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By ALLISON RIDGWAY
Staff Reporter

Luis de Estores, Suzanne Feldman and Rod Radford discuss creating short documentary films on mental illness and health. (Allison Ridgway)

Luis de Estores, Suzanne Feldman and Rod Radford discuss creating short documentary films on mental illness. (Allison Ridgway)

Three Canadian researchers are giving people who’ve experienced mental illnesses the resources and training to make their own documentary films to see if such videos challenge traditional media stereotypes about people who are mentally ill.

So far, participants have created videos with substantially different themes and frameworks than the stories on mental illness usually found in mainstream media, said Ryerson journalism professor Gavin Adamson, one of three principal investigators for the Recovery Advocacy Documentary Research (RADAR) project.

“Intuitively, it looks like it’s a whole different shape and set of stories that are being produced – mostly (stories) about recovery, social assistance, treatment, challenges with the mental health system in Canada and provincially,” said Adamson, who is working on the four-year project with Rob Whitley of the McGill University psychiatry department and Kathy Sitter, a professor of social work at Memorial University.

“That’s not the same kind of issues you hear from mainstream journalism titles … predominantly they have articles about crime and violence. It’s usually police stories or court stories that reinforce the stigmatizing characteristics and that are a complete misrepresentation of what is happening in Canada on the streets”

Four RADAR films were premiered at the Ryerson School of Journalism earlier this month to an audience of around 50 people.

“People with mental illness want to be heard,” said first-time Suzanne Feldman, one of three participant filmmakers in Toronto.

“We’re here to encourage the truth to be known to people.”

In an interview after the films’ premier, McGill’s Whitley said one of the research aims was to see what happens if people with mental illness are given complete control over the storytelling process.

“If you go onto YouTube, you’ll find loads of documentaries about mental illness, but they’re all made by professional documentary filmmakers … That means [people with mental illnesses] are being represented by other people. They’d talk about them in the third-person. There’s not much out there that actually comes from the people themselves. That was my inspiration [for this research project] – to take out the middle man,” said Whitley.

RADAR began in October 2014, when the research group partnered with mental health-focused community organizations in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax to give clients the training and resources needed to make their own videos about mental illness. The project was borne of the  “participatory filmmaking” concept, wherein groups of people (often those who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream media) are given the resources to make films about their experiences and communities instead of having films made about them by outsiders.

In each city, the research group used funds from a government grant to buy video equipment and editing software for mental health services clients and hire professional videographers to train the participants.

In Toronto, Feldman and her teammates Rod Radford and Luis De Estores produced four short documentaries on topics including the Ontario Disability Support Program, Mad Pride and the use of art in mental illness recovery.

“From a journalism perspective it’s interesting to compare the normal frames and themes that are inside mainstream media and compare those themes to the ones that recur in all of the films produced in the recovery centres,” said Adamson. He recently completed another study in which he examined the content of mainstream media articles dealing with mental health and how often they were shared across digital media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. He found that readers were 700 times more likely to share “positive” news stories about recovery and treatment than “negative” stories associating mental illness with crime and violence.

With 15 RADAR films completed and more underway, Whitley says they plan to show the videos to medical professionals, high school students, police services, social workers and other groups that work or are involved with people with mental illness. After each showing, the researchers pass out surveys to audience members to assess whether or not the films change viewers’ opinions about people with mental illness.

Feldman’s film, which explores how people with mental illnesses are marginalized by society, will also be shown at the upcoming Bluenose-Ability Film Festival in Nova Scotia.

If the researchers find that the films do help to fight stereotypes about people with mental illness, Whitley said he wants to expand the program to include more Canadian cities and create a toolkit to help mental health organizations form their own participatory video programs.

“A goal is to really counter the narrative that’s been put forward by the media that people with mental illness are violent, or lazy or useless people,” he said.

The researchers will also interview each participant after the project to assess whether or not the use of participatory video aided them in their own mental health recovery.

“It was really refreshing that [the filmmakers] were able to do as well as they did in such a short time,” said Derreck Roemer, a Gemini-award winning documentary filmmaker who was hired to train RADAR’s Toronto group in filmmaking.

Rod Radford, one of the Toronto filmmakers, said positive representations of people with mental illness can improve the public’s perception of mental illness and decrease the stigma that prevents people from seeking psychiatric help,

“Things are getting better, and people will look towards us – the psychiatric culture – to tell our stories,” said Radford. “We’re reaching out and explaining ourselves to people, and that’s good, because that communication makes things better.”

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

Journalists Karyn Pugliese, Tanya Talaga and Connie Walker speak on covering Indigenous community at the Ryerson School of Journalism. (Jasmine Bala)

Reporters Karyn Pugliese, Tanya Talaga and Connie Walker speak on covering Indigenous community at the Ryerson School of Journalism. (Jasmine Bala)

When Indigenous people share their stories with journalists, it is a part of the reconciliation process and not about assigning blame, the executive director of APTN said during a recent panel discussion about news coverage of Indigenous communities.

Karyn Pugliese, a member of the Algonquin First Nation of Pikwàkanagàn, said Indigenous people have stories to tell that come from places of hurt and anger and aren’t always easy to hear.

“When we tell you these things, we’re not blaming you,” Pugliese told the crowd of about 200 people attending the panel discussion at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

“We know you didn’t do it. We know you weren’t the ones that murdered our sisters and you aren’t the ones who ripped the babies out of our arms and put them in residential schools. You weren’t the ones who [took] our leaders and put them in jail. We know these things. And I think I’ve noticed that we’re starting to get to the point where Canadians are saying, ‘okay, yeah, I didn’t do that, and I know you’re not blaming me, so I can listen to you,’” she said.

Pugliese joined three other Indigenous journalists on Nov. 3 for “Beyond Missing and Murdered Women: Covering Indigenous Communities,” a presentation organized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. The panel was moderated by CBC journalist and Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

Building rapport with people and communities is a necessary part of the process of reporting on Indigenous issues, said Lenny Carpenter, program manager for Journalists for Human Rights’ (JHR) Indigenous Reporters Program.

“A lot of Indigenous people have been portrayed negatively in the media and so there’s this natural distrust when being approached by a journalist who wants them to go on the record,” he said. “I think if a journalist would come [to an Indigenous community] day-to-day, come visit, talk to the people and build that relationship, they might have had the opportunity during [more newsworthy events] where they would be welcome.”

Tanya Talaga, one of the reporters for the Toronto Star’s award-winning series on missing and murdered Indigenous women, said that being respectful and making time to listen is part of this relationship-building process.

“It’s very important to just take your time with someone – especially if they’re older – and just listen to their story,” she said. “You can’t do walk-by journalism … It doesn’t really work that way. You can’t be a story taker. You have to listen and it’s always worthwhile.”

Connie Walker, an investigative reporter for CBC National News who has reported extensively on Indigenous issues, said newsroom attitudes are changing and it’s getting easier to sell editors on Indigenous-related news stories.

Ten years ago, story ideas involving Indigenous communities would often be dismissed by editors who thought the ideas weren’t new or would not be of interest to audiences, said Walker.

“But I think in the last three years, it’s transformed just in terms of not only the interest in [missing and murdered Indigenous women], but the interest in all Indigenous issues.”

Pugliese agreed, observing that stories about Indigenous people have become mainstream and that the way they are covered has changed.

“In the ‘70s, if an Aboriginal women went missing or was murdered, the headline might read: ‘Dead Indian found by river.’ This is significantly different than the way you might cover it if a young non-native girl had gone missing. And there’s a name for it that came out of the States – it’s called ‘missing white women syndrome,’” she said.

Pugliese said that positive coverage of such a case might include naming the missing person in the headline. An example, she said, would be “Alicia, please come home,” because it names the victim and humanizes her story.

“I’ve noticed a big change from eight years ago, where we actually are seeing our women treated equally when these things happen, or more fairly when these things happen in the media,” Pugliese said.

Buried Voices, a JHR report that examined media coverage of Indigenous issues in Ontario from 2010-2013, concluded that there would have to be seven times more stories in the media for news coverage to reflect the size of the province’s Indigenous population.

