Students receive no shortage of media coverage. Throughout the year, and especially during back-to-school season, numerous articles have discussed how post-secondary students face high unemployment, a difficult job market, and rising tuition fees.
Just this past year, the CBC reported on students’ growing credit-card debt. The Toronto Star stated that Ontario is home to the highest tuition fees in the country, and that young people are also “sapping their parents’ bank accounts” and drowning in debt (but willing to give up beer!).
This is not news. This generation of students’ struggles are well known and well publicized. There is, however, a new trend that has developed among the mass of media coverage on students: articles which not only seek to explain and probe student issues, but actually glorify these challenging situations and the students who try to confront them.
As a student reading these articles, I am left feeling uneasy about the way in which this adversity is sometimes presented. Particularly, when students and young adults resort to extreme measures in order to find employment or off-set high student fees, and these stories are presented as triumphs.
Some students’ efforts certainly are notable success stories, but at what point does their telling pull focus away from the issues which produced their hardships in the first place?
The media is a complex, vital part of an open society. Students know this. While many are pleased to see their struggles receiving some attention in the public sphere, they also know that it matters how these stories are presented matters much more.
Taking to the streets
I first came across this pattern in reporting when The Toronto Star ran a story about Xingyi Yan, a 21 year-old recent graduate who, after completing her degree in commerce at U of T, set off to look for a job. After completing hundreds of applications without success, Yan decided to opt for a more creative approach to finding a job in advertising. She stood in the streets with a sign reading “U of T GRAD FOR HIRE.” Yan’s story gained attention and was featured on outlets such as Global News.
A little over a month later, The Star followed-up on Yan’s story, reporting that her “Great Depression-like bid to catch on in the 21st-century job market has paid off.” She was now employed and thriving.
While Yan’s story is clearly one of success, students and experts alike have taken note of the way in which it was presented, and question it. According to Ann Rauhala, associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, there are several factors at play when reporting on a story such as Yan’s.
“On one hand it draws attention to the rates of unemployment among people in their twenties and on how serious that is, and that’s a good thing…I remember seeing [Yan’s story] in The Toronto Star when it first appeared, and reading with some interest and thinking, I’m glad someone is doing this story because that’s the sentimental aspect of journalism…you can tell big picture stories by focusing on one individual,” she explained.
“On the other hand, what I did not like was that it emphasized that it was her individual problem and somehow it was only a problem that affected individuals. It wasn’t a structural problem or a societal problem.”
In another instance, CTV recently reported on Sebastian Brown, a 23-year-old who studied linguistics at U of T. Brown pushed a piano two kilometres per day in order to earn a living as a busker in Toronto. The story reports that “Ben spends seven hours under the blazing sun, playing for donations and making a name for himself in the music industry.”
Neither article mentions Canada’s high youth unemployment rate of 13 per cent, which is almost double the national unemployment rate of 6.7 per cent.
Despite this omission, Rauhala holds that there is usefulness in telling these stories just because they are uplifting. “I think that message is more important even if it’s done in an occasionally slightly mocking or less than serious way,” she says.
International students targeted (once again)
In addition to celebrating the ways recent grads feel they must seek employment, the media has used the same tone when reporting on how international students are forced into risky housing options.
Over the summer, The National Post reported that Canadian student Evan Eames lived in a tent for a year to offset his costs while completing his master’s studies at the University of Manchester. With $30,000 in tuition fees, Eames was “on the hunt for frugal accommodations,” and lived in the backyard of Manchester resident Charley Mantack in exchange for tutoring services.
In a similar vein, The Toronto Star covered the story of Anh Cao, an international student at U of T from Vietnam who, during his studies, ran out of money and was forced to live in a homeless shelter for a semester. Although Cao received significant scholarships, it was not enough to cover the $33,000 tuition fees for the fall after he completed summer courses.
Both articles mention the costs that both Eames and Cao faced as international students, but these considerations came across as footnotes in the articles’ larger claims. For Cao, “Canadian kindness” and his own “grit” allowed him to pull through.
The same Canadian kindness is referenced in Eames’ story; it explained that his decision to tutor Mantack was motivated by a desire to “to try and give back.”
These articles both romanticized the students’ living situations, or even implied that they were favourable. Cao said the time he spent at the youth shelter “was great, really,” and Eames “enjoyed his year of going back to basics.”
Campus advocates for those coming from abroad point out that the barriers faced by international students are growing as both tuition fees and the number of international students at U of T rise. According to Yeliz Beygo, co-president of the International Students’ Association, these factors must be recognized.
“The overcoming narrative blurs and prevents the discussion on systemic issues we have like homelessness for students and not enough support for international students, informal or formal, – those are the kind of questions that have to be asked and are not when you hear about those success stories,” she said.
U of T community reacts to media
Members of the U of T community have noticed this trend in the media, and their reactions are varied.
Fourth year media studies student, Matthew Celestial is critical.
“They fabricate the “student struggle” to be simple, easy, and feasible,” he explained.
Celestial also says that he notices a stark difference in how racialized versus non-racialized students are depicted in the media, and that the increased barriers faced by racialized students and recent graduates is a largely untold story.
Rauhala posits that the way these stories are told may be less than helpful to the students who are in these situations. “They also, some more than others, imply if you really have gumption and you really have initiative, you should be able to solve your financial problem on your own, even if that means going out on the street begging for a job.”
In addition to criticism however, there are also arguments that highlighting these albeit anomalous scenarios may contribute to a rich public narrative on the struggles students face.
“It’s a classic journalism theme of the little person triumphing over adversity. That’s not a bad theme either. People like those stories,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, Director of UTSC’s journalism program. Dvorkin also worked in the media for many years prior to taking on his post at UTSC.
Dvorkin’s advice is to always find the balance. “The problem is if you do too many [stories of this type] without putting them in context, it just becomes more sentimental than contextual.”
There is also an element of what Rauhala deems the “editorial thrust” of papers. “The Toronto Star is centre or centre left. The Toronto Star’s purpose here is to create some sort of sympathy for students and some sort of understanding,” she explains.
In the photos accompanying their articles, Yan and Eames are smiling – Yan holds her sign in the street and Eames sits happily in front of his tent – but that doesn’t mean their situations are anything to smile about.
Instead of garnering concern as students and young adults are essentially being left to their own devices within a system that rejects them and puts them in debt, recent stories in the media pull at the reader’s heartstrings and leave them in awe at how students are pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. However, framing any of these stories as solely uplifting is selective to a fault. The media is the means through which the public learns about the problems our society faces. Shouldn’t those involved in the media be responsible for contextualizing the issues they cover?
Dvorkin says that this responsibility lies largely with the writer. “Writers are not able to hone clearly enough what these [circumstances] mean… to our society and our educational system.”
Rauhala agrees that the way in which stories are presented has a major impact on the way students are perceived.
“You can certainly imagine the unsympathetic baby boomer parents and relatives of recent graduates that will say, why don’t you do what the girl in the paper did’…that is kind of unfortunate.”
Students are being reported on, and this is a good thing. However, problems arise when student struggles are made light of for the sake of a fresh, new angle. Instead of patting students on the back and tousling their hair as they navigate university with no money and no jobs in the future, when reporting on student struggles, the media should be aware of — and tell — the whole story.