Ex-CBC journalist reveals why ‘woke’ media is broken — and how to fix it

Ex-CBC journalist reveals why ‘woke’ media is broken — and how to fix it

In December, I quit my job as a current-affairs radio producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This month, I wrote an open letter, explaining that I felt a pervasive “woke” ideology and an obsession with identity politics — coupled with a lack of interest in broader issues — had created a climate in which it was difficult to do good journalism.

I was concerned that niche stories — like non-binary Filipinos upset about a lack of LGBT terms in Tagalog, or a list of offensive words Canadians should avoid using, including “brainstorm” and “lame” — had become editorial priorities, while issues that affect people nationwide, like the housing crisis, the opioid epidemic and wealth inequality, went underreported. I was also concerned about a lack of alternate viewpoints on stories, such as vaccine mandates, school closures and lockdowns, and the Dave Chappelle Netflix controversy.

Over the years at the CBC, I came to find our coverage increasingly ideological, and increasingly lacking in critical thinking, but my repeated efforts to push back from within accomplished little. The atmosphere at the network felt stifling and driven by groupthink, with a narrow range of viewpoints represented.

I have since received letters from across my country, and yours, from journalists with strikingly similar experiences — and strikingly similar concerns. I’ve also received many, many messages from members of the public who had, for exactly these reasons, tuned us out.

Tara Henley
While working for the CBC, Henley found that pushing back against a “woke” news agenda fell on deaf ears.

So, what is going on in our newsrooms? Why has a segment of our media shifted dramatically left? Why has the liberal press adopted a “woke” ideology that’s largely unpopular with the public? And why does media leadership have so little self-awareness about any of this?

A number of pressures bearing down on newsrooms are worth examining.

Most significantly, the business itself is under threat. In recent years, we’ve lost subscribers, advertising dollars, and audience to social media, throwing traditional business models into turmoil, and resulting in layoffs and outlet closures. At the same time, the digital media revolution has produced an army of young, inexperienced writers willing to work for next to nothing, dragging down writing rates, devaluing our work and over-simplifying the dialogue.

dave chappelle closer
The CBC’s coverage of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special didn’t include voices from his fans and other comics who weren’t offended by the show, Henley wrote in an open letter earlier this month.
Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

Then there’s the fact that outrage reliably generates online engagement and therefore dollars. Financial incentives drive angry, polarizing content. Outlets increasingly target consumers on either side of the political spectrum and cater content to these echo chambers. In doing so, they abandon the aim of speaking to a broad audience — and of a shared conversation.

Then, of course, you have the pandemic. Anyone who’s reported on it will tell you how exhausting it is. Many of us went from covering a mix of stories to covering COVID day in and day out, often from the isolation of tiny city apartments, doing our best to absorb the devastation, loss, and sweeping societal change without the buffer of newsroom camaraderie, or, in some cases, any face-to-face social support whatsoever. Many are tired and burned out.

Add to all of that, there’s the changing nature of our workforce. What used to be a working-class trade has evolved, particularly in the United States, into an elite profession. In part because the business itself is so precarious, journalists often now come from wealthy backgrounds, are educated at elite schools, and live among society’s decision-makers.

Increasingly, journalists come from wealthy backgrounds and are educated at elite schools like Harvard (above), meaning they often miss issues that concern ordinary folks, Henley writes.

As a group, we have vested interests in maintaining the status quo, and little contact with those who do not share our perspective.

If all of that was not enough, hiring and training practices are more and more shaped by “woke” ideology, selecting for journalists who are on board — or at least willing to go along with it.

Twitter, too, exerts undue pressure on newsrooms, delivering the illusion of societal consensus where one does not exist. And cancel culture enforces a climate of fear. The consequences of speaking out against “woke” ideology are significant. Jobs and reputations can be lost, along with livelihoods; few journalists are in a position to risk this. The vocal minority thus overpowers the many in the middle. And curiosity is supplanted by a public performance of certainty.

‘Over the years at the CBC, I came to find our coverage increasingly ideological, and increasingly lacking in critical thinking, but my repeated efforts to push back from within accomplished little.’

Tara Henley

The way out begins, I think, with all of us asking ourselves a question: “What if we’re wrong?”

If we might be wrong about a story — a narrative, a collection of established facts, a viewpoint, an analysis, a whole approach to journalism or politics — the natural conclusion is that we need to talk to more people, to understand more deeply. We need to incorporate more views, more dissenting voices, more educational and economic and political backgrounds. We need to hear more, think more, discern more, contemplate more.

If there’s a possibility that we have it wrong, we can give up, too, on trying to influence public behavior — and get back to trying to tell the story as thoughtfully, and accurately, as possible.

In order for the media to improve, journalists need to incorporate more views and more dissenting voices, and question everything, Henley writes.

This approach would also, hopefully, engender the small, daily acts of courage that this extreme moment necessities. If we might be wrong, then of course we must speak up, question, investigate, rethink, reframe.

It’s a simple shift, and it certainly won’t solve things. But it might be just enough to convince audiences to stick around while we engage in the messy business of correcting our course.

Tara Henley is a journalist, podcaster, bestselling author. Twitter: @TaraRHenley 


Tara Henley

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