• Local News Conference Register

Special to the RJRC

March 5, 2018

Producer and broadcaster Jesse Wente delivers his keynote lecture at the launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge at Ryerson University. (Amanda Pope)

White, white, white, white, white. I closed my eyes, shook my head and checked again. White, white, white, beige, tan, almond. My heels clicked against the floor as I walked up and down the aisle, my hope decreasing with every step, my frustration rising with every click. White, white, beige, tan, almond, caramel. Time to give up. Again.

Click, clack, click, clack, click. The noise from my heels continued to echo as I made my way towards the exit. For the third time that day, I left a store empty-handed.

“Did you find everything okay?” asked the store attendant before I reach the door.

“Yes,” I lied, not slowing down. “I was just browsing, thank you,” I said, knowing I would never again visit the store’s makeup section.

Walking to the bus stop, I wondered how many more places I would have to check until I found what I needed. The elusive item? A bottle of foundation. That is, a foundation that would match the colour of my skin, the skin of a black woman. The bottle would replace the one currently sitting at the bottom of my trash can. Closer to orange than to brown, that foundation made me look like a science experiment gone bad. The experience is one of many that makes me wonder if there are any black people in high position within the makeup industry. Surely, if they exist, they wouldn’t waste their time making and releasing makeup that works better for oranges than black skin. Surely, if they exist, finding a foundation wouldn’t be so difficult. Surely, if they exist, I would be able to find something for me.

My unsuccessful shopping trip came to mind as I sat through the Jan. 25 launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge at Ryerson University. In the same way makeup companies need to know their customers, journalists need to know and connect with their audiences. CBC broadcaster Jesse Wente made this point in his keynote address at the launch of the initiative, which aims to foster digital innovation in journalism. The Challenge, a partnership involving Facebook, the Ryerson School of Journalism and the Ryerson DMZ, will provide up to $100,000 to each of five startups that address a problem in journalism. Wente urged applicants to think of innovations that will help newsrooms connect with their diverse and changing audiences.

“Long-lasting social impact will come from good reporting that is connecting audiences to issues that are present in their daily lives and reflect those audiences,” he said.

Newsrooms and news coverage, he said, have not kept pace with rapidly changing demographics. The result is a vacuum that fake news is rushing in to fill. The solution, he said, is greater diversity among both reporters and editors.

“They’re blind to the fact that they are doing it (alienating readers through lack of diversity in coverage) , because they lack the people internally to tell them not to do that,” he said. “The biggest challenge is also in the editing chair.”

Wente doesn’t have to convince me. Growing up without seeing stories about people like me in the news media left an indelible impact. It’s alienating and creates a feeling of distrust: how could I trust journalists when they didn’t seem to understand me, when they didn’t seem to relate to me?

The reason I got into journalism is to tell the stories I think are missing from the discussion, the stories that still need to be heard, even if no one is listening.

Diversity matters because being ignored is alienating. White, black, Asian, Arab or Indigenous, the discussion of an issue or event in the news media isn’t complete if it doesn’t include diverse voices. Like a good makeup foundation, the news should provide full coverage.


Adjani N. Toussom is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson University.

Feb. 28, 2018

Special to the RJRC
First published on RSJ website

Carol Addresses journalism students inside the Sears Atrium at Ryerson University. Photo: Stefanie Phillips

After the cameras are turned off and the notebooks are put away, journalists often drive away from their sources without thinking about the consequences that arise in the dust of their tires. But Carol Off, host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, says it’s time journalists started thinking about what they leave behind.

In her delivery of the 2018 Atkinson Lecture on Feb. 14, Off told a room full of journalism students to acknowledge their presence has an effect on their sources and to consider how that presence can have ramifications for those people.

“As soon as we arrive at an event we are covering we have altered its course,” she said from the podium in the Sears Atrium in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. “Even if you are a fly on the wall you have left fly spots, one way or another, and we are not flies we are bulldozers; we have impact.”

As a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering Canadian and international affairs, including conflicts in the Middle East, Haiti and the Balkans, Off was able to share her wisdom with the crowd.

She said protecting sources from harm should be a priority for journalists, especially young people who would rationally defy authority by speaking out. She said journalists can protect them by being honest about their intentions, warning them of possible consequences and guarding their privacy when necessary. Sometimes, she said, it even means leaving some of the information out of the published story.

“Without sources, we would have no journalists,” she said. “They want to have a voice and we want to tell their story to provide an outlet for that voice.”

Off also talked about her relationship with the family of Asad Aryubwal, the Afghan man at the centre of her new book, All We Leave Behind, with whom Off cultivated a more personal friendship. When Aryubwal became a key source in Off’s coverage of the country’s warlords, his family was sent into exile, uncertain of their future.

Feeling responsible for their hardship, Off decided to cross the line from being a disinterested journalist to a friend, becoming a key player in his family’s removal from Afghanistan and entry to Canada.

