Currently viewing the tag: "Toronto Star"

Dec. 5, 2017

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Catherine Porter, the Canada bureau chief for the New York Times, shared her experiences covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti at a Ryerson Review of Journalism event. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

Reporters who fly in to cover natural disasters must report on people suffering the consequences with respect and compassion, says journalist Catherine Porter, who arrived in Haiti soon after the 2010 earthquake to cover the story for the Toronto Star.

Porter was one of several speakers at a recent Ryerson Review of Journalism conference to emphasize that journalists must retain their sense of humanity toward victims of devastating wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and other disasters. Covering Disasters: A Critical Lens, a day-long event held at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, explored how journalists can prepare to cover disasters and where they are missing the mark.

“We have to be respectful, we have to be decent,” said Porter, who is now the Toronto-based Canada bureau chief for the New York Times. “The mantra I repeat to myself often all the time in this job–whether it’s a natural disaster overseas or not–is, ‘This is just my job for today and this is this person’s life.’”

Porter, the keynote speaker at the Nov. 21 conference, recalled the experience of touring a public hospital in Haiti to illustrate how vulnerable people can be treated without dignity. The Spanish doctor who took her on the tour “walked me into a room where I found a completely naked woman on a bare metal table giving birth and she was crowning,” Porter said. “As someone who has given birth twice naturally and has been in that position of complete vulnerability, I was shocked.

“I looked back on that and thought … ‘Why did that Spanish doctor think it was okay to bring me into that room so casually when I was not writing about women giving birth there?’ That would never ever happen in Canada,” she said.

Porter said she left the room because her job as reporter involves treating vulnerable people with respect. Covering disasters, she noted, is hard on the human spirit: “I was haunted when I returned from Haiti.”

Ed Ou, a visual journalist with NBC News based in New York, also discussed the need to focus on the person beyond the tragedy.

“No matter what happens in any situation, whether it’s a conflict or a disaster, life does go on,” said Ou, who was part of a panel about photographing disasters. “One thing that has really struck me is how resilient the human spirit is. We oftentimes as journalists have a tendency to go in and we see people and we’re trying to extract a tragedy but really what you [need] to see is hope.”

Ou travelled to Kazakhstan in 2008 to photograph the lasting effects of radiation on the two million civilians who were exposed when the Soviet government test fired more than 400 nuclear weapons during the Cold War. He said he spent as much time as he could with survivors to get a sense of who they are as people.

Ou shared the story of Berik Syzdykov, who was born deformed and without eyes due to radiation exposure. He said he worked to see beyond Syzdykov’s disfigurement– to find out who he was as a person and what made him happy. Syzdykov, he discovered, learned to play piano and fell in love with opera when he travelled to Italy for an operation on his face.


SEMEY, KAZAKHSTAN – NOVEMBER 19 Berik Syzdykov, 29, sings and plays piano in an apartment in Semey, Kazakhstan Nov. 19, 2008. Berik was born deformed and blind as one of the million victims of radiation from Soviet nuclear testing. He learned to play piano and fell in love with opera when he travelled to Italy for an operation on his face. During the Cold War the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon covering 18,500 square kilometers on the steppe of northeast Kazakhstan, was the site of a secret Soviet nuclear testing programme. Through four decades until the early nineties, the Soviet Union test detonated over four hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and underground in preparation for a war with the West that never took place. The locals were used as guinea pigs to test the effects of radiation on human populations. Villagers living close by were given virtually no protection or warning of the dangers of radiation. Doctor Nailya Chaizhunusova from the Institute of Radiation Medicine in Kazakhstan recounts that “the army experimented on civilians – they would move people close to the test sites, leave a hundred people in the village, give a test group 200 grams of vodka to drink and monitor their health after they detonated a nuclear weapon.” During the course of the nuclear programme, the military prohibited doctors from attributing the sharp rise in illnesses and deaths from cancer, leukaemia, and radiation exposure in the region to the nuclear tests. (Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images)


 

“I try as much as I can to empower people so they aren’t seen as victims but as people with their own agency,” Ou said. “You are spending time with people to paint a portrait of what life looks like and to humanize people and their daily lives, but also to give a sense of what’s at stake.”

