Currently viewing the tag: "panel"

By ALLISON RIDGWAY and ANIA BESSONOV
Staff Reporters

img_4769

Stephen Meurice, Stephen Trumper and Andrea Houston at an RJRC panel in October. (Ania Bessonov)

The Canadian Press (CP) is discussing how to update its stylebook to reflect changing language surrounding LGBTQ, Indigenous and disabled communities, CP’s editor-in-chief said during a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre panel earlier this month.

But the national news agency must keep its clients and readers in mind when contemplating such changes, said editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice.

“Clarity of language is key,” Meurice told about 90 journalism students and members of the public at the panel. “You want people to read your whole story and you want them to understand what’s going on … We do have to think about the small clients who are in areas that might be more conservative.”

Panel members discussed current language issues in news writing and reporting, including the singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. Along with Meurice, the panel featured former Toronto Life editor and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Stephen Trumper and Andrea Houston, a freelance journalist who teaches a course at the school on queer media. A video-slideshow prepared by journalism professor Joyce Smith discussed language issues that arise in the coverage of religion and security.

The CP wire service is purchased by news organization across the country, with clients that range from large metropolitan daily newspapers to smaller rural publications. It is also the publisher and editor of the Canadian Press Stylebook, a guide to journalistic conventions in Canada that is used by many news outlets and taught to journalism students.

A new edition of the style guide is expected next year, and Meurice said decisions will need to be made about what to say in the book on issues such as gender-neutral pronouns or the word “cisgender” (a term that describes people who are not transgender). While the stylebook does include an entry on the term “transgender,” it does not include an entry on the use of the singular “they.”

The singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral, third person pronoun is often used as a more inclusive pronoun, as it avoids assigning a gender to a person who does not identify as exclusively a woman or a man. Some people choose other gender-neutral pronouns, such as “xe” and “ze,” but the singular use of “they” is often the most popular.

Houston said that it is the responsibility of journalists to represent their sources respectfully.

“When you are interviewing a source and they ask for a gender-neutral pronoun, obviously don’t challenge them on this,” she said. “It’s not up to you, as a journalist, to have this debate – to debate someone’s identity. It’s up to you to respect them and represent them with compassion and honesty, as they want to be represented.”

Meurice, who said CP may well incorporate the use of “they” as standard practice in the styleguide, said the wire service does take the wishes of sources into account: “We would never intentionally use the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ if someone had specifically asked us not to,” he said of CP’s policy.

Journalists, however, do not always receive support from their editors on these issues, Houston warned.

“I have had situations where I have been overruled by an editor when a gender neutral pronoun was put into a story, and that’s really unfortunate when that happens.”

Reader confusion can be avoided, Houston said, if news organizations include a brief explanation of why the singular “they” was used in a text.

“Words change and language changes and it’s fantastic to educate [readers],” she added.

The panelists also discussed language sensitivities and judgment calls related to covering religion and disability.

Trumper, who is on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation, said that perception surrounding disability is just as important – if not more so – as the language used to describe people with disabilities.

“We are the country of Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. We tend to revere the very athletic types of people with disabilities…but that’s not a true representation of all people with disabilities because not everyone has that strong upper-body strength or strong willpower,” he said. “In reality, [people with disabilities] are just ordinary people who can sometimes do extraordinary things.”

Joyce Smith, an associate professor at the School of Journalism who teaches reporting on religion, spoke on the importance of language as it relates to religion – particularly language surrounding Muslim communities.

Words like “radical,” “moderate,” “conservative” and “liberal” often come up when reporting on terrorist attacks, she said, but can demonize and stereotype religious people – particularly Muslims.

“It’s very important to think about how these words are coming to be suggested,” said Smith. “Is it the group themselves [using these words]? Is it their opponents? Is it a critic?”

A terrorist attack may be partially motivated by religious ideology, she explained, but many cases have other contributing factors as well. After Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a Canadian soldier to death at Parliament Hill in 2014, many news agencies were quick to jump on the fact that he attended mosques, identified as Muslim, and had expressed support for jihadists in the past. Later, however, it was revealed that Zehaf-Bibeau had also been mentally ill and struggled with a drug addiction, factors that his mother said led to the shooting.

“It’s really important when we’re using religious words to remember that it’s not the only way to characterize someone’s motivation or their actions,” Smith said. “Separate the action from the ideology and the motivation.”

Kamal Al-Solaylee, Angelyn Francis and Jim Rankin discuss how reporters can get comfortable while covering controversial stories at an RJRC panel.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, Angelyn Francis and Jim Rankin discuss how reporters can get comfortable while covering controversial stories at an RJRC panel. Photo: Madeleine Binning.

BY MADDIE BINNING
Staff Reporter

Young journalists – and even industry veterans – can feel uncomfortable reporting controversial stories on topics like race, gender and LGBT issues. Some may even shy away from reporting on these topics to avoid the social media blowback that could follow.

But feeling uncomfortable while reporting on some communities and situations is part of being a good journalist, said Toronto Star investigative reporter Jim at the Ryerson Research Centre’s (RJRC) recent panel, “Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable.” 

“If as a journalist you’re feeling comfortable all the time, you’re not doing good journalism,” said Rankin. “You should be able to step outside of your comfort zone.”

The first RJRC event this fall, the panel attracted about 100 journalism students, faculty members and members of the public to the Rogers Communication Centre at Ryerson University. The discussion, featuring Rankin, award-winning author Kamal Al-Solaylee and Angelyn Francis, associate editor for The Huffington Post, focused on how journalists can deal with discomfort while reporting on controversial issues and the importance of covering difficult topics.

The key to covering such stories is taking the time to get to know sources and neighbourhoods, Rankin said.

“People generally are generous and they want to share their stories,” he said. “And there’s nothing that beats getting out into the communities that you are writing about.”

Beginning in 2002, Rankin led a team of Toronto Star reporters in investigating police carding in Toronto. His award-winning coverage showed that random street checks targeted a disproportionate number of black and brown men in the city. Subsequent reporting on the issue led him to the Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhood in 2012, an area with a significant black population and a heavy police presence. During the panel, Rankin explained that reporting on the carding story from that area of Toronto involved visiting community hubs and acting as a “fly on the wall.”

“If you go into the community, spend time there, gain trust, don’t go in with your cameras blazing. Take time to get to know people – that’s the way that you establish relationships,” he advised.

He said that it can be difficult for reporters to know they’re on the right track when reporting on unfamiliar groups or places and suggested it helps to have a contact inside the community, even if the source won’t be directly quoted in the story.

“Go find a ‘rabbi,’” said Rankin. “It’s someone who knows everything about the thing you’re about to write about. Sit down with them and say, ‘Tell me everything I need to know.’”

These community insiders can also be used to test whether a story is accurate and to follow up on stories later, he said.

“Don’t just leave a story that’s an important story and walk away,” he advised.

Al-Solaylee, a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), said that he travelled to 10 countries to write his recently published book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).

“Being in the world that you wish to write about, that you wish to cover, is, to me, the most valuable thing,” said Al-Solaylee.

He said that one challenge he faced while researching his book was writing about people that he often had “nothing in common” with. Because, as he explained, he was interviewing construction workers, temporary workers and domestic workers from a place of “privilege” as a university professor, it was even more important to him to see their experiences firsthand.

“Let [sources] decide where and when they want to meet and if you’re flexible, that really helps,” he advised, noting that many people were eager to talk to him but also anxious about it. “I meet a lot of people at their comfort zone instead of asking them to come to me.”

Francis, a recent graduate from the RSJ and currently a freelance journalist, stressed that that it is important to tell difficult stories.

“Because of the racial tensions in the United States, Canadians are too quick to write off the fact that racism exists in Canada,” said Francis, who was involved with multiple student groups such as the Racialised Students’ Collective during her time at Ryerson.

“Most of the stories that I write about race pertain to Canada, so [racism] definitely does happen here,” she said. “Just don’t let those stories pass you by and say that, ‘Oh, that’s not necessarily something that’s happening here.’”

She also urged journalists to do their homework and thoroughly research the topics they cover.

“It’s definitely important for us as journalists to learn the skills of interviewing, to learn the skills of how to tell a good story and how to think critically,” said Francis, “but you need to have a little bit of background in what you want to write critically about.”

Watch the full panel below: