Currently viewing the tag: "journalism ethics"

Feb. 12, 2018

By AMANDA POPE
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.

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

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 features, news 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. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By SIERRA BEIN
Staff reporter

Journalists interview police at a crime scene in Québec. (Photo courtesy GRC – RCMP – DIVISION C – QUÉBEC, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first time Kim Bolan received a death threat was in 1997, but over the years she has received many. A single gunshot through her home’s window on an early December morning was a reminder that any job as a crime journalist is a 24-hour commitment. The bullet, intended as a message to Bolan to stop sticking her nose in Vancouver’s organized crime scene, was the first threat she received during her career. In 2009 she received a dead rat in the mail with a note attached saying she would be killed if she did not stop reporting on gangs in the region.

In May, Bolan wrote a story about a court trial she attended, where she was the subject in the hearing. A member of British Columbia’s United Nations gang  – now a Crown witness – testified that gang members had been plotting to kill Bolan because of her reporting on their organization. Their name has been withheld under a publication ban.

“Obviously it’s a bit disturbing to be sitting there in court and hearing these details,” Bolan said. The gang members, who had allegedly discussed killing Bolan back in 2011, had her address and had been scouting her property. She was the only reporter in the courtroom covering the story, knowing police would not release the details of the charge and that the courts would only mention the attempt on her life in their final ruling.

For crime journalists, dealing with police is a daily part of the job. But recently, reporters like Bolan have been increasingly pushing back against police in Canada, who they say are withholding more and more information about crime cases. In some instances, reporters are putting their lives on the line to get stories out to the public.

“Half the time they don’t have a specific [law] that’s really about withholding – it’s just a broad interpretation that I would argue isn’t the appropriate interpretation,” Bolan said in an interview, adding that she’s noticed an increased tendency to withhold the names of murder victims.

As a result, she argues, community members aren’t aware of violent crimes in their neighbourhoods.

“I believe there’s too much secrecy with police in B.C. –– that’s certainly been my experience,” says Bolan. “They always withhold as much as they can it seems, and likewise we have a problem with secrecy in the court, and publication bans that are inhibiting our abilities to do our jobs properly and inform the public about what’s going in major cases.”

Reporters have responded by resorting to new tactics to get information about crimes that affect their communities and challenge police institutions across Canada.

Bolan, who has been a reporter at the Vancouver Sun for nearly 30 years, has started the blog REAL SCOOP News, a section of the Vancouver Sun dedicated to crime news. Bolan’s beat focused on organized and gang-related crime that has intensified since the early 2000s, with more drugs and more gun violence making their way onto the streets of British Columbia communities. Bolan says that she is one of the few reporters to consistently focus on the topic

“Oftentimes, people assume that those stories are perhaps small and insignificant,” she says. “But the reality is that oftentimes those stories have bigger connections to other communities in the region in Canada, or in some cases, other parts of the world.”

Lisa Taylor, a journalism professor at Ryerson University, has been studying issues related to police withholding of information. Her research has focused on police services that are not releasing the names of homicide victims. As of May, for example, Edmonton police had not named eight out of 17 victims in homicide cases. The RCMP Alberta Headquarters has withheld two out of 14.

“Our construction of crime is that crime is not just a wrong that one person commits against another: crime is a wrong that one person commits against society at large,” says Taylor, who presented her research at a recent conference on the future of local journalism. “So this whole idea of holding back names of victims and saying ‘it’s just private’ is the first problem.”

RCMP protocols state that names can only be released if the dead individuals give permission or if the disclosure helps with the investigation. More recently, a new framework introduced in Alberta is supporting this similar RCMP protocols and is being opposed by many in Canadian media. Going forward, a list of criteria will have to be filled before releasing the name of a victim to ensure what they consider to be a privacy violation is defensible.

Although the laws and legislation have not changed in more than a decade, in the past few years less information is being released by some police. This mainly has to do with how different divisions and levels of police interpret the laws.

