• Local News Conference Register

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

Staff reporter

Local news matters because it fosters debate, instigates major social change and connects community members, participants at a recent conference on the future of local news were told.

“Does Local News Matter? Tales from the Trenches” offered four perspectives on the impact local journalism can have on a community and what happens in its absence. The presentations took place June 3 as part of Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Local news, the panelists agreed, matters now more than ever.

Social change cultivated by local journalism

Reporting by the Toronto news media on carding – the police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people who haven’t committed any particular offence – played a major role in changing a practice that disproportionately targeted young Black and Indigenous men, said panellist Knia Singh, a community activist and lawyer in Toronto.

Knia Singh, lawyer and community activist in Toronto (Courtesy of Knia Singh)

“When you accurately report things that are of huge social interest, it gives the community inspiration to keep going because it says somebody is listening. And that was the point with our community,” said Singh, who was named one of the Toronto Star’s People to Watch in 2014.

Singh said Star reporters Jim Rankin and Patty Winsa successfully brought the carding issue to the forefront of public discussion with their “Known to Police” series based on freedom of information requests for carding data as well as interviews with citizens targeted by the practice. Although Black residents make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, Rankin and Winsa found that they accounted for 25 per cent of carding stops between 2008 and mid-2011. Black people, Rankin and Winsa wrote in their series, are more likely than white people to be carded in each of the city’s police patrol zones.

“Honestly, without Jim Rankin and Patty Winsa taking this on and putting their necks on the line, this issue wouldn’t be [discussed],” Singh said, noting that the reporters went beyond statistics to tell the stories of community members who were regularly stopped by police as a result of racial profiling. “Responsible, brave journalism really made it happen.”

Local coverage like this, Singh added, connects communities to produce social change.

The data analysis, freedom of information requests and hard-hitting reporting by local media  resulted in provincial legislation banning random carding that came into effect this year. Police officers, however, can still collect personal information during traffic stops, while executing a search warrant and when someone is being arrested or detained.

“The more something is covered locally, the more people understand and connect with the issue. And if you’re not covering a story, your community is not connecting,” Singh said. “What you’re presented with on a regular basis becomes your reality.”

Blogs filling gaps left behind by local newspaper

Cutbacks to local news coverage leave a vacuum in municipal coverage that special interests are jumping in to fill, municipal communications specialist Brian Lambie warned attendees at the local news conference.

Brian Lambie, president of Redbrick Communications (Courtesy of Brian Lambie)

Lambie, president of Redbrick Communications, said that when local newspapers such as the Midland Free Press closed in Midland, Ont., blogs covering municipal politics emerged to take their place.

“If we look at who is behind [these local blogs], we don’t really know,” he said. “They won’t tell you who they are.”

Following the newspaper closure, many of the blogs were “more right leaning,” he said, noting that they were successful in getting more right-wing candidates on council.

To combat this, he added, someone created the left-leaning blog midlandcommunity.ca.

Lambie said one reason to be concerned about the lack of clear accountability for blogs is that they may have an agenda the public is unaware of.

There are suspicions that one blog in particular is being run out of the police station, said Lambie, who is the media contact for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). “We think it is an IT manager within the police station, which means it’s being run with the approval and understanding of the police.”

“And one of the hot topics there is whether or not they should get rid of the Midland police force and replace it with the OPP. As you might have guessed, there are a lot of stories that say you shouldn’t.”

Lambie said another consequence of newsroom cutbacks is that journalists aren’t verifying information.

His team, for instance, put out a top 10 list of Canadian mayors on Twitter based on their engagement levels and follower counts. Twitter Canada, he said, took the idea and posted its own version of the list for the top 25 largest communities in Canada.

Lambie noted that Barrie mayor Jeff Lehman, who has a significant social media presence, was left off the list because his city didn’t make the top 25.

Lambie quickly sent off an email with the subject line “Mayor Lehman short changed by Twitter survey,” with screenshots of Lehman’s Twitter follower count and hyperlinks as evidence. To keep the conversation going and to push the Lehman story further, he tweeted about it.

“Now, this was covered by the Barrie Examiner, it was covered by CTV News. Neither of them contacted us to find out if it was real,” he said. “This story gets shared…across Southwestern Ontario. There were important stories in Southwestern Ontario that should have been covered that day but they weren’t because this took the place of it. It’s not fake news, it’s all real. But it’s entirely manufactured.”

Extreme voices amplified in the absence of local newspaper

The void left by the closure of The Guelph Mercury, Guelph’s 149-year-old daily newspaper, has been filled by extreme voices that have replaced straightforward accounts of civic issues and debates, says James Gordon, Guelph’s city councillor for Ward 2.

After the Mercury closed on Jan. 29, 2016, online news websites did emerge to replace it, Gordon said, but in many cases their comment sections have become a forum for divisive hyper-partisan views.

“When you see those online comment sections, it seems to be – politically speaking – the most right-wing extremists that will respond with their comments.” Gordon said, noting that he thinks comment sections get more attention than the actual story. “They get first in, so they get the largest and most noisy voice and it’s really skewed from my standpoint as a politician.”

James Gordon, Guelph city councillor (Courtesy of James Gordon)

Right-wing blogs pushing alternative facts and misinformation have also gained lots of traction among Guelph residents who don’t know where to go for their news since the Mercury closed, he said.


These biased online blogs and comment sections are reasons why there needs to be a “greater movement to examine what we lost with our local journalism,” Gordon said. Without the Mercury, he added, the city has been left without nonpartisan and in-depth investigative reporting.

It becomes “normal” to look at “bullet points on social media” as news, he said, and “we almost forget the value of what would come from an actual paid subscription from…local media newspapers.”

The community, Gordon added, needs to be aware of this gap and recognize that it’s not “effective to expect those free local biased sources” to provide them with the “actual information” they need to make informed decisions.

A viable economic model for local newspapers, however, is not likely when community members don’t want to pay for good journalism: “In your job as journalists, increasingly, you’re expected to do your job for free. We are not valuing our artists, our creative sector and our journalists, so that’s why it’s not economically viable to create a local newspaper anymore,” Gordon said.

An educational process is necessary to teach people “the value in supporting [news outlets] – not just supporting from a community level – but supporting with your dollars,” Gordon said. “We have to be able to say what you’re getting for free is not of the same value.”

Future of local news feeds our appetite for “basic” information

The power of connecting people to each other is fundamental to the future of local media, said Kristy Hess, a communications professor at Australia’s Deakin University. She argues that Facebook buy, sell and swap pages – today’s classifieds pages – are evidence of this phenomenon.

Kristy Hess, professor at Deakin University in Australia (Courtesy of Kristy Hess)

Citing her research, Hess noted that on one page she examined, there were postings for a lost dog, a lost engagement ring and even announcements of pregnancies and wedding anniversaries.

“Buy, sell and swap pages are snazzy digital versions of the 18th-century newspaper – an era when shipping notices, newspaper properties for lease and goods for sale dominated the front pages,” she said.

“People’s appetite for this basic type of information shouldn’t be overlooked. Rituals such as birthdays and marriages, for example, are by far one of the most significant dimensions of local news and yet underappreciated in scholarship about the media.”

There’s more to local news than just the journalistic philosophy of objectively standing outside society to report the truth, Hess added. The Facebook philosophy of connecting people with each other is “clearly a good one because Mark Zuckerberg is now a multibillionaire at a time when the business model of news has crumbled.”

Staff reporter

Ryerson journalism professor Lisa Taylor, co-editor of The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada.

Threats to press freedom are actually threats to the public’s right to know, says the co-editor of a new book that examines efforts to undermine Canadian journalists’ abilities to do their jobs.

Lisa Taylor, a lawyer, award-winning journalist and assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), said that the discourse surrounding press freedom in recent years is worrisome because it overlooks the real cost of restrictions on journalistic work.

“Journalists don’t seek access to information so that they can just talk to other journalists about it,” Taylor said. “The end game is in sharing it with the public, and I think somewhere along the line we’ve lost sight of the idea that all the media are is a surrogate for the public.

“The public can’t drop everything and go to court for a day. The public can’t make it their job to spend weeks tracking down information and accessing it through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Journalists don’t do it to benefit journalists, they do it to benefit the world at large. Press freedom is not really a freedom for the press, it’s a freedom for the people who receive information from the press.”

The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada, edited by Taylor and Cara-Marie O’Hagan, the former director of the Ryerson Law Research Centre, is a collection of essays by academics, journalists, lawyers and others. The edited volume, Taylor writes in an opening note, explores how press freedom has been constrained by “governmental interference, threats of libel suits and financial constraints.”

Taylor said the chapters examine press freedom “from many different angles,” an approach that makes it different than other books on the topic.

“It was exciting because I think often academics write stuff that only other academics read, or journalists write about this issue and academics don’t bother with what journalists have to say about it,” Taylor explained. “So as someone who has been a journalist, works as an academic and has worked as a lawyer, it was, quite selfishly, really exciting to pull together these three worlds that I’ve inhabited.”

Contributors to the collection include RSJ professors Ivor Shapiro and Gavin Adamson, City of Vaugan integrity commissioner Suzanne Craig, court reporter Robert Koopmans and former CBC media lawyer Daniel Henry. They cover topics ranging from press freedom and privacy in the digital sphere to reporters’ access to information during court proceedings and the press freedom provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Taylor’s own chapter discusses the difficulty of rescinding publication bans on the identity of sexual assault complainants who want their bans lifted. These bans automatically come into effect if either the prosecutor or the complainant ask for it. Not only do the bans prevent media from publishing the identity of complainants, Taylor writes, they also prevent complainants from identifying themselves as sexual assault survivors during and after proceedings. This impedes the complainant’s charter rights under section 2(b), she continues, which states that everyone has the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

“What happens is, if we have a willing sexual assault complainant who would like to speak to the press they are prevented from speaking publicly,” Taylor said in an interview. “[This] means that the press is also prevented from disseminating their words. So it’s just another way in which press freedom is hampered.”

Taylor suggests a more flexible approach is required, one that will “ensure that the complainant who wants to have the protection of the statute will still have that opportunity, while the complainant who chooses to speak out will be able to exercise the rights she is guaranteed under the charter.”

The book draws on papers presented during Press Freedom in Canada: A status report on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a 2012 conference organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

When the charter was put into place in 1982, Taylor said, it looked like journalists finally had the guarantees of press freedom they needed. As it turned out, however, that was an overly optimistic assessment.

Before the charter was enacted, “we saw unfair restrictions on the press [and] we saw simple FOI applications take weeks, months or even years to be fulfilled,” Taylor said. “Back when it was first enshrined, there’s no way I could have imagined that in 2017 we’d be fighting a lot of the same battles. It just looked like it was on its way out. There was great promise that came with the charter and we just haven’t seen it fully realized. In fact, we’ve seen some back steps.”

Special to the RJRC

Border crossings are “legal limbos” where basic rights are virtually non-existent, journalist and Ryerson School of Journalism lecturer Robert Osborne told students and faculty members at the Ryerson School of Journalism’s recent teach-in.

Osborne was one of three guest speakers leading a workshop on how Canadian journalists can do their jobs and protect both their sources and their privacy in an era of increased government surveillance and security measures. The workshop was one of eight sessions held in lieu of regularly scheduled classes during a special Ryerson School of Journalism teach-in on March 14. Programming was designed to help journalism students “make sense of a world in which journalists – and so many others – are being insulted, demeaned and dismissed,” the teach-in website said.

“Border officers have so much power it’s almost frightening,” Osborne said during his presentation at the Rogers Communications Centre. In the absence of legal protections, he said, journalists need to do everything possible to avoid provoking suspicion when crossing into the United States. Keeping a low profile, he said, involves “smiling and being nice” to border guards and “removing sunglasses and hats” when asked.

During his research for the workshop, Osborne said U.S. customs officials informed him that travellers are not afforded any Canadian rights or U.S. rights because they are at the threshold of both countries and are not guaranteed protection. He said the lack of legal recourse for the actions of the border guards means “reducing your profile” is the only option, even if it involves “unpalatable obsequiousness.”

Osborne said journalists travelling for work or leisure need to be mindful of the authority border guards possess to detain, extensively question, seize personal effects or deny entry into the country. He shared his own experience of having two members of his production crew denied entry into the U.S. for a project several years ago. Osborne said the incident occurred when he and his team were flying from Vancouver to Los Angeles. U.S. customs denied his sound technician entry because they believed his reason for travel was to take a job that could be otherwise filled by a U.S. citizen. When officers found out that the camera operator had already cleared customs, they removed him from the plane and denied him entry as well.

“At the time, unions in Los Angeles were particularly sensitive about Canadian crews,” Osborne said via email following the presentation. Osborne said he called U.S. Customs headquarters in Washington and spoke to a high-ranking administration official, but was told there was nothing that could be done for him.

The surveillance workshop also explored issues relating to privacy in a discussion led by Thomas Cooke, a sociology professor at Western University’s King’s University College.

Osborne prefaced the discussion on Internet privacy by noting that 25 per cent of Canada’s Internet traffic is routed through the U.S., where it is subject to traffic analysis by American security organizations. To avoid being a target of U.S. surveillance, he said, people should abstain from any online activity that might raise suspicions.

Cooke said that the “stakes for digital privacy are high,” ­but noted that there are ways to confuse tracking when it comes to digital surveillance.

Journalists, he said, can use tools like The Onion Router (Tor), to protect their online history. The web browser is a secure search engine that uses a system of digital encryption called onion routing. It makes anonymous online browsing and communication possible by encrypting all the search queries or messages sent while using the server. Cooke said the private server is used mostly to access the deep web, a part of the Internet where 87 per cent of illegal activities, like child pornography and human trafficking, take place.

Despite The Onion Router’s usefulness, he warned journalists that it can’t completely protect your digital footprint from scrutiny. While the router hides users’ tracks in the deep web, the very act of using the browser to access that part of the Internet is a red flag for authorities.

“[The deep web] is where most of the black-market trading takes place and it has some of the most exciting opportunities for young journalists to tap into,” said Cooke. “A problem with it is, if you are using The Onion Router to browse, you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.”

Staff reporter

Peter Raymont, producer of “All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone,” during a Q-and-A after a screening of the film at Ryerson University on March 23, 2017. (Jasmine Bala)

Journalists shouldn’t worry about being branded activists because they are in fact “activists for truth,” says Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Raymont.

The need for hard-hitting investigative journalism is greater now than ever, Raymont said following a March 23 screening of his new documentary on investigative journalism.

“It’s the best of times and the worst of times at the same time,” he observed after the screening at Ryerson University. “One thing that the election of Donald Trump has done is lit a fire under journalists and filmmakers and all sorts of people on the left and on the progressive side of things.”

Nowadays, Raymont added, people are generally also more willing to speak to journalists and filmmakers: “There is more of that openness to speak out, speak truth to power [and] put yourself on the line, which is really helpful [and] really useful in democracy and truth-seeking.”

Raymont’s documentary, All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone, premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been screened worldwide, including in the United States, France, Greece and Belgium. The documentary “has been invited to more film festivals than any film I’ve ever had anything to do with,” Raymont said, including Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, his Emmy Award-winning documentary.

All Governments Lie features independent journalists such as Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi. Greenwald and Scahill are co-founding editors of The Intercept, an online investigative publication dedicated to holding institutions accountable. The Intercept encourages whistleblowers to share their information and was founded after Greenwald’s work at the Guardian, where he was the lead reporter on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden. His reporting was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014. Following in famous investigative journalist I.F. Stone’s footsteps, these American journalists expose government deception and provide alternatives to mainstream, corporate news outlets.

They are “the children of I.F. Stone – the metaphorical children who are continuing his legacy of independent journalism, aggressive journalism, journalism that really cares and tells the truth,” Raymont said.

Many news outlets in the United States, he said, are owned by huge corporations, resulting in a sort of “corporate coup d’état.”

To challenge this, he added, news outlets need to be more transparent.

“It’s important for journalists, publishers and editors to reveal who owns their newspapers and television networks and institutions,” Raymont said. “I think there’s a lot hidden about that right now. People don’t really know the owners of what they’re reading or what they’re consuming.”

One of his goals with the documentary, he added, was to make citizens more aware of who controls the news they consume so they can work together to turn the tide.

