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Staff Reporter

Journalism professor Anne McNeilly and students at Jinan University.

Journalism professor Anne McNeilly and students at Jinan University. Photo: Anne McNeilly

Ryerson professor Anne McNeilly wasn’t sure what to expect when she travelled to China last spring to teach media ethics and news reporting to first and second-year journalism students. Teaching as a “foreign expert” for two and a half months at one of the oldest universities in the country – Jinan University in Guangzhou – she knew she would have to navigate a very different media environment than the one she was used to.

“There are so many ethical situations in media involving freedom of expression and speaking truth to power,” she said, “that it was a challenge knowing how to proceed in a country where it can be dangerous to speak out.”

One example: In late 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers went missing, all of them linked to a publisher and bookstore that sold books critical of the country’s Communist government. In late February, when McNeilly arrived, a TV report said that four of the five disappeared men had been arrested for selling “unauthorized” books and evading customs.

China is eighth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of “10 Most Censored Countries.” While China’s constitution affords citizens and the press freedom of speech, it also allows authorities to crack down on media that they claim exposes state secrets and endangers the country. And because the definitions of “state secrets” and what could “endanger the country” remain vague, censorship at the discretion of the government is not uncommon. More than a dozen government bodies review and enforce laws related to the flow of information.

Jinan University's library and courtyard. Photo: Anne McNeilly

Jinan University’s library and courtyard. Photo: Anne McNeilly

McNeilly saw the government’s ability to inhibit the flow of information first-hand when the Panama Papers story, an international investigative story about offshore tax havens, was published in early March. It implicated senior Chinese government officials, among others, in hiding wealth offshore. McNeilly said that within three hours of publication, the Chinese government had eradicated all mention of the story from Weibo, the social media tool used in China. Even the virtual private networks (VPNs) that she and many students used to access gmail, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google were unable to break through the country’s “great firewall.”

“That was really different and so contrary to what would happen here [in Canada],” she said. “I’ve never taken freedom of expression for granted, but we’re so fortunate to have it and we need to defend it, no matter what.”

Despite the difference in media climate, McNeilly shared her own experiences teaching and reporting in Canada with her Chinese students because the Jinan University journalism program, according to the school’s brochures, aims to prepare students to work internationally,

“I decided to talk about situations here [in Canada] and approaches that are familiar to Canadian journalists, and then we would talk about China and how those situations might be handled,” she said. “But I’d always emphasize the importance of ensuring that they remain safe.”

While Canada and China have different media landscapes politically, she found that journalists in both countries often face comparable human dilemmas.

“I gave [the students] situations to discuss that I give Canadian students since so many ethical situations are basically human situations,” McNeilly said. “People who are interested in journalism often have a sense of justice and are interested in what’s right or fair. I didn’t find that there were significant differences between my Chinese students and Canadian students in that respect.”

Anne McNeilly teaches a class at Jinan University in China.

McNeilly teaches a class at Jinan University in China. Photo: Anne McNeilly

In one exercise, McNeilly asked the students to interview a working journalist about a difficult ethical situation he or she had encountered while on the job. One reporter wrestled with whether to reveal the name of an AIDS patient while another reporter was celebrated for revealing a stock market scandal. “The most important thing when you work as a journalist is to have a nose for news and be hard-working,” the Chinese journalist told McNeilly’s student.

Another student detailed a local newspaper reporter’s undercover work. The reporter joined an agency that hired out individuals to families to sit China’s Grade 12 exam so students could get higher grades. This was unfair and illegal, as the exam is a prerequisite for entrance into all higher education institutions in the country. Once it was published, the story was widely celebrated for exposing cheating.

As part of her research on Canadian students’ English grammar skills, McNeilly also gave the Chinese students, who speak English as a second language, the same English grammar test that Ryerson journalism students must pass during their first year. Although the first language of most students was Cantonese, all spoke English and their journalism courses were in English. McNeilly said the most common request she received was to speak more slowly. “I kept forgetting,” she said.

While the Chinese students’ results are still being calculated, McNeilly said that, anecdotally, she did not have to spend as much time teaching English language mechanics to them as she does with her Canadian students.

She said strong English language skills will be an advantage for those who want to work abroad, but she added that some want to remain in China because they want to make a difference there. She cited, for example, a student who wrote a moving personal assignment about how an earthquake had struck his hometown. He’d been instrumental in volunteering after the disaster, but wanted to be able to do more.

