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To preserve credibility, the student press must be careful with sensationalism

Reviewing the missteps of The Underground during the 2019 SCSU elections
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Though The Varsity has a tri-campus mandate, we are impressed by how closely our peer publications at UTM and UTSC are able to cover stories on their respective campuses. UTM’s The Medium and UTSC’s The Underground have strong histories of news coverage and invigorating commentary. It is essential that reporters and contributors on the ground at those campuses are able to serve readers in ways that The Varsity might not.

However, with the provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative posing a serious threat to the financial stability of the student press, student journalism is now, more than ever, under the microscope. The student press must take even more care to remain a trustworthy and responsible campus institution with the risk of losing not only credibility but also funding. In light of this, it’s vital that we in the student press — especially among U of T outlets — hold each other accountable to the very highest of standards.

Let’s not play a part in the drama

Following a weak presence last semester, The Underground has launched a new website and is putting out regular online content. However, it has fallen wayward with respect to upholding journalistic norms and responsibility in its publishing. 

We are very aware that this editorial may come across as The Varsity condescending toward another student publication, despite being prone to mistakes ourselves. Our objective is to offer constructive criticism in an era of destructive criticism toward the press, because U of T readers deserve the very best from their student media. We assure you that this editorial will later delve into The Varsity’s own imperfections, so please bear with us for a little while.

One of the most salient issues in The Underground’s recent coverage is its undue sensationalism of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) elections. While it’s our firm belief that the student press has some wiggle room to be sensational — if we can’t, who can? — when it comes to student union elections, the actions of candidates individually and during events within the campaign period often speak for themselves.

The editors and reporters of The Underground went beyond what we think is acceptable sensationalism by fanning the flames of an already-inflammatory election, and not exercising due caution and responsibility in the publication of sensitive statements. Case in point: the article summarizing the events of the election is titled “2019 Elections Drama.” This clearly injects commentary into what is otherwise a news story.

It must be said from the start that the SCSU elections were fairly dramatic. The election period included allegations of violence, a widespread campaign against now president-elect Chemi Lhamo, and the controversial disqualification of SCSYou slate leader Anup Atwal. The Underground was, to its credit, absolutely on top of every development in the elections and started off well by hosting a candidates’ debate.

However, its hair-trigger attitude led it down a path of quickly and testily publishing every story as it arose. In one case, The Underground published an article about a private Facebook chat that exposed anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments from Atwal. However, in using a raw screenshot of Atwal’s comments as evidence, The Underground reproduced and propagated a transphobic slur against a Shine Bright UTSC candidate. This was arguably libellous toward the candidate. The article also failed to contextualize that the candidate is a transgender woman, and furthermore failed to explicitly call out Atwal’s statement as transphobic.

In addition, the article was published before receiving and including comments from either the candidate or Atwal. The Varsity also admittedly publishes articles that indicate that certain figures have been reached out to and have yet to provide comment. But this is a question of context and accessibility: when covering a student union election, student politicians are accessible for comment. When an article includes high-stakes information about an election, it is vital to retrieve comment from all figures who are named and are central to the story in order to ensure fair and complete coverage. Notably, the article still does not have their comments. This is absolutely a transgression of responsible journalism.

More broadly, there seemed to be a general forgetfulness among the editors of The Underground over the role of the media in informing the public. We aren’t here to disseminate all information available, but rather to curate and present it to our readership in a way that makes sense of the facts at hand and landscape at large. Doing otherwise has the potential to propagate misinformation and entrench the chaos already surrounding union elections.

This was certainly the case with The Underground’s proclivity for publishing extensive screenshots of Facebook messages between candidates. Many of the messages were notably asinine, but they were presented without the context to provide depth or constructive explanations of the events of the campaign.

For instance, The Underground published an anonymous screenshot showing a Facebook chat with SCSYou’s Vice-President External candidate Chaman Bukhari. In the screenshot, an anonymous person is shown asking Bukhari, “How was it,” to which Bukhari replied in Urdu, “Fuzool” and “Wohi LGBTQ [bakwas].” The Varsity translated Bukhari’s text to “useless” and “the same LGBTQ bullshit.”

However, The Underground failed to find out that the message took place two years prior to the election period. While Bukhari’s comments are obviously insensitive, we wonder to what extent The Underground’s editors and their eagerness to publish private messages were used, by themselves or others, as a tool to sow further division in the campaign.

Committing to standard journalistic practices

All of this was punctuated by an “op-ed” by The Underground’s Editor-in-Chief, Eilia Yazdanian, which was a rambling diatribe against how the elections were conducted. We don’t understand why Yazdanian’s piece was labelled an op-ed, which is an opinion piece written by an author who does not belong to the outlet’s editorial board. By contrast, opinion pieces written by an author who does belong to the outlet’s editorial board, like Yazdanian, are called editorials. These pieces, like the one you’re currently reading, typically speak for the outlet as a whole. Yazadanian’s piece should have been labelled as an editorial, or at the least, as a letter from the editor.

One reader also pointed to the fact that Yazdanian did not disclose in his op-ed that he was previously the Vice-President Operations for the SCSU. While Yazdanian initially defended the non-disclosure, a disclaimer was later added to the op-ed. This clear misunderstanding of journalistic form has accompanied other transgressions by The Underground, including the issuance of corrections and clarifications to articles in Facebook comments, when these notes should be added to the articles that are being clarified. In fact, it appears that when they do make updates to articles, they do not indicate that they’ve done so with an editor’s note, which is standard practice.

When the election finally came to an end, The Underground did not opt to invest in formally covering the results in the form of an article, as it had done with the aforementioned scandalous stories. In what is perhaps the most important aspect of any election — who won — the outlet oddly chose to simply post screenshots of the results, leaving it up to readers to flip through the raw information rather than provide them with original and organized reporting.

The Underground must also quickly address a glaring oversight in the design and categorization of its website: the fact that there is no clear divide between news and opinion pieces. The line between news reporting and opinion commentary is sacred in journalism. It must be upheld so that readers understand what is being presented as fact and what is being presented as a reasoned opinion. This line is also worth upholding to separate reporters from columnists, with the idea that publications should not have the same people reporting on stories that they have taken or will later take strong stances on.

Finally, it should be noted that prior to the controversy-filled SCSU elections, two previous stories published by The Underground, one in January and the other in November, had to do with Fusion Radio’s financial scandal and Asian Gourmet’s food scandal. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the coverage of scandals — indeed, it is important to do so — to only focus on such stories means that The Underground risks cementing itself as a sensationalist outlet that is primarily interested in clicks and views. By not covering or telling other stories, especially positive ones that have taken place this year, The Underground also inadvertently risks negatively stereotyping UTSC, which is already a big issue.

The currency of credibility

All this isn’t to say that we at The Varsity don’t make mistakes or deserve criticism. Quite the opposite — we welcome critical engagement from our readership because it holds us accountable, gives us opportunities to improve, and allows us to show our readers that we’re listening and willing to do better. And our readership hasn’t hesitated to tell us when they think we’ve messed up. We’ve published many critical letters to the editor this year, touching on issues from the comprehensiveness of union procedure reporting to accessibility concerns with our Fall Magazine.

The role of our arms-length Public Editor, Morag McGreevey, also allows readers to express concerns to someone tasked with upholding journalistic ethics at the newspaper but not beholden to the publication’s management structure. McGreevey, like her predecessor Sophie Borwein, has proved indispensable in weighing in on issues of journalistic ethics and calling us out when she thinks we deviate from them, as she did in her criticism of our discussion of a photograph of a Ryerson Students’ Union executive and Premier Doug Ford, or our coverage of Faith Goldy in the Toronto municipal elections.

Ultimately, we’re excited by the renewed vigour and spunk that The Underground is showing this year. But that can’t come at the cost of good journalism. As The Underground continues to expand its coverage, it should consider how it will be accountable to its readership, whether through letters to the editor or an arms-length, third party in the form of a public editor or ombudsperson. And we also welcome criticism from The Underground and The Medium, whom we have also criticized in the past, to challenge us on our shortcomings.

There’s a saying that credibility is currency in journalism, and it’s vital that student media outlets ensure that they aren’t wasting energy and efforts in a way that damages a relationship of trust with readers. Ultimately, not only do the criticisms in this editorial aim to be healthy and constructive, because we want UTSC readers to be better served by their closest outlet, but they are to some degree self-interested. We cannot afford to see a given outlet make mistakes that become easy targets in today’s anti-student press climate and ultimately hurts all outlets.

In a Facebook comment, Atwal has expressed his hope that The Underground will not receive sufficient funding with the implementation of the Student Choice Initiative in September. This kind of mentality is concerning, especially from a former presidential candidate who had previously defended student journalism, pledged to resist the Student Choice Initiative, and could have been held to account by an outlet like The Underground had he won the election.

When journalistic institutions make mistakes, the solution is not to destroy them. Rather, it is to offer healthy criticism and hold them accountable so that they can improve and better serve us in the future. To preserve the currency that is credibility, let’s do just that.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]

Editor’s Note (February 24): This editorial has been updated to include information about the SCSU election results coverage by The Underground