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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:

Staff reporter

While the value of different sources can be subjective, newsrooms have a responsibility to interrogate their choices surrounding which voices get the most coverage, researchers agreed at a recent conference on local news.

Asmaa Malik, assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, emphasized that in a fast-paced newsroom, reporters rarely have time to question the value judgements they make. Yet, “research shows that news favours powerful people,” who get quoted more often and are featured more prominently in stories.

When the same voices continue to be amplified over and over, readers lose the opportunity to hear from more diverse sources.

“These are the essential stories. The people who journalists talk to are the people represented in stories,” said Malik.

Malik was joined by panelists Catherine Wallace, the 2016-2017 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy, and Tyler Nagel of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, as a part of a two-day conference on the future of local news. On a panel about how journalists retrieve information and who they interview, the researchers encouraged reporters to think critically about sourcing.

When journalists decide who they interview for stories, they’re sending a message to readers about what kind of information is authoritative. Malik asked the audience to consider, “From whose points of view are stories told and whose perspectives get the most prominence?”

Along with her Ryerson journalism colleague, associate professor  Gavin Adamson, as well as experts in computer science, Malik is developing the Journalism Representation Index, or JeRI app. The software will use artificial intelligence to analyze stories in real time, identifying and categorizing sources with labels such as “authority figure”, “expert” or “citizen”. The story’s “JeRI score” will help readers see which voices the author gives more space to.

For its pilot run, JeRI is focusing on stories about police carding in Toronto.

Malik says carding stories provide a chance to explore how journalists interact with police sources, which are becoming increasingly corporatized.

Journalists used to be able to access all police radio communication using scanners. But since the Toronto Police have moved to encrypted communications, only select information is shared on social media. Plus, when newsrooms are under-resourced, journalists are more likely to pick up language from press releases, or rely on news conferences to  access police information, without the time to do further reporting. For example, when Staff Insp. Mike Earl described a group of bank robbers as “pathetic parasites” at a news conference, that phrase was used repeatedly  by Toronto media.

Once the pilot project is complete, Malik says she hopes the model can be replicated to look at additional matters of public interest, such as climate change.

Looking to other regions of Canada, Nagel says that local northern media outlets highlight voices that are often missing from southern news coverage. As a journalism professor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Nagel recently did a case study on how mainstream southern media and local northern outlets reported on the same story. With his research partner Alycia Mutual from the University of Northern British Columbia, Nagel examined the coverage of the Crystal Serenity cruise ship, which made its way through the Canadian arctic in the summer of 2016, bringing a massive influx of tourists to remote communities.

The regional differences in sourcing are revealing, said Nagel. Major market media in the south did a poorer job of including northern voices as interview subjects. It was northern media that illustrated the concerns of local residents affected by the Serenity cruise.

“Northern media did a way better job in getting citizens that would not normally have a voice,” said Nagel. “One of the strongest cases for local journalism is that engagement with the community.”

Nagel says that when outlets report on issues in a different region, their lack of connection to the community leads them to rely on expert academic sources instead of local residents. And, because more news organizations are located in southern Canada, northern voices are more vulnerable to being overlooked.

As he put it, if northern newsrooms were to shut down, that region would be incredibly isolated from Canadian media’s infrastructure.

For Wallace, news industry economics were top of mind when she began her tenure as the Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. She says with newsroom cutbacks, “we need to think of where communities are getting their civic information,” and whether there are reliable sources outside of the newsroom.

Her research focuses on exploring partnerships between journalists, universities, and citizen groups, “so it’s not just the news industry as the gatekeeper [of] the public agenda.” Wallace says that while journalists often interview academics, they may be guilty of cherry-picking information that makes for better headlines.

Echoing the mantra, “if it bleeds it leads,” she says that throughout her fellowship, professors have complained that they don’t get quoted when they have positive points to report.

“We all love bad news and reporting on things being broken,” said Wallace.

Journalists tend to portray civic issues in binary terms, like good vs. evil, says Wallace, but by showcasing citizen voices, journalists can start to disrupt that predictable narrative.

Staff Reporter

Luis de Estores, Suzanne Feldman and Rod Radford discuss creating short documentary films on mental illness and health. (Allison Ridgway)

Luis (who asked that only his first name be used due to privacy concerns), Suzanne Feldman and Rod Radford discuss creating short documentary films on mental illness. (Allison Ridgway)

Three Canadian researchers are giving people who’ve experienced mental illnesses the resources and training to make their own documentary films to see if such videos challenge traditional media stereotypes about people who are mentally ill.

So far, participants have created videos with substantially different themes and frameworks than the stories on mental illness usually found in mainstream media, said Ryerson journalism professor Gavin Adamson, one of three principal investigators for the Recovery Advocacy Documentary Research (RADAR) project.

“Intuitively, it looks like it’s a whole different shape and set of stories that are being produced – mostly (stories) about recovery, social assistance, treatment, challenges with the mental health system in Canada and provincially,” said Adamson, who is working on the four-year project with Rob Whitley of the McGill University psychiatry department and Kathy Sitter, a professor of social work at Memorial University.

“That’s not the same kind of issues you hear from mainstream journalism titles … predominantly they have articles about crime and violence. It’s usually police stories or court stories that reinforce the stigmatizing characteristics and that are a complete misrepresentation of what is happening in Canada on the streets”

Four RADAR films were premiered at the Ryerson School of Journalism earlier this month to an audience of around 50 people.

“People with mental illness want to be heard,” said first-time Suzanne Feldman, one of three participant filmmakers in Toronto.

“We’re here to encourage the truth to be known to people.”

In an interview after the films’ premier, McGill’s Whitley said one of the research aims was to see what happens if people with mental illness are given complete control over the storytelling process.

“If you go onto YouTube, you’ll find loads of documentaries about mental illness, but they’re all made by professional documentary filmmakers … That means [people with mental illnesses] are being represented by other people. They’d talk about them in the third-person. There’s not much out there that actually comes from the people themselves. That was my inspiration [for this research project] – to take out the middle man,” said Whitley.

RADAR began in October 2014, when the research group partnered with mental health-focused community organizations in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax to give clients the training and resources needed to make their own videos about mental illness. The project was borne of the  “participatory filmmaking” concept, wherein groups of people (often those who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream media) are given the resources to make films about their experiences and communities instead of having films made about them by outsiders.

In each city, the research group used funds from a government grant to buy video equipment and editing software for mental health services clients and hire professional videographers to train the participants.

In Toronto, Feldman and her teammates Rod Radford and Luis, who asked that only his first name be used due to privacy concerns, produced four short documentaries on topics including the Ontario Disability Support Program, Mad Pride and the use of art in mental illness recovery.

“From a journalism perspective it’s interesting to compare the normal frames and themes that are inside mainstream media and compare those themes to the ones that recur in all of the films produced in the recovery centres,” said Adamson. He recently completed another study in which he examined the content of mainstream media articles dealing with mental health and how often they were shared across digital media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. He found that readers were 700 times more likely to share “positive” news stories about recovery and treatment than “negative” stories associating mental illness with crime and violence.

With 15 RADAR films completed and more underway, Whitley says they plan to show the videos to medical professionals, high school students, police services, social workers and other groups that work or are involved with people with mental illness. After each showing, the researchers pass out surveys to audience members to assess whether or not the films change viewers’ opinions about people with mental illness.

Feldman’s film, which explores how people with mental illnesses are marginalized by society, will also be shown at the upcoming Bluenose-Ability Film Festival in Nova Scotia.

If the researchers find that the films do help to fight stereotypes about people with mental illness, Whitley said he wants to expand the program to include more Canadian cities and create a toolkit to help mental health organizations form their own participatory video programs.

“A goal is to really counter the narrative that’s been put forward by the media that people with mental illness are violent, or lazy or useless people,” he said.

The researchers will also interview each participant after the project to assess whether or not the use of participatory video aided them in their own mental health recovery.

“It was really refreshing that [the filmmakers] were able to do as well as they did in such a short time,” said Derreck Roemer, a Gemini-award winning documentary filmmaker who was hired to train RADAR’s Toronto group in filmmaking.

Rod Radford, one of the Toronto filmmakers, said positive representations of people with mental illness can improve the public’s perception of mental illness and decrease the stigma that prevents people from seeking psychiatric help,

“Things are getting better, and people will look towards us – the psychiatric culture – to tell our stories,” said Radford. “We’re reaching out and explaining ourselves to people, and that’s good, because that communication makes things better.”

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.”

Click here to see the live blog transcript for this event.

Special to the RJRC


Changes in how the public consumes news and the implications of these changes for journalism and journalism education will be the focus of an April 28 colloquium hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

The meeting of international scholars, journalists and educators is the first in a series of Journalism Transformations colloquia organized by the RJRC. The morning lecture, which is open to the public, will feature presentations that examine changes in local news coverage, audience behaviour and technology.

The day begins with “The Audience Revolution,” a public panel with Philip Napoli, professor and associate dean of research at Rutgers University; Kim Schrøder, professor of communications at Roskilde University in Denmark; Alexis Lloyd, creative director of The New York Times R&D Lab; and discussant, Retha Hill, a professor at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism. Rich Gordon of Northwestern University and Carrie Brown of City University of New York will also be a part of the day’s events.

The panel discussion is an opportunity for journalists and non-journalists alike to hear how newsrooms are adapting to the evolving media landscape and the interests of their audiences.

Asmaa Malik, an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, said the idea for the event grew out of a discussion with co-organizers Gavin Adamson and Ivor Shapiro, and other journalism professors on the changing value proposition of journalism school. As the industry changes, more prospective students (and their parents) question what comes after a journalism degree.

Malik said the job of educators now is to prepare journalism students for careers both inside and outside of traditional newsrooms: “It’s not like we’re training reporters or editors; we’re trying to train people who are fully-equipped for whatever’s ahead and we don’t know necessarily what’s coming down the pipe.”

Napoli, the principal investigator for the News Measures Research Project at Rutgers, will discuss how news has responded to audience behaviour, with an emphasis on how those changes affect local news consumption. Schrøder will contribute his research, the bulk of which was conducted before the digital era began, examining international news consumption shift away from traditional mediums to digital platforms. Alexis Lloyd will discuss her experience at The New York Times, reflecting on how technology engages news audiences and enhances journalism.

Update: Alex Watson, of The Telegraph Media Group in London, will replace Alexis Lloyd on April 28. He is The Telegraph’s head of product and a former technology journalist and led the team behind the creation of the newspaper’s new content management system