“He realized that he wanted to help by getting information out,” McNeilly said. “He thought he could do a better job of communicating information…he wanted to help people by getting information [about what was happening] out.”

Special to the RJRC

A screenshot from the This is a Canadian Issue website created by Asmaa Malik's digital reporting class.

A screenshot from the This is a Canadian Issue website created by Asmaa Malik’s digital reporting class.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Kieran Delamont tells the story of how Indigenous people have had a difficult history of representation in video games.

It’s an important story that had its genesis in a classroom in Ryerson University’s journalism school.

During the 2016 Winter semester, Ryerson professor Asmaa Malik dedicated her masters level digital reporting class to working on Indigenous people’s stories. The result is “This is a Canadian Issue,” a microsite dedicated to telling a wide variety of stories about Indigenous people, from the revitalization of Indigenous languages to an interactive story on the importance of reclaiming traditional naming practices.

“I was kind of trying to figure out what would be one thing that we could all learn at the same pace,” said Malik. To her, learning about digital reporting tools is important but without the reporting to support the tools, it can be an empty exercise.

“What was really important for me with this class is that people understand that reporting for digital is in some ways no different than reporting for print but in some ways very different,” Malik explained.

The recently released Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada final report tasked Canadian journalism schools with teaching students “the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools.” The report was front-of-mind for Malik, and she used the calls to action contained in the report as a springboard for her students to look for their stories.

To help her students prepare for their subjects, Malik worked with Journalists for Human Rights. Hannah Clifford, JHR program associate for the Indigenous reporting program, and program manager Miles Kenyon led a workshop on how to report on Indigenous stories.

“Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem—it’s a Canadian one,” said Clifford, who noted that there has been a lack of education around Indigenous issues in Canadian journalism schools. JHR has been partnering with schools to ensure that journalists have the necessary training before they go into the field.

“If journalists are not able to effectively and accurately report on Indigenous issues, how are readers then accurately educated and able to engage in the conversation fully?” said Clifford. She pointed out that a class project like Malik’s is important to further the discussion, adding that she would love to see similar projects across Canada.

In total, the students spent about four weeks discussing the TRC recommendations and finding resources for the stories, which they then worked on for the rest of the semester.

Malik said they also learned a lot from the process of doing the reporting. “We weren’t just going for the usual sources,” she said. JHR’s staff also helped edit the final pieces.

The resulting stories have drawn attention from several North American media outlets. Delamont’s piece, which was picked up by The Atlantic on June 2, came about after classroom conversations about appropriation. Two stories were published by TVO—one by Steph Wechsler about how urban health care providers provide services to LGBTQ Indigenous people and another by Brittany Spencer about the lack of Indigenous history lessons in Ontario schools.

Malik found some students had some trepidation about tackling these stories. But she told them it was important for them to move outside their comfort zones.

“It’s our job to tell stories and we are often telling other people’s stories,” she said. “If we shy away from telling more complex stories…then we are really doing our readers and our subjects and a disservice.”

And it gave the students an opportunity to have their stories read well outside the confines of Ryerson. “Knowing that actually…it’s going be read quite widely, on one hand it can be scary but on the other hand it’s so affirming and so great to actually have an impact,” said Malik.

This article originally appeared on J-Source. Republished with permission.

Staff Reporter

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders.

Author and Ryerson School of Journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses his latest book with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders.

When Kamal Al-Solaylee saw a group of Filipina maids enjoying a picnic in a Hong Kong park during their time off work one Sunday afternoon in 2011, the concept for his next book began to form. That idea solidified when, back home and riding the subway in Toronto, he again saw a large group of Filipina workers talking together and realized that both groups, though an ocean apart, shared two things in common: their work and their skin colour.

“I started thinking about the connection between skin colour and work,” explained Al-Solaylee, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. “I decided to try to write a book about skin colour, but it’s not really about skin colour. It’s about where skin colour becomes the gateway into something else.”

Al-Solaylee discussed his latest book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders last week at an RJRC-hosted Q&A session.

Brown explores the complexities and shared experiences of people with brown skin from around the world. Al-Solaylee travelled to 10 countries and four continents over two years to talk with people from the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the United States and Canada about their experiences living as brown-skinned people in the world today. The book examines issues such as immigration, work conditions, economic marginalization, racism, Islamophobia, colourism and self-perception, all the while asking what experiences unite people from vastly different countries, cultures and backgrounds who all share one common trait: their brown skin.

