Nicole Brumley
Special to the RJRC

May 1, 2018

(Courtesy World Trends in Freedom of Expression, UNESCO via Creative Commons)

As a student journalist, I’ve been afforded the protection of speaking to a mostly liberal audience through campus newspapers. But, as a black female journalist, I know this protection will crumble when my work is showcased in larger publications. Having an opinion on social media while being visibly racialized opens the floodgates for abusive trolls. I know deep in my bones, however, that using my voice as a young black woman to talk about difficult issues and tell difficult stories is important.

A 2018 report by Amnesty International referred to Twitter as a “toxic” place for women. The study found that Twitter inadequately enforces policies when women report violence and abuse on their platform. Various journalists and writers reported receiving threats and targeted racism.

According to Amnesty International’s online poll, of the respondents who experienced abuse or harassment on social media, 29 per cent in the United States said they experienced threats of physical or sexual violence. Around half of the women who responded, 53 per cent in the U.S. and 47 per cent in the United Kingdom, said the abuse included sexist and misogynistic comments.

While the reality of online hate is a nagging concern, my commitment to highlighting controversial issues about race, culture and religion is unwavering. I have written about my own experiences with racism, black Somali women taking a stand again negative media representation, and Muslim women tackling social justice issues. I understand why racialized female journalists sometimes need to take a step back from social media when their personal safety and well-being is under attack online. But when it’s my turn – and I have every reason to think my turn will come – I hope I will be resilient in the face of pressure intended to silence my voice. A recent workshop organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre gave me some tools for doing this.

The April 3rd workshop, which organizers called “Entitled to Your Opinion, ” included a discussion of the effects of online abuse and a session that focused on ways to maintain your well-being when dealing with hate. Dr. Diana Brecher, a Ryerson adjunct faculty member and positive psychology expert, explained that coping training does not involve accepting harassment or giving up the fight to counter it. What it does offer is instruction on how to practice meditation and conscious positive thinking so that you can remain grounded and thrive, even when dealing with online hate.

Noor Javed, a Toronto Star reporter, talked about the backlash she experienced as a result of a story she wrote 10 years ago about polygamy in Toronto’s Muslim community. She reported about imams who officiated the marriages and also practiced polygamy, and the impact it had on women who were first and second wives.

Social media platforms weren’t as active at the time, Javed said, but there was considerable backlash from members of the Muslim community who criticized her on blogs and online forums, and even launched an email campaign against her. The story resurfaced recently, she said, because it is being shared online by right-wing Muslim groups.

And once again she is being “hated” because of it, only this time it’s on Facebook and Twitter where the story has been shared.

“It made me think ‘would I have written that story today?’” said Javed. “In today’s anti-Muslim political climate, I probably wouldn’t have.”

It was disheartening to hear first-hand how online hate and racism can influence the kinds of stories journalists report on. I realized how the intensity of online hate differs for various racialized women: Javed’s experience with online hate as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, will undoubtedly differ from mine as black woman. But it’s also important to remember who benefits when these stories are told. Javed’s experience was case in point: She said that when her story first appeared, it started a much needed conversation about polygamy in the Muslim community and many Muslim women were happy to have a place to discuss their views on the matter.

Javed told workshop participants she has dealt with hate by occasionally taking some time offline. She also finds solace in the support she receives from her colleagues who understand the toll that comes with being publicly hated, threatened and verbally abused.

We also see publications like the Toronto Star taking action by disabling its comment section online – a move some argued posed a limit to reader engagement. I think the Star did the right thing: newsrooms cannot stand idly by while their journalists face a barrage of online abuse. Space for informed public debate is diminished when ignorance and hate prevails. Javed said the paper has also been understanding about giving reporters time off when they are feeling overwhelmed by online hate and harassment.

During her presentation to the 25 or so students attending the workshop Javed recalled being told by another journalist that “if you want to stay in journalism as a brown Muslim woman who wears a hijab, you will need to have thick skin.” As a black, female journalist, I hope that I will not only develop a thick skin, but have the necessary support and personal resiliency to tell difficult stories, and voice opinions some people just don’t want to hear.

Nicole Brumley is in her final year of studies at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. She has worked as the Communities Editor at the Eyeopener Newspaper. Nicole is also a reporter for RUtv News and a photographer.

Staff Reporter

April 25, 2018

Christina Varga, an editor and journalist at The Globe and Mail, discusses how to pitch freelance work to newspapers. (Amanda Pope)

Tone-deaf pitches and failing to do adequate research on the publication are the biggest mistakes freelance journalists make when trying to sell editors on stories, experienced freelancers and editors said during a recent workshop at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

The half-day workshop, Getting Started: Conversations About How to Freelance, explored what it takes to succeed as a freelance journalist in today’s competitive media landscape.

Takara Small, a Toronto-based freelance tech journalist, said reporters need to be well acquainted with the publication they are pitching to so that they understand its focus and whether its tone is formal or informal. This research should be used to shape the story pitch: “The biggest mistake I made…was I would write a pitch that I thought was good and hand it out to a publisher or an organization without taking into account that editors prefer pitches in [certain] formats or like to talk about different issues in a specific way,” said Small, a former contributing editor for Fortune magazine.

Yasmine Mathurin, a Toronto-based freelance multimedia journalist, said she learned this same lesson the hard way after having a radio documentary pitch rejected. In her final year of Ryerson’s master of journalism program, Mathurin produced the documentary for her major research project. She submitted it to the CBC Radio Doc Project– a program that airs radio documentaries, essays and first person stories – but was turned down. The program coordinator subsequently told her they liked her story idea but not her pitch: “When I pitched the project, I didn’t pitch it in the language that made sense for radio. It’s not that my story wasn’t good.”

Mathurin, who is now an associate producer for CBC’s Personal Best podcast, said that during her conversation with the coordinator, she pitched another idea she had for a web series and it was warmly received. Her written pitch for this new idea was eventually accepted.

Among other things, she said, the experience taught her to always have multiple story ideas in hand.

While the tone used for pitches matters, it is also important for stories. Christina Varga, who edits custom content for the Globe and Mail, said different sections of a newspaper approach stories differently. The more formal tone used in the business section, for instance, differs from the more light-hearted approach of the Globe’s Good News section, which offers up heartwarming stories or profiles of people who are making a difference or starting a company.

“If the editor hasn’t given you a sense of the less concrete stuff that they’re looking for, feel free to ask” for examples of stories written in the preferred tone or format, Varga said.

Allison Smith, the founder of Queen’s Park Today, a subscription-based daily news service covering Ontario provincial legislature, said if a freelance journalist is interested in a story, chances are the audience will be interested in it too. When the Real Housewives of Toronto debuted last year, she said, there were no written recaps about the show so Smith pitched the idea to Toronto Life magazine because she had a personal interest in reading recaps of reality television shows. Others did too, she said, noting she found out her idea has morphed into the magazine’s most popular column after she was accidently copied in an email between the magazine’s editors.

“In Canadian journalism, there is so much that isn’t written,” Smith said. “If you’re thinking about something and you think there should be a story about it, there probably should and someone else probably isn’t going to write it. So find the opportunity and throw yourself into it.”

Staff reporter

April 18, 2018

Ryerson School of Journalism associate professor and faculty teaching chair Ann Rauhala and National Post political reporter Marie-Danielle Smith discuss sexual harassment in the newsroom. (Amanda Pope)

Journalists who are sexually harassed by sources, on social media or in their newsrooms should document the incident, find a support network and be aware of how their union can help, panellists told an audience of young reporters at the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s spring conference.

The two-day event, #MediaToo: The #MeToo movement has hit Canada, what’s next?, explored how journalists should report on sexual violence in the media and also deal with their own experiences.

“When awkward things happen and someone crosses the line in a way that isn’t criminal or isn’t ‘serious,’ journalists just kind of brush it off and move on,” said Marie-Danielle Smith, a political journalist for the National Post. “They make you feel uncomfortable and I think those are the moments we don’t talk about enough and this culture stays alive because we don’t talk about it.”

Smith, who reports on Parliament Hill, gave an example of her own decision to remain quiet rather than confront harassment. She said she was alone with a senator while interviewing him in his office when he asked her to move from her chair to sit right next to him on a couch. “You don’t mind, do you?” he said, and made a joke about how he “wouldn’t bite,” Smith wrote in an article for the National Post three years after the fact.

Smith said she decided to go public with her experience because for many decades cases of sexual harassment on Parliament Hill have been silenced and offenders have been protected. It was time, she said, to start talking about these issues so the harassers would suffer the consequences.

Smith said that after she told her story in the newspaper and opened up about the misconduct she’d dealt with, she learned that her mother – a former staffer on Parliament Hill – had dealt with similar situations. Her mom, she said, remembers a man patting his lap in invitation for her to sit on him while they were alone in his office in the 1980s.