While a more recent JHR study, Buried Voices: Changing Tones, reported little improvement in the representation of Indigenous people in Ontario media, it did find a major shift in tone. Over the past three years, stories involving Indigenous people have been, on average, 30 per cent positive in tone (up from 23 per cent in 2013) compared to 11 per cent negative (down from 33 per cent).

“As much as we’re seeing a shift in terms of the kind of stories we’re hearing from Indigenous communities, I think we’re [also] seeing a shift in the inclusion of Indigenous voices in regular mainstream stories that aren’t Indigenous focused,” Walker said.

An example of this, she said, is McCue’s role as host of CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, a weekly open-line radio show that discusses issues of national interest. As an Indigenous journalist, she noted, McCue brings a perspective to the issues discussed on the show that is the next level of inclusion of Indigenous voices.

“I feel like this is a snowball that is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger as it goes down the hill,” Walker said. “The more Indigenous voices we have, the more of an understanding Canadians have about Indigenous issues.”

By MAIJA KAPPLER
Special to the RJRC

Lisa Taylor

Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Lisa Taylor.

An archaic Canadian law against criminal libel is being used with increasing frequency to shut down political dissent and criticism of police officers, judges and powerful institutions, new research by Ryerson University journalism professor Lisa Taylor suggests.

Convictions for criminal libel averaged 18 cases per year between 2005 and 2008, Taylor found. She and her research partner David Pritchard of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee combed through digital archives, criminal judgements and media reports to assemble the data and found that the number of convictions has grown steadily. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 37.7 criminal libel convictions annually – more than double the earlier figure.

A quarter of these convictions are cases related to political dissent, in which individuals were charged for taking on powerful organizations. That means charges have been laid for crimes like warning against police brutality, protesting controversial rulings by judges and criticizing municipal authorities on Facebook.

Many legal scholars consider the criminalization of critical or insulting language to be anachronistic. It would be easy enough to assume that it’s only implemented in extraordinarily rare cases, Taylor says — but that’s not what happens.

“When I think ‘extraordinarily rare,’ I’m thinking four-leaf clovers, albino alligators,” Taylor, a lawyer by training, said during a Nov. 1 presentation organized by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression. The growing number of criminal libel convictions point to prosecutions that aren’t as rare as everyone thought.

Libel is usually a civil issue. If an individual’s reputation suffers because something untrue or unfair has been written or broadcast about them, the usual course of events would involve launching a suit and seeking financial restitution. Writers, editors, producers and media organizations can all be sued for libel, and plaintiffs are entitled to more money if they’ve suffered extreme humiliation or shown that the defendants acted with malice.

For individuals and media organizations, the threat of civil libel charges is a deterrent against treating people with carelessness or callousness. Losing a libel case and having to pay damages is a punitive measure.

But libel can also be a criminal offence. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, “defamatory libel” is punishable by a prison term of up to two years, or up to five if the defendants knew that what they were publishing was false. Taylor and Pritchard’s research focused mainly on Sections 300 and 301 of the code. Section 300 carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison for libelous speech that is a “known falsehood,” while Section 301 carries a two-year maximum sentence for any defamatory libel.

Another surprising feature of the law is that a person can be charged with criminal libel even if what they published is true. A plaintiff can’t win a civil case if what’s been said about them is demonstrably true, no matter how defamatory. But in a criminal case, unlike a civil case, truth is not a defence.

Criminal libel prosecutions usually fall into two categories. Taylor says the first category, political dissent libel, makes up about 25 per cent of criminal libel cases and involves “strong, harsh, maybe dishonest language against powerful people.”

Karen MacKinnon, a former city councillor in Drumheller, Alberta, was charged twice under Section 301 of the Criminal Code for a Facebook post in which she called a local politician and an Alberta Crown prosecutor “repulsive, corrupted, lying, thieving, deviant bastards both” and, in a later post, called that same prosecutor “a pet kangaroo.”

David Charney, at the time an Osgoode Hall law student and well-known activist against violent police practices, was charged with criminal libel for distributing posters that accused a specific police officer of brutality. (The charges were dropped and the case became a civil matter six months later, but nothing ever came of it.)

