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Kamal Al-Solaylee, Angelyn Francis and Jim Rankin discuss how reporters can get comfortable while covering controversial stories at an RJRC panel.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, Angelyn Francis and Jim Rankin discuss how reporters can get comfortable while covering controversial stories at an RJRC panel. Photo: Madeleine Binning.

BY MADELEINE BINNING
Staff Reporter

Young journalists – and even industry veterans – can feel uncomfortable reporting controversial stories on topics like race, gender and LGBT issues. Some may even shy away from reporting on these topics to avoid the social media blowback that could follow.

But feeling uncomfortable while reporting on some communities and situations is part of being a good journalist, said Toronto Star investigative reporter Jim at the Ryerson Research Centre’s (RJRC) recent panel, “Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable.” 

“If as a journalist you’re feeling comfortable all the time, you’re not doing good journalism,” said Rankin. “You should be able to step outside of your comfort zone.”

The first RJRC event this fall, the panel attracted about 100 journalism students, faculty members and members of the public to the Rogers Communication Centre at Ryerson University. The discussion, featuring Rankin, award-winning author Kamal Al-Solaylee and Angelyn Francis, associate editor for The Huffington Post, focused on how journalists can deal with discomfort while reporting on controversial issues and the importance of covering difficult topics.

The key to covering such stories is taking the time to get to know sources and neighbourhoods, Rankin said.

“People generally are generous and they want to share their stories,” he said. “And there’s nothing that beats getting out into the communities that you are writing about.”

Beginning in 2002, Rankin led a team of Toronto Star reporters in investigating police carding in Toronto. His award-winning coverage showed that random street checks targeted a disproportionate number of black and brown men in the city. Subsequent reporting on the issue led him to the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood in 2012, an area with a significant black population and a heavy police presence. During the panel, Rankin explained that reporting on the carding story from that area of Toronto involved visiting community hubs and acting as a “fly on the wall.”

“If you go into the community, spend time there, gain trust, don’t go in with your cameras blazing. Take time to get to know people – that’s the way that you establish relationships,” he advised.

He said that it can be difficult for reporters to know they’re on the right track when reporting on unfamiliar groups or places and suggested it helps to have a contact inside the community, even if the source won’t be directly quoted in the story.

“Go find a ‘rabbi,’” said Rankin. “It’s someone who knows everything about the thing you’re about to write about. Sit down with them and say, ‘Tell me everything I need to know.’”

These community insiders can also be used to test whether a story is accurate and to follow up on stories later, he said.

“Don’t just leave a story that’s an important story and walk away,” he advised.

Al-Solaylee, a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), said that he travelled to 10 countries to write his recently published book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).

“Being in the world that you wish to write about, that you wish to cover, is, to me, the most valuable thing,” said Al-Solaylee.

He said that one challenge he faced while researching his book was writing about people that he often had “nothing in common” with. Because, as he explained, he was interviewing construction workers, temporary workers and domestic workers from a place of “privilege” as a university professor, it was even more important to him to see their experiences firsthand.

“Let [sources] decide where and when they want to meet and if you’re flexible, that really helps,” he advised, noting that many people were eager to talk to him but also anxious about it. “I meet a lot of people at their comfort zone instead of asking them to come to me.”

Francis, a recent graduate from the RSJ and currently a freelance journalist, stressed that that it is important to tell difficult stories.

“Because of the racial tensions in the United States, Canadians are too quick to write off the fact that racism exists in Canada,” said Francis, who was involved with multiple student groups such as the Racialised Students’ Collective during her time at Ryerson.

“Most of the stories that I write about race pertain to Canada, so [racism] definitely does happen here,” she said. “Just don’t let those stories pass you by and say that, ‘Oh, that’s not necessarily something that’s happening here.’”

She also urged journalists to do their homework and thoroughly research the topics they cover.

“It’s definitely important for us as journalists to learn the skills of interviewing, to learn the skills of how to tell a good story and how to think critically,” said Francis, “but you need to have a little bit of background in what you want to write critically about.”

WATCH THE FULL PANEL HERE: https://ryecast.ryerson.ca/64/Watch/10595.aspx

BY JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

Gavin Adamson, journalism undergraduate program director, presenting his findings at Ryerson University on Sept. 12, 2016. (Jasmine Bala)

Gavin Adamson, journalism undergraduate program director, presenting his findings at Ryerson University on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo: Jasmine Bala

News stories that deal with mental health-related recovery and treatment are shared much more frequently than stories about mental health and violence, according to new research by a Ryerson University journalism professor.

The study by Gavin Adamson examined the content of articles dealing with mental health and how they were shared across digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“There’s sort of this assumption that what bleeds leads in journalism,” said Adamson, who co-authored the report with McGill University’s Robert Whitley and Liam Donaldson, a research assistant at Ryerson. “It’s like this catchphrase. I don’t know who coined it, but it’s what the audience believes about journalism and it’s sometimes what journalists believe about journalism too.”

Adamson’s research, however, shows that this isn’t true where mental illness is involved. His examination of online news stories suggests that readers are less likely to share mental health-related stories about crime and violence than stories with a positive or neutral tone. The study finds that articles about recovery and treatment are shared 700 more times than other mental-health related stories.

Adamson said the violent themes that are often present in stories about mental illness are a concern for health researchers because the accounts can affect people who are ill.

“This type of story might prevent people from seeking treatment or even admitting [to having] problems,” he said. “It means that mental illness is a problem and something that you want to keep secret because it is stigmatizing.”

But Adamson says that people with mental illnesses are no more violent than the rest of the population.

“People with mental illness tend to be victims of crime more than their perpetrators,” he said. “Often these people live on the street and they’re the ones that are having the violence done to them. So, there’s a horrible irony in the effect of news, you know, because it just tells sort of the opposite story.”

Previous research has shown that the link between criminality and mental illness occurs in up to 50 per cent of all coverage of the topic, while less than 20 per cent of all stories deal with treatment and recovery. This remains true despite the results of Adamson’s study that suggest readers are less likely to share news articles that stigmatize mental illness.

Adamson said he does not know why the data turned up this way. A limit of the study is that he did not survey news readers about why they share what they share online.

But he speculates that readers are more likely to share recovery and treatment stories because many of them are directly affected by mental illness.

“It’s something that everyone cares about. They aren’t particularly inclined to be excited by bad news about people in distress and in acute phases of their mental illness where something horrible might happen,” he said, “but they are interested in sharing stories that communicate their sympathy about their own situations, about their family’s situations, about their friends’ situations. That is my hunch.”

The research team analyzed all the stories related to mental health that were generated by three different newsrooms in Canada between Nov. 13, 2014 and Nov. 13, 2015. To measure audience engagement, web-reading metrics such as time-on-page, page views, social sharing and referrals were considered.

Adamson argues that digital news is always changing and can be used as a way to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“Google adds these emergency services when you type in the word ‘suicide.’ Why can’t newsrooms?” he said. “Why can’t newsrooms have boiler plate sentences about mental health and mental illness? They can be put into the back end of their websites. WordPress could have a system where you could drop in basic background on mental health and mental illness into every news story that includes it.”