“Talk about it with your friends and family,” Smith told the nearly 40 student journalists in the audience at the Ryerson School of Journalism. “Don’t close yourself off. It’s really easy to internalize these things, you kind of get in your head. The way to avoid that is to share outwardly when you can. If you have someone you trust that you can speak to about it, that’s great.”

Ann Rauhala, an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson and the faculty teaching chair, advised journalists who are sexually harassed by their sources or in the newsroom to write down the details of the incident. This practice has the same calming and self-care effect as talking to a friend, she said. But it also ensures there is a record of what happened: “You’re all journalists, you know the power of controlling the narrative and having accurate and complete notes … It makes it clear, it makes it more real.”

This is exactly what radio host Katie Summers did when she was sexually harassed by Jacob Hoggard from the Canadian pop-rock group Hedley. Attending the panel via Skype, Summers, the co-host of AMP Mornings with Katie and Ed on Calgary’s 90.3 AMP radio station, described what happened when when Hedley appeared at the station seven years ago.

After she told Hoggard she was a longtime fan, Summer recounted, he said, “‘Oh cool, well, maybe if you’re lucky I’ll let you come out into the back alley with me and’ – I don’t want to say it because it’s graphic – but he basically said I could give him oral sex, if I was lucky.” After that, she said, Hoggard “gave my butt a quick little slap and out the door he went.”

When she decided to go public with her experience of sexual harassment, Summer said, her notes helped her to accurately recall the event and also reminded her of how awful the experience had been. Hoggard did not respond directly to Summers’ allegations, but he released a statement apologizing for how he has treated women over the past 13 years. Toronto police last month confirmed that the sex crimes unit has opened an investigation into the Hedley frontman. No charges have been laid and police did not reveal who filed the complaint.

Rauhala said incidents of sexual harassment can be less obvious than what Summers experienced, but they are still harassment.

“Sexual harassment isn’t necessarily the gross, shocking stuff that happens to some people,” she said. “It is so subtle, so fast-moving that many times people stop and say, ‘Did that just happen? Was that an accident that he brushed my breast as he handed me that piece of paper?’”

Inappropriate and sexual comments are also ‘weapons’ used to harass journalists in subtle ways, Rauhala said. By way of example, she recalled the period in her career when she was promoted to the position of foreign editor of the Globe and Mail – the first woman to hold that job. a gossip magazine subsequently characterized her as “the compliant Ann Rauhala,” implying she must have slept her way to the top.

Journalists, she said, should not allow those smaller experiences to go unaddressed amidst all of the horrific, overt cases of sexual misconduct: “Think about what a nasty little weapon that is,” she said. “The weapons are getting uglier now … but don’t let the big weapons distract you from the little ones that will affect you everyday. I do think that sharing them with other women and finding [support] is helpful.”

April 17, 2018

Ellen Hyslop, Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty, co-founders of The Gist, of one five Digital News Innovation Challenge finalists. (Courtesy of The Gist)

A news outlet providing sports coverage tailored to a female audience and a pop-up journalism site designed to keep citizens connected to their local communities are among the five startups awarded up to $100,000 as part of the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) and the Ryerson School of Journalism, aims to support digital news ideas that will drive innovation for news organizations and journalism. The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to support for early-stage startups, participants will be provided with workspace and access to high-profile senior mentors, workshops featuring digital news experts in Canada, and the opportunity to work with journalists, researchers and investors.

“We’re genuinely excited about the mix of approaches and experiences the teams are bringing to the DNIC,” said Asmaa Malik, innovation lead and graduate program director at the Ryerson School of Journalism. “They’re tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing journalism in Canada: amplifying the reach and power of local news and understanding how deeply people engage with news, as well looking ahead to explore how emerging technologies can connect new audiences.”

The $100,000 in seed capital provided by Facebook will be distributed in phases beginning with the release of $20,000 to each startup. Each team will receive two additional installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final demo day where teams will pitch to high-profile investors and be eligible for a final $40,000. In addition to access to seed money, startups will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

The startups selected as part of the Challenge offer a wide range of solutions, from platforms supporting on-the-ground reporting to AI-content analytics for publishers. The Gist, co-founded by Ellen Hyslop, Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty, is a digital sports news business that curates and contextualizes sports content for a female audience.

“Women tend to be left out of the [sports] conversations in boardrooms, social gatherings and events,” Hyslop said, “mostly because they didn’t watch the game last night.” As a result, she said, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to developing important relationships in both personal and professional settings.

The Gist online platform provides a weekly newsletter and daily Instagram posts with timely and informative content about the top sports headlines. Its website also includes a glossary and guides for hockey, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis and golf. These guides explain how the sport is played and organized, identifies the best players and the top women in the sport, and provides trivia. The Gist team, which is based in Toronto, also coordinates viewing parties that brings together women to watch sports games.

