I’ve read many lamentations to the media in recent weeks from people who think serious journalism is withering away in today’s post-truth world, where emotion — not empirical reality — shapes public opinion, and ‘alternative facts’ are on offer to those who don’t like the ones the mainstream media report.
But I’m upbeat about journalism’s future. Here’s why: as the media deals with its crisis of confidence, it is also confronting, head on, questions of what it takes to keep faith with its readers, while staying committed to comprehensive, accurate, and fair reporting.
Media powerhouse Reuters, to give just one example of how outlets are responding, has pledged greater transparency in its reporting. It promises to tell more of the stories behind its news stories — how they get investigated, written, and finally, corroborated.
It is in this spirit that I sat down last week with The Varsity’s News Editor Tom Yun to bring to readers our own version of Reuters’ pledge.
Yun walks me through The Varsity’s reporting process and weekly production cycle. I ask him how he finds out about events unfolding on campus. “Every now and then we get tips,” he says. “The job would be much more difficult if it wasn’t for the eyes and ears of our contributors and our readers.”
Mostly, though, “it is knowing where to look.” Every week, Yun sorts through the meeting agendas for U of T’s governing bodies — Governing Council, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), and the like. Sometimes, he’ll get a heads up about unfolding events from the university’s Media Relations team. Other times, he’ll go down to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to sift through statements of claim filed against the University, looking for leads.
Yun tells me about breaking the news of leaked videos documenting prejudiced behaviour among St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) representatives, in a story he co-wrote with The Varsity staff Helena Najm. “It was actually an anonymous Twitter account that had been set up just to post the videos… and they mentioned The Varsity,” he says. The Twitter post gave his team a brief start in investigating the videos, but the story quickly blew up on Facebook, attracting a flurry of reactions from the community.
The controversy erupted late on a Friday evening. To ensure fair and balanced reporting, journalists give parties impacted by a controversy the opportunity to comment. The Varsity is printed early Monday morning, Yun tells me, “so when something hits us at the end of the week, we are sort of hamstrung with time constraints.”
Despite having less than two days over the weekend to get statements, The Varsity secured responses from the parties directly affected by the video leak. The story went to press with comment from the students who made the videos, the student whose house they were filmed in, SMCSU’s then-president, and the administration at St. Michael’s College. UTSU and the Muslim Students’ Association also issued public statements, which were included in the reported story.
I ask Yun about the use of the word “Islamophobic” in his column. Some readers felt the word was too strong of a label for the actions of SMCSU’s representatives. Yun points out that the article used the term only with reference to UTSU’s statement, which condemned SMCSU for “appointing an executive that engaged in Islamophobic and racist practices,” and the Muslim Students’ Association statement, which called for the dismantling of campus Islamophobia, “whether intended or unintended.” Still, Yun thinks that how a story gets reported should boil down to how the affected community responds. “If you have a lot of groups on campus who have been hurt by these videos,” he says, “then that is serious, and we should address it how it is.”
The SMCSU story — like all other reporting at The Varsity — passed through a team of fact checkers before going to print. Fact checkers examine reporters’ full interview transcripts to make sure no one is misquoted and substantiate other sources used in the story. At a time when the media is contending with President Donald Trump’s brazen fabrications, fact checking has taken on heightened salience — as the last safeguard against inaccuracies in reporting, which can undermine readers’ trust.
Yun’s commitment to The Varsity’s journalism — and to campus reporting more generally — is palpable. His job, he tells me, is to ask himself, “Why are people reading our paper instead of The Globe and Mail?” He thinks The Varsity’s unique strength is holding the university’s authorities and governing bodies accountable. U of T’s governing structures attract limited attention in Canadian reporting, but Yun points out that students pay considerable money to their university and student governments, “and it is important to hold these powers to a certain set of standards.”
It is this accountability role for campus reporting that makes Yun optimistic that, no matter how many Buzzfeed-style global media outlets emerge, The Varsity will continue to have purpose and place within the U of T community.