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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)

Feb. 12, 2018

Staff reporter

CBC journalist and As It Happens host Carol Off will explore the relationship between reporters and sources when she delivers the annual Atkinson lecture at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism on Feb. 14.

During the public lecture Off will draw upon her new book All We Leave Behind, which documents her experience interviewing Asad Aryubwal in Afghanistan about his country’s notorious warlords. She was forced to rethink the professional barriers between journalists and sources when the warlords sent death squads to kill Aryubwal for speaking out. He and he and his family had to flee for their lives. Nearly a decade later, with Off’s help, they finally found refuge in Canada.

“Professional barriers between journalists and sources are being challenged,” said Janice Neil, the chair of the RSJ. “Now there is more transparency and the journalistic process is becoming a lot more visible to sources and people outside of journalism than it was before.”

The Atkinson lecture, made possible by an Atkinson Charitable Foundation endowment in honour of former Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, traditionally draws both members of the public and the journalism community. Last year’s lecturer was Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman who discussed issues related to fake news and trust in the news media. Former journalist Dr. Marie Wilson has spoken about news coverage of Indigenous issues from her perspective as one of the three commissioners on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Toronto Star reporter and author Michelle Shephard lectured on journalism and national security reporting, while Toronto Sun editorial cartoonist Susan Dewar discussed freedom of expression and editorial cartooning in the aftermath of the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

“When you look at the range of speakers and the topics discussed,” Neil said,” the relationship between sources and journalists certainly falls within the Atkinson lecture’s focus on social justice issues.”

Off’s willingness to write about her decision to set aside the traditional role of reporters as disinterested observers is important for journalists to understand, Neil said.

“I hope students come away with an understanding of how things are not necessarily black and white,” Neil said. They will hopefully leave with an appreciation of how big these questions are, how deeply they need to be thought about and (how) the answers may be different from what you have always expected.”

The lecture will take place on Feb. 14 at 10 a.m. in the Sears Atrium inside the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre at Ryerson University. It can also be watched live by clicking here. There will be a reception following the lecture.

Staff Reporter

Duncan McCue, the Ryerson School of Journalism’s Rogers Visiting Journalist, discusses politics and Indigenous communities at Ryerson University on Feb. 13, 2017. (Jasmine Bala)

Indigenous people want their leaders held accountable, but journalists should be cautious about perpetuating negative stereotypes, Ryerson School of Journalism Rogers Visiting Journalist Duncan McCue said during a lecture on Indigenous politics.

By way of example, McCue said stories such as those of the “crooked” and “corrupt” chiefs that make massive salaries and go on vacations should be reported by journalists. But they need to be put into perspective – a vast majority of chiefs do not make that much and have average salaries, he said. Some of them make less than municipal councillors even though they have the same or more responsibilities, including municipal infrastructure and treaties, he explained.

“Not all First Nations in this country are operating in these corrupt manners,” said McCue, who is a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in southern Ontario. “There are some though…and they absolutely should be reported from my perspective because First Nations citizens want to see them reported,” McCue told the crowd of mostly journalism students attending the discussion organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

“First Nations citizens aren’t happy when they find out that their chief has been collecting a $400,000 or $500,000 salary every year. They want to know that kind of thing and…the way that the Indian Act has been set up, they don’t always know. Band councils are not always sharing and transparent [with] the kinds of documents that First Nations band members want,” he said.

Between elections, he said, the chief and council are politically accountable to the minister of Indigenous and northern affairs: “If your chief isn’t showing up, you know, books off and doesn’t show up for six months, there’s nothing that an individual band member can do other than file an appeal that goes to the Minister of [Indigenous and northern] affairs,” McCue said. “And it’s the minister…who has to decide whether or not this person is irresponsible under the Indian Act with regards to their governance.”

McCue is Anishinaabe and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. The host of CBC Radio One’s Cross Country Checkup, he has been a reporter for CBC’s The National and was part of an award-winning CBC Aboriginal investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

At the start of his presentation, McCue said he was deliberately using “archaic” terms, like “Indian” and “band council” when analyzing and explaining Indigenous history and talking about politics because the terms are from the Indian Act, which “is the system that still governs the majority of First Nations in this country.” When reporting on Indigenous communities, he added, journalists should ask the people they interview which terms they prefer and use those in their stories.