The nearly 100 conference attendees heard later in the day from journalists who emphasized the need to report on the aftermath of tragedy. David Thurton, a mobile journalist in Fort McMurray for CBC News, said stories continue to unfold after the immediate crisis is over.

“When it comes to the Fort McMurray wildfires, that’s when the people were the most vulnerable,” Thurton said. “Yes there is a complete disaster, there is an evacuation, they’re fighting for their lives. But then you have the aftermath where people are losing their homes [and] the government is not providing services.”

Government officials and authorities promise to take action to assist victims during tragedies, he noted, so it is crucial for journalists to hold them accountable once the disaster is past.

‘Be prepared to be uncomfortable’

The conference, organized by a team of students working for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, also included a panel discussion about the physical and mental toll covering disasters can take on reporters.

Angela Mullins, a managing editor for Metro News, was part of the news team covering the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. She warned the reporters to beware of the physical discomfort they would experience from the smoke: “Be prepared to be uncomfortable. It is going to be a very uncomfortable experience while you’re there.”

CBC journalist Marion Warnica, who reported the stories of civilians affected by the Fort McMurray wildfires, said covering the disaster was stressful. But she said the best thing journalists can do is give themselves permission to stay safe and be human while doing the job.

“Be mindful. When you start your career, set up a regular mental health practice,” Warnica said. “What is it that you personally need to do to keep yourself happy and stress free? How do you release that stress? I honestly think that is what helped me.”

In the coming weeks, the RRJ plans to publish a multimedia package and online resources for journalists seeking expert advice and best practices for covering a disaster.

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Tanya Talaga, author and Toronto Star reporter on Indigenous issues, discussed her book “Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City” with Ryerson journalism students. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga went to Thunder Bay, Ont. to write about why Indigenous people don’t vote in federal elections, but came back committed to investigating the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students and the education system that failed them.

Talaga, a two-time recipient of the Project of the Year National Newspaper Award, detailed the stories of the seven students in her new book “Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.” She recently discussed the book, which has been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, at a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre event attended by about 100 journalism students.

“When you’re reporting, be conscious to think beyond the stories you’re seeing and the stories that don’t get told,” said Talaga, who has worked for The Star for more than 20 years. “Those are the stories that are often going to lead you down an interesting path.”

Talaga said the book idea emerged from a completely different story assignment. The 2011 federal election was underway and she had travelled to Thunder Bay to talk to Stan Beardy, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, about why Indigenous people in northwestern Ontario don’t vote.

“He looked at me and said, ‘why aren’t you doing a story about Jordan Wabasse?’” Talaga said. “I thought maybe he wasn’t hearing me right so I asked the question again and he looked at me and he said, ‘Jordan has been missing for 70 days.’”

Beardy told her that Wabasse was one of seven youths who had come to Thunder Bay for high school to go missing or die since 2000. Talaga, whose grandmother was raised in a small community about an hour from the city, said she was shocked.

“I was stunned,” Talaga said. “I couldn’t believe that if there were seven students that had died or had gone missing, how come this wasn’t national news across Canada? How come I wasn’t reading about this in all of the newspapers and seeing it on every single TV station in the evening news? There was hardly anything out there.”

The young people whose deaths Talaga chronicles in her book had come to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay because they don’t have access to secondary school in their remote First Nations communities.

The seven students, all of whom died between 2000 and 2011, are Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. 

Talaga said it was apparent that Beardy felt Canada had failed to keep Indigenous youth safe and unharmed: “This is a story about Thunder Bay but this is [also] a story about Canada,” she said. “This story can be seen all across the country when you’re dealing with Indigenous people and their rights and what’s been happening for so long, for too long.

“There is a whole part of history of this country, Indigenous history, that has been lost or not told and it’s only now that it’s being told.”

During a question-and-answer session, one fourth-year journalism student asked Talaga for advice on reporting difficult stories about Indigenous communities.

“Keep reporting in these areas, keep asking the hard questions,” she said. “You shouldn’t be shy. It doesn’t matter if you’re Indigenous or not, just be respectful when you’re approaching a community and I think that you’ll be surprised by what you find.”

A portion the book’s sales will go to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty Memorial Fund. This fund was set up in 1994 to financially assist Nishnawbe Aski Nation students who are studying in Thunder Bay and at post-secondary institutions.

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the work and wealth reporter at the Toronto Star, spoke recently at Ryerson University about her experience working undercover with a temp agency. (Amanda Pope)

Undercover work by journalists is justified only if there’s a compelling public interest and no other way to get the story, says the Toronto Star reporter who recently posed as a temporary worker at a large industrial bakery.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, who covers labour, precarious work and poverty issues for the Star, said it was difficult to get temp workers at Fiera Foods to talk about their experiences on the record so, to get the story, she went undercover in May 2017 as a temp worker in the Toronto factory.

“As journalists we have an ethical obligation to be completely transparent about who we are, to be upfront about what we’re doing and what we’re reporting on,” said Mojtehedzadeh, who co-authored the final story with Brendan Kennedy.  “So it really does take something super- compelling for us to override that obligation. What we try and look at is ‘Is this story representative of the big systemic problem that it’s worth the resources that it’s going to take to investigate?’”

She said the Star had been investigating temp agencies– labour brokers who hire temporary workers but take a portion of the employee’s wage to make a profit – since May 2016. The use of temp agencies, she said, cuts costs and limits employee labour rights and companies’ liability for accidents on the job.

Her investigation, she said, was sparked by the release of U.S. data that showed people who are hired through temp agencies are significantly more likely to get injured on the job than permanently hired workers: “I wanted to see if the same thing was happening here in Ontario.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the decision to go undercover was made after temp worker Amina Diaby, 23, died on the job at Fiera Foods in September 2016. For months, Mojtehedzadeh said she tried but could not find out much about what had happened beyond information that Diaby’s hijab had gotten stuck in a machine.

“We felt that the person who paid the highest price for these practices was being forgotten. So we passionately felt that her story should have a platform,” she said.

Mojtehedzadeh said that, two weeks after applying for work with the Magnus Services temp agency, she was contacted and told to show up for a job the next day at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery that makes pastries for Costco, Tim Horton’s, Metro, Walmart and Loblaw.

“There was no screening, no attempt to establish whether or not I had experience working in a factory or industrial environment,” she said. “I received about five minutes of safety training. I was told to not put my hands near the machines and if I didn’t feel safe or comfortable doing something, then they said to go home and wait for the temp agency to call me again.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the workplace felt dangerous. There were ovens operating 24/7, she said, yet workers were not informed of any fire-exit locations or where to find fire extinguishers.

“You would have your supervisors who were breathing down your neck and shouting at you for the entire shift,” she said. “You’re standing there doing a repetitive motion at a fast pace all day, which is physically demanding. Most of the women struggled to keep up with the work that was demanded of us.”

Workers only received one unpaid 30-minute break and during their shifts they did not feel they could ask to use the bathroom or speak up about inequality, Mojtehedzadeh said.

Mojtehedzadeh’s story also documented how the temp workers sent to Fiera Foods were paid minimum wage in cash with no deductions or pay stubs. By law, employers must pay employees on the worksite or at a convenient location for the worker, but Mojtehedzadeh said she was instructed to pick up her pay from a payday lender called GTA Employment, which was a 35-minute bus ride from the factory.

“I had one colleague who went to pick up her pay and literally as she left, she was robbed and lost all of her wages for the past two weeks,” Mojtehedzadeh said. “When we confronted the owners [of the temp agency], they said that this is a common practice across the city and it was normal.”

Mojtehedzadeh said that before the story was published on Sept. 8, the Star confronted Fiera officials about the health and safety violations she had documented. The newspaper then received a 10-page letter from the company’s lawyer outlining its perspective on the laws the Star had violated by sending a journalist undercover.

In mid-September, Fiera pleaded guilty to Ministry of Labour charges related to Diaby’s death. The company also announced it was hiring independent auditors to review its human resources and health and safety procedures and to audit its use of temp agencies.  Meanwhile, new legislation winding its way through the Ontario legislature would require companies to offer wage parity to temporary workers doing similar work to permanent staff, a change the government argues will reduce one of the key financial incentives for contracting out.

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.”

By MICHAEL OTT
Special to the RJRC

Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star, discusses verification and trust in the media at the George Vari Engineering and Computing Building’s Sears Atrium at Ryerson University, February 15th, 2017. (Michael Ott)

The loss of trust between the media and audiences that has characterised the Donald Trump era in the United States also played out when Rob Ford was mayor of Toronto, says the Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent Daniel Dale.

Just as many Trump supporters dismiss stories about the former real estate magnate’s lies, sexism and other potentially career-destroying behaviours, many Torontonians refused to believe the worst about their former mayor, said Dale, who covered the Ford years

Dale spoke at Ryerson University earlier in February about similarities he found in covering both former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and current US President Donald Trump for the Toronto Star and what Canadian journalists can learn from how the U.S. media covered their 2016 election.

“Here we are, the Toronto Star, biggest newspaper in the city. We reported on the mayor smoking crack,” he said during a Feb. 15 presentation organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. The newspaper had a long-standing relationship with its audience before the journalists involved saw a video of the mayor smoking crack, reported on its contents and made it clear to readers how they came to view it..

Many readers, however, were skeptical: “There was a lot of doubt that what we were saying was true,” Dale told the crowd of mostly journalism students. “There was a poll done—50 per cent of Toronto residents did not believe they were telling the truth about the crack video.

Dale has since gained acclaim in the tough American media market for his coverage of Trump’s path to the White House. “Trump Checks,” his daily fact checking series, earned him a place on Politico’s list of “Breakout Media Stars of 2016” with the moniker “the lie-tracker.” Dale was also invited to discuss his Trump fact-checking coverage on CNN. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore even tweeted his support for the Canadian journalist.

But Dale’s reporting on Trump has drawn the ire of those who refuse to believe news that reflects badly on the man who is now president of the United States.

“My email inbox is a dark place,” Dale told the audience of mainly journalism students before reading this email: “’I’m going to cancel my subscription to the Star after 20 years. Don’t believe everything you read about Trump online!’”

Dale also read a tweet from another reader: “’President Trump is going to make America great again, you may want to check out infowars.com,’” referencing a conspiracy theory-filled site that openly advocates for Trump while posting false or unsupported claims.

“We in the media have problems,” said Dale. “We have a real issue with trust.”

A recent Edelman poll suggests that trust in Canadian media is on the decline. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of survey respondents who indicated they trusted “traditional media” as a source for general news and information decreased by 13 percentage points, to 58 per cent from 71 per cent. Furthermore, respondents were 3.5 times more likely to “ignore information that supports a position they do not believe in.” This echo-chamber effect can have implications for election outcomes because it means voters are inclined to only read and trust media that reinforces their pre-judgments and beliefs.

Dale said the media coverage of Trump holds some lessons for Canadian journalists. Reporting on the U.S. election campaign, he said, suffered from:

  • A sacrifice of the truth in favour of ratings.

The lack of fact-checking by many news organizations meant the pursuit of truth was sacrificed on the alter of what was trending, Dale argued.

  • Problems associated with covering candidates who know how to generate headlines.

