• Local News Conference Register

By MADDIE BINNING
Special to the RJRC

Researcher Amarnath Amarasingam discusses the newsworthiness of terrorist-produced content with Ryerson professor Joyce Smith at an RJRC event. (Maddie Binning)

Journalists reporting on extremist groups need to arm themselves with knowledge as neo-Nazi and terrorist organizations become more sophisticated in their messaging and media manipulation, a leading expert on radicalization told Ryerson journalism students.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and at George Washington University, made the case for beat reporting, arguing that reporters need to be equipped with the knowledge and background to challenge the claims of extremists and to put their claims in context.

“Part of the problem with the alt-right is that they removed their white hoods and put on suit jackets,” he said during a recent Ryerson Journalism Research Centre event that focused on best practices for coverage of extremist views. “I don’t think they should be allowed to just kind of change that image without challenge.”

Journalists need to understand the context behind extremists’ beliefs and the movements they represent, said Amarasingam, who has written about radicalization and terrorism for publications such as The Atlantic and Huffington Post, and also edited Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War and The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News. He was interviewed onstage by Ryerson journalism professor Joyce Smith during the RJRC’s Oct. 5 event, “Covering extremism: Reporting News vs. Being Used.”

“There’s a history of these movements and an ideological backing which you kind of need to know,” Amarasingam said, “and I think sometimes if you don’t know that you can slip into very sloppy reporting, which in this issue particularly can (cause) a lot of damage.”

Drawing upon his own experiences being interviewed, Amarasingam said the journalists who ask the best questions and truly understand the context of their reporting are those working beats.

“This is my case for more beats,” he said. “It’s not even about go read a book, it’s go spend time with the people for long periods of time, and so then you start to report on the issues of the community and how this community interacts with international events a bit more clearly.”

Beat expertise, he suggested, also equips journalists to challenge claims by media savvy representatives of extremist groups so they aren’t given a free pass to spew lies, misinformation and racist propaganda. The CBC’s Power and Politics show, for instance, apologized this summer after guest host Hannah Thibedeau interviewed Proud Boy co-founder Gavin McInnes without challenging his views. Thibedeau said afterwards that viewers should have been informed about McInnes’ anti-Semitic sentiments and that she should have challenged claims he made during the interview.

Amarasingam said it is important to get representatives of neo-Nazi and other groups on the record clearly stating what they believe in – whether it is ethnic cleansing or the subjugation of women – so that their views are exposed and there is no confusion about what they represent.

Smith, whose research focuses on media and religion, said beat expertise also comes into play when reporters are looking for comment from Canadian Muslims for stories related to radicalization and the activities of extremist groups. Trying to find representative voices within Muslim communities, she said, isn’t as straightforward as covering an issue involving the Catholic church.

“There’s a phone book that tells you that this is the bishop…and you know that these are figures of authority that kind of have that stamp on them and you can say with some confidence that this is what Catholics think or this is the party line,” Smith said. “But the Muslim community is so diverse ethnically, language communities, theologically, that it’s really, really challenging to know until you spend more time researching it.”

Smith also cautioned against making uninformed assumptions about religious groups and their links to extremism.

“It’s important for us who are not part of these communities to make it our business (as reporters) to become more familiar with them.”

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Unknown photographer for Chesterfield & Maclaren, Untitled [Members of snow-shoeing club initiating a new member by means of the “Montreal Bounce,” Montreal, Quebec], ca. 1924, gelatin silver print. (The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)

The 25,000 New York Times news photographs of Canada now archived in the Ryerson Image Centre represent a “treasure trove” for journalism historians and researchers, says the head of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

The collection of photos dating from about 1910 until 1990 includes images of major Canadian political events and conflicts, landscapes, sports heroes, candid reportage on the lives of diverse communities and portraits of notable Canadians.

“I can imagine researchers using the archive for projects on everything from who and what was considered newsworthy in Canada during those years to how outsiders – in this case the New York Times – viewed Canada,” said April Lindgren, the research centre’s academic director.

“There are many, many research opportunities for journalism scholars and historians and students. What do the photographs tell us about who wielded power at the time the photos were taken? How were women portrayed in those images? Did Indigenous people appear and if so, how were they presented?”

Denise Birkhofer, the RIC’s collections curator and research centre manager, said the archive is a valuable resource for the university as it increases the representation of Canadian photojournalism within the RIC’s holding.

“We [now] have a vast resource for students, scholars and researchers to look into various issues related to the 20th century in Canada,” Birkhofer said. She said the photographs themselves reveal information about how they were used by the New York Times.

“Photo editors throughout the 20th century were marking on photos with grease pencil to make crop lines and editing notes,” she said. “If you flip the photograph over you have stamps and inscriptions that tell you when photographs were taken or when they were published.”

“Journalists can research where the [photograph] was published or reproduced and find the original article in the New York Times and then you can see the context of how it was used,” Birkhofer said. “For journalism students who are interested in how images are incorporated into journalism and can lead stories, I think that there are endless opportunities for research with this collection.”

Unknown photographer for The Associated Press, [Princess Elizabeth at Niagara Falls speaking with Ernest Hawkins, mayor of the Ontario community], October 14, 1951, gelatin silver print. (The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)

The Faraway Nearby exhibition now on at the RIC features a selection photos from the collection, which was donated to Ryerson earlier this year by GTA real estate executive Chris Bratty.

Birkhofer said the images are particularly valuable for what they reveal about how technology has revolutionized photojournalism: “When you are looking at almost a century of photojournalism, you can see the developments and the techniques that were used by photographers over time,” she said.

William E. Sauro for The New York Times, [Wayne Gretzky with Gordie Howe outside the Plaza Hotel, New York, USA], 1978, gelatin silver print. (The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)

“In the first half of the 20th century, you see the typical black and white solar prints,” Birkhofer added, noting that all the photographs pre-date digital photography. “Then in the second half of the 20th century, you see a lot of electronically submitted, wire-transferred or laser photos. Those developments speak to changes in the journalism world more widely in terms of how technology has been utilized to quickly transmit news internationally.”

Peter Bregg, who worked as a wire service photographer and is now an instructor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, has four photographs featured as part of the current exhibition. One of his photographs pulled from the archive and now on display shows then-Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark waving to crowds alongside Cameroon President Ahmadou Ahidjo as they are driven in an open car through the streets in Yaoundé on July 29, 1979. Bregg, who was working for Canadian Press at the time, said an estimated 50,000 people lined the 15-kilometre route from the airport.

Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark waves alongside Cameroon President Ahmadou Ahidjo as they drive in an open car through the streets here Saturday shortly after the Canadian leader arrived for a four-day visit. Crowds estimated at 50,000 lined the 15-kilometer route from the airport. (Peter Bregg (Canadian, dates unknown) for The Canadian Press. Cameroon, Africa, July 29, 1979, gelatin silver print. The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)

Three more of Bregg’s Canadian Press photographs are featured in the book that accompanies the exhibit, including a 1978 image of youngsters Justin, Sasha and Michel Trudeau peeking from then-Prime Minister Trudeau’s office on Parliament Hill.

PEEK-A-BOO–Prime Minister Trudeau’s three boys–Michel, 3, (front), Sacha, 5 and Justin, 7–ham it up with a photographer Monday in Ottawa after they squirmed their way through 45 minutes of the daily question period. Natural showmen, they kept opening and closing the door and making funny faces. (Peter Bregg (Canadian, dates unknown) for The Canadian Press. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, March 6, 1979, gelatin silver print. The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)

Bregg said technological advancements have improved the quality of photography over time.

“In the past, the film speed was very slow so they had to shoot at a very slow shutter speed and therefore people had to stand still,” Bregg said as he looked at a 1928 photo of divers at the Alberta’s Banff Springs Hotel. “When you look at the pictures from this exhibit, the photos are a lot more stiff and more posed … As time went on, the quality of the photography improved and today the quality of photography is so good.”

Canadian Pacific Railway, [Swimming pool at Banff Springs Hotel, Alberta], September 1928, gelatin silver print. (The Rudolph P. Bratty Family Collection, Ryerson Image Centre)

Bregg, the recipient of the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Journalism Foundation, said a comparison of the archived images with more contemporary news photos illustrates how how photojournalists today can now be more creative than their predecessors.

“Today, we’re able to take pictures in such difficult circumstances such as in low-light and of fast moving subjects that would be difficult to shoot before the digital era,” he said. “I remember taking hockey pictures 30 years ago and I would get some good ones that were in focus but I would miss a lot because they were out of focus. But today it is easier to take great photographs and be creative.”

The collection is accessible to the public, researchers, scholars and journalists who make an appointment through the Peter Higdon Research Centre. The Faraway Nearby exhibition runs until Dec. 10.