Scarborough Campus Students’ Union moves to control media access to meetings

Motion claims that student media are “abusing” position, “misrepresenting reality”

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union moves to control media access to meetings

Claiming that “student media have been abusing their positions as disseminators and aggregators of information,” the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) Board of Directors voted unanimously on December 12 on a first step to passing a motion to control student media accreditation and access to meetings.

The item was moved by Director of Political Science Raymond Dang and was carried from a previous meeting held on November 27. At the December meeting, the board voted to refer the item to its governance committee for further amendments.

Dang wrote in his motion that student media have been “misrepresenting the reality of the situation,” and that “recent days have shown the entire campus can be misled on important topics relating to their lives.”

During the discussion, Dang said that “it was very disappointing to see a lot of the reporting not just by existing student organizations but start-up student organizations this semester reporting falsely on what the Board of Directors have done.”

However, since Dang would not “repeat any sort of false information or misleading information that was said or not said elsewhere,” it is unclear what coverage Dang was referring to.

The Varsity most recently covered the SCSU’s November Board of Directors meeting, in which Dang moved a controversial motion to give $4,500 to the UTSC Women’s and Trans Centre, despite students voting against giving the funding at SCSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).

The Varsity and The Underground have also reported on the string of food quality issues that have occurred at SCSU-affiliated outlets this semester.

Dang wrote in his motion that “students rely on their fellow student journalists to accurately report the truth and hold power to account,” and called for student publications to submit requests to be recognized so that they can cover the SCSU.

The union’s bylaws already recognize student publications as “The Varsity, The Underground, Fusion Radio or any other student media either print or online.” Bylaw changes must be ratified at a meeting of members, such as the AGM.

Under Dang’s proposed policy, an ad hoc committee that would consist of the vice-president operations, vice-president external, and three directors to be chosen by the Board of Directors would make decisions on media access.

The SCSU would also adopt the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics standards as “guiding principles.” The guidelines touch on subjects such as independence, transparency, and accountability.

Since the motion was originally moved at the November meeting, the dates proposed in the text have already passed. As such, it is unclear when the committee will meet and by what date student publications will be required to submit applications, although Dang motioned for the governance committee to discuss the item at its first possible meeting.

According to the motion as it stands, changes will come into effect on January 1 if immediate action is taken, and will be enforced throughout the remainder of the academic year. All student media must apparently apply or reapply for accreditation for the union to either reaffirm or deny access.

During the board meeting, The Varsity was asked not to live tweet or photograph the events over concerns of online harassment of board members.

The chair of the meeting, Hildah Otieno, emphasized that this ban was not about media protocol but about protecting board members from intimidation.  

The Varsity tweeted once thereafter to post the text of the media accreditation policy motion. Upon discovery of the live tweet from the meeting, Otieno asked the reporter to remove the tweet, which The Varsity did not.

The SCSU currently has a Media Communications Policy, which outlines the media’s access to public meetings and spaces provided by the union. However, there is no policy regarding live tweeting under their bylaws and governing documents.

This incident comes shortly after two Varsity reporters were also barred from taking photos and live tweeting at a University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union meeting held on December 3. The reporters were subsequently asked to leave the meeting after continuing to live tweet at the direction of their editors.

The Varsity has reached out to the SCSU for comment.

Graduate Students’ Union’s failed AGM puts organization at risk of financial default

Tensions arise over concerns of financial transparency, opposition to presence of student media

Graduate Students’ Union’s failed AGM puts organization at risk of financial default

The membership of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) failed to pass the organization’s 20172018 audited financial statements at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) on December 3 due to a lack of quorum. According to the union’s finance commissioner, this puts the union at risk of defaulting to the university.

At the meeting, some GSU members complained that a draft report of the financial statements from the 20172018 fiscal year was not made available in their AGM packages, despite having to vote on the item. A portion of the meeting was spent debating how to logistically distribute the financial documents given the short notice.

Members were concerned over the failure to provide the financial statements in the agenda package. Members were supposed to receive the financial statements at least 13 days before the AGM.

Several members left the meeting out of frustration, though they suggested a future date for another general meeting.

After members left the room, the AGM lost quorum and the meeting was adjourned. A previously-scheduled General Council meeting was held immediately afterward.

During the General Council meeting, discussion followed on how to address the failure of the AGM to pass the 20172018 audited financial statements.

Finance Commissioner Branden Rizzuto claimed that the UTGSU would financially default to the university if the membership did not pass their audited financial statements for the past year.

During the General Council meeting, Rizzuto pointed out that The Varsitys reporters were live-tweeting that meeting and had live-tweeted the events of the AGM.

The Varsitys reporters were allowed to be present at the AGM on the condition that they neither take photographs nor live-tweet the events. Under direction from The Varsitys editors, the reporters purposefully ignored the condition to not live-tweet the events of the AGM.

Conditional seating is an unusual request at student union meetings, and this is the first time that Varsity reporters have been faced with conditions to their presence at a student governance meeting in recent years.

There was no vote or objection to keep the reporters in the room or to allow them to continue their work.

Since The Varsitys reporters were asked to leave the General Council meeting, it is unknown whether the audited financial statements were passed at that meeting.

Afterward, the UTGSU executive emailed The Varsity to say that The UTGSU General Council/Board-of-Directors unanimously accepted the Draft 2017-2018 Financial Audit at the General Council/Board-of-Directors meeting on December 3, 2018.”

“The UTGSU Executive Committee has been in communication with the University of Toronto Office of the Vice-Provost (Students) and they have indicated and confirmed that the UTGSU is in good financial standing with the University of Toronto,” wrote the executives.

“A motion to appoint a financial auditor for the 2018-2019 Fiscal Year will be presented at a future meeting of the General Membership. The UTGSU is not incorporated under the Ontario Not-For-Profit Corporations Act (ONCA) and is therefore not at risk of violating the Act.”

Editor’s Note (January 14, 2019, 5:32 pm): This article has been updated with the full comment from the UTGSU that The Varsity received on December 6, 2018. 

The New York Times hosts Art of the Book Review panel at U of T

What makes a good book review and what goes into the process of book criticism?

<i>The New York Times</i> hosts Art of the Book Review panel at U of T

In collaboration with U of T, The New York Times (NYT) hosted a panel about the art of the book review, focusing on the overall ethics and guidelines of book reviewing, as well as what makes a ‘good review.’

The event took place on November 30 at Isabel Bader Theatre and featured Jennifer Szalai, the NYT’s nonfiction book critic, and Randy Boyagoda, a U of T English professor and principal at St. Michael’s College.

Describing her experience as a book reviewer and the differences to those of news reporters, Szalai said, “There’s news value in these books and so when I review books, news value’s part of it, but it’s about reviewing the book, it’s about criticism. It’s about thinking what it is that the writer is trying to do.”

Szalai also spoke of the inner workings of being a reviewer, touching on subjects such as an embargo book, which “is a book that the publisher has decided not to release any advance copies of to reviewers.”

She also described how major book publicists and publishers try to get critics and editors to sign non-disclosure agreements, which is against NYT staff guidelines. Critics at the NYT are also not allowed to review books from current and former work colleagues.

The panelists also discussed how readership affects the process of book reviewing and how book culture remains an integral part of the industry. Boyagoda drew on his experience as an English professor, emphasizing the importance of book reviewing in contemporary literary studies.

“It is important for contemporary students of literature, of ideas more generally, to have a sense of what they’re studying in class is meaningfully connected to what’s going on in the world at large,” he said. “There’s a continuity between what’s going on in terms of a syllabus and then the kind of culture at large. And if we don’t see that… then all that matters are those [authors] that are dead already and I think a lively book culture kind of fails, and the people who are studying it today aren’t committed to thinking about what’s going on in terms of contemporary fiction and nonfiction.”

Szalai said that bias, particularly from readers, makes it difficult when giving a fair opinion. Social media makes it especially hard, as reviewers can face direct criticism for an honest review.

“I think that the main thing about the reviews, especially the reviews that run in the Times, is that you want the review to be fair,” she explained.

She acknowledged that people define ‘fair’ in different ways, “but ultimately, you don’t want the reader to think that there’s some sort of ulterior motive on the part of the reviewer, whether it’s to promote a friend on the one hand, or if it’s an enemy, to really take their book down,” she said.