In another case, a man picketed a judge who had awarded custody of his children to the man’s ex-wife, who then fled the jurisdiction; the man was charged with criminal libel for bearing a sign that said the judge permits child abuse. The charges were dropped, but not until two and a half years later.

Taylor told the audience at the Ryerson School of Journalism that the power dynamics in these cases negate the need for libel action — criminal or otherwise. Judges, prison guards and police officers should be able to withstand criticism from the people they have authority over, even if some of that criticism is harsh or even untrue.

“Only the most naïve person could ever assume one of these positions and imagine that people are only going to say nice things about them,” Taylor said. “They’re powerful people. We are critical of power. We should be critical of power.”

Even when nothing comes of these charges — when they’re dropped after a few months, or end up as civil case that go nowhere the threat of criminal prosecution has a chilling effect. Taylor referred to something her co-researcher Pritchard said: In these cases, having to contend with possible jail time is enough to discourage and to penalize. The process is the punishment.

The second kind of criminal libel prosecution is less obviously defensible. Failed relationship libel usually occurs after an intimate relationship has ended and one party sets out to smear the other. In one case Taylor examined, a man put up posters with his ex-girlfriend’s name and photo that falsely accused her of pedophilia.

Taylor said that eliminating criminal libel law wouldn’t mean allowing that kind of behaviour to go unchallenged. The woman would have easily won a civil case, and the fact that she opted to go to the police instead demonstrates the financial inaccessibility of civil lawsuits (the woman was a student at the time). If the ex-boyfriend continued his attack campaign, Taylor added, there are many other criminal offenses that would cover his crime: criminal harassment, for example, intimidation or incitement of hatred.

Taylor argued that criminal libel should be removed from Canada’s Criminal Code. It is “antithetical to free expression,” a right protected by Canada’s charter, she said, noting that the U.K. has dispensed with its criminal libel laws and there are no federal criminal libel laws in the U.S. (although some states do still have criminal libel laws on the books.)

Canada’s criminal libel law, she said, is being used in lieu of more specific laws. It serves no legitimate purpose, Taylor argues, and keeping the contradictory and unclear law on the books has troubling repercussions: it criminalizes dissent against powerful groups and is an affront to free speech.

“It’s abuse of power, full stop,” says Taylor.

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

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The amount of news available about local contests for member of Parliament during the 2015 federal election depended on where in Canada voters were living, a new study by Ryerson University’s Local News Research Project suggests.

The research, which compared local coverage of the race for MP in eight communities in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, was presented to the House of Commons Heritage Committee on Oct. 6.

“People who lived in a place like Kamloops enjoyed relative news affluence compared to, say, people who lived in a city like Brampton or a rural area like the City of Kawartha Lakes,” Ryerson School of Journalism associate professor April Lindgren told MPs on the committee.

Lindgren said that in the month prior to the election voters in the suburban community of Brampton, Ont., and the rural municipality of City of Kawartha Lakes, Ont. were among the least well-served in terms of access to news about candidates vying to represent them in Parliament.

The study examined local media coverage of the contest for MP in three of Brampton’s five ridings and identified a total of only 43 election-related stories, or two for every 10,000 registered voters. In the City of Kawartha Lakes, local news producers generated only 29 stories, or 4.7 per 10,000 registered voters.

Voters in Kamloops, B.C. and Thunder Bay, Ont., by comparison, were much better served. Local media in Kamloops produced 151 stories, or 20 per 10,000 registered voters, during the month leading up to the election. In Thunder Bay, there were 226 stories, or 25 per 10,000 registered voters.

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The federal heritage committee has been conducting hearings since January as part of a special study examining media and local communities. MPs are investigating the access local communities have to Canadian news and content on all platforms, including digital, and the impact of media consolidation on how Canadians are informed. Witnesses have ranged from academics and newspaper publishers to broadcast executives and officials from unions representing media workers.

“People observe or consume media in a different way now…because of the Internet.  And there’s also an assumption – and this isn’t specific to any demographic – but we like it for free,” committee member and former journalist Seamus O’Regan said in an interview. “So we need money in order to pay for resources and in order to pay for strong journalistic talent. How do we square that circle? And within that environment, what’s the role of government? What [is] at our disposal to make sure that people do get the news that they rely on and that they care about?”