“I wanted to show how similar all of these experiences are,” Al-Solaylee said during the Q&A, “and that’s why it was important for me to go to all of these different countries and try to find out how the same scenario unfolds in different countries.”

He found that brown-skinned people – particularly immigrants – often end up as transient labourers stuck in precarious jobs.

“We have brought in people to do work that we don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “What I find is that there is this mass population of brown people in the service industry, whether they’re in kitchens, supermarkets, driving cabs or cleaning…The one thing that unites all of them is cheap labour”

This is true throughout the world, Al-Solaylee explained. He visited a school in Manila that trains students in housekeeping and the culinary arts so that they can work abroad. He talked with Filipina domestic workers about dealing with racism and segregation in Hong Kong (a country where foreign domestic workers make up five per cent of the population). And he met with foreign construction workers in Qatar, where, on average, one migrant worker per dies per day building the country’s infrastructure.

Al-Solaylee and Saunders discussed how these labour disparities are also found in Canada.

“We bring in a population (of new Canadians) that tend to have university degrees or are professionals, but we end up sacrificing them,” said Saunders, who wrote Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, both of which explore immigration issues in Canada and elsewhere.

“You are what Canadians assume is the default model,” Saunders said to Al-Solaylee, “which is that it’s okay that the people who clean our floors, drive taxis and so on are economically marginalized because our grandparents all did when they were immigrants and everybody slowly rose up the hierarchy. But I worry, with precarious employment, that maybe this is not working the way it used to.”

Al-Solaylee was born in Aden, Yemen and grew up in Cairo and Beirut before pursuing an education and journalism career in the United Kingdom and Canada. He wrote his first book, the award-winning Intolerable, about his decision to leave his family in the Middle East to seek greater freedom and safety as a gay man in the West.

Al-Solaylee said that writing the book was easy compared to the challenge of finding people who would talk to him, particularly in developing countries.

“You arrive somewhere after people have promised to help you and then they disappear, or when you arrive you realize that they aren’t that much help at all,” he said.

He said he ended up relying on NGOs to introduce him to potential interviewees.

“When you meet just one generous person in every destination who is willing to open doors for you, that’s the most important thing,” he explained.

Nonetheless, he still had difficulty finding people in Qatar willing to talk on-record about the country’s treatment of migrant construction workers, and was unable to find any dermatologists in Canada willing to talk about selling skin-lightening creams and treatments.

In addition to recounting the experiences of brown-skinned people from around the globe, Al-Solaylee also tells his own story in Brown, and discusses identity and intersectionality between race and sexuality. His book begins with a memory of himself as a 10-year-old boy in early 1970s Cairo, excited to watch a premier of the British musical Oliver! on TV. But while watching the show, he noticed that the young, white-skinned actor did not look like him, and felt shame over being brown. He noticed that all of the ads and shows on Egyptian television that always used light-skinned actors and began to wish that he, too, had lighter coloured skin.

“I have an awareness of how darker or lighter my skin is, and sometimes it has an impact on my self-confidence, because the lighter it is, the more confident I feel,” Al-Solaylee said. He was not alone in such experiences of colourism. While talking outside to an Indian woman in Trinidad, he noticed that they both gravitated to a table with the largest canopy so that they would stay out of the sun and not become “darker.”

He also discussed his experience feeling invisible as a person of colour in Toronto’s gay community, but he said that finding a Latino gay bar in the city also gave him a new sense of community.

“It was the one place on Church Street where I felt completely at home because there were about 100 brown people around me and I was just one of them,” he explained.

Al-Solaylee said that he was particularly upset over the shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida earlier this month and how the news media identified the victims. The nightclub, Pulse, was having a Latin night, and the majority of the 49 people killed were Latin, Hispanic and black, but the media has not identified this as an attack against people of colour as well as an attack against LGBT people, he said.

Racism, prejudice and “othering” is also an experience that unites people with brown skin, Al-Solaylee said.

“If I was just walking down the street late at night…nobody would know me as a professor or that I wrote a couple of books or any of that stuff,” he noted. “The first thing you would see is the skin colour and the otherness.”

Staff Reporter

Canadians can help track changes in the availability of local news in communities across the country by contributing to a new interactive map.