“I mean, one makes films with titles like All Governments Lie and the corporate coup d’état partly as a way of saying come on, folks, let’s get organized,” he said. “Let’s realize what’s happening. Let’s fight back against it…in whatever way we can.”

The screening was co-sponsored by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and Ryeron’s Centre for Free Expression.

Watch Peter Raymont’s full Q-and-A below:

Staff reporter

Documentary filmmaker James Cullingham and exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera were featured speakers on March 9, 2017, at a Ryerson University panel about attacks on journalists in Mexico. (Jasmine Bala)

Mexico’s drug cartels are making full use of cyberspace to mount a campaign of intimidation targeting the country’s journalists and society, says exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera.

Since he fled Mexico in 2008, the drug cartels’ presence on social media has expanded and they now broadcast torture, decapitations and killings on blogs like Blog Del Narco, Nájera said during a March 9 presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Nájera, who is now the PEN Canada George Brown Writer-in-Residence, said reporting on drug cartels and political corruption is now so dangerous for journalists that it is difficult for them to find safe havens inside the country: “Mexico City, before, was considered a safe place or safe city. But now, this is also a place of risk for journalists.”

In 2015, news magazine Proceso’s photojournalist Rubén Espinosa received threats in Veracruz and fled to Mexico City for safety, where he was subsequently assassinated. His colleague, Proceso crime reporter Regina Martinez Pérez, had been found dead in her Veracruz home in 2012.

No one knows who killed them, said James Cullingham, a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at Seneca College, who appeared on the panel with Nájera.

“It could have been cartels, it could have been the state government of Veracruz or a police force in Veracruz in collusion with the cartels,” said Cullingham, who teaches a course on Mexico’s relationship to Canada and the United States. “Most of these deaths are not solved and the investigations are either immediately discredited or are so suspect that nobody in Mexico believes them, and in both [of these cases]…no one knows. They were journalists who were investigators and they were killed.”

Former president Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s war on drug cartels in December 2006. Since then, at least 80,000 people have died in organized crime-related incidents according to estimates in a 2015 report released by the Congressional Research Service.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last year that 107 journalists were murdered between 2000 and September 2015, making Mexico “one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.”

Just last week, Armando Arrieta Granados, the editorial director of the Veracruz newspaper La Opinión, was shot and remains in serious condition, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A few days earlier on March 23, Miroslava Breach Velducea, a correspondent for the national newspaper La Jornada, was killed as she was leaving her home in Chihuahua.

Nájera said that in his case he was working for Grupo Reforma back in February 2008 when he and a group of journalists wrote a story on a military operation targeting a Juárez Cartel safe house. The day after the story was published, the journalists received a threatening email saying: “You have to stop or we’re going to chop your heads, including you and including those police officers and soldiers who participated in this raid against us.”

Nájera wrote in a 2010 report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists that a reliable source informed him that his name was on an organized crime hit list because of his reporting on the Juárez drug wars.

“Having seen the pervasive climate of violent crime and impunity,” he wrote, “I could not trust the government and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight. In September 2008, I left Mexico with my family and went to Vancouver, Canada.”

Cullingham said many major media organizations in Mexico no longer use bylines in efforts to protect their journalists. Other news organizations have stopped covering crime altogether and “are saying ‘we’ve just walked away from the story. We can’t have our reporters killed regularly,’” he said.

While the situation in Mexico is dire, Cullingham said, reporters are still committed to documenting what is going on in the country: “It amazes me that [they] continue to produce journalism under these conditions…People are risking their lives to try and tell the story.”

The Mexican government, he noted, has taken some steps to protect journalists, including adopting the 2012 Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. It allows the state to offer various forms of protection to journalists at risk, including portable pocket-sized panic buttons, bodyguards and police patrols. A report published by the Washington Office on Latin America and Peace Brigades International, however, found that these measures are “often not adequately implemented.”

Journalists and investigators, Nájera said, are no longer the only ones being targeted by the cartels.

“Before they were [threatening] police officers, journalists, people who were working on these things,” he said. These were “threats to press freedom, but this is moving towards threats to freedom of expression, which includes civil society and that’s the bigger risk for Mexico.”

The presentation by Nájera and Cullingham was co-sponsored by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Watch the full panel below: