Recently, there has been a wave of controversies surrounding student union and media relations across U of T campuses. In December, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union removed Varsity reporters from a meeting for live-tweeting after attempting to block them from doing so, while the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) moved to control media access to meetings. The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) condemned the SCSU’s actions as abrogations of the free press.
Unfortunately, UTM has not been unaffected by this trend. After the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTMSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) last November, UTM’s student paper, The Medium, was accused by UTMSU Vice-President External Atif Abdullah of “corner[ing] and harass[ing] a part-time staff member” for information.
The paper responded by publishing a series of opinion pieces that denied these allegations and criticized the UTMSU’s anti-press behaviour. The paper’s Managing Editor, Alicia Boatto, claimed that Abdullah attempted to block its access to public student events following the AGM incident.
Freedom of the press is a necessary condition for democracy to function, and any kind of restrictions can put that freedom at jeopardy. Governing bodies such as student unions are kept in check and the general public is kept informed through independent media outlets that are free of external interests or pressures. When student unions restrict the media’s access to meetings, they are weakening their own accountability. Student unions should realize that student journalists are simply fulfilling their responsibilities to the student body.
The Medium, which pointed out the UTMSU’s policy of restricting communication with the press to email only, is justified in its criticism. Student unions should be open to answering inquiries from the media in every conventional capacity, including in person, and at all times.
I should disclose that I have written several times for The Medium’s News section and have faced barriers when student union members do not respond to emails on time. Whether they choose to offer comments or not, the UTMSU has to present some response to inquiries on a regular basis so that articles can be both informative and accurate.
Interestingly, amid this debacle, The Medium also offered Abdullah a chance to explain his accusations. Abdullah responded by accusing the paper of “poor journalistic integrity” and inaccurate news coverage.
While his perspective does not excuse his behaviour, it is also true that The Medium needs to be held to higher standards. Personally, I have noticed that the quality of the newspaper has dwindled in the past two years, and as both a reader and contributor, I agree that the number of inaccuracies have increased. While speed is essential for news coverage, it should never compromise accuracy.
Furthermore, The Medium’s handling of its dispute with the UTMSU is questionable, especially as it pertains to journalistic ethics. The CAJ clearly states that, “We lose our credibility as fair observers if we write opinion pieces about subjects we also cover as reporters.” The News Editor at The Medium, Ali Taha, was one of the masthead members whose opinion on the dispute was published, even though he covers the UTMSU as a reporter. Furthermore, the dispute, where it concerns the UTMSU AGM, specifically focuses on him and Abdullah.
Clearly, The Medium has a conflict of interest in this issue. In order to remain fair and credible, news reporters should strictly refrain from publicly extending any personal opinions on topics that they cover. Such behaviour casts doubt on the integrity of the newspaper as a whole and risks compromising students’ trust in media.
The Medium would do well to better organize its opinion pages. First off, it must keep a clear-cut separation between news and opinion. Furthermore, standard opinion pieces about student politics should come only from the students, while masthead opinions should be strictly published as editorials. Strangely, Taha’s opinion piece was published as a letter to the editor, which is traditionally reserved for the thoughts of readers.
Both the UTMSU and The Medium are organizations that exist to provide services for their students. As such, they are accountable to the student body. Rather than behave defensively and hostilely toward each other, both should embrace criticism and value self-improvement. That is what it means to be a government and media in the face of routine disapproval.
To the UTMSU and The Medium: learn to co-exist. Student democracy at UTM depends on it.
Sharmeen Abedi is a fourth-year Criminology, Sociology, and English student at UTM. She is The Varsity’s UTM Affairs Columnist.
Disclosure: Abedi was a staff writer for The Medium in the 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 academic years.