Currently viewing the tag: "Amira Elghawaby"

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Amira Elghawaby says strong activist voices are required in the news media to counter prevailing values of “male and pale” newsrooms. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

Mainstream newsrooms need to diversify coverage produced by “male and pale” newsrooms by giving activists the opportunity to write columns and air their opinions, Ryerson University journalism students were told during a recent panel discussion.

The Ryerson Journalism Research Centre hosted the panel, “Activist, advocate, reporter, columnist: Where’s the line?” as a follow-up to controversy earlier this year over the extent to which writers for a news organization should become participants in news stories. Desmond Cole, who wrote a freelance column for the Toronto Star, disrupted a Police Services Board meeting in April to protest the board’s refusal to destroy information officers had gathered through the now-discredited ‘carding’ policy. An editor subsequently informed Cole of the newspaper’s rules prohibiting journalists from becoming activists. Editors at The Toronto Star said they wanted Cole to continue with his twice-monthly column, but he resigned.

Panelist Amira Elghawaby, the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said questions about the role of advocacy in journalism seem to arise more frequently when it comes to marginalized voices: “Why is it that if I am of a different faith, or a different skin colour, or of a different gender, or of a different sexual orientation – why am I worried about my bias but the male and pale newsrooms have not ever been worried about their bias?”

The Star, she said, “lost a huge audience; this was their opportunity. You want to have incredible voices who are reflecting what is happening on the ground and are doing so in their voices.”

Elghawaby said that when she was working as a journalist she worried that she would no longer be viewed as “neutral’ when she decided to start wearing a headscarf.

“I was afraid because I said to myself … ‘I look like I have a bias.’ But I don’t think everyone thinks about themselves in that way.”

Vicky Mochama, a columnist for Metro News Canada and the Toronto Star, told the audience of more than 100 journalism students that while mainstream news organizations are doing more to include the voices of people from marginalized communities, most are still not willing to give them full-time jobs.

“There are different sets of standards for white journalists than there are for journalists of colour or journalists who advocate for people of colour,” she said, noting that Cole was never hired as a full-time employee at The Toronto Star. “These are institutions that are happy to trade on the work of people of colour without ever substantially supporting people of colour and the communities that they come from … which is to say, ‘We want to hear from you but we don’t want you in the building.’”

Mochama, who is a freelancer, said her identity as a person of colour and her experiences inevitably influence how she does her job: “It informs what sort of sources I talk to because that’s the community that I’m most intimately involved with,” she said. “It informs how I think about word choices around blackness or around being a woman in a way that someone who is in my exact same position who is not a black woman would not have those things in mind.”

Nick Taylor-Vaisey, a digital journalist at Maclean’s Magazine and president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said content must be clearly labelled so audience members understand whether they are reading an opinion column or a news story. And Elghawaby pointed out that news organizations themselves are fueling confusion by not sending reporters to cover events and instead sending columnists who produce opinion pieces that are not clearly labelled.

Mochama said she makes clear distinction between her work as a columnist and work she does as a reporter: “If there’s a thing that comes out for me that’s a piece of reporting, you’ll never see a follow-up column about the same thing,” she said. “There are boundaries that I like to maintain.”

Jorge Barrera, an investigative reporter for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, warned that journalists focused on their own strong viewpoints risk missing important stories.

“My first gig was in Yellowknife and at that time … it was the beginning of a push on land claims,” he said. “In covering the North I realized that all of the assumptions that I had picked up – especially when it came to left-leaning theory – all were blown out.”

Barrera said he arrived in the North with preconceived ideas about the evils of the mining industry and the role of unions. Once he was on the job, he said, those ideas were challenged when he realized many people in Indigenous communities saw mining operations as a pathway to greater prosperity and witnessed unions opposing hiring quotas for Indigenous workers.

“If I were to have approached it from an ideological position from the left,” Barrera said, “I would have missed out on all these stories, I wouldn’t have seen it or have been able to understand what was going on.”

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

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If you want to learn about the Muslim community, don’t read the news, says the associate editor of The Islamic Monthly.

Steven Zhou, who converted to Islam six years ago, said writing about a community takes time and resources.

As a result, too many publications produce “surface-level” stories fulfilling their role as being part of the public record “because the truth needs to be told.” But as a freelancer for publications including CBC News Online, Zhou said he’s sympathetic.

“It’s easier to make money pounding out a thousand words in your underwear than it is to go on a bus and spend your money and cover something,” he said.

He was joined on the panel Know Thy Neighbour: Local News as a Tool for Overcoming Difference by Muslim Link coordinator Chelby Marie Daigle, BuzzFeed’s Ishmael Daro, and producer, writer and broadcaster Naheed Mustafa at a conference on the future of local news hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism.

The Muslim community is not as homogenous as mainstream media portrays, they said.

“I can tell you, in almost a decade of interaction with people in the community, I’m probably more confused than when I started,” Zhou said. “How does one person cover a million people?”

The answer to such a question is more critical than ever, said panel moderator Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“I usually like to tell a lot of jokes but, again, we’re having another terrorist attack in London,” she said at the beginning of the discussion.

Elghawaby played a clip, recorded the night before by a Muslim friend while out for a walk with her 11-year-old son in in Kanata, Ontario. A male voice yelled hateful racial slurs.

“He went on to say they should all be killed,” Elghawaby said. “This is what we’re talking about, knowing thy neighbour, and it’s not just a cute title of a panel.”

Getting to know the Muslim community, a community subject to an increasing number of hate crimes, which Elghawaby charts on an online map, means building connections, said Mustafa, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Walrus and numerous other publications.

Of workplaces such as CBC, where colleagues assumed certain communities trusted her with their stories because of her ethnicity, Mustafa said, ”I don’t actually have access to that community. I built access to that community.”

Building access could mean contacting at least a dozen people and attending events such as a women’s gathering in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto, as Mustafa did for a CBC documentary about what it meant to be Canadian. It could also mean being aware that journalists are in a position of power.

“If you have people in the community who are still relying on us to filter their stories,” she said, “are we really engaging in a meaningful way or are we basically forcing people to help us tell the story we’re interested in telling?”

At Muslim Link, Daigle is focused on telling the stories her community wants to tell, she said. Daigle, who says she has no background in journalism, “has learned that “people want to read about people they might actually know, or people who look like them, or people they might run into.”

“I think local news is so important for community building,” she said. “It’s how you get to know your neighbours.”

Muslim Link tells stories that explore the spectrum of a multi-dimensional community that isn’t often reflected in mainstream media, said Daigle, from Eritrean Canadians launching a charity to support refugees in Sudan to an Ottawa bus driver standing up to Islamophobia.

“The interesting thing about telling the stories of Muslims in Canada is that it’s as interesting for Muslims as it is for non-Muslims because our community is so diverse.”

Ishmael Daro, social news editor at BuzzFeed Canada who covers Islamophobia as a sub-beat, said he uses stories to help bust stereotypes. One method of doing this is to tell positive stories about the Muslim community in response to hate incidents, he said. For example, Daro countered a story about anti-Syrian-refugee graffiti at a Calgary light rail transit (LRT) station with one about a group of young Muslims armed with messages of love greeting commuters the next day.

Daro also wrote about a Palestinian donair shop owner who gave free food to the hungry. The business owner did so because it was part of his culture, Daro said, and this became a central aspect of his article.

These are the types of stories that can teach people about his culture from a Muslim perspective, he said.

Such feel-good stories aren’t going to make the front page of the Globe and Mail, he said, “but those are the stories that really connect with people. Those are the stories that I get mail for.”