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Feb. 21, 2018

By RHIANNA JACKSON-KELSO
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)

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.”