He said effective reporting on Indigenous politics also requires an understanding of who wields power at the community level. Many of the 600 First Nations groups in Canada have hereditary chiefs who wield influence, McCue said, but the Indian Act also requires that band members vote by secret ballot for chief and council members. The more members you have in a band, he added, the more councillors you have.

Other communities, he added,  have negotiated treaties with the federal government and therefore operate with their own election codes outside of the Indian Act.

“Every journalist should be aware when so-and-so says he’s a chief, what does that mean? Does that mean you’re an elected chief under the Indian act? Does it mean you’re a hereditary chief? If you’re a hereditary chief, how did you become appointed? How did you get your name? Who has given you the authority to speak for a particular clan?” McCue said. “It’s important to understand that the elected Indian Act chief may not speak for all of the community members, that there may be traditional leaders who also represent a portion of the community – in some cases, a majority of the community.”

Bands typically have an election every four years, he said, and many newsrooms have not shown an interest in covering these events. Although most First Nations may have an “open-door policy” when it comes to giving journalists access to Indigenous affairs such as band council meetings, there are no clear rules governing media access under the Indian Act, McCue said.

This same conclusion was reached by Discourse Media recently, which recently published a five-part investigation that examined press freedom issues and access to information in First Nations communities, including the legislatures of self-governing First Nations established by modern-day treaties.

“It really is a gray area that’s been untested legally about whether freedom of the press actually exists on Indian reserves,” McCue said. Whether you can cover an election, he said, depends on the chief and council.

“There are laws in the Indian Act about trespassing on an Indian reserves, and anybody who is not a band member can be asked to leave,” he said, noting that refusing to leave can result in trespassing charges.

“It’s not like walking around the City of Toronto, where you have a right to be in any public area and cover anything that you can see with your eye.”

Being sent away, he said, may the result of the difficult relationship journalists have had with First Nations in the past.  But it can also arise in other situations: McCue, for instance, said he was asked to leave a reserve while he was writing a story about an allegedly corrupt chief and council.

“I went to do the story, asked the chief and council for an interview several times, got no answer whatsoever,” he said. “Finally told them that I was in their community to do the story and that this was kind of their final opportunity to offer up their side of the story. And I got a letter from a lawyer – from the band’s lawyer – saying no comment and you’re not allowed to step foot on the reserve.”

Understanding the rules regarding access, however, helped McCue find a workaround: If journalists are invited onto a reserve by a band member, he said, they are allowed to be there with the member.

More generally, McCue said journalists have a role in helping Canadians understand the historical context that has not been provided through schooling. Treaties with Indigenous groups, he said, are not dusty historical records but real agreements that are still relevant today: “Canadians…need to understand that the treaties are not ancient documents…that they’re living, breathing documents and that we’re all treaty peoples.”

While it can be challenging to incorporate basic history lessons into daily reporting, it can be done, McCue said, adding that creating an accompanying item can provide the context:  “Can you put up an infographic that explains some of this complicated history in a more visually appealing or even entertaining way that someone will be able to digest so that they don’t feel like they’re going to a lecture?”

He pointed to key documents that are essential to understanding Indigenous politics and the political relationship between First Nations and Canada. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people that was maintained in the British North America Act of 1867, which established that the federal government has responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians.” He said that explains why “you’ll often see First Nations saying that they’re going to take their concerns or their complaints about their treaties to the Queen…You’ll see them setting off to England.”

McCue also urged journalists to build relationships with Indigenous communities by covering the good news as well as the bad news.

“One of the reasons that we have bad relationships when we go to cover politics…is because we only show up when there’s crisis and tragedy,” McCue said. “[We] don’t form those relationships and cover the good news stories – the judo club or the hockey team that does well…. Those kinds of stories are important. It’s important to share the whole broad range of experience in Indigenous communities, not just the crisis and tragedy.”

Watch the full lecture below: