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Staff Reporter

Asmaa Malik (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Assistant professor Asmaa Malik (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

An app that will allow newsrooms to monitor who journalists go to for quotes in stories is being developed by two journalism professors at Ryerson University.

Gavin Adamson and Asmaa Malik, assistant professors at the Ryerson School of Journalism, say the goal of their project is to help newsrooms produce more balanced content. The pair recently received a $10,000 grant under the Faculty of Communication and Design Creative Innovative Fund to build the prototype of JERI: Journalism Representation Index.

JERI, a software application, will extract and categorize the types of sources quoted in news stories. By delivering a score on the type and placement of sources used, it will offer newsrooms and watchdogs a     rare view of how journalists fare in representing stakeholders in each story.

JERI’s significance is in its potential to help journalists produce better and more balanced content, Malik said.

“It’s important because as journalists, we don’t have progress reports… [JERI] is a tool that can be used by newsrooms to look at their own coverage of [a] particular issue and to see where there’s room for more perspective.”

Gavin Adamson (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Assistant professor Gavin Adamson (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Over the course of the next year, JERI will be tested in a pilot project that focuses on local news coverage of race, specifically police carding and profiling.

“The idea is that you would take 20 stories from the Toronto Star over a certain period of time and you would put them through the application,” Malik explains.

“Then the application would pull out who the sources were in that story… and it would weigh the sources and come up with a number out of a hundred it would give [based on the types of sources used and how they were used in the story.] The closer it is to a hundred, the more evenly weighted a story is usually.”

Malik noted that simply changing who is quoted first in a story, for example, can change change the way the story is told and the reader’s perspective.

“If you lead with a police officer, then you’re setting the tone of the story and framing it in a certain way, as a law and order story. Or if you start with a politician, you’re framing it as a political story, with an activist, you’re framing it a different way.”

Malik says JERI will incorporate academic research and theories on sourcing and framing and make it more accessible to journalists in the form of a single number.

“[It] is taking a theory and the ideas behind framing and behind sourcing and making them more actionable, it bridges that gap [between theoretical principles and real-life application].”


The impact of newsroom cutbacks, consolidations and closures will be the focus of a new study examining local news poverty in communities outside of Canada’s major media centres.

Residents of Canada’s largest cities can turn to multiple sources for local news, but people who live in smaller cities, suburban municipalities and rural areas typically have fewer options, and in recent years their choices have become even more limited, says research team member April Lindgren, principle investigator for the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.

“Access to local news is important to the democratic vibrancy and health of a community because people who have access to news are then equipped to participate in decisions that affect them,” Lindgren said.“ This project will examine the extent to which local news poverty is an issue outside of major cities where often there are still multiple newspapers and many other local news sources.”

The local news poverty research team brings together scholars with expertise in journalism, social media research and participatory mapping. In addition to Lindgren, it includes Jaigris Hodson, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Royal Roads University, and Jon Corbett, an associate professor in community, culture and global studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.

Mapping changes to the local news landscape
The first phase of the local news poverty study involves the launch of a crowd-sourced map that documents gains, losses, service increases, and service reductions at local online, radio, television and newspaper outlets across the country. Lindgren is responsible for the map’s actual content, while the map itself is based on the Geolive participatory mapping tool developed by Corbett’s SPICE Lab (Spatial Information for Community Mapping).

“This map was unlike any other map we’ve tried in the past primarily because of the complexity of the information that needed to be presented,” Corbett said, noting that users will be able to view changes over time in a variety of ways including by media type and media ownership. When the map is launched in early 2016 it will present data on news outlet launches, closures and consolidations dating back to 2008.

Once the map is open for business, members of the public will be able to add information about changes to the local news landscape in their community. Lindgren says outreach for the crowd-sourced map will be done in phases to encourage regular contributions of new information over time. News about the map’s availability will be shared, for instance, with the community associated with the Geothinkresearch project, which provided funding for the map’s creation. Organizations serving journalists and news media, media workers’ unions, and communications and journalism scholars will also be encouraged to contribute.

“I’m hoping that we can also get the news media interested in the map so the general public will find out about it and add information to it,” Lindgren said, noting that the crowd-sourced data will be vetted to ensure the map’s accuracy. The map will also include a link to a survey that asks citizens about the availability of local news in their communities and whether their information needs are being met.

Investigating local news coverage of the 2015 federal election
In its initial phase, the project will also examine the role of local news coverage and social media in the 2015 federal election.

“We want to see how much news coverage there was of local contests for MP – what could people find out from their local news media and did they get enough information to make an informed decision,” said Lindgren, who will supervise the content analysis of news produced by traditional news sites in eight Canadian communities. Data on local reporting on the election was gathered by scraping all local news media websites in each community.

“To the extent that local coverage of the election reflects the vibrancy and viability of local news media, it may well be a proxy for local coverage in general and an indicator of different levels of local news poverty in different communities,” Lindgren said.

Hodson, meanwhile, is the principle investigator for Election News, local information and community discourse: Is Twitter the new public sphere? a SSHRC-funded project that will investigate the role of social media in disseminating news and information about the local races in the same eight cities, towns and rural municipalities.

“The common assumption is that social media activity can more than make up for any decline in local media coverage on an issue or event, such as an election,” Hodson said. “However, we feel that we need more research to determine if this type of activity is in fact occurring. This project will help us find that out.“

Hodson will investigate the extent to which Twitter and Facebook were used to share news and information about the local races in the eight communities. They include Brandon, Manitoba, the British Columbia cities of Kamloops and Nanaimo, and the Ontario municipalities of Brampton, Oakville, Thunder Bay, City of Kawartha Lakes and Peterborough.

Lindgren, who is co-investigator on the SSHRC project, said the communities were selected based on their location, whether they were suburban or rural, and their proximity to a major media market. The list also includes municipalities that have experienced a major disruption in local news sources (such as the closure of a daily newspaper or television station) and others where the media landscape has been relatively undisturbed.

Survey: Did voters get the news they needed to cast an informed vote?
The outcomes of the website and social media content analyses will be examined in conjunction with the results of a survey conducted during the 2015 campaign. The survey asked voters questions about where they went for news about the local contest for MP, whether they used social media to comment on or share local election news, and whether their local media gave them enough information to cast informed votes in the 2015 federal election.

“Among other things, we’re hoping this survey data will help us investigate whether there is any correlation between the amount of coverage of the local races for Parliament and voter participation,” Lindgren said.

This story originally appeared on the Local News Research Project  website. 

Special to the RJRC

Dr. David McKeown, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto; André Picard, health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail; Dr. Jane Pirkis, director of the Centre for Mental Health and the University of Melbourne; Dr. Mark Sinyor, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Kieran Delamont)

Dr. David McKeown, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto; André Picard, health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail; Dr. Jane Pirkis, director of the Centre for Mental Health and the University of Melbourne; Dr. Mark Sinyor, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Kieran Delamont)


Conventions that govern reporting on suicide — conventions that often dissuade journalists from publishing for fear of sparking copycat acts — are outdated and anachronistic, says Globe health reporter and columnist André Picard.

“[They are] especially not going to work in the brave new world of the Internet,” Picard told a group of about 30 academics, doctors and journalists at the Suicide Prevention Media Forum on Nov. 6.

“The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, they’re the least of your worries now. What you should be worried about is where your kids live — your kids live in cyberspace. If you want to know how to kill yourself, Dr. Google is more than happy to help.”

Picard noted that the Canadian media has done a better job of covering suicide and mental health issues in recent years: “For a long time, there was a taboo around suicide,” he said. “The fact that we’re writing about these issues much more openly is great.”

He insisted, however, that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“We still have to work on the language a lot,” Picard said in an interview following the forum, which was organized by Toronto Public Health, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and the Globe and Mail. Many journalists, he noted, still use ‘committed’ suicide, rather than the value-neutral ‘died by suicide’ or ‘killed herself.’

Gavin Adamson, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, agreed that media has improved when it comes to reporting on suicide. He is nonetheless still critical of the tendency to report on suicide from a crime perspective rather than as a health issue.

“Journalists spend too much time clustered around the cop desk,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think people are as interested in every little car accident or murder as we assume they are.”

Picard was the lead author of “Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health,” a 2014 publication by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma that offers journalists guidelines for reporting on suicides. The guide advises journalists to report only on newsworthy suicides, avoid gratuitous details and use plain language.

Picard said journalists should also be skeptical of the notion that careless reporting on suicides can lead to an increase in the suicide rate: “I actually find the notion of copycat suicides to be dubious.”

Health experts, however, disagree. Panelists Dr. Mark Sinyor, an assistant professor in University of Toronto’s psychiatry department, and Dr. Jane Pirkis, director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia, both insisted the ‘Werther Effect’ is real. It posits that careless representations of suicide in the media can cause copycat suicides and spark a suicide contagion.

“When there’s excessive reporting,” noted Sinyor, “you do tend to get an increase in suicides.” Reporting that highlights the method of suicide, speculates about motivation and does not include resources for others who may be suffering, argued Sinyor, can lead to a contagion effect.

He cited the 1998 case of a middle-aged woman in Hong Kong who took her own life by leaving charcoal burning in an enclosed space. After the suicide was highly publicized in the media there was an increase in charcoal-burning suicides.

Adamson, whose research investigates portrayals of mental health on social media, urged journalists to take the research supporting suicide contagion seriously: “For journalists to keep guffawing at that is absurd. There’s concrete analytical evidence there.”

Despite their differences, Picard, Sinyor and Pirkis all joined in praising Australia’s Mindframe National Media Initiative. Since 2002, the Australian Department of Health initiative has worked with journalists, journalism schools and media outlets in Australia to educate reporters on best practices for covering suicides. Mindframe’s resources include practical guidelines for reporters tasked with covering suicide.

