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Dec. 5, 2017

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Catherine Porter, the Canada bureau chief for the New York Times, shared her experiences covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti at a Ryerson Review of Journalism event. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

Reporters who fly in to cover natural disasters must report on people suffering the consequences with respect and compassion, says journalist Catherine Porter, who arrived in Haiti soon after the 2010 earthquake to cover the story for the Toronto Star.

Porter was one of several speakers at a recent Ryerson Review of Journalism conference to emphasize that journalists must retain their sense of humanity toward victims of devastating wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and other disasters. Covering Disasters: A Critical Lens, a day-long event held at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, explored how journalists can prepare to cover disasters and where they are missing the mark.

“We have to be respectful, we have to be decent,” said Porter, who is now the Toronto-based Canada bureau chief for the New York Times. “The mantra I repeat to myself often all the time in this job–whether it’s a natural disaster overseas or not–is, ‘This is just my job for today and this is this person’s life.’”

Porter, the keynote speaker at the Nov. 21 conference, recalled the experience of touring a public hospital in Haiti to illustrate how vulnerable people can be treated without dignity. The Spanish doctor who took her on the tour “walked me into a room where I found a completely naked woman on a bare metal table giving birth and she was crowning,” Porter said. “As someone who has given birth twice naturally and has been in that position of complete vulnerability, I was shocked.

“I looked back on that and thought … ‘Why did that Spanish doctor think it was okay to bring me into that room so casually when I was not writing about women giving birth there?’ That would never ever happen in Canada,” she said.

Porter said she left the room because her job as reporter involves treating vulnerable people with respect. Covering disasters, she noted, is hard on the human spirit: “I was haunted when I returned from Haiti.”

Ed Ou, a visual journalist with NBC News based in New York, also discussed the need to focus on the person beyond the tragedy.

“No matter what happens in any situation, whether it’s a conflict or a disaster, life does go on,” said Ou, who was part of a panel about photographing disasters. “One thing that has really struck me is how resilient the human spirit is. We oftentimes as journalists have a tendency to go in and we see people and we’re trying to extract a tragedy but really what you [need] to see is hope.”

Ou travelled to Kazakhstan in 2008 to photograph the lasting effects of radiation on the two million civilians who were exposed when the Soviet government test fired more than 400 nuclear weapons during the Cold War. He said he spent as much time as he could with survivors to get a sense of who they are as people.

Ou shared the story of Berik Syzdykov, who was born deformed and without eyes due to radiation exposure. He said he worked to see beyond Syzdykov’s disfigurement– to find out who he was as a person and what made him happy. Syzdykov, he discovered, learned to play piano and fell in love with opera when he travelled to Italy for an operation on his face.


SEMEY, KAZAKHSTAN – NOVEMBER 19 Berik Syzdykov, 29, sings and plays piano in an apartment in Semey, Kazakhstan Nov. 19, 2008. Berik was born deformed and blind as one of the million victims of radiation from Soviet nuclear testing. He learned to play piano and fell in love with opera when he travelled to Italy for an operation on his face. During the Cold War the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon covering 18,500 square kilometers on the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan, was the site of a secret Soviet nuclear testing programme. Through four decades until the early nineties, the Soviet Union test detonated over four hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and underground in preparation for a war with the West that never took place. The locals were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on human populations. Villagers living close by were given virtually no protection or warning of the dangers of radiation. Doctor Nailya Chaizhunusova from the Institute of Radiation Medicine in Kazakhstan recounts that “the army experimented on civilians – they would move people close to the test sites, leave a hundred people in the village, give a test group 200 grams of vodka to drink and monitor their health after they detonated a nuclear weapon.” During the course of the nuclear programme, the military prohibited doctors from attributing the sharp rise in illnesses and deaths from cancer, leukaemia, and radiation exposure in the region to the nuclear tests. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)


 

“I try as much as I can to empower people so they aren’t seen as victims but as people with their own agency,” Ou said. “You are spending time with people to paint a portrait of what life looks like and to humanize people and their daily lives, but also to give a sense of what’s at stake.”

The nearly 100 conference attendees heard later in the day from journalists who emphasized the need to report on the aftermath of tragedy. David Thurton, a mobile journalist in Fort McMurray for CBC News, said stories continue to unfold after the immediate crisis is over.

“When it comes to the Fort McMurray wildfires, that’s when the people were the most vulnerable,” Thurton said. “Yes there is a complete disaster, there is an evacuation, they’re fighting for their lives. But then you have the aftermath where people are losing their homes [and] the government is not providing services.”

Government officials and authorities promise to take action to assist victims during tragedies, he noted, so it is crucial for journalists to hold them accountable once the disaster is past.

‘Be prepared to be uncomfortable’

The conference, organized by a team of students working for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, also included a panel discussion about the physical and mental toll covering disasters can take on reporters.

Angela Mullins, a managing editor for Metro News, was part of the news team covering the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. She warned the reporters to beware of the physical discomfort they would experience from the smoke: “Be prepared to be uncomfortable. It is going to be a very uncomfortable experience while you’re there.”

CBC journalist Marion Warnica, who reported the stories of civilians affected by the Fort McMurray wildfires, said covering the disaster was stressful. But she said the best thing journalists can do is give themselves permission to stay safe and be human while doing the job.

“Be mindful. When you start your career, set up a regular mental health practice,” Warnica said. “What is it that you personally need to do to keep yourself happy and stress free? How do you release that stress? I honestly think that is what helped me.”

In the coming weeks, the RRJ plans to publish a multimedia package and online resources for journalists seeking expert advice and best practices for covering a disaster.

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Tanya Talaga, author and Toronto Star reporter on Indigenous issues, discussed her book “Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City” with Ryerson journalism students. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga went to Thunder Bay, Ont. to write about why Indigenous people don’t vote in federal elections, but came back committed to investigating the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students and the education system that failed them.

Talaga, a two-time recipient of the Project of the Year National Newspaper Award, detailed the stories of the seven students in her new book “Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.” She recently discussed the book, which has been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, at a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre event attended by about 100 journalism students.

“When you’re reporting, be conscious to think beyond the stories you’re seeing and the stories that don’t get told,” said Talaga, who has worked for The Star for more than 20 years. “Those are the stories that are often going to lead you down an interesting path.”

Talaga said the book idea emerged from a completely different story assignment. The 2011 federal election was underway and she had travelled to Thunder Bay to talk to Stan Beardy, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, about why Indigenous people in northwestern Ontario don’t vote.

“He looked at me and said, ‘why aren’t you doing a story about Jordan Wabasse?’” Talaga said. “I thought maybe he wasn’t hearing me right so I asked the question again and he looked at me and he said, ‘Jordan has been missing for 70 days.’”

Beardy told her that Wabasse was one of seven youths who had come to Thunder Bay for high school to go missing or die since 2000. Talaga, whose grandmother was raised in a small community about an hour from the city, said she was shocked.

“I was stunned,” Talaga said. “I couldn’t believe that if there were seven students that had died or had gone missing, how come this wasn’t national news across Canada? How come I wasn’t reading about this in all of the newspapers and seeing it on every single TV station in the evening news? There was hardly anything out there.”

The young people whose deaths Talaga chronicles in her book had come to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay because they don’t have access to secondary school in their remote First Nations communities.

The seven students, all of whom died between 2000 and 2011, are Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. 

Talaga said it was apparent that Beardy felt Canada had failed to keep Indigenous youth safe and unharmed: “This is a story about Thunder Bay but this is [also] a story about Canada,” she said. “This story can be seen all across the country when you’re dealing with Indigenous people and their rights and what’s been happening for so long, for too long.

“There is a whole part of history of this country, Indigenous history, that has been lost or not told and it’s only now that it’s being told.”

During a question-and-answer session, one fourth-year journalism student asked Talaga for advice on reporting difficult stories about Indigenous communities.

“Keep reporting in these areas, keep asking the hard questions,” she said. “You shouldn’t be shy. It doesn’t matter if you’re Indigenous or not, just be respectful when you’re approaching a community and I think that you’ll be surprised by what you find.”

A portion the book’s sales will go to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty Memorial Fund. This fund was set up in 1994 to financially assist Nishnawbe Aski Nation students who are studying in Thunder Bay and at post-secondary institutions.

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the work and wealth reporter at the Toronto Star, spoke recently at Ryerson University about her experience working undercover with a temp agency. (Amanda Pope)

Undercover work by journalists is justified only if there’s a compelling public interest and no other way to get the story, says the Toronto Star reporter who recently posed as a temporary worker at a large industrial bakery.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, who covers labour, precarious work and poverty issues for the Star, said it was difficult to get temp workers at Fiera Foods to talk about their experiences on the record so, to get the story, she went undercover in May 2017 as a temp worker in the Toronto factory.

“As journalists we have an ethical obligation to be completely transparent about who we are, to be upfront about what we’re doing and what we’re reporting on,” said Mojtehedzadeh, who co-authored the final story with Brendan Kennedy.  “So it really does take something super- compelling for us to override that obligation. What we try and look at is ‘Is this story representative of the big systemic problem that it’s worth the resources that it’s going to take to investigate?’”

She said the Star had been investigating temp agencies– labour brokers who hire temporary workers but take a portion of the employee’s wage to make a profit – since May 2016. The use of temp agencies, she said, cuts costs and limits employee labour rights and companies’ liability for accidents on the job.

Her investigation, she said, was sparked by the release of U.S. data that showed people who are hired through temp agencies are significantly more likely to get injured on the job than permanently hired workers: “I wanted to see if the same thing was happening here in Ontario.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the decision to go undercover was made after temp worker Amina Diaby, 23, died on the job at Fiera Foods in September 2016. For months, Mojtehedzadeh said she tried but could not find out much about what had happened beyond information that Diaby’s hijab had gotten stuck in a machine.

“We felt that the person who paid the highest price for these practices was being forgotten. So we passionately felt that her story should have a platform,” she said.

Mojtehedzadeh said that, two weeks after applying for work with the Magnus Services temp agency, she was contacted and told to show up for a job the next day at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery that makes pastries for Costco, Tim Horton’s, Metro, Walmart and Loblaw.

“There was no screening, no attempt to establish whether or not I had experience working in a factory or industrial environment,” she said. “I received about five minutes of safety training. I was told to not put my hands near the machines and if I didn’t feel safe or comfortable doing something, then they said to go home and wait for the temp agency to call me again.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the workplace felt dangerous. There were ovens operating 24/7, she said, yet workers were not informed of any fire-exit locations or where to find fire extinguishers.

“You would have your supervisors who were breathing down your neck and shouting at you for the entire shift,” she said. “You’re standing there doing a repetitive motion at a fast pace all day, which is physically demanding. Most of the women struggled to keep up with the work that was demanded of us.”

Workers only received one unpaid 30-minute break and during their shifts they did not feel they could ask to use the bathroom or speak up about inequality, Mojtehedzadeh said.

Mojtehedzadeh’s story also documented how the temp workers sent to Fiera Foods were paid minimum wage in cash with no deductions or pay stubs. By law, employers must pay employees on the worksite or at a convenient location for the worker, but Mojtehedzadeh said she was instructed to pick up her pay from a payday lender called GTA Employment, which was a 35-minute bus ride from the factory.

“I had one colleague who went to pick up her pay and literally as she left, she was robbed and lost all of her wages for the past two weeks,” Mojtehedzadeh said. “When we confronted the owners [of the temp agency], they said that this is a common practice across the city and it was normal.”

Mojtehedzadeh said that before the story was published on Sept. 8, the Star confronted Fiera officials about the health and safety violations she had documented. The newspaper then received a 10-page letter from the company’s lawyer outlining its perspective on the laws the Star had violated by sending a journalist undercover.

In mid-September, Fiera pleaded guilty to Ministry of Labour charges related to Diaby’s death. The company also announced it was hiring independent auditors to review its human resources and health and safety procedures and to audit its use of temp agencies.  Meanwhile, new legislation winding its way through the Ontario legislature would require companies to offer wage parity to temporary workers doing similar work to permanent staff, a change the government argues will reduce one of the key financial incentives for contracting out.

By AMANDA POPE

Staff reporter

Freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld interviews a Syrian refugee. [Courtesy of the National Film Board and Santiago Bertolino]

The room was silent as freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld described the horror of seeing a truck filled with corpses.

Rosenfeld said he was in in Dar Bizmar, Iraq, when he saw the bodies of ISIS fighters loosely tied to the bumper of two flatbed trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Dangling hands and feet dragged on the road.

“I don’t really prepare for [seeing] these things,” Rosenfeld told more than 100 first-year Ryerson journalism students and members of the public. “You try to understand what you’re getting into by knowing as much about what is happening in the area, what kinds of atrocities have been committed.”

Rosenfeld, a Canadian freelance reporter who has worked in the Middle East since 2007, spoke to students on Oct. 27 following a screening of the new National Film Board (NFB) documentary Freelancer on the Front Lines. Filmmaker Santiago Bertolino followed Rosenfeld between 2013 and 2016 as he pitched stories to mainstream news outlets, worked with local fixers, interviewed sources and navigated war zones in Iraq and Syria.

Rosenfeld said the role of a journalist is to report the truth so that the public feels a sense of responsibility to act upon it.

“What I fundamentally believe is that the role of a journalist is to be honest and tell people exactly what is happening in the world from the perspective of those who are most affected by the issues and the policies,” he said. “The people have to be able to … understand the way the world is. The role of the journalist is to give information so that they are responsible to do something about it.”

Rosenfeld has written about people whose lives have been affected by violence in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Turkey. His work has been published with the Nation, the Daily Beast and Al Jazeera.

If people do not feel motivated to push for changes after reading his stories, he said, he does not consider his work to be useful.

Rosenfeld said the NFB documentary highlights how important it is for journalists to be present on the ground, particularly in an era when mainstream news outlets seem to be increasingly reliant on press releases.

“It is important that people receive a perspective that isn’t completely beholden,” Rosenfeld said.

Watch Jesse Rosenfeld’s full Q&A below:

By MADDIE BINNING
Special to the RJRC

Freelance journalists starting out in the business should be wary of working for exposure instead of money, experts said in a recent Ryerson Journalism Research Centre webinar.

The discussion, featuring Lauren McKeon, author and digital editor of The Walrus, vice president of the Canadian Freelance Union Ethan Clarke and Daily Xtra associate editor Eternity Martis, centred on how to navigate a freelance career in journalism and make tough decisions like determining what pay is too low and how to negotiate contracts. The conversation was directed by Ryerson School of Journalism professor Lisa Taylor and broadcast to an audience of mostly journalism students.

“A lot of folks talk about the quality of journalism these days and ask about why it’s not as good as years in the past, and a lot of it has to do with the rate of pay,” Clarke said. “Quality work takes time.”

Free work privileges the people who can afford to work under those conditions, he said, adding that it is important for journalists to do their best to combat this problem in the media industry. Although it can be difficult to resist, Clarke suggested writers should not only avoiding unpaid work but also rates of pay that are too low.

“(Journalism) takes real skill and unfortunately, through dynamics on the internet, that’s been cheapened,” Clarke said, noting that the internet has produced many self-proclaimed journalists. “We’ve really got to fight to bring back that respect and the value of paying for good journalism.”

McKeon urged journalists to wage the battle for better remuneration by talking to each other about pay and bad actors in the publishing industry.

“It’s up to us to start breaking the silence on how much we do get paid, what publications we maybe have challenges with,” she said. “It’s really uncomfortable to talk about how much you get paid and all that sort of stuff, but it’s important that we better the industry.”

That said, the question of what is acceptable pay for freelancers is often a personal choice that writers need to determine for themselves, McKeon said. In her own freelance work, she said she accepted low pay early on in her career to work for publications she believed in.

“Everyone has to weigh how much they want to do the story and how much they want to work with an organization, what it means to them, what type of journalism they want to do, what’s important to them,” McKeon said. “It’s all about gauging what kind of journalism you want to do and what type of career you want to build.”

Martis emphasized that freelancers “will not be fed by exposure.” She suggested that freelance journalists set up a budget that includes how many stories they’re going to write each day and what kind of stories those will be. After completing her Master of Journalism degree at Ryerson, Martis said she did a variety of freelance work, including shorter pieces for publications like Complex magazine and content for non-journalistic groups like the YWCA. She continues to freelance while working at the Daily Xtra.

She said that sometimes making money as a freelancer means doing a variety of work.

“It all really comes down to knowing the publications you want to write for,” Martis said, “but it also comes down to choosing places that maybe you’re not so interested in, if that’s what you need to do to pay the bills.”

Clarke said that if journalists are struggling with pay, contracts or any other of the difficult aspects of freelancing, it’s essential to remember that working as an individual doesn’t leave you alone.

“Stop thinking of yourself as an individual, you’re part of a group,” Clarke said. “There are other workers all around you, find ways to unite with them.”

The Canadian Freelance Union offers services that include support for journalists who are having difficulty getting paid, contract advice, health plans and other insurance options, press cards and more. Find these and other resources on the CFU website.