“There is a problem with allowing one candidate to crowd out everyone else,” Dale noted.

“CNN essentially became Trump News,” he said. In addition to covering every tweet and everything Trump said in the run-up to the election, the network “handed over entire hours to broadcast his rallies unfiltered.”

Dale went on to warn that something similar has happened with coverage of Kellie Leitch, who is currently running for leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party. She has, he said, made a “deliberate but skillful attempt” to crowd out her rivals and seize attention through the media.

Journalists must guard against letting one candidate dominate the coverage and instead provide equal coverage to all the leading contenders, Dale suggested.

  • Fact-checking structures that focus on the average candidate.

Until Trump arrived on the political scene, fact checking by reporters involved “candidates who may tell a couple lies a week, maybe exaggerate one thing a day,” Dale said.

“These structures are not set up to deal with an avalanche of deceit,” he observed, yet reporters would fact check Trump and then report and write on him like he was an average candidate who indulged in a few minor mistruths.

In his Trump Checks series, Dale would post daily and tweet about Trump’s falsehoods. The number of lies would stretch into 10, 20, sometimes even 30 per day. Dale recently published an article showcasing the fact that Trump has told more than 80 blatant lies since taking office only one month ago.

He noted, however, that there have been improvements in the way fact checking is done. It now often happens in real time, with journalists tweeting instantly whenever Trump lies. Many broadcast news networks like CNN also began publishing live fact checking results at the bottom of the screen while candidates were speaking.

  • Inaccurate reporting on what polls really mean.

Dale said that many media outlets suffered from a forecasting problem that led them to believe Hillary Clinton was destined to become the next president. At the root of it was ignorance – or a willingness to ignore – how polls really work.

“Hillary was three to five points ahead,” Dale said, but the media “was not making clear to people that she was within a pretty standard polling error.”

He said there was also insufficient coverage of the fact that national polls did not demonstrate how Clinton would perform in the key battleground states that she eventually lost to Trump. Journalists can avoid this, he said, by becoming more knowledgeable about how polls really work and avoiding over-reliance on them to tell the story.

Dale also offered advice to young journalists covering a political beat. Best practices, he said, require reporters to:

  1. Call out politicians when they lie. If fact checking suffers, then journalists aren’t doing their job of holding people in power accountable and they can get away with misleading the public.
  1. Pay attention to the other side, and not just the fringe extremist publications such as Breitbart and infowars.com. It’s important to learn about more moderate, rational viewpoints that differ from your own because it is impossible to report accurately on what is going on if you exist in an echo chamber.
  1. Recognize that documentation and evidence are paramount. People need solid proof before they will believe what a journalist is reporting. The Star, Dale said, learned this from the Ford crack video story. Journalists have to provide photos and video footage to back up their stories: “People want proof. They didn’t believe us when we said we saw the video ourselves.”
  1. Be as publicly human as possible by making clear how you go about your job and why you do what you do. Part of trust-building, he said, involves demonstrating that journalists are human and relatable people who are doing the best job they can.
  1. Avoid prognostication. Dale said it’s easy to slip from analysis into opinion, and that further entrenches distrust of the media among people who want verified facts and transparency about how the reporting was done and how the information was obtained.
  1. Become versed in policy issues. Deep knowledge will help reporters produce analysis and investigations that are essential to a well-functioning democracy.

Dale said that despite the shortcomings in the Trump coverage, a lot of important and great reporting was done over the past year.

He cited the impressive number of stories journalists uncovered about Trump by the end of the election campaign, pointing to everything from the leaked video where the candidate bragged about sexual assault, to the scandals surrounding alleged ties to Russia.

“This election was a triumph for investigative reporting,” Dale said, noting that there is “such a demand from people for investigative reporting, for smart commentary, for policy analysis.

“This is a wonderful time for journalists to do journalism.”

Watch Daniel Dale’s full lecture below: