Book Review: Framed: media and the coverage of race in Canadian politics (Tolley, 2015)

Last Fall, I immersed myself in two books about the media representations of minorities in Canada – Discourses of denial: mediations of race, gender, and violence (Jiwani, 2006) and Framed: media and the coverage of race in Canadian politics (Tolley, 2015). The readings of both academic work proved to be extremely illuminating and satisfying, especially Framed. On the latter, I wrote a book review for one of my PhD courses that I here reproduce in an abridged version. 

While Canada’s ethnic composition is becoming increasingly diverse, its Parliament remains overly white notwithstanding. For many aspirant politicians of colour, the road to the House of Commons is still one paved with great impediments, among which the media representations they are victims of. This difficulty constitutes the object of Erin Tolley’s book Framed: media and the coverage of race in Canadian politics. Published by UBC Press, this book challenges the idea that media are colour-blind, by illustrating how Canadian news outlets articulate racialized framings that put visible minority politicians at a disadvantage. Specifically, it advances a “theory of racial mediation” according to which “politics are covered [by the media] in ways that reflect the dominant cultural norms, long-standing organizational practices, and the assumption of whiteness as a standard” (p. 29).

Underpinning every chapter is the theory of media framing, described in the book as the process whereby “elements [are] included, excluded, emphasized or downplayed when a story is reported on” (p. 18).

The first two chapters focus on a content analysis of the newspaper treatment of visible minority candidates during the 2008 federal election campaign. From it, Tolley concludes that their “coverage is systematically and substantively different from that of white candidates” (p. 21).  This differentiated coverage expresses itself through “racialization”, that is, media frames that insist on visible minority candidates’ differences with regard to the white norm. Tolley identifies three of those: the “socio-demographic” frame that overemphasizes their ethnic background (p. 39); the “political viability frame” that implies that they might be less electorally competitive (p. 40); and the “policy issue frame” that depicts them as being only competent to discuss issues like immigration, and not mainstream ones such as the economy (p. 41).

In the third chapter, Tolley addresses media representations of visible minority female politicians. To that end, she mobilizes intersectionality as a theoretical framework. Intersectionality refers to a “manner in which racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create background inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, race, ethnicities, classes and the like” (Crenshaw, 2000, p. 422). Relying on a newspaper content analysis of the coverage of non-white female MPs in Canada, Tolley notes that these politicians are the object of both racialized and gendered media representations that hold them to higher standards of morality. They are expected to be more devoted to their party than other MPs (“good girl” narrative), and embody the role of the hard-working immigrant who never complains (“good immigrant” narrative) (p. 114). For Tolley, the slightest digression to these stereotypes results in negative media coverage for minority women politicians.

The fourth chapter investigates whether Canadian politicians consider media as culpable of racialized framings, and race as an influential factor in electoral contests. This section is based upon interviews conducted by the author with both former and current MPs, and ex-candidates who never got elected. The data allows to see that most interviewees, regardless of their ethnicity, are satisfied with the media coverage received.  Nonetheless, visible minority respondents are more numerous to regret that the image reflected of them in articles or TV reportages is not “completely congruent with [their] self-representation”, the media’s image being more racialized than the “political narrative” they put forth (p. 162). In addition, the author notes that race seldom seems “to be a complicating factor” for white respondents, even for those seeking election in multicultural ridings (p. 160) Nor is it viewed by them as an element likely to influence voters’ choice in general. By contrast, visible minority respondents concede “struggl[ing] with their own racial background and how it might affect their electoral prospects” (p. 163). Overall, this chapter shows that media racialized framings go mostly unnoticed by white respondents, and are only partly acknowledged by visible minority interviewees.

The fifth chapter is a summary of interviews with Canadian journalists about what they think of the media’s job in representing visible minority politicians. Tolley notes from these that the “impact of race” on “news judgement, reporting and coverage” is completely “downplayed” by respondents (p. 23). Most of them are convinced that the “media’ commitment to fairness and accuracy” ensures that the coverage of politics is “colour-blind” (p. 23). This absence of self-reflection from journalists is probably the most surprising finding of the book.

The author concludes that these racialized framings are detrimental to minority candidates and politicians. They draw voters away from their competencies, undermine their credibility, and reinforce the prejudice according to which minorities might not belong to politics. More fundamentally, the author argues that these representations “serv[e] only to further normalize whiteness and reproduce racial disparities” (p. 189). In the end, Tolley confirms her theory of racial mediation.

Framed: media and the coverage of race in Canadian politics is a unique contribution to framing studies and political science. It is, arguably, the most complete book of its kind to ever address media representations of political candidates within the Canadian context. Framed also has the merit to put to the forefront the notion of race in Canada; a country that typically sees itself as a paragon of tolerance and where the word race is largely absent from public debates. In this regard, Framed shows how a country that prides itself with multiculturalism is, nonetheless, permeated with racialized representations modelled after white standards.  Framed succeeds in doing all this by adopting a nuanced stance that serves it well; a lack of nuance that proves problematic in other books. It is the case of Discourses of denial: mediations of race, gender and violence (Jiwani, 2006), an analysis of how minority women are victims of society’s systemic violence because of their gender and ethnicity. Its most interesting chapters pertain to the media coverage of judicial affairs involving female victims of colour.

Framed and Discourses share a kinship, due to their focus on racialized media framings and intersectionality. Unlike Discourses, though, Framed never goes as far as stating that “implicit and often unconscious acts of racialization” are just as racist as “blatant and overt acts premised on a feeling of racial superiority” (p. 6). Jiwani’s book (2006), conversely, assimilates media racialization to racism, with various degrees of success in persuading the reader of the racist nature of the examples provided. In the end, Tolley’s care in not ascribing conscious racist motives to media makes her argument more convincing.

Regarding the evidence contained in Framed, the exhaustiveness of the data (more than one thousand articles/interviews with a wide variety of respondents) and the clarity with which the author proceeds to the breakdown of her findings (written form/graphs) must be complimented. Also, it is worth mentioning the talent of the author in mobilizing the literature without weighing down the text. The literature covers notions of media framing, gendered mediation, racialized mediation, and intersectionality.

Further research on the subject might seek to make up for gaps in the book. For instance, the content analysis of minority candidates’ representations during the 2008 election campaign excludes articles from Quebec media. As such, there could be room for similar studies repeating the exercise in the context of French Canada, and drawing comparisons with English-language publications. Moreover, Tolley’s work does not extend to audio-visual news reports. A breakdown of how TV and radio cover minority politicians could give rise to a compelling work.

In sum, Framed: media and the coverage of race in Canadian politics is a must-read for scholars specialized in political science, journalism or cultural studies. And it is to be hoped that the reflection launched by Tolley shall reach beyond academic circles to appeal to members of the public. Framed is an invitation to all of us to call into question racialized framings, and ponder over our collective responsibility in their perpetuation.

Tolley, E. (2015). Framed: media and the coverage of race in Canadian politics. Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press, 264 pp., ISBN 9780774831246 (hard cover).   

Crenshaw, K. (2000). Dimensions of intersectional oppression. In C. Lemert (Ed.), Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classic Readings (6th edition) (pp. 421-424). Boulder: Westview Press.

Jiwani, Y. (2006). Discourses of denial: mediations of race, gender, and violence. Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press, 255 p.

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