The crowd-sourced map, produced by a team of Ryerson and University of British Columbia researchers, is “a way for people to actually see the major disruption underway in the local news sector,” says April Lindgren, the map’s co-creator and principal investigator for the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.

“I’m hoping the map will help us understand if certain types of communities, whether it’s due to their size or income or location, are being more hard hit by the shake up in the news industry than other types of communities. I also hope it will raise questions and prompt discussions about what, if anything, should be done about this,” said Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

The map is being published amid growing concerns about the state of local news across the country.

A recent Angus Reid poll indicates 78 per cent of Canadians surveyed consider the loss of small-town newspapers as “very serious” or “serious.” In January, a study commissioned by the watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting warned the CTRC that without intervention, half of Canada’s small- and medium-market television stations could disappear by 2020, and with them, more than 900 jobs. In February, the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee passed a motion calling for hearings on “how Canadians, and especially local communities, are informed about local and regional experiences, through news, broadcasting, digital and print media.”

While Lindgren focused on the map’s content, the map itself was created and designed by UBC’s Jon Corbett and his SPICE (Spatial Information for Community Engagement) Lab.

The researchers have already posted data on the map going back to 2008. “We’re interested in what people think about what’s happening and whether they think their local media outlets are keeping them informed,” Lindgren said, noting that the map includes data going back to 2008, “because that was when the crunch really hit in terms of news organizations really starting to suffer.”

The researchers are now inviting members of the public to draw upon their local knowledge to add both historical information as well as details of new developments so that the map will become richer and more useful over time.

“We’re really interested in crowd-sourcing and we’ve developed an application that allows people, in a relatively seamless way, to add information to a specific place on the map,” says Corbett, an associate professor of community, culture and global studies at UBC’s Kelowna campus.

Visitors to the site can add markers indicating the launch of new local news operations, the closure of local outlets, and service increases and reductions at local online, radio, television and newspaper outlets throughout Canada. They can also turn filters on and off to see changes in cities, towns and rural areas in terms of:

  • Type of media
  • News outlet ownership
  • Type of change that occurred
  • Time period
  • Location
  • Language of operation

Corbett says the participatory nature of the map and the complex data it presents makes the map unlike anything he has done before.

“The thing is that [all the media types included] are transforming continuously,” he said. “Suddenly there are so many different variables for each media type so we really had a challenge of how we actually present this information, this complex data, in a way that the general public can actually try and make sense of it.”

Lindgren said she chose a map to display the information because it is a powerful form of data visualization.

“People can see for themselves how the story  of local media is unfolding across the country’s markers are added to the map.” The idea originated in her concerns about the emergence of what she calls “local news poverty,” particularly in smaller cities and rural areas.

“There’s a powerful argument to be made that verified, accurate information is as essential to a well-functioning community as clean drinking water and well-maintained streets,” Lindgren said. “Yet the bad news about cut backs or the shutdown of local news outlets just keeps coming and this raises questions about whether the critical information needs of communities are being met. We really don’t have good data on how serious the problem is —or whether online alternatives are springing up to fill in the gaps. The map is an attempt to get a bit of handle on this.”

In addition to mapping changes in the local news landscape at the community level, the site includes a survey that asks visitors to assess whether their information needs are being met by local news outlets, the extent to which they feel adequately informed about municipal politics, local sports and other topics, and whether they have more or fewer local news sources at their disposal now compared to the past.

“We wanted to get a sense over time as to what has been happening to the local news sources in communities, but obviously the point of the map is to track current changes in real time and that’s where the public comes in. There’s no sign the carnage is about to let up so we need the best possible real-time information about what’s going on.”

The map was created with financial support from the Canadian Geospatial and Open Data Research Partnership,  the Canadian Media Guild/CWA Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a Mitacs Accelerate grant,  Unifor and Ryerson University.

This article originally appeared on J-Source. Republished with permission.

Staff Reporter

When Beyoncé released her latest album, Lemonade, exclusively on the music streaming service Tidal, new user sign-ups rose by 1.2 million. But since then, the service’s popularity has once again waned. The same effect can be applied to modern journalism, says Alex Watson, The Telegraph’s former head of product.

Events like elections and terrorist attacks can draw audiences to news sources, but they result in short bursts of engagement. Whereas significant, yet small, improvements in the interfaces and delivery systems of news organizations can result in long-term, generalized effects, says Watson, who recently took on a new role as the head of product at the BBC.

