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Staff Reporter

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The future of journalism education is the focus of a new collection of essays just published by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

As waves of change transform the news industry, the papers in Toward 2020: New Directions in Journalism Education grapple with where journalism education should go from here and concludes it needs to change substantially and quickly, says Ryerson University journalism professor Gene Allen.

“I think in the past, if you had been a journalist for 20 years, then you would come and teach kids what you had done in the newsroom and that made sense for a long time because the profession was very stable,” said Allen, who edited the publication along with University of Illinois associate journalism professor Stephanie Craft, University of British Columbia associate journalism professor Mary Lynn Young and Carleton University associate journalism professor Christopher Waddell.

Those days, Allen notes, are gone: “Now that things are changing so fast, a lot of people who teach journalism, who spent a long time as working journalists, are realizing that their own experiences as professional journalists are an important foundation, but not the only thing they need to teach.

“If I came into a classroom and started teaching like it was 1985, that wouldn’t be very useful,” Allen said.

The 12 essays in Toward 2020 are based on presentations delivered at a conference held at Ryerson University last year. More than 100 journalism educators from Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia attended the event and the papers represent a cross-section of the ideas discussed.

“Most of the essays operated on a conceptual level, that we [as journalism educators] generally need to rethink what we’re doing and rethink what journalism is,” Allen said.

In her essay, award-winning CBC journalist and Mount Royal University journalism professor Sally Haney argues that deadline-driven daily journalism is often characterized by an absence of self-critical reflection.

Longtime Radio-Canada journalist and University of Quebec journalism professor Chantal Francoeur scrutinizes journalism’s claim to independence from public relations practitioners.

Jordan Press, a Canadian Press national affairs reporter and the only working journalist among the authors, urges journalism educators to connect with and teach news literacy to students outside their departments.

The collection also includes two essays by Ryerson School of Journalism faculty. Ivor Shapiro’s essay questions whether the main goal of journalism programs is, or should be, to prepare students for careers as professional journalists.

“Journalism is an approach to knowledge, not just a job,” he writes, “and journalism education is therefore about teaching a distinctive epistemology that enjoys broad professional utility.”

Associate professor Gavin Adamson, in the only paper that explicitly addresses the possibilities of new journalistic forms, suggests that short online videos, presented in a live blog format, offer great potential for audience engagement.

Allen said that the tone for the volume is set in the opening essay drawn from the conference keynote address by Robert Picard, research director of the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University.

In his concluding remarks, Picard said none of the old rules apply anymore: “Journalism education can only survive and succeed if it becomes much more aggressive in seeking change. It has to become far more innovative than it ever has been. It is not a matter of thinking outside the box, because the box no longer exists. What is required is deciding what will replace the box or how to get along without one.”

Staff Reporter

Asmaa Malik (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Assistant professor Asmaa Malik (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

An app that will allow newsrooms to monitor who journalists go to for quotes in stories is being developed by two journalism professors at Ryerson University.

Gavin Adamson and Asmaa Malik, assistant professors at the Ryerson School of Journalism, say the goal of their project is to help newsrooms produce more balanced content. The pair recently received a $10,000 grant under the Faculty of Communication and Design Creative Innovative Fund to build the prototype of JERI: Journalism Representation Index.

JERI, a software application, will extract and categorize the types of sources quoted in news stories. By delivering a score on the type and placement of sources used, it will offer newsrooms and watchdogs a     rare view of how journalists fare in representing stakeholders in each story.

JERI’s significance is in its potential to help journalists produce better and more balanced content, Malik said.

“It’s important because as journalists, we don’t have progress reports… [JERI] is a tool that can be used by newsrooms to look at their own coverage of [a] particular issue and to see where there’s room for more perspective.”

Gavin Adamson (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Assistant professor Gavin Adamson (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Over the course of the next year, JERI will be tested in a pilot project that focuses on local news coverage of race, specifically police carding and profiling.

“The idea is that you would take 20 stories from the Toronto Star over a certain period of time and you would put them through the application,” Malik explains.

“Then the application would pull out who the sources were in that story… and it would weigh the sources and come up with a number out of a hundred it would give [based on the types of sources used and how they were used in the story.] The closer it is to a hundred, the more evenly weighted a story is usually.”

Malik noted that simply changing who is quoted first in a story, for example, can change change the way the story is told and the reader’s perspective.

“If you lead with a police officer, then you’re setting the tone of the story and framing it in a certain way, as a law and order story. Or if you start with a politician, you’re framing it as a political story, with an activist, you’re framing it a different way.”

Malik says JERI will incorporate academic research and theories on sourcing and framing and make it more accessible to journalists in the form of a single number.

“[It] is taking a theory and the ideas behind framing and behind sourcing and making them more actionable, it bridges that gap [between theoretical principles and real-life application].”

Special to the RJRC

Dr. David McKeown, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto; André Picard, health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail; Dr. Jane Pirkis, director of the Centre for Mental Health and the University of Melbourne; Dr. Mark Sinyor, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Kieran Delamont)

Dr. David McKeown, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto; André Picard, health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail; Dr. Jane Pirkis, director of the Centre for Mental Health and the University of Melbourne; Dr. Mark Sinyor, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Kieran Delamont)


Conventions that govern reporting on suicide — conventions that often dissuade journalists from publishing for fear of sparking copycat acts — are outdated and anachronistic, says Globe health reporter and columnist André Picard.

“[They are] especially not going to work in the brave new world of the Internet,” Picard told a group of about 30 academics, doctors and journalists at the Suicide Prevention Media Forum on Nov. 6.

“The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, they’re the least of your worries now. What you should be worried about is where your kids live — your kids live in cyberspace. If you want to know how to kill yourself, Dr. Google is more than happy to help.”

Picard noted that the Canadian media has done a better job of covering suicide and mental health issues in recent years: “For a long time, there was a taboo around suicide,” he said. “The fact that we’re writing about these issues much more openly is great.”

He insisted, however, that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“We still have to work on the language a lot,” Picard said in an interview following the forum, which was organized by Toronto Public Health, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and the Globe and Mail. Many journalists, he noted, still use ‘committed’ suicide, rather than the value-neutral ‘died by suicide’ or ‘killed herself.’

Gavin Adamson, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, agreed that media has improved when it comes to reporting on suicide. He is nonetheless still critical of the tendency to report on suicide from a crime perspective rather than as a health issue.

“Journalists spend too much time clustered around the cop desk,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think people are as interested in every little car accident or murder as we assume they are.”

Picard was the lead author of “Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health,” a 2014 publication by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma that offers journalists guidelines for reporting on suicides. The guide advises journalists to report only on newsworthy suicides, avoid gratuitous details and use plain language.

Picard said journalists should also be skeptical of the notion that careless reporting on suicides can lead to an increase in the suicide rate: “I actually find the notion of copycat suicides to be dubious.”

Health experts, however, disagree. Panelists Dr. Mark Sinyor, an assistant professor in University of Toronto’s psychiatry department, and Dr. Jane Pirkis, director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia, both insisted the ‘Werther Effect’ is real. It posits that careless representations of suicide in the media can cause copycat suicides and spark a suicide contagion.

“When there’s excessive reporting,” noted Sinyor, “you do tend to get an increase in suicides.” Reporting that highlights the method of suicide, speculates about motivation and does not include resources for others who may be suffering, argued Sinyor, can lead to a contagion effect.

He cited the 1998 case of a middle-aged woman in Hong Kong who took her own life by leaving charcoal burning in an enclosed space. After the suicide was highly publicized in the media there was an increase in charcoal-burning suicides.

Adamson, whose research investigates portrayals of mental health on social media, urged journalists to take the research supporting suicide contagion seriously: “For journalists to keep guffawing at that is absurd. There’s concrete analytical evidence there.”

Despite their differences, Picard, Sinyor and Pirkis all joined in praising Australia’s Mindframe National Media Initiative. Since 2002, the Australian Department of Health initiative has worked with journalists, journalism schools and media outlets in Australia to educate reporters on best practices for covering suicides. Mindframe’s resources include practical guidelines for reporters tasked with covering suicide.

It advises reporters to reflect on whether the event is really newsworthy. Celebrity suicides, for example, are unavoidably newsworthy, but the vast majority of suicides do not meet that newsworthiness standard. Once the decision is made to cover a story, Mindframe suggests the news should be published on the inside pages of a newspaper, or low in a broadcast lineup. It also suggests that journalists avoid gratuitous details, omit information about methods or locations and avoid using language that may cause offence, glamourize or sensationalize suicide. For example, reporters should refrain from using the phrase “successful suicide,” and should instead say “died by suicide” or “took their own life.”

“Any journalist coming out into the world of journalism in Australia these days would have been exposed to at least one lecture, probably more than one lecture on the importance of reporting on suicide well,” Pirkis said.

Similar guidelines are found in the Canadian Mindset guide. It notes that in the age of social media, false information and rumours run rampant. The authors urge journalists to engage in open discussion and use plain language in their coverage of newsworthy suicides.

The Mindset site also says stories about suicides should address the victim’s suffering in the context of broader mental health issues.


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Source: “Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health” by the Canadian Journalism Forum
on Violence and Trauma, 2014.