assets and its ad agency, Virtue.
Vice is a cautionary tale of what happens to a digital media company when its brand loses luster, Miller said. Valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, Vice is now considering selling itself for around $500 million, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the sale discussions are private.
A Vice spokesperson declined to comment.
“In the old days of media, with TV networks, if you were down, you could revive yourself with a hit,” said Miller. “In the internet age, everything is so easily substitutable. If Vice goes down, the audience just moves on to something else.”
Companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox and BDG are now trying to find an enduring relevancy amid a myriad of information and entertainment options. BuzzFeed has chosen to lean in to artificial intelligence, touting new AI-generated quizzes and other content that fuses the work of staff writers with AI databases.
BDG has chosen to primarily target female audiences across lifestyle categories.
Vox has focused on journalism and information across a number of different verticals. That’s a strategy that hasn’t really changed even as the market has turned against digital media, allowing Vox CEO Jim Bankoff the opportunity to continue to hunt for deals. Just don’t expect the partners to be Vice, BDG or BuzzFeed.
“We want to be the leading modern media company with the strongest portfolio of brands that serve their audiences on modern platforms — websites, podcasts, streaming services — while building franchises through multiple revenue streams,” Bankoff said. “There’s no doubt M&A is part of our playbook, and we expect it will continue to be in the future.”
Finding an exit
While executives may be making strategy decisions with a sharper eye toward the consumer, the problem of finding an exit for investors remains. Differentiation may open up the pool of potential buyers beyond the media industry. BuzzFeed’s emphasis on artificial intelligence could attract interest from technology platforms, for instance.
It’s also possible that there will be an eventual second wave of peer-to-peer mergers. While Integrated Media’s Miller doesn’t expect a future industry rollup, BuzzFeed’s Peretti hasn’t closed the door on the concept if market conditions improve. As executives invest in fewer ideas and verticals, the end result could be healthier companies that are more attractive merger partners, he said.
“If everyone invests in what they’re best at, if you put them back together, you’d have that diversified digital media company with real scale,” Peretti said. “That helps drive commerce for all parts of a unified company. I think it’s still possible.”
Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.
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