“Ironically the consequences of my contact with him led to my decision to get more involved because I was already involved. I had been involved since the moment we met,” she said.

Off said it can be hard to decide when to cross that line, but for her the answer was clear.

“I had a moral obligation beyond my role as a reporter.”

First-year journalism student, Chloe Cook, said hearing from Off will make her more aware of the questions she asks her sources in future reporting.

“I’ll be able to be more critical of what I’m writing instead of just not really thinking about it and slapping things together,” she said after the lecture.

Fellow journalism student, Samantha Moya, 22, said the lecture sparked a lot of “confusion” because it made her realize how her biases can be tightly woven into her reporting.

“Because of where I stand in this world as a person there are so many injustices that I see and if my biases can’t be a thing that affects my reporting, how can I do this job?”

Off gave students some advice, telling them to remember they are human beings first and reporters second.

“We shouldn’t convince ourselves we are God’s gift,” she said. “Never forget your personal obligations.”

A video of the lecture is available here.

Feb. 21, 2018

Special to the RJRC

Panelist Ing Wong-Ward, who is a producer with CBC and associate director of the Centre for Independent Living Toronto, answers a questions from panel moderator Chris O’Brien. (Rhianna Jackson-Kelso)

News coverage of people with disabilities tends to rely on tired clichés that present them as “tragic but brave,” the “supercrip” or the “object of charity,” says a leading disability activist.

Ing Wong-Ward, associate director of Toronto’s Centre for Independent Living, urged able-bodied journalists to abandon the practice of writing “inspiration porn,” a term coined during a 2012 TED Talk by the late disability rights activist Stella Young. Inspiration porn presents people with visible disabilities as being heartwarming or motivational simply for existing. The results, Wong-Ward said during a Feb. 5 discussion at the Ryerson School of Journalism, are stories that are less than newsworthy.

“This whole notion of ‘heartwarming’ – why is it people with disabilities are somehow more heartwarming than others?” asked Wong-Ward, a former CBC producer who was born with spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. “It’s a little harder for me to get out of bed than a lot of people, but that’s not an achievement.”

The panel discussion about how journalists can produce better stories about disability was organized by the ReelAbilities Toronto Film Festival, the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, and Access Ryerson. It was live-streamed (see below) and featured a live transcription to increase viewing accessibility.

An overall theme of the discussion was that that able-bodied journalists know far too little about covering people with disabilities. Journalism education is partly responsible, said panelist Keren Henderson, an assistant professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, N.Y. She said most journalism professors no longer work in the industry and need to catch up with evolving norms.

“[Journalism education] is still quite segregated,” Henderson said when asked about how disability and intersectionality—the theory of how different types of discrimination interact and overlap—are addressed in journalism schools. “We have lists of style guides for different identities, and I don’t see a lot of intersectionality between them in the education system.”

Panelist David M. Perry, a columnist at Pacific Standard Magazine, said continuous updating and education are essential for journalists who write stories about disability: “There are no perfect words,” he said. “Whatever norms we’re learning today will be different in 20 years, and that’s okay.”

Wong-Ward said journalists have no excuse for being uneducated about the topic: “It’s a matter of Googling,” she said. “There’s a little bit of shyness sometimes, particularly in Canada, with disability organizations and media. […] The onus is on journalists to get out there and speak to people with disabilities.”

Perry echoed this sentiment, pointing to the lack of direct quotations from the people most directly affected as a major issue in news coverage. In a sample of 107 news stories about the murder of people with disabilities, Perry said, he found zero quotes from people with the disability.

“The number one thing we can do is diversify our newsrooms and our writers,” Perry said. “But maybe the number two thing—and I’m talking to the students here in particular—if you as a journalist are writing about disability, you should quote people with disabilities.”

Wong-Ward said journalists’ overreliance on expert opinions is one reason people with disabilities are too often excluded from their own narratives.

“If somebody kills their disabled child, [journalists] go to a psychiatrist or a lawyer… without actually talking to people who live with a specific disability,” she said. “By doing that, you end up objectifying people by not including them, and that’s a fundamental problem.

“Can you imagine [writing about] the [Bruce McArthur] murder cases here in Toronto and not talking to gay people?” she added. “Everybody would be up in arms, but somehow it’s acceptable with disability.”

The panelists suggested a variety of strategies for improving coverage. Perry urged journalists to be “a little subversive in your reporting… Instead of emphasizing the ways in which that wheelchair user is unable to do something because their legs don’t work, emphasize the lack of a ramp.”

Wong-Ward encouraged young reporters to think about improving coverage by increasing diversity among reporting staff and the types of stories they produce.

“If [the heartwarming story] is all you’re showing, that’s a problem,” said Wong-Ward.

“Mistakes are made in newsrooms all the time,” she added, and budding journalists should be willing to point out these mistakes when they see them.

“One day you will be in a position of power… Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

(Recording of panel with subtitles to be posted soon)