“A piece of legislation is a complex thing,” says Taylor. “There is nothing that tells us that this information needs to be withheld. But, there’s nothing that explicitly says this information needs to be released.”

Releasing important information can be essential in a police investigation where a suspect is not named, Taylor said. For many journalists, being able to provide names also make their work more credible than a broad-brush approach. For families, being able to provide a name can also be a way to help put a face to a crime that might otherwise be swept under the rug in their community.

“We often assume that no victim’s family wants their loved ones mentioned, and I think that’s probably true nine times out of 10,” says Taylor. “But then there’s the tenth family who desperately wants you to know that their loved one wasn’t just some guy shot in a park. He was a dad and a member of a church and a great soccer player and a million other wonderful things.”

In addition to withholding key information, police across Canada have even been encrypting their scanners, making it more difficult for journalists to monitor what is going on.

The lack of transparency has consequences. In Thunder Bay, Ont., for instance, journalists and community members have been demanding more information from the police. James Murray, an editor at NetNewsLedger, says that the public, and Indigenous communities in particular, have major issues when it comes to trusting the Thunder Bay Police Service.

“About six, seven years ago Thunder Bay really was slow on releasing information on almost any crime that was going on,” he says. “Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Treaty 3 and Rainy River First Nations are now complaining that police are coming to judgment really quickly without doing any investigation.”

For Murray, crime reporting in Thunder Bay is still evolving. But the lack of transparency in crime, specifically the lack of information about homicides, is disturbing for many people. And that means journalists have an even bigger role when it comes to chasing down the truth and putting pressure on the police to release more information.

According to Murray, in some cases in Thunder Bay, police have been so slow to release details of victims, that the family and community has put up a full memorial page on Facebook before the police have even confirmed the death to the media. This, combined with serious questions about the quality of police investigations, mean reporters are digging deeper into these cases.

“Over and over and over again there’s been young people come down to Thunder Bay to go to school and end up in the river –– all (of them) Indigenous youth—Ojibwe kids from the north, Cree kids from the north. The usual explanation is that it’s not a crime. First Nation communities are going, ‘Our people are around water all the time, fishing and they’re hunting and in boats. How [do they] all of a sudden come to Thunder Bay and drown?’” said Murray.

Until police release more names of victims, or release more information related to serious crimes in general, journalists will increasingly continue to rely exclusively on sources outside of the police forces to write their stories.

Sarah Ladik is a reporter in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan but worked in the North-West Territories for five years.

“We’ve had cases where so much was held back that we couldn’t report,” she says. “If the family wants to talk to me and the family is cool with having their name out, then we’re out and that’s it. You don’t need the police to confirm with you.

“[Police are] not your only way of getting that information and yeah, it’s a bit tougher to track down families. It’s an emotional thing. It’s rough. It’s unpleasant. Generally they’re more difficult to find, but it’s still worthwhile, that’s the job.”

Journalists can mine information from social media, especially Facebook, to track down family and friends, they can cover court proceedings where names are made public, or they can work their sources in the community to get around police obstacles. Taylor noted, however, that these strategies can also complicate relations with police sources.

“If a journalist is told that the name is not being released by the police but then the journalist uses her own methods and gets that information and publishes it,” she says, “she may risk alienating the police and then find herself in a position of being further frozen out, and given even less information than she was getting before because that seems to be just how subjective these things are.” Taylor added, however, that it’s important that journalists not let one voice control the narrative, even if it’s the police.

Bolan continues to report on organized crime in Vancouver because she knows no one else has a beat as unique as hers. She’s still following the UN gang, even though publication bans stop her from publishing the name of the man who testified about plotting her murder.

In the meantime she keeps fighting for information on behalf of her readers: “Police and court officials sometimes forget that they’re paid by the public and therefore should be accountable to the public,” says Bolan. “We expect a certain level of transparency in all other government operations, but suddenly when it comes to police and courts, secrecy is okay. I don’t accept that as a journalist.”