It advises reporters to reflect on whether the event is really newsworthy. Celebrity suicides, for example, are unavoidably newsworthy, but the vast majority of suicides do not meet that newsworthiness standard. Once the decision is made to cover a story, Mindframe suggests the news should be published on the inside pages of a newspaper, or low in a broadcast lineup. It also suggests that journalists avoid gratuitous details, omit information about methods or locations and avoid using language that may cause offence, glamourize or sensationalize suicide. For example, reporters should refrain from using the phrase “successful suicide,” and should instead say “died by suicide” or “took their own life.”

“Any journalist coming out into the world of journalism in Australia these days would have been exposed to at least one lecture, probably more than one lecture on the importance of reporting on suicide well,” Pirkis said.

Similar guidelines are found in the Canadian Mindset guide. It notes that in the age of social media, false information and rumours run rampant. The authors urge journalists to engage in open discussion and use plain language in their coverage of newsworthy suicides.

The Mindset site also says stories about suicides should address the victim’s suffering in the context of broader mental health issues.


Click to enlarge

Source: “Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health” by the Canadian Journalism Forum
on Violence and Trauma, 2014.

Special to the RJRC

2015-10-28 12.19.00-2-3[1]

Left to right: Shauna Hunt, Hana Shafi, Paula Todd and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Lisa Taylor.  (Allison Ridgway)


The harassment of reporters online and during live television hits can have personal consequences for women in the field and affect their careers, veterans of the troll wars said during a panel discussion hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Harassment – both online and off – most often targets female journalists and raises concerns about their safety on the job, author and journalist Paula Todd told a room packed with journalism students during the Oct. 28 event. This in turn, she warned, may make producers hesitant about sending women out to do live broadcasts at all.

“Imagine if you’ve worked hard to get this position [as a reporter],” Todd said, “and now someone is trying to prevent you from doing your job.”

Fellow panelist and CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt knows all too well how harassment interferes with her ability to do her job. Since it was popularized by several online videos in 2014, she and other women journalists across North America have had the phrase “f**k her right in the p***y” (known by the acronym FHRITP) yelled at them by passersby while they are trying to film live hits.

Hunt said she has been interrupted by children, men in business suits and drivers who roll down their windows to shout the obscenity as they pass by. Reporters at her station, she said, have tried to cope by using noise cancellation equipment and repositioning the camera in quieter areas where there are fewer people. In the latter case, filming away from the crowd is at odds with the whole point of doing a live hit, which is to be in the middle of the action.

“The anxiety level used to be very high,” Hunt said. “We’d say in the newsroom, ‘I just don’t want to do [this story]’ because we knew we’d go out there and be harassed.”

Hunt’s decision to confront men who interrupted her when she was covering Toronto FC’s home opener in May went viral after CityNews aired the footage. The video now has more than 5,400,000 views on YouTube.

The publicity, Hunt said, seems to have discouraged copycats: “I’m not being harassed the way I was before this story went viral,” she said. “I used to be fearful, but the anxiety happens a lot less now.”

Interrupting women while they are doing their jobs is not a harmless prank as some have argued, said Todd, whose book, Extreme Mean: Ending Cyberabuse at Work, School and Home, examines why people – often men – choose to demean, stalk and threaten others.

“FHRITP is an attack against female journalists,” she explained. “It’s an incitement to violence against women. They are being told that a part of their body is going to be violated…it’s all about denigrating women.”

Harassment, whether it is online or in the field, is not free speech, Todd said, noting that in fact it can stifle free speech by silencing women’s voices and making people afraid.

Indeed panelist Hana Shafi said online trolls forced her off the Internet for two months.

“I got harassed a lot,” Shafi, a 2015 Ryerson journalism graduate, told the audience, “Like, all the time, on a constant basis.”

Shafi often writes about social justice issues and controversial topics and she says this draws the ire of those who don’t like her challenging the status quo. Instead of simply disagreeing with her opinions, she said she gets “hundreds” of messages from online trolls hurling insults, slurs and threats.

In her first year as a journalist, the online harassment worsened to the point where Shafi said she began to question why she’d ever gone into the field. Eventually, though, it was her love of writing that brought her back onto the Internet.

“I realized that I couldn’t suppress the urge to write something,” Shafi explained. “I just had to get my two cents out there.”

While she said she doesn’t respond to trolls and just blocks them, she does get screenshots of their tweets, posts and messages and shares them on Twitter as proof of what she deals with.

“Always make sure that when you get harassed, you talk about it, otherwise it will continue to be normalized,” Shafi said. “Don’t frame it as an exchange of opinions or a Facebook status debate. It’s not. Online harassment is violence, and we need to start acknowledging that.”

Todd offered the similar advice: “We can’t go offline,” she said. “If you surrender the Internet to people who use it for hatred, eventually the people who are trying to change the world for the better will have no voice. We need to use the Internet in even greater numbers to counter every single negative, racist, sexist and other-ist comment out there.”