O’Regan, the Liberal MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, said local news coverage plays an important role in communities.

“If you don’t have strong local news, you [can’t get] right down to the real nitty gritty of matters in municipal councils,” he said.

During the committee meeting, O’Regan said the Ryerson presentation was “key” as it included “very recent and empirical data,” and will be added into the committee’s final report, which is due to be completed by Christmas.

In her presentation, Lindgren said that election coverage of local races for MP is a strong indicator of the robustness of local news coverage.

“(For the purposes of the study) we were interested in election coverage because the race to represent a community in the House of Commons is a major news event that would warrant news media attention … it’s an important part of how people find out about their choices and potentially view their choices. As such, we think that in some ways it can be thought of as a proxy for the overall performance of local news media in general,” said Lindgren, who conducted the study with assistant professor Jaigris Hodson from Royal Roads University.

Lindgren told the committee that the research results also pointed to significant differences in the number of news sources serving different communities: The researchers identified just three news outlets – or 0.14 news organizations per 10,000 registered voters – in the Brampton ridings they examined. In Kamloops, by comparison, there were nine news outlets operating at the time of the election, or 1.25 news outlets per 10,000 registered voters.

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Overall, Lindgren said, the results suggest suburban and rural municipalities are relatively underserved in terms of access to local news. The data also point to significant differences among small and medium-sized cities.

While media coverage during federal elections tends to focus on the leaders, Lindgren said reporting by local news outlets could have an impact on individual races for MP. Research suggests, she says, that the local candidate matters to up to three per cent of voters.

“That might not sound like much, but the margin of victory in 44 ridings during the last election was three percentage points or less,” she said.

Lindgren told MPs that the local news situation in two of the communities examined during the study has actually deteriorated since the federal election. The Nanaimo Daily News, which published more election-related stories than any other media outlet in that B.C. community, closed earlier this year. And on Sept. 30 newskamloops.ca, a local online site that provided some of that city’s most extensive election coverage, also ceased publication.

Lindgren said the next step in the research will be to create a local news poverty index that can be used to rank communities in terms of the relative health of their local news situation. This index will be used as the starting point to investigate why some communities are more poorly served in terms of access to local news than others, and to identify possible solutions.

In addition to the election research, the brief Lindgren presented to the MPs outlined data from the crowd-sourced Local News Map. The interactive digital map, launched on J-Source.ca in June, allows users to add information markers that record changes to local news organizations including, for instance, the launch or closure of a news source and service increases and reductions.

Three months after its launch, the markers on the map show that newsroom closures are significantly outpacing the launch of new local news sources.

About 53 per cent, or 164 of the 307 markers, on the map as of Sept. 25 documented newsroom closures, while only about 21 per cent (63) highlighted the launch of new local news outlets. The map, which is also a Local News Research Project initiative, tracks changes going back to 2008.

“The map tells a pretty powerful and disturbing … visual story of newsroom closures that far exceed the number of new ventures being launched,” Lindgren said.

Lindgren, who created The Local News Map with associate professor Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia Okanagan, said their goal is to generate up-to-date data and spark debate about the state of local journalism in Canada.

“There’s been a major disruption in the news industry and people who live in smaller cities, towns, suburban communities and rural areas have fewer options to begin with and in recent years their choice has become even more limited,” she said.

The map, Lindgren cautioned, is only as good as the information contributors add to it. She noted, however, that it is moderated to ensure the information on it is reliable and argued that the overall trends reflect reality. She is also asking users to complete a survey on local news in their community.

Lindgren said her interest in what she calls “local news poverty” originated from an observation about the unequal access to local news in the Greater Toronto Area. Toronto residents, she noted, have access to four daily newspapers and many online television and broadcast outlets.

“[Meanwhile] a nearby city like Brampton, which is Canada’s ninth-largest city and has more than 500,000 people in it, relies pretty much exclusively on the Brampton Guardian, a Metroland Media-owned community newspaper,” she said. “There’s no local radio, no local television and no local daily newspaper that focuses exclusively on news from that community.”

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