“[The product of news] is more than the journalism. The delivery system is doing far more than delivering content, it is shaping how people behave,” he said.

Audience behaviour was a central focus of Journalism Transformations, a recent colloquium organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. The day-long conference explored the major shifts taking place in journalism today in terms of audiences, education and technology. Researchers, academics and industry innovators from Europe, the United States and Canada gathered at the Ryerson School of Journalism in April to discuss these paradigm-shifting changes. (Click here for full coverage of the Journalism Transformations event.)

While the past decade has seen significant shifts in audience behaviour and interests, speaker Retha Hill, professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism, says the news industry is still not taking an audience-focused approach to journalism.

“If news or storytelling is our product and that’s what we’re supposed to be focused in on, we have to do a better job of understanding our clients,” Hill said during the colloquium’s opening session. “It seems to me to be critical that [if] we understand more of audience behaviour and analytics … we could be better at providing audiences with relevant, actionable content.”

While other industries are tapping into modern audience research tools to better sell their products Hill, who teaches media entrepreneurship and virtual-reality storytelling at Cronkite, says journalists are still slow to do so.

“We [should] use more of the tools that are currently available to us, tools that are serving our competitors well, all the other content providers that are competing for our audience’s attention. If the point is to get our audiences to consume news, isn’t it incumbent on us to pull out all of the stops to get them relevant information whenever and wherever they’re in a position to consume it?”

This resistance to giving the audience exactly what it wants is a long-held viewpoint, said panelist and media researcher Philip Napoli, a professor and associate dean at Rutgers University.

“Journalism, as a community, has tended to have an aloof detachment from its audience, this paternalistic notion that it’s our job to know what [the audience] needs and that we need to maintain some independence and autonomy from what the audience says it wants.”

Napoli says there has been a fundamental disconnect in journalists’ understanding of audience demand for news, pointing out that for decades newspapers were sources of much more content. Even in the “golden age of journalism,” when circulation was high and people subscribed to multiple newspapers, he noted, much of the demand stemmed from the other information papers provided, such as job listings, coupons, movie listings and apartment listings.

“We have a much better sense of [the audience] now and realize now that this was probably not a time when people were much more avid news consumers, but that it was easier to connect news with other products – exactly the kind of thing that eBay and Monster.com and Craigslist ultimately decoupled.”

Armed with this better understanding of consumer behaviour, news organizations are in a unique position “to figure out how to better directly connect the nature of the content that is produced with the nature of consumer demand [after] the luxury of generations of not having to do that,” Napoli said.

Napoli’s presentation also touched on his recent research, which attempts to uncover what audiences want from their local news coverage and examines audience behaviour and engagement with journalism.

In his study of three New Jersey communities, he found that the kinds of news people want varied vastly by community. While bigger cities like Newark demanded hard-hitting journalism from their news sources, smaller, upper-middle class towns had fewer pressing concerns.

He said his work on the news behaviours of participants found that many were self-reliant news consumers: people who understood that news comes from multiple sources and felt it was up to them to be informed. Some people recognized the need to actively search for news, but in many cases did not do so, he said. The research also suggested most people aren’t interested in being citizen journalists and pointed to the continuing significance and relevance of interpersonal sharing of news.

“People [often] mentioned the street corner, the coffee shop, the dog walking. This emerged over and over again… as something quite prominent,” he said.

Panelist Kim Schrøder, a professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark, presented the results of his research on which media forms are most consumed by Danish audiences. Participants in the study were given 36 news platforms and formats to choose from and asked to rank them by importance.

Six news media repertoires emerged from the results:

  • “online quality omnivores”: those who primarily read quality online news content
  • hybrid public service lovers”: those who primarily rely on public news organizations
  • “light news snackers”: those who occasionally read tabloid newspapers or watch 24-hour news channels
  • “mainstream networkers”: those who use social media and quality news sources
  • “intellectual/professional networkers”: those who primarily use social media, in addition to current affairs programs and professional magazines
  • “print addicts”: those who rely on print newspapers for local and national news needs.

Schrøder says that the future of the news industry is dependent on the changing interests and news consumption habits of users.

“The future shape of the news landscape depends on which technologies, softwares and platforms users appropriate and domesticate,” he said. “It is my observation that the users are playing a tremendously important role here. Of course, there are other factors which determine what kinds of news people will get, but the users are the ultimate decision makers.”

A live-blog transcript of the presentations can be viewed here.