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By MADDIE BINNING
Special to the RJRC

Researcher Amarnath Amarasingam discusses the newsworthiness of terrorist-produced content with Ryerson professor Joyce Smith at an RJRC event. (Maddie Binning)

Journalists reporting on extremist groups need to arm themselves with knowledge as neo-Nazi and terrorist organizations become more sophisticated in their messaging and media manipulation, a leading expert on radicalization told Ryerson journalism students.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a research fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and at George Washington University, made the case for beat reporting, arguing that reporters need to be equipped with the knowledge and background to challenge the claims of extremists and to put their claims in context.

“Part of the problem with the alt-right is that they removed their white hoods and put on suit jackets,” he said during a recent Ryerson Journalism Research Centre event that focused on best practices for coverage of extremist views. “I don’t think they should be allowed to just kind of change that image without challenge.”

Journalists need to understand the context behind extremists’ beliefs and the movements they represent, said Amarasingam, who has written about radicalization and terrorism for publications such as The Atlantic and Huffington Post, and also edited Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War and The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News. He was interviewed onstage by Ryerson journalism professor Joyce Smith during the RJRC’s Oct. 5 event, “Covering extremism: Reporting News vs. Being Used.”

“There’s a history of these movements and an ideological backing which you kind of need to know,” Amarasingam said, “and I think sometimes if you don’t know that you can slip into very sloppy reporting, which in this issue particularly can (cause) a lot of damage.”

Drawing upon his own experiences being interviewed, Amarasingam said the journalists who ask the best questions and truly understand the context of their reporting are those working beats.

“This is my case for more beats,” he said. “It’s not even about go read a book, it’s go spend time with the people for long periods of time, and so then you start to report on the issues of the community and how this community interacts with international events a bit more clearly.”

Beat expertise, he suggested, also equips journalists to challenge claims by media savvy representatives of extremist groups so they aren’t given a free pass to spew lies, misinformation and racist propaganda. The CBC’s Power and Politics show, for instance, apologized this summer after guest host Hannah Thibedeau interviewed Proud Boy co-founder Gavin McInnes without challenging his views. Thibedeau said afterwards that viewers should have been informed about McInnes’ anti-Semitic sentiments and that she should have challenged claims he made during the interview.

Amarasingam said it is important to get representatives of neo-Nazi and other groups on the record clearly stating what they believe in – whether it is ethnic cleansing or the subjugation of women – so that their views are exposed and there is no confusion about what they represent.

Smith, whose research focuses on media and religion, said beat expertise also comes into play when reporters are looking for comment from Canadian Muslims for stories related to radicalization and the activities of extremist groups. Trying to find representative voices within Muslim communities, she said, isn’t as straightforward as covering an issue involving the Catholic church.

“There’s a phone book that tells you that this is the bishop…and you know that these are figures of authority that kind of have that stamp on them and you can say with some confidence that this is what Catholics think or this is the party line,” Smith said. “But the Muslim community is so diverse ethnically, language communities, theologically, that it’s really, really challenging to know until you spend more time researching it.”

Smith also cautioned against making uninformed assumptions about religious groups and their links to extremism.

“It’s important for us who are not part of these communities to make it our business (as reporters) to become more familiar with them.”

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:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By MIRIAM VALDES-CARLETTI
Staff reporter

Newsroom collaborations can give students valuable training and provide a service by filling gaps in local news coverage, says a media labour expert.

Errol Salamon, the work and labour editor at J-Source, says that established media publishers and editors have also helped students by giving them the temporary power to run mainstream media companies.

In 1933, the Vancouver Sun gave students at the University of British Columbia an opportunity to take over the newsroom for the day. This was over a decade before formal journalism programs were introduced in Canada.

“Widely distributed content by student journalists could help circulate higher quality news and address the problems of local news deserts,” said Salamon.

He went on to quote Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, saying, “Like teaching hospitals, journalism schools can provide essential services to their communities while they’re educating their students.”

Salamon, who co-wrote Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada, was joined on a panel about students solutions to issues in journalism models by Archie McLean and Janice Paskey – journalism professors from Mount Royal University – at a recent conference on the future of local news at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

There are lessons to be learned from the history of journalistic collaborations between news organizations and college campuses that can be traced back to the early 20th century, he said.

In 1920, the three daily newspapers in Winnipeg stopped publishing for six days due to a print shortage. During this time, The Manitoban – the University of Manitoba’s weekly campus newspaper – shifted to daily production for four of the six days. The editor of the student paper at the time, Graham Spry, went on to champion the cause for public broadcasting in Canada.

Paskey says that faculty editors at student publications would like to collaborate more with local news organizations but don’t get taken up on offers or are still trying to make it happen.

She conducted a study alongside McLean to discover if Canadian journalism programs were trying to fill the gap in local news in their communities. Of the five colleges and fives universities that participated, she discovered that some publications covered campus news, some covered external, and some a mix of both.

Publications that covered news stories that resonate with the wider community got the most traffic, they found.

When the University of Regina’s paper, The Carillon, reported on the Saskatchewan provincial budget, their work garnered 52,000 pageviews– evidence to Paskey that their coverage helped fill a local news gap. Another example cited was the University of King’s College paper, The Signal, which reported the story of a family experiencing homelessness that found housing after asking for help on Kijiji. Paskey says it was a story of the times that resonated with the community by demonstrating a social need for affordable housing.

Pageviews for Canadian campus publications in the study ranged from 6,800 to 18,000 a month – a level of engagement Paskey calls significant.

McLean, who examined social media during the study, found that the usage of Facebook and Twitter was high, but underutilized still.

“If [campus] journalism news sites are serious about filling the news gap then they need to be better on social media and do it differently.” said McLean.

Since audiences are mobile and social, journalistic outlets need to cater their stories to each platform, McLean suggests. While it’s easy enough to share the same article across all platforms without changing things around, it’s not the best strategy to maximize engagement. Campus publications need to better optimize their stories for each social media platform, he says

When using Facebook – what McLean describes as the “900-pound. gorilla of social media”– student outlets had the highest engagement leading to their website. Twitter landed second because driving traffic to the website wasn’t its strength.

“The story sits at the heart of what you do,” he said, “then you take pieces of the story and optimize them for the various platforms. This can be a 30-second Facebook video and some text used for a newsletter.”

It’s important that students learn new strategies going forward since they’re living in a digital era, said McLean.

Jessica Thom, assistant professor, at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. (Jasmine Bala)

By JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

While most Canadian millennials get their first taste of news via Facebook posts, Twitter shares and other social media, that is typically just the starting point when it comes to their news consumption habits, a new study suggests.

The study contradicts the commonly held belief that young people don’t go much beyond social media in their quest for news, says Jessica Thom, a Ryerson University School of Image Arts assistant professor and the author of the research. In fact, she said, many youth use social media as a gateway to mainstream news sites.

“They’re really reading the trending topics; they’re reading the title of the article that their friend has posted or shared,” Thom said in an interview. “They’re really getting kind of the bite-sized pieces of news from their social media, and then they either click on that article or they search that title and they find out more information through search engines.”

Participants in the research, which Thom did for her doctoral dissertation, said that after social media such as Facebook brought a news event or development to their attention, they would often use Google to seek out more information from a trusted mainstream news site.

“That is a very conscious decision that they make, to find a mainstream news outlet that they have some sort of understanding of or with,” Thom said. “It’s for the most part not things like blogs, live streams, Twitter or opinion comments on YouTube where they’re going to find out the facts about a news story.”

Thom’s investigation of how young people choose which news to consume and which news to believe involved focus groups, interviews and online diary-keeping. Participants were aged 18 to 29.

If young people weren’t interested in the topic of the story or didn’t think it was important, they normally didn’t go much further than the headline on social media, said Thom.

“That idea of importance was also something that was a little bit vague,” she said. “[It] can be something that’s important to them because they have a family member, a friend or a roommate that has some sort of affiliation to that story. They could be from that country; they could know someone who’s visited that country.”

Participants, she said, clearly understood that reading the news is a key part of being an informed citizen and participating in a democratic society. They demonstrated a “sophisticated approach to—and interest in—becoming informed citizens,” rather than a lazy or haphazard approach to news consumption, she wrote in her dissertation.

Thom noted, however, that young Canadians also “depend on sites and aggregators like Facebook, Snapchat and Google, as well as their friends and family, to funnel important or interesting news to them rather than spending time and mental energy sifting through thousands of news sites, blog posts, YouTube videos, tweets, Snapchats, radio broadcasts and television news bulletins to find the most relevant news.”

The proliferation of fake news, she added, has “made judging the truthfulness and deception in news very challenging,” and this is something millennials have to think about when consuming online news.

When deciding what mainstream news outlet to visit and believe, Thom wrote that young Canadians use a mental checklist. It may include questions like: “Is the source credible? Have you used it in the past? Does it have a tradition? Is the language appropriate? Does the language sound like a professional journalist or does it sound like ‘Joe’s blog’? Is the spelling accurate? Is it more opinion-based or is it more fact-based?”

Study participants, she said, used literacy skills taught in their public school curriculums to determine which sources are the most trustworthy. Although participants pointed to mainstream and legacy media sources as credible, she noted that they generally didn’t believe or trust soft news stories, particularly those that were political.

The young people Thom spoke to indicated that a “breaking news story is instantly believable, but a political story is likely spun in some way,” she wrote, noting that they felt these stories could be more opinion-based and have a political bias.

“It was the difference between reading the facts and knowing the news story and being told an opinion about what that news story is.”

The lesson for news outlets, Thom said, is that they need to share news in a way that follows the gateway system if they want to target young Canadians.

“They not only can make their information easily accessible via social media so that the news can be encountered by them, but [they can] also make sure that it’s a brand that comes to be known [and trusted] by young people earlier in their lives so it becomes more of a habit to use them,” she said. “So, when they go about making a decision about what news they’re going to look at through a search engine, that can be one of the options. Because they know that brand – they know the news organization – that’s something that they’re going to come to trust.”

While this brand might not be a news outlet they use every day, millennials will come to have some sort of understanding and belief in the news outlet’s credibility. It “might be one that they’ve heard about [and see online], one that they know their parents watch at 6 p.m., or that they know that their grandparents have delivered everyday,” Thom said.

Thom said her research objective was to increase and add to the discussion of how people, specifically young Canadians, consume news.

“There’s a lack of dialogue about our news consumption in Canada. Not from journalists who are obviously very interested in this, but from our government, from our public institutions,” she said. “I don’t think that we actually have the numbers and studies that can back that stuff up in a Canadian context.

“The way that we get informed in a contemporary news landscape is something that we need to know a lot more about. Particularly [since] our next generation is going to be getting informed that way.”

BY JASMINE BALA
Staff Reporter

Gavin Adamson, journalism undergraduate program director, presenting his findings at Ryerson University on Sept. 12, 2016. (Jasmine Bala)

Gavin Adamson, journalism undergraduate program director, presenting his findings at Ryerson University on Sept. 12, 2016. Photo: Jasmine Bala

News stories that deal with mental health-related recovery and treatment are shared much more frequently than stories about mental health and violence, according to new research by a Ryerson University journalism professor.

The study by Gavin Adamson examined the content of articles dealing with mental health and how they were shared across digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“There’s sort of this assumption that what bleeds leads in journalism,” said Adamson, who co-authored the report with McGill University’s Robert Whitley and Liam Donaldson, a research assistant at Ryerson. “It’s like this catchphrase. I don’t know who coined it, but it’s what the audience believes about journalism and it’s sometimes what journalists believe about journalism too.”

Adamson’s research, however, shows that this isn’t true where mental illness is involved. His examination of online news stories suggests that readers are less likely to share mental health-related stories about crime and violence than stories with a positive or neutral tone. The study finds that articles about recovery and treatment are shared 700 more times than other mental-health related stories.

Adamson said the violent themes that are often present in stories about mental illness are a concern for health researchers because the accounts can affect people who are ill.

“This type of story might prevent people from seeking treatment or even admitting [to having] problems,” he said. “It means that mental illness is a problem and something that you want to keep secret because it is stigmatizing.”

But Adamson says that people with mental illnesses are no more violent than the rest of the population.

“People with mental illness tend to be victims of crime more than their perpetrators,” he said. “Often these people live on the street and they’re the ones that are having the violence done to them. So, there’s a horrible irony in the effect of news, you know, because it just tells sort of the opposite story.”

Previous research has shown that the link between criminality and mental illness occurs in up to 50 per cent of all coverage of the topic, while less than 20 per cent of all stories deal with treatment and recovery. This remains true despite the results of Adamson’s study that suggest readers are less likely to share news articles that stigmatize mental illness.

Adamson said he does not know why the data turned up this way. A limit of the study is that he did not survey news readers about why they share what they share online.

But he speculates that readers are more likely to share recovery and treatment stories because many of them are directly affected by mental illness.

“It’s something that everyone cares about. They aren’t particularly inclined to be excited by bad news about people in distress and in acute phases of their mental illness where something horrible might happen,” he said, “but they are interested in sharing stories that communicate their sympathy about their own situations, about their family’s situations, about their friends’ situations. That is my hunch.”

The research team analyzed all the stories related to mental health that were generated by three different newsrooms in Canada between Nov. 13, 2014 and Nov. 13, 2015. To measure audience engagement, web-reading metrics such as time-on-page, page views, social sharing and referrals were considered.

Adamson argues that digital news is always changing and can be used as a way to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“Google adds these emergency services when you type in the word ‘suicide.’ Why can’t newsrooms?” he said. “Why can’t newsrooms have boiler plate sentences about mental health and mental illness? They can be put into the back end of their websites. WordPress could have a system where you could drop in basic background on mental health and mental illness into every news story that includes it.”