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Staff Reporter

March 8, 2016

Robert Osborne, veteran freelancer and Ryerson journalism instructor, said pitching to the right outlet is critical to success in freelancing.

Robert Osborne, veteran freelancer and Ryerson journalism instructor, said pitching to the right outlet is critical to success in freelancing. [Ilina Ghosh]

Freelance journalists must pitch strategically and confidently and be “the raccoon[s] of the journalism world,” veteran freelancer Robert Osborne told students at a recent workshop organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Osborne’s workshop, which focused on selling stories and maximizing the return on work, took students through the freelance process, drawing on lessons he learned over his 14 years as a freelance journalist and producer.  Building a diverse set of skills and performing under a diverse set of conditions is critical to freelance success, he said.

“You’ve got to be the raccoon of the journalism world, where you can eat anything, go anywhere, do anything…to thrive.”  

Osborne, who is also an instructor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, emphasized the need to find a fitting client for a pitch. Be a “heat-seeking missile” when targeting news outlets, he said.

“You can have the best story idea in the world but if you take it to the wrong place, you are going to get a lot of no’s.”

Pitching to the correct outlet is all about research, Osborne said.

“You’d be surprised at how many people will pitch perfectly good ideas to the wrong venue…So the first thing you have to do is read the magazine, watch the darn show, research their webpage, really take some time to think what kind of product are they looking for.”

A good pitch also involves a story with a clear focus, Osborne told students: “If you can’t explain the story in one line, you may not know what the hell your story is about.”

The next step is to expand the one line into what Osborne calls a “one page.”

“[A one page] is going to hit all the major bullet points [without being] a mini version of the story. It’s taking all of the salient issues and facts that are going to be involved in your story and putting them together as a sales pitch.”

When pitching to a broadcaster, a “sizzle reel” or pitch video is also necessary, Osborne said, and means freelance journalists must develop rudimentary shooting and editing skills.

“You may be never be a gifted cinematographer, you may never be a gifted editor, but you have to got to know how to string together something for a minute and 30. As well as a one page, every broadcaster from VICE to CBC to Green Ant Productions is going to be looking for a sizzle reel.”

While freelancing does involve a certain amount of working for free, Osborne also focused on how to “maximize your sweat equity.” Freelancers need to pitch the same idea in a variety of mediums and to a variety of outlets, Osborne said. Once an idea is picked up by a news organization, however, he advised against selling the same piece to a direct competitor.

Nick Dunne, a second-year journalism student, said the advice on pitching to multiple organizations and different mediums was especially interesting.

“[At this stage in school,] we’ve done a lot of focus on print and writing, so it was really interesting to see where you can go with [your work,] the different mediums you can bring it to, the opportunities that lie beyond print and more conventional means.”

Osborne said persistence is also an important part of life as a freelancer because unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails are to be expected.

“You have to have a thick skin. You have to keep going at it… in a persistent and polite way. You have to keep reminding them you’re still out there, find out if there’s an update in a story, that’s a reason to send them [another email.]”

While freelancing involves a lot of rejection, Osborne urged students to “have confidence in your good idea.”

“If you have an idea that you really feel strongly about, don’t let it collapse because the first place you took it says ‘We’re not interested.’ If that’s going to shatter you… then you’re in the wrong business. You’ve got to keep pushing that idea; if one person doesn’t like it, push it to another… until you get a hit,” he said.

Osborne ended the presentation with what to do “when you do get a nibble.” Be professional and willing to word hard, he said.

“If you’re obnoxious, if you’re difficult to work with, you will not get a second chance at any of these places. It is critical that when you do get a hook in, even the smallest of jobs with somebody, that you really act like a professional. Whatever they need done, you get it done.”


Staff Reporter

Adrienne Arsenault recounts her time covering the Ebola epidemic in Monrovia, Liberia, at a presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism Feb. 2. [Ilina Ghosh]

Adrienne Arsenault recounts her time covering the Ebola epidemic in Monrovia, Liberia, at a presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism Feb. 2. [Ilina Ghosh]

After eight days of reporting in the Ebola–ravaged city of Monrovia, Liberia, CBC News senior correspondent Adrienne Arsenault says fear and suspicion haunted her team’s homecoming – even before they set foot back in Canada.

It was October 2014 and while the Ebola virus was rapidly coursing through western Africa, a different epidemic had taken hold in North America.

“[Fear-bola began] when we were there and we knew our return was not going to be pretty. I was getting tweets from people that are unconscionable – ‘How dare you go there and expose Canadians. I hope you get sick and die there.’”

Although uninfected, Arsenault and her team – producer Stephanie Jenzer and videographer Jean-François Bisson – underwent a voluntary quarantine for three weeks after their return.

“We knew we had not been exposed, in a sense that we know that we had not come in contact with infectious fluids. We knew. We knew that we were fine,” Arsenault said during a presentation organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

“But in the name of not causing complete mayhem because some people were still afraid of us, we didn’t go to the office for 21 days. We were in a condo across the street from CBC, still working, still filing.”

While they intellectually understood the need for the quarantine, the fear amongst the public and rejection by some closest to them was unexpected and difficult to handle, Arsenault said.

“We felt like it was a failure of our reporting that people were still afraid of us. We thought we had explained it properly and we were stunned by the degree to which people still had this sense that we had brought this horrible thing to Canada.

“This is what Ebola does; it’s fear factor is beyond comprehension.”

Arsenault said she got the call to go to Liberia in August of 2014, as the Ebola epidemic began ravaging the region. She and the other members of her team, Jenzer and Bisson, said ‘yes’ within seconds.

“I don’t think it’s in our DNA to say no. I don’t think we could have lived with ourselves. What a horrible thing that was happening to people and the world really wasn’t giving a damn. And I happen to think that’s where CBC steps up, in a way that makes me endlessly proud of it.”

The team and its news organization faced a number of deterrents, but understood the value of the story, she said.

“It’s expensive to go to Liberia [and] it’s probably not the sexiest television reporting… CBC’s insurers had informed them that there was no guarantee of a medical evacuation in the event that someone on the team got sick… And yet, CBC said, ‘If you’re game, we will do everything in our power to make sure you’re okay and it works and get you home.’”

The team would go on to win the 2015 International Emmy Award for their coverage of the Ebola crisis from its epicentre in Monrovia.

Between March 2014 and Jan. 31, 2016, there have been 28,639 cases of Ebola globally, according to the World Health Organization, and 11,316 people have died as a result.   

When reporting on disasters, journalists are typically en route within hours of the call, Arsenault noted.  “But with Ebola it was three to four weeks between getting the ‘you need to go’ and actually getting on a plane… it’s complicated to plan for.”

The CBC journalists trained extensively with the infectious disease control unit at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, focusing in particular on how the virus is transmitted.

“This was the most important thing for us, to really mentally process how it’s transmitted, through contact with the infectious fluids of symptomatic people.”

They were taught to prepare for every possibility of infection, learning to stop reflexive actions and exercise extreme caution in the field.

On the ground, the team bleached every surface they came in contact with, took their temperatures twice a day, ate only military rations to reduce chances of food contamination, and always wore gloves in the field.

The highly infectious nature of the disease made certain aspects of empathetic reporting difficult, she said.

“When we interview people, there’s an intimacy, especially people who are going through something like this… But when you’re covering Ebola, everything is about vomit distance. Everything that we did was a safe, unnatural distance away that was antithetical to [being] an empathic journalist.”

It was also antithetical to the Liberian way of life, Arsenault said.

“It is a country that has a culture with a very warm, gregarious embrace. But no one was touching anyone. When we interviewed the president, I couldn’t even shake her hand. I apologized for being so rude and she said, ‘No one shakes anyone’s hand. No one touches anyone.’”

The virus is particularly vicious because it goes for people who love each other, she added.

“It doesn’t go for strangers. So if someone is [infected] in a family, there’s a good chance that whoever it is who cares enough to wipe the sweat off someone’s brow or clean up someone’s vomit – that’s the person who’s going to get it.”

The CBC team arrived in Monrovia in October 2014 and stayed only eight days because it was expensive, but also because of the risk of infection.

“With no promise of medical evacuation if someone was ill, the only thing we could do was make sure that we were out of the country before the first symptoms showed up,” Arsenault said.

The first stories centred on the physical and emotional toll the disease was taking on the people of Liberia: “We were showing people the worst of it, really getting them to feel it,” Arsenault said.

“We did a story with a body retrieval unit. In Liberia, the death ritual is so important in order to guarantee that someone has a good afterlife… and yet these men would come around in these white jumpsuits and spray down the walls, kick down doors, throw the body in a body bag.”

That story was followed by coverage of the youngest victims of the crisis, their uncertain futures and the stigma they faced.

“There was a terrible problem with Ebola orphans… Not just kids who were sick and alone… but there were little kids with their hands in the air who had lost their families, dying for someone to pick them up and no one was touching them.”

Next, the team took viewers through the streets of Monrovia, then into its clinics.

While Ebola can be a deadly disease, Arsenault says it can be effectively treated in the early stages with Tylenol, fluids and access to indoor plumbing.  

Before coming back to Canada, Arsenault also interviewed  President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, focusing on accountability for the country’s shattered healthcare system.

Arsenault said leaving Monrovia wasn’t easy: “You feel like a horrible human [when you have to leave these places.]

“There’s a helplessness to being a reporter in a place like that. You want to pick up the kids. You want to bring them home. But you also have to remember that it’s not a cliché to say that you’re there to give people voice.”

Arsenault said it is human to respond to tragedies when covering a story.

“It is okay to be horrified and nauseous and devastated by what you seeWatching the [work we produced,] I’m hearing how angry I am… That is okay,” she said. “That is your job, to work all that out when you write.”

It was near the end of their trip that Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who contracted Ebola in Monrovia, fled to the United States and began what Arsenault calls, “Fear-bola.”

Within weeks, nearly two-thirds of Americans were concerned about a widespread Ebola epidemic in the United States, according to a Washington Post – ABC News poll. This was despite repeated assurances from public officials that the country’s health care and disease surveillance system would prevent any such outbreak.

Canadians, meanwhile, were not immune.

“Even the doctors who had returned from covering Ebola were struggling a little bit with their own colleagues,” Arsenault said. “Nurses and doctors at their own hospitals who knew intellectually that everything was okay were still wary of them, wouldn’t eat lunch with them, wouldn’t connect with them.”

Arsenault also said that despite the significance of the Ebola crisis, the story was underreported.

“For something as bad as that, it was a bit sad not to be bumping into other crews. I think in some ways, when that man got sick, Thomas Eric Duncan, it was like all the American journalistic lights [shifted immediately to the U.S.]. And poor Liberia was like ‘Hey, hey, hey, the crisis is still here.’”

The stories of Monrovia have stayed with her and her colleagues, Arsenault said. 

“We would go back in a heartbeat. For some reason this is one story that we’re okay talking about again and again. A lot of times when we’re done with these types of ugly stories, we don’t really want to talk about them. But there’s something so heartbreaking about Ebola,” she said.

“It’s one of those stories that doesn’t end.”


View Arsenault’s full presentation here.


Staff Reporter

A year ago this month, Canada’s new anti-terrorism legislation, the controversial Bill C-51, was unveiled at a campaign-style rally in a Toronto suburb. The divisive legislation initially encountered little opposition on Parliament Hill, leaving it to the media to highlight concerns.

And Canadian news outlets were “equal to the challenge,” according to new research conducted by Ryerson University School of Journalism instructor Kevin MacLean.

“For the first two and half to three weeks there was no opposition,” MacLean said.

“The NDP was quiet, refusing to take a position. The Liberals said they [were going to support it, but fix it…]. There was no one to oppose it politically, other than Elizabeth May, who got very little ink about what she had to say. There was nobody speaking out about it, other than the media.”

The bill, which became law in June, came under fire for the expanded powers it gives police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, its vague wording, its broad inter-agency information sharing provisions, its lack of security agency oversight and its potential to violate privacy and constitutional rights.

Unwilling to seem soft on terror the opposition parties initially sought the most “politically palatable” stance on the issue, says MacLean, and that resulted in a vacuum that news media stepped in to fill.

While Thomas Mulcair and the NDP would eventually come to oppose the bill, MacLean says it was not until weeks later, when the party had decided it was strategically safe.

“The NDP, after about three weeks in, finally said that they were going to oppose it at all costs. Mulcair’s arms were twisted behind his back by elder statesmen of the NDP who were calling him out on it. It was as if the NDP was waiting to see what would be the most politically palatable route to go in,” Maclean said.


“When the government and opposition parties… abdicated their leadership roles and opted for political expediency…, the Canadian media became the de facto official Opposition, asking the tough questions, demanding answers, and outlining potential problems with the government’s response and its anti-terror legislation,” MacLean wrote in his analysis.

MacLean’s research, conducted for his master’s of professional communications at Royal Roads University, examined 140 news stories, columns, and editorials about Bill C-51 published in the National Post, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in the four weeks after the bill’s unveiling on Jan. 30, 2015.

“It was not our political leadership’s finest hour, however, Canada’s media… showed their readiness to act as the conscience and voice of the nation when elected officials were unable and unwilling to do so,” he wrote.

Within days of Bill C-51’s unveiling, a Globe and Mail editorial referred to it as “Harper’s secret policeman bill” and outlined the legislation’s potential negative effects on Canadian democracy and security.

“Under the cloud of fear produced by [Harper’s] repeated hyperbole about the scope and nature of the threat, he now wants to turn our domestic spy agency into something that looks disturbingly like a secret police force,” the editorial began.

Concerns emerged related to the way the bill was unveiled and subsequently passed with limited debate.

“The Star and to some degree the Globe were extremely vocal in their opposition to C-51, [not only against the content of the bill], but the way it was done,” MacLean said in an interview with the RJRC.

“From the day it was introduced in a community centre in Richmond Hill, instead of Parliament, it was at a partisan political rally, which set the tone – it was like a pre-election campaign stop.”

Articles such as the National Post’s editorial, We need parliamentary debate on Bill C-51, for instance, called on the government to continue the debate on the issue and heed the warnings of those with reasonable concerns.

“Credible people of all stripes have raised reasoned objections to sections of this bill, which deserve to be debated… It is in the public interest, then, that any potential problems with this bill are addressed before it becomes the law of the land. This cannot happen unless parliamentarians on all sides are allowed to debate the issue fully, with due consideration for proposed amendments,” the Post wrote.

Eventually, the debate period was extended and some amendments were made to the bill before it received royal assent on June 18. MacLean attributes the changes to the attention brought to the issue by the media.

“Initially, the government was allowing four days of debate on this and it was one of the things that prompted a fair bit of anger and criticism… [The press] called out the government for trying to ram it through,” said MacLean, who spent 25 years as a journalist with the Toronto Star.

“Eventually, we ended up with the equivalent of nine days of debate. It didn’t make any difference of course, because of the majority, but it is something that happened because of the large amount of noise made about it.”


In addition to publishing editorials that critiqued the bill, news organizations also reported on and published “noise” about the bill generated by other critics.

“It wasn’t only columnists or staff opinion writers, there were numerous op-eds written by academics and [security and legal experts] that were looking at exactly what this meant,” MacLean told the RJRC.

Within a month of the bill’s introduction, almost two dozen prominent Canadians, including four former prime-ministers and several former Supreme Court members, published a statement in the Globe calling for stronger security oversight in the bill.

“Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security,” the statement said.

Later on in February, an open letter to Parliament, titled Amend C-51 or Kill it, was also the subject of news coverage. Signed by more than 100 Canadian professors of law and related disciplines, the letter condemned the proposed legislation, calling it potentially dangerous to Canadian rule of law and democracy, and possibly even counter-productive in deterring terrorism.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression filed charter challenges, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International called for withdrawal of the bill and there were mass protests across the country.

Following the bill’s signing into law, a letter penned by Canadian artists criticized the new law for its possible effects on free expression, saying it “directly attacks the creative arts and free expression in this country.” It was signed by more than 200 artists, including author Margaret Atwood, filmmaker Paul Haggis and musician Dan Mangan.

While much of the coverage of the bill focused on criticism of its provisions, other themes surfaced as well.

“The Post and a little bit in the Globe had a theme that I call, ‘Everyone relax.’ There were only a few pieces about that, but it was something that was mainly presented by the Post and speaks to why I thought the Post had relatively the most balanced coverage of the issue,” MacLean told the RJRC.

The Conservative Party’s success in passing Bill C-51 and bolstering its base in the process emboldened the party to use similar strategies in the election campaign that followed, MacLean says.

“The way Bill C-51 was handled, with scare-mongering and the terror bogeyman being prominent, was just replayed during the election campaign. The targets changed, that’s all.”

Referring to issues such as the niqab controversy, the barbaric cultural practices hotline and the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, MacLean says “the Conservatives would not have done it if they hadn’t felt comfortable in the success of what they did with C-51.”

However, while Bill C-51 emboldened the Conservative Party, MacLean notes it had a similar effect on the opposition parties and the press. During the campaign that followed, “they were feeling a lot stronger and pushed back a lot more against the government.”

For example, “if you look at how the media organizations covered and presented the arguments about the niqab during the election campaign, you had strong and detailed analysis [cutting through partisan rhetoric]” he said.

When his party voted for the bill, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said it was in the best interests of Canadians, but that, if elected, his government would repeal parts of it and add more oversight and scrutiny for security agencies. After the Liberal victory in last fall’s federal election, the new government called for an overhaul of the anti-terror law, spelling out the need for replacement legislation in mandate letters to the Justice and Public Safety Ministers.

A key element of the new Liberal legislation is expected to be the creation of a multi-party, joint House of Commons-Senate committee tasked with strategic oversight of every government agency and department with national security responsibilities. The proposed committee will have a full-time staff, access to the necessary secret information, be sworn to secrecy and report to the prime minister and Parliament.


You can find MacLean’s research analysis, Fahrenheit C-51 and The October Crisis of 2014: Media Framing of the Government Response to Domestic Terror Threats here.


Staff Reporter

PageLines- toward2020_COVER-Carousel.jpg

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].”