During the Q&A session, one audience member asked a question about the genre bias of book reviews, mainly those of history and politics, and what would constitute any non-political book to be reviewed.

“I think it would depend on the book,” said Szalai.

“Sometimes I will notice that I’ve just done week after week after week of books having to do with history, politics, social issues, and for myself as well as for the readers, I think it’s nice. It’s helpful also for them to understand my sensibility better if I speak to a book that’s not about that.”

Boyagoda related the question to his experience reviewing a book outside his expertise of literary fiction.

“It was a great intellectual palate cleanser from, in my case, literary fiction… and I had readers… who came up to me and said, ‘It was really interesting to see you writing about this instead.’”

“That makes it a break for the reader, but it’s also a break for the critic; it’s kind of like a reset, in a way… whether it’s politics or literary fiction,” said Boyagoda.

Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor at the NYT and a visiting professor at U of T, moderated the panel. The NYT’s Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter and University College Principal Donald Ainslie delivered opening and closing remarks.

It’s funny because it’s true

Assessing the value of satirical journalism, including U of T’s The Boundary and The Highland Holler

It’s funny because it’s true

Whether it’s The Onion in the US or The Beaverton in Canada, it seems that there is nowhere you can turn in the online world without encountering satirical news.

But this uptick is certainly no accident, and likely reflects a worrisome political reality. According to Pennsylvania State University professor Sophia McClennen, “We see satire emerge when political discourse is in crisis and when it becomes important to use satirical comedy to put political pressure on misinformation.”

While journalistic impartiality is critical for conventional news outlets, satirical journalism directly challenges questionable beliefs and actions. It manages to breach subjects seen as too taboo for traditional reporting with an exceptionally low tolerance for nonsense.

This is especially pertinent as it can be difficult for traditional news media to keep up with the outlandish controversies in current politics. Regarding coverage of Donald Trump, McClennen said, “the news media sort of seems like it has to take [Trump’s statements] seriously in order to be taken seriously.”

Satire can tackle these issues head-on. For example, when Doug Ford announced his hastily revised sex-ed curriculum, traditional networks covered the controversy with a neutral gaze. The Beaverton, by contrast, published an article entitled, “Doug Ford replaces sex-ed curriculum with old copy of Playboy found in woods” — lampooning the outdated and careless nature of the decision.

Less restricted by journalistic guidelines, satire generates interest, debate, and conversation in a way that encourages a more critical view. It stops the normalization of politics which are abnormal, and, when done well, can be as informative as traditional news.

There is, however, an ugly underbelly to satire. With politics entering what many are calling a ‘post-truth’ era, it is vital to recognize fake news. Toeing the line between satire and fake news can be difficult, and is rooted in intent. Fake news presents false stories to intentionally deceive its audience, while satirical news publishes them with the intent of poking fun at current events.

To avoid falling into the category of fake news, some satirical outlets are making the nature of their content obvious. This proves to be a serious hurdle for many publications, for which an authentic appearance as a news outlet is part of the satire. Having a giant, flashing “satire” sign behind articles, on the other hand, can detract from the humour.

Satire at U of T has a long history. Engineering’s Toike Oike bills itself as “The University of Toronto’s Humour Newspaper since 1911,” while University College’s The Gargoyle has been in print since 1954.

Recently, two online-only publications, The Boundary of Victoria College and the The Highland Holler at UTSC have established footholds in the U of T publications community. The Boundary‘s Editor-in-Chief Ted Fraser attributes this growing interest in satire to the fact that “Facebook has come back from the dead… [it] is conducive to the type of Headline Humour we churn out.”

The Highland Holler suggested that there is an untapped, somewhat frustrated market for satire at U of T, seeing their fair share of complaints about the university and organizations within it. Delayed Arts & Science exam schedules, insects found in food at UTSC, unexpected enrollment increases at UTM, and $30 writing surfaces offered at the Daniels lecture hall reflect problematic oversights by various administrations at U of T. It is therefore no wonder that students are seeking direct, humorous criticism.