“We are hoping that the Gist can be a tool to inform women so they can use sports as an equalizer,” Hyslop said, noting that only 14 per cent of sports journalists are female.

Ground, founded by Harleen Kaur and Sukh Singh of Waterloo, Ont., is an online app that delivers news with real people reporting from when and where it happens. The app uses AI and human verification to weed out fake news and fake viral videos.

Ground picks up signals from social media platforms, traditional news organizations and news reported by Ground users. News stories are then filtered through the AI algorithm and users in the location of the reported news are notified by AI-composed requests for photos, videos and commentary. Ground users at the location are asked to confirm if the story as true or fake and each news story gets a verification score depending on how many people are verifying or debunking it, and the past credibility of each of the users. Verified news is disseminated to the user base while false stories are flagged as “fake” to clearly warn users against it.

If there is peak activity on social media in the area of Ryerson, for example, and the repeated word is fire, the Ground system will send out automated notifications to people near that location asking them to confirm whether there is in fact a fire, Kaur said in an interview. Ground can then break that news faster than other news outlets because of the verification by eye-witnesses. After the news is verified, Ground collects users’ content and photos and ensures it is has not been subject to tampering.

“We believe that technology has actually done a lot of disservice to journalists as opposed to helping them,” said Kaur, who is a former NASA engineer. “With Ground, we are putting verification at the forefront. We are using technology that takes social media information and the publishers’ information, and puts it together. So journalists can use Ground to get breaking news confirmed and commentary from people who are on the ground.”

Readefined, founded by Mario Vasilescu, Richard Tuck and Matei Vasilescu, is a piece of lightweight code that digital content publishers can install on their site. Rather than relying on second-degree data, like how a story was liked or shared on social media, or vague metrics like clicks or time on page, the technology helps publishers determine if visitors are really paying attention, how intensely, and why.

While some of the startup finalists focus on technology, others support local news.

Jeremy Klaszus of Calgary, for instance, says the decline of local news media in Calgary means Calgarians are disconnected from what’s going on in their community. To solve this, Klaszus founded the Sprawl– a pop-up form of journalism that can be set up and taken down according to coverage needs. The digital model means the site does not have to cover everything all the time, and instead allows for it to focus on one story or issue at a time and fill in gaps in coverage by traditional news media.

“It’s of interest to the journalism industry because we’ve been able to have a high level of engagement– which is what every news organization is seeking,” said Klaszus, a Calgary journalist who has written about the city for 15 years   for the Calgary Herald, Metro, CBC and CTV. “It’s participatory in a lot of ways because with the Sprawl’s model, I don’t have to worry about the next day’s newspaper or a newscast to fill. I have the freedom to adapt and to engage people on a deeper level rather than only feeding [audiences] news.”, the fifth project, is an online platform designed to distribute newscasts on voice-activated devices such as Amazon Echo or Google Home. With the loss of so many local newspapers, Armel Beaudry said his Ottawa-based media startup makes it easier for journalists to share news coverage and for audiences to find local content. Community journalists, for instance, can share newscasts with their audience using “capsules”– audio messages that journalists can record through the platform to play to listeners.

Staff reporter

April 13, 2018

Ryerson University master of journalism student Michael D’Alimonte (Courtesy of Michael D’Alimonte)

Gay men living with HIV/AIDS were underrepresented and often portrayed in a negative light by Toronto mainstream newspapers covering the early years of the health crisis, according to a new study.

The research paper by Ryerson University master of journalism student Michael D’Alimonte also suggests that the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail were too eager to publish scientifically dubious findings during the early years of the crisis in the 1980s.

“The (research) paper is a lesson on reporting on an emerging health crisis,” said D’Alimonte, whose paper has been accepted for presentation at the Canadian Communication Association meeting this spring. “Reporters can’t just take official sources at their word. They have to question things and reporters need to go into these at-risk groups and make connections to get the insiders perspective rather than taking an outsiders approach and reporting from there.”

D’Alimonte, who is completing his final year in the master of journalism program, compared the AIDS coverage by the two mainstream papers to reporting by The Body Politic, a monthly that billed itself as a “gay liberation newspaper.” He found substantial differences.

The Body Politic, he said, was more more likely to question early research claims that AIDS can be spread by casual contact – a claim that turned out to be false. Gay men living with AIDS were also given a voice in the publication’s coverage more frequently than in mainstream publications.

D’Alimonte’s content analysis also revealed that when AIDS was first recognized as a public health issue, The Body Politic reported more extensively on developments and also played the role of an advocate, adopting a critical perspective on AIDS as a social and public health issue, he said.

D’Alimonte said he decided to investigate news coverage of the early years of the AIDS epidemic after having a partner who was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He became more aware of the stigma faced by people who are HIV-positive, he said, when his partner encountered immigration difficulties moving from the United States to Canada.

“This got me interested in where all of this stigma came from,” D’Alimonte said. “As a queer male, I never learned about any of that stuff in school, so I took it upon myself to learn about the AIDS epidemic and also about that period of time in a Toronto context. Not a lot of people are aware that a lot of the activism surrounding AIDS was centred in Toronto.”

The paper, AIDS Coverage By Three Toronto-Based Print News Publications, examines AIDS coverage by the three news outlets in Toronto from 1981, when it was first reported on, to 1987.

In his analysis, D’Alimonte, 26, investigated the extent to which the newspapers focused on people who were diagnosed with AIDS and were ill rather than stories of healthy HIV-positive individuals. He examined how frequently AIDS stories appeared in the newspapers and the significance of word choice and terminology. Use of the term “plague,” he noted, implied that gay men with AIDS were deserving of their affliction because they were sexually deviant. The study also looked at where AIDS-related stories appeared in the publications and the types of sources quoted.

D’Alimonte said he wanted to see if the Toronto coverage mirrored patterns of early AIDS reporting in the United States, where researchers have divided the coverage into four distinct “eras.” He found that in the initial era from from June 1981, when the first AIDS cases were reported, to April 1983, the Star and the Globe virtually ignored the issue.

The Globe published just one article related to AIDS, a 1981 story titled “Young gays sensitive to rare cancer: study.” The article focused on Kaposi’s sarcoma, the “rare cancer” alluded to in the title, and featured only scientific sources. Individuals with the disease were nowhere in the story. Both the title and the lede of the piece connect this rare cancer to the gay male community, but no real explanation was provided for this link.

The Toronto Star, meanwhile, did not publish its first AIDS-related story until November 1982 when it a piece ran under the headline “Atlanta disease detectives hot on trail of ‘gay plague.’”

“Likening AIDS to a ‘gay plague’ makes those afflicted by the disease (who are mostly homosexuals and drug-users, as the piece points out) seem deserving of their fate,” D’Alimonte wrote in the research paper. “Drug-users and homosexuals, already seen as deviants in the public eye at the time, are being punished by God. That is, at least, what the language used implicitly suggests.”

The two mainstream newspapers may not have felt a sense of urgency to report on AIDS, D’Alimonte said, because their team and audience were outside of the community at risk: “No matter what the circumstance is,” he said, “it is always easy to point fingers. We are born in a way that makes the one group as the ‘other’ when you’re not a part of that community. During this time period, there was a lot of research and early reporting saying that the gay community is the reason why this disease is expanding.”

During the subsequent “Science Era,” from the spring of 1983 until June 1985, American journalists relied on scientific, academic sources in their reporting, and the Canadian newspapers did as well. The Globe and the Star would instantly write about new AIDS-related research, D’Alimonte said, and that occasionally led to the dissemination of misleading information.

The Body Politic, D’Alimonte said in an interview, took more cautious approach: “(Its) writers realized that what they wrote would influence how people thought,” he said, “especially when they are coming from their own community. They knew they shouldn’t just take information and report it out as soon as they got it.”

The publication went beyond simply disseminating information, D’Alimonte said, and worked to offer guidance to its readers, pointing out what information may be accurate, what may be false and where they could find out more.

Following the AIDS-related death of Rock Hudson in 1985, the general population became interested and concerned about AIDS, and both Canadian papers dramatically increased coverage. During the so-called Human Era of news coverage between July 1985 to January 1987, D’Alimonte found that the Globe and the Star did a better job of humanizing the disease, drawing upon people affected within the queer community as well as other at-risk groups as sources.

The Body Politic ceased publication in 1987, the same year AIDS coverage took off in the mainstream media during what is known as the Political Era of coverage. By that point, D’Alimonte said, AIDS became a major news topic – a public health issue the general population wanted to know more about. After publishing just 73 stories in 1986, the Globe and Mail carried 236 AIDS-related stories in 1987. The number of stories in the Star increased to 146 in 1987, up from 56 in 1986

D’Alimonte said he hopes his research paper will inform millennials of what happened during the AIDS epidemic and the legacy of it.