Both publications consider satirical news to be highly relevant. The Boundary sees campus satire as a counterweight to traditional news: “The Varsity is like your T.A. — reliable, astute, serious — and The Boundary is like your tutorial buddy,” said Fraser. While The Boundary recognizes satire to generally be “incredibly important as a political tool,” said Head Content Editor Kyle Brickman, the publication tries to steer clear of anything too political as it relates to campus.

The Highland Holler, meanwhile, holds no such reservations. While satire, especially in student journalism, is a tool that is meant for entertainment, the Holler explains that it is also intended to “encourage people to engage in civil discourse. The aim is to have people learning more about the topic at hand, as well as themselves, and their role as a student.”

The Highland Holler has run into some trouble with fake news, though. “One of the biggest issues that we’ve had to deal with is people taking our articles seriously and reacting to them candidly as though it were real news,” they said.

On the other hand, The Boundary sees satire as a reliable source of news. “We’re consistently fake. Because we’re in the Post-Truth Era, actual news is cloaked in ambiguity — you have to be skeptical of headlines, fact-check stories, maybe vet authors for hidden agendas. Our fake news is… a respite from second-guessing,” said Fraser.

It can be a struggle for students to keep up with the news. Outrage fatigue is real, and many people cope by simply disconnecting from the news. Satire offers an enticing alternative. By juggling between light-hearted humor and probing criticism, students can choose where and how to engage with journalism.

Often, students don’t have the time to read through a lengthy Varsity feature. They might just prefer to get a chuckle out of a Boundary headline reading, “Caffiends to Just Start Pouring Coffee Down Customers’ Throats.”

If done well, satire can entertain, inform, and enrage all at once. If publications manage to toe the line between fake news and satire, it can be an incredibly successful form of news. Failing that, it’s still funny, and mockery never gets old.

Ori Gilboa is a first-year Humanities student at Victoria College.

Putting colour in print

A growing anti-press climate should not preclude critical self-reflection on race in the newsroom

Putting colour in print

Freedom of the press, on a global scale, is under threat. From the alleged Saudi assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Turkey, to the US President’s ban of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta from the White House, the ability of media to criticize power can carry heavy consequences.

Trust in the press is fading too. The Varsity itself had to grapple with issues of trust following criticism of our coverage of Jordan Peterson in the fall of 2016.

Beyond campus, ‘anti-establishment’ forces accuse and dismiss mainstream media of ideological bias. In the US, outlets like CNN and The New York Times are labelled “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” by some on the right. In Canada, some call to defund the CBC.

Though not necessarily new, this is undoubtedly a dangerous environment. Journalists play an important role for the public in uncovering truth and holding power to account. They should be valued and protected.

However, this narrative of an oppressed press — which is important — must be coupled with an otherwise neglected story: that of race in the newsroom. Internal power dynamics demand as much scrutiny as external ones. In fact, racial equity can help media to better fulfil its role and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Freedom of the press comes with a responsibility to tell untold or undertold stories and bring underheard storytellers to the centre. In engaging in more self-reflection on its shortcomings, the media can take a step toward improving its commitment to the public interest and regain legitimacy.

The Sunny Dhillon case

The departure of reporter Sunny Dhillon from The Globe and Mail in late October exemplifies the importance of discussing race and journalism in a Canadian media landscape that is largely white.

In a Medium article, Dhillon revealed that he chose to leave the paper because of both a “single incident and a continuing pattern.” The instigating factor was that, in his coverage of the Vancouver municipal election, his editor told him to focus more on the election of women to the city council, and not on the fact that a city of almost-half Asian background had no corresponding ethnic representation at all. When he disagreed on the angle, she informed him that the newsroom is “not a democracy.”

Last year, a Varsity editorial argued that there is no such thing as unbiased reporting because “reports are created by authors and shaped by editors whose perspectives and personal experiences are inherently injected into the final product.”

The obsession with ‘objectivity’ is flawed because the very same ‘objective’ reality — such as the Vancouver municipal election — can be covered differently, based on who the reporter is. One’s personal identity, which includes race, class, gender, and more, cannot be divorced from one’s professional journalism. Identity informs what is valued, reported, discussed, and published.

But it’s not that this nexus is a shortcoming and that we should strive for total ignorance of colour. It is instead what makes the presence of journalists of colour so crucial.

Intrinsic and instrumental value

Representation in the newsroom has intrinsic value. Workplaces should look like general society, and they should actively seek to hire people of colour, given the discriminatory tendency of institutions to overlook qualified and competent racialized candidates.

But it also has an instrumental value: without it, the media risks insufficiently or inaccurately covering a story or missing a story entirely. This is as much about self-interest as it is about racial justice.

Last week, a Guardian article noted that “appearance is not the real problem. A democratic media is.” Not only should journalists of colour be ‘included,’ in a numerical sense, but they should take up space, voice, and power in the newsroom to identify gaps in a paper’s coverage and tell stories in a more accurate and nuanced way. In turn, the communities that they reflect can be better represented in media and become a readership that fully trusts such organizations.

Media reports also shape public opinion and dialogue. By not reporting on the racial gap in the Vancouver municipal election, the general public was left unaware of the problem. Instead, the public is left with misrepresentative and stereotypical stories that only portray Asians as “foreign real-estate buyers and money [launderers].” Until the media addresses its own race problem, the general public will continue to be misinformed and racism will continue unaddressed.

Dhillon’s story headlined because his experience of the fact that what he “brought to the newsroom did not matter” was shared by many other journalists of colour, who feel ignored, silenced, and overlooked when it comes to race. But many continue to endure it all because leaving the newsroom would mean abdicating responsibility to represent what is already so unrepresented.

In a follow-up Medium article, Dhillon shared some of these responses from other journalists of colour, which pointed to another side of the issue: they are not just their race. They are also individuals with a diverse range of abilities and interests. They should not be hired to serve as essentialized, go-to ‘ethnic’ reporters.

The Canadian media problem

Dhillon’s story should be understood in the context of other Canadian media’s shortcomings on racial equity.

In 2017, columnist Desmond Cole, best known for his activism and journalism on anti-Blackness in the Toronto Police, resigned from the Toronto Star. After being told that he wrote about race too often and that journalists can’t simultaneously be activists, Cole ultimately chose “activism in the service of Black liberation” over his column.

Writers like Cole are expected to deliver diversity quotas and improve media’s inclusionary image, but when they attempt to reshape journalistic culture and public conversation about anti-Blackness in this country, they are pushed out. As a Varsity editorial noted, media coverage on anti-Blackness had already been disappointing. The loss of Cole, who was also one of the only Black columnists in mainstream Canadian media, made the situation even worse.

Around the same time, prominent Canadian media figures defended disgraced Hal Niedzviecki in the ‘appropriation prize’ controversy. He had encouraged writers to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities” in their work. This swiftly drew criticism from Indigenous peoples, given the connection between cultural appropriation, Canada’s colonial history, and the record of Canadian media in the misrepresentation and exclusion of Indigenous communities and voices.

Last week, Maclean’s released the cover of its December issue, which unironically represented white Conservative Party leaders as “the resistance” to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax plan. This decision dangerously reinforces the view of many far-right figures and movements today that white conservatives are oppressed and marginalized in this country. Furthermore, it co-opts the struggle of actually marginalized communities — queer folks, Black people, Indigenous communities — who are the real resistance in Canada to establishment leaders.

It is clear that Dhillon’s story is not isolated. Canadian media organizations must do much better in deciding which stories to tell and who to tell them — especially when it impacts how the public understands the world around them.

The responsibility of student journalists

In a Globe and Mail piece this summer, Amy O’Kruk, former editor-in-chief of Western University’s Gazette, Western University’s student newspaper, commented that for mainstream media, doing better on diversity starts with, and should draw inspiration from, student papers. After all, whereas columnists in Canada are mostly cisgender, straight, white men, student paper mastheads do better with representation.

However, this should not be cause for celebration alone. As Victoria College’s The Strand noted in an editorial last month, student journalism should strive not just to be accurate, but equitable. As student journalists, many of us are the future of Canadian media — and therefore we have a responsibility to be the generation that does better on equity.

At The Varsity, we realize that we are no exception when it comes to journalistic fallibility. Although we are proud of our diverse masthead, our reporting and publishing can and has come up short for underserved communities in recent memory. We realize that the presence of journalists of colour must be qualified with power.

We continue to strive to improve our newsroom culture and practices in order to better empower marginalized voices, including by building relationships with those communities. We know that what we cover — and don’t cover — has implications for student public opinion, and we don’t take that responsibility lightly.

Today, the press is threatened on multiple fronts. On the one hand, powerful actors seek to undermine the legitimacy of and trust in media. On the other hand, the press is undermining its own legitimacy when it fails to serve marginalized communities. This is especially concerning because, with the global growth of the far right, race and identity are increasingly at the heart of all things political. Media must therefore strive for sensitive, responsible journalism when it comes to race — more than ever.

And it starts with internal reform. Of course, media leaders should hire and elevate more people of colour to positions of power to ensure that they have a strong voice in the newsroom. But as as a recent J-Source article noted, it is not those at the top who will lead the change.

Rather, it is the workers — reporters, fact checkers, designers, photographers — who must collectively organize and demand change for a more equitable workplace. They are to whom the newsroom belongs.

When the Globe editor said to Dhillon that there is no democracy in the media, she wasn’t wrong. But there should be. Let’s start by putting more colour in our print.

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

Have hot takes killed sports journalism?

The inability to discern truth from hype can have serious repercussions

Have hot takes killed sports journalism?

Is quality sports analysis dead? As popular television sports reporters such as Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, and countless others rattle off bewildering matter-of-fact statements supported by flimsy evidence, one may be led to believe that hot takes have ruined sports journalism.

I’m here to assure you that this is not the case. Let’s start by defining the notion of a ‘hot take’: an opinion on a topic that typically draws grand conclusions from limited information, and is often phrased in an intentionally polarizing manner for the purpose of capturing the attention of a large audience.

These headlines and opinions are akin to clickbait, as they seek to do very little other than try to grab a reader’s attention. Sports broadcasting companies employ personalities to deliver these often wildly uninformed hot takes on a daily basis, because they achieve high ratings, which in turn generate revenue.

While it’s believed that hot takes are a new phenomenon, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Hot takes in newspapers span as far back as the 1920s, and were even written by the likes of Grantland Rice, one of the most iconic figures in the history of sports journalism. Rice would describe players as “serial dopers” or “cockroaches” — hotter takes than anything we are likely to see on national television in 2018.

Even in the shift to “straight reporting” in the ’60s and ’70s, another iconic journalist, Dick Young, had his own hot takes on the sexuality of players, even sometimes comparing players to terrorists.

Realistically, I believe that hot takes were, are, and will always be a part of sports. As long as there are topics to speak on, someone will have an outrageous opinion on them.

However, hot takes seem to be more prevalent in our current era because we are in the age of information, in which we are constantly bombarded with headlines as companies vie for our attention in order to maximize profits.

The problem with hot takes arises when both players and audiences alike have trouble discerning the truth from the lies. A story as seemingly harmless as ‘X player is strongly considering a trade from team Y,’ when not properly substantiated, can have countless real world repercussions for fans and teammates who fail to consider the sources of this information.

There is a certain level of media literacy required for deciphering news from hype, and I believe that sports fans are already evolving in this sense.

For example, in the NBA, hot takes are often unsubstantiated until they are confirmed by veteran insider sources, such as Adrian Wojnarowski or Shams Charania, and fans will generally leave news on the backburner until they are adequately substantiated.

Although the greater distribution of information has led to hot takes becoming more prevalent, this new era of reporting has also given sports fans advanced metrics and other fact-based insights into the ability of players, which helps to debunk hot takes and offers fans a calibre of sports reporting that has never been seen before.

The beauty of our current age of information is that there is something for everyone. Those who thirst for drama can search out hot takes, while those who prefer statistical analyses are free to scour advanced metrics.

It’s clear that sports journalism has actually remained the same over the course of the last century or so, and I expect this trend to continue for as long as sports journalism exists. My hot take? Sports journalism will be just fine.

To not publish, sometimes, is the highest form of journalism

The publication of Jian Ghomeshi’s essay points to an urgent need for media organizations to recognize the relationship between platform, voice, and power

To not publish, sometimes, is the highest form of journalism

Content warning: this editorial discusses the intersection of journalism and sexual violence.

It has been almost a year since #MeToo became a viral social media movement, through which survivors exposed a slew of sexual misconducts, harassments, and assaults by high-profile perpetrators, among others. Yet a number of the powerful men exposed in the #MeToo movement are now attempting to make comebacks in the public arena.

Last month, comedian Louis C.K. performed an unannounced set at the Comedy Cellar in New York. He made no reference to the accusations that had ostensibly ended his career. He received a standing ovation before he even began performing. 

Also emerging from the shadows, though, are those whose ‘silences,’ a natural consequence of public scandals, have stretched beyond the #MeToo movement. These individuals are being aided by media organizations that choose to enable them to tell their side of the story.

On September 14, The New York Review of Books (NYRB) published an essay entitled “Reflections from a Hashtag” by disgraced CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi. In 2014, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Ghomeshi became public. He was fired by CBC, but following a high-profile trial, he was acquitted of all charges in 2016.

On September 16, New York magazine profiled Soon-Yi Previn, wife of director Woody Allen, in which she described her adoptive mother and Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow as an abusive parent. In response, Previn’s adoptive brother, Ronan Farrow, accused Previn of “planting stories that attack and vilify my mother [Mia] to deflect from my sister’s credible allegations of abuse” — referring to the longstanding allegation that Allen sexually assaulted his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow.

Both of these cases have resulted in backlash because they provided a platform for alleged perpetrators, or defenders of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence. The backlash is entirely justified: the NYRB and New York should not have published the pieces. In the era of #MeToo, the responsibility of media organizations is to report and publish in accordance with a sharp awareness of the power dynamics that underlie voice and narrative.

In the context of sexual violence, survivors are often pushed into positions of shame and silence. If they choose to come forward with their stories, they risk being treated with skepticism, disbelief, harassment, and threats. In contrast, perpetrators are shielded by public sympathizers who demand the legal principle of ‘innocent before proven guilty,’ and who criticize the ‘court of public opinion.’

The voices of survivors, then, are often not heard and are often overpowered by their abusers and their supporters. Given the risks, they already have less access to the media. For media organizations that seem to attempt to ‘level the playing field’ by publishing the perspectives of high-profile figures like Ghomeshi, their decisions reflect a false sense of journalistic balance that is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, dangerous in its reproduction of trauma for survivors.

Given his connection to Toronto, Ghomeshi’s case warrants a closer examination. In his essay, Ghomeshi manipulates the reader through a ‘self-humanizing’ narrative — a narrative that dismisses the stories of his accusers as “inaccurate” and fails to portray any genuine remorse. He attempts to rally sympathy by sharing how he became an “outcast”; how he was “weeping in shame”; how he has been reduced to a “singular, sexualized identity”; and how he has felt “hopeless,” “pathetic,” and “suicidal.”

Most reprehensible, though, is how he manipulates his identity as a person of colour. Indeed, he has, and wrongly so, received racist backlash from those who associate his behaviour with his cultural background. However, describing oneself as a victim after abusing others is a deflection tactic whereby a position of power is used to appropriate the status of the abused. This complicates the otherwise straightforward narrative that they are the perpetrators and should accept responsibility.

Rather than take responsibility, Ghomeshi largely blames the structures around him for his mistreatment of women, pointing to careerism and the attainment of success as a broadcaster. He describes how he tried to use fame to impress and manipulate women. “Dating and having sex became another measure of status.”

The conclusion of the essay suggests that anonymity — no longer manipulating his fame or being “a Somebody” — is the way forward. Indeed, perpetrators should pursue the route of silence and cede space for the voices of those who have long been voiceless as a first step toward rehabilitation.

But the reality of Ghomeshi’s essay contradicts this very suggestion. Ghomeshi emerged from his silence last year with a podcast commentary series, The Ideation Project, with no acknowledgement of the circumstances surrounding the downfall of his career, just like Louis C.K. He decided on the terms of justice and unilaterally made a comeback. And with this essay, he demonstrates that he still capitalizes on his fame — or infamy at this point — to draw an audience and attempt to polish his image. He may no longer be abusively “dating and having sex” to attain status, but by manipulating his status, he challenges the naive assumption that #MeToo would be a turning point in existing power dynamics.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of the essay are also troubling. Following backlash against the essay, the editor, Ian Buruma, felt forced to resign after the threat of an advertiser’s boycott. However, Buruma continues to stand by his decision to publish the essay.

Furthermore, the NYRB amended the essay with a preface stating that they should have made an acknowledgement of the allegations against Ghomeshi, and that the following issue would feature letters to the editors in response to the essay. Yet this preface does not reflect any remorse for having published the essay in the first place. There is therefore concern as to whether it was the financial threat of an advertiser’s boycott, rather than the ethics and responsibilities of journalism, that compelled the NYRB to take action.

Last year, alongside the emergence of the #MeToo movement, The Varsity Editorial Board noted that the role of the media is to ensure that journalism “does not further contribute to the conditions that make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult.” Ultimately, it is difficult to understand what media organizations hope to achieve by featuring the perspectives of alleged perpetrators. It does not advance meaningful conversation about sexual violence; rather, publications like these undermine it by confusing perpetrator for victim.

The Varsity’s mission statement expresses a commitment to the “provision of meaningful, just coverage for our readership.” A diverse range of opinions, perspectives, and stories, and reasonable debate and discussion between them, is what renders media coverage holistic, fair, and credible. However, coverage must also be committed to justice.

For publishers and editors of influential media organizations, meaningful journalism means making principled choices. The heart of ethical and responsible journalism is to amplify the voices of those who have not spoken, as opposed to those who have always spoken. By locating the maldistribution of power in society, media can recognize that, sometimes, to not publish and provide platform is itself a worthwhile ideal of journalism. 

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

Canadian Association of Journalists criticizes U of T over handling of student media request

U of T rejected a media request from UBC's student paper on August 20

Canadian Association of Journalists criticizes U of T over handling of student media request

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has released a statement criticizing U of T after the university’s media relations office refused to answer a media request from The Ubyssey — the University of British Columbia’s student paper — on the grounds that its staff were unable to accommodate student media outside of U of T.

“Due to the high volume of requests we receive we are unable to assist with requests with student media other than our own,” read the email from U of T to The Ubyssey’s Coordinating Editor, Samantha McCabe.

After receiving U of T’s response, McCabe tweeted, “Hey, @UofT — just a reminder that all student media is media, and has the capacity to hold you accountable!”

In response, the CAJ, which is an organization representing over 600 journalists across the country, released a statement in support of student journalists.

“The University of Toronto and other post-secondary institutions must recognize that student journalists are journalists,” the statement read. “If the university requires more staff to fulfill the basic mandate of its media relations department, the correct way to address that is to hire additional staff, not ignore questions.”

Evan Balgord, Vice-President of the CAJ, called the move “unacceptable.”

“It’s the role of student newspapers to cover their schools and often it’s student media that break stories holding these institutions accountable,” said Balgord. “It’s concerning that the University of Toronto is ignoring requests coming from journalists enrolled at other schools.”

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T Media Relations Interim Director Elizabeth Church said, “We’ve been listening to the debate and we’re considering how we can revise our practice to address some of the issues that are being raised.”

She added that her office has been trying to expand their services in recent years “to respond to our campus media the same way we do to other members of the media.” This includes arranging interviews with senior staff for The Varsity’s multiple requests per week, as well as for all other U of T campus media.

“I just want to stress that we think it’s important to give priority to our student media and to make sure that they have a chance to talk to senior leaders and staff about issues,” said Church.

When contacted by The Varsity, McCabe said that she was working on a story on what Canadian universities and postsecondary institutions are doing in terms of sexual violence prevention and education.

“I think their response takes a media request regarding a very serious subject matter and oversimplifies it into ’merely’ a student journalist’s request,” wrote McCabe.

“While I recognize that I’m from an entirely different university and that I don’t pay tuition to U of T, as a public-facing institution they need to be accountable to both their own students (which, I would say, would have made up part of the audience of my story) as well as to Canadian students in general, especially on a subject as importance as sexual violence,” she continued.

McCabe sent the initial email on August 16 and received U of T’s response on August 20, denying her request. She replied a day later, stressing “the importance of their comment, given the topic and that I was speaking to other universities,” but U of T has so far upheld its decision.

U of T lists four staffers in their central media relations office, and 22 more communications officials in other academic divisions.

— With files from Josie Kao