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

U of T alum Tamara Baluja receives Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education

Baluja worked with The Globe and Mail, CBC, The Varsity

U of T alum Tamara Baluja receives Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education

She started her journalistic career by writing for The Varsity and volunteering as a news reader when she was an undergraduate student. Years later, U of T alum Tamara Baluja has won the prestigious Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education. She was presented with the award at Rideau Hall on June 12 by Governor General Julie Payette.

The Michener-Deacon Fellowship is presented to a single journalist who becomes a journalist-in-residence at a Canadian journalism school.

“Every year, the Micheners honour the best in Canadian public service journalism, and it is awe-inspiring to be among so many brilliant journalists,” wrote Baluja in an email to The Varsity.

As the current Social Media Editor for CBC Vancouver, Baluja will be taking a semester-long sabbatical at the University of British Columbia to develop a workshop centering on social media, its metrics, and how to develop editorial strategies.

“When I was accepting the fellowship, I also acknowledged my start at a student newspaper. My husband, then boyfriend, and I both were studying at U of T and he dared me to write for The Varsity,” wrote Baluja. “I took up the challenge, and I was completely hooked on journalism from that point on.”

“That dare of writing for The Varsity set me on a completely different career path from becoming a doctor, and since then, I’ve gone on to work for The Globe and Mail, CFRB 1010, and CBC,” continued Baluja. “But The Varsity is where it all began and so the paper and U of T both hold a very special place in my heart.”

Editor’s Note (July 30): A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Baluja was taking a year-long sabbatical, not a semester-long sabbatical. This piece has also been updated to reflect that the Michener-Deacon Fellowship is awarded to a single journalist. 

Breaking down the Toronto van attack

The chaos in North York last month compels us to scrutinize toxic masculinity, racial double standards, and irresponsible journalism

Breaking down the Toronto van attack

On April 23, a van struck and killed 10 pedestrians, injuring 16 others, on the sidewalks of Yonge St. Eight of those killed were women, including 22-year-old U of T student So He Chung. The alleged perpetrator, Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old Seneca College student, now faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

In trying to explain conflict and violence, the gender variable is frequently overlooked — particularly the ways in which toxic masculinity and misogyny push young men to express their anger and disaffection through violence against women. The Toronto van attack is an example of the gender variable close to home.

Misogynistic ideology

Prior to the Toronto attack, Minassian posted a message on his Facebook page referencing an “Incel Rebellion” and expressing admiration for Elliot Rodger, who committed a massacre in Isla Vista, California in 2014, also motivated by a hatred of women.

Minassian’s Facebook post has shone new light on a little-known subculture on the internet. ‘Incels,’ or ‘involuntary celibates,’ are an online community of men who attribute their lack of sexual success to biology, feminism, and society as a whole. Due to genetic factors such as appearance or height, incels believe themselves to be inherently undesirable and destined for a life without sex. They typically view their lot in life as unchangeable, describing themselves as having lost the genetic lottery. Incels hold particular contempt for women, whom many incels feel owe them sex and romantic attention. Some incels are more extreme, discussing and encouraging violence against women.

Like Minassian, some of these more extreme incels also idolize Elliot Rodger. Before carrying out his attack targeting women, Rodger recorded a manifesto about his lack of sexual success, his disdain for women, and his desire to seek revenge. After the Yonge Street attack, some incels celebrated online when news of it broke and said women were to blame because they wouldn’t have sex with the accused person.

Racial double standards

Even though far-right extremism — a category to which Minassian surely belongs — is a far greater threat than Islamist violence in Canada, mass murders are frequently  associated with Islam because of the political weight the religion carries in the War on Terror climate.

Following the attack, CBC’s Natasha Fatah tweeted a witness statement that the attacker appeared “Middle Eastern.” Although Fatah later deleted the tweet, it  went viral and was exploited by right-wing media outlets, including the Toronto Sun, Breitbart, and Infowars, and far-right personalities like U of T alumnus Faith Goldy. For hours, an unverified and politically charged statement was treated as fact. Although Fatah had later tweeted another witness statement accurately describing the attacker as white, it circulated far less on social media.

The National Post’s Barbara Kay, immediately after the attack, with no confirmation of the motive or identity of the attacker, argued that it was reasonable and preferable to assume that the attack had been inspired by ideology — namely Islamism — because “patterns lead to predictions,” and Islamist van attacks are one such pattern. She argued that ideological attacks provide some sense of order and hope because they can be understood and addressed, whereas isolated attacks produce chaos.

In her column, she cited University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson on his explanations of order and chaos. The very same Jordan Peterson was quoted as saying, in a recent New York Times piece,  that Minassian was “angry at God because women were rejecting him,” and that the “cure for that is enforced monogamy” — a model for the redistribution of sex.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that we generally do not ascribe terminologies like ‘ideology’ or ‘terrorism’ when the motive is gendered and when the perpetrator is white, as we would when the attack is somehow connectable to Islam. Even though Minassian’s ideology is clearly misogyny, he is conversely justified by comments like Peterson’s that suggest that the responsibility lies upon women to not anger or reject men. Minassian’s misogyny is protected by our culture’s misogyny: we blame the victim while we afford the attacker humanity.

Indeed, the media granted Minassian a complex narrative which warrants the reader’s sympathy: a “socially awkward software developer,” a “failed military recruit” with “health challenges” and autism. The problem is stripped of ideology and individualized. Yet we would never do the same were the attacker to be brown, Black, or Muslim and their motive linked to Islam. The fact that the Toronto Police were praised for their de-escalation and arrest of Minassian, for example, stands in stark contrast to the notoriously fatal cases of police escalation against racialized men like Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku.

Evidently, terrorism remains restricted to a particular script that is invoked only when the attacker and their motives relate to a politically charged issue. The facts remain that we fail to identify misogyny as an ideology that informs mass murder, and that Black and brown people who are suspected of violence are not afforded the same humanization as people like Minassian.

Necessary conversations

From the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montréal to the recent Toronto van attack, misogynistic violence should compel us to have difficult but necessary conversations. It is an urgent problem that we must address ideologically and institutionally, not simply in the context of the attacker’s ‘mental health.’ Our culture must encourage young men to deal with emotions in healthy, constructive ways. We must also scrutinize the racial double standards in legal and political reactions toward mass violence. This includes the media, which must commit to a more responsible journalism that evaluates the consequences of reporting in politically sensitive contexts.

At U of T, there must be conversation on misogyny and how it operates within our institutions. The work of Silence is Violence on campus and Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against the university and Trinity College remind us that educational institutions must answer for their role in violence against women. Whether in our campuses, workplaces, or homes, there is much work to be done if we are to realize gender justice and eradicate the ideology known as misogyny.

Masquerade marketing

How sponsored content is compromising journalistic integrity

Love it or hate it, everyone under the age of 25 seems to have an opinion about BuzzFeed. It’s the clickbait capital of the Internetwith astronomical levels of web traffic and a jarring valuation of over $1 billion. But how exactly is BuzzFeed able to achieve this with no banner ads and no subscription model to generate revenue?

The answer is sponsored content, of course.

Also known as native advertising, or advertorial, sponsored content is intended to be indistinguishable from editorial content. It’s the ideal way to grab the reader’s attention, and it integrates seamlessly with the user experience. The ad becomes something to be engaged with, instead of something that sticks out — like a banner ad.

Brands create native ads by commissioning publications to create content that looks like an editor-approved article or a photo spread; in this way, they pay to promote their business with a subtlety and nuance. Some examples of sponsored content include BuzzFeed’s “10 Quotes Every Grad Needs to Read,” sponsored by publishing house Harper Collins, and The Atlantic’s “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” commissioned by the Church of Scientology.

There are some subtle giveaways that indicate that you’re reading sponsored content. Phrases like ‘presented by’, ‘delivered by’ or ‘sponsor post’ can sometimes be found in the byline, or on other parts of the page. It is this subtlety that makes native advertising so appealing for branding companies; furthermore it’s immune to the increasingly popular ad blockers that many people use on their phones and computers.

While sponsored content is nothing new — it’s been in magazines since before the digital era and exists as product placement in TV — it’s become an unnervingly ubiquitous part of the Internet experience, with websites like the aforementioned BuzzFeed as well as VICE, Gawker, Forbes, and even The New Yorker indulging in the revenue stream. Canadian publications like Toronto Life and Financial Post also publish sponsored content. While great for inducing clicks, sponsored content compromises what should be the most important thing to any respectable publication: the trust and respect of readers.

Publishers are being intentionally deceitful when they disguise ads as content. It’s disappointing to begin reading an article, only to find out you’re having something sold to you. The editorial integrity of the publication is compromised.

That’s not to say that ads can’t be enjoyable, or should be banished entirely. Ads are one of the biggest draws for viewers of the Super Bowl for instance. The key difference, however, is that we can distinguish a Super Bowl ad from the main event; in contrast, studies have shown that most people can’t tell the difference between real articles and sponsored content.

Perhaps more concerning is that native advertising also hinders a publication’s ability to be independent. Last April, BuzzFeed staff writer Arabelle Sicardi wrote a post that criticized a Dove ad campaign, which was later taken down by upper management because Dove is a brand publisher with the website. The juxtaposition of journalism and advertorial compromises outlets’ role as a social conscience.

Corporate interests will always impact journalism, but native advertising goes a step further. It intentionally deceives the reader. Imagine a parallel in the university system — for example, it would be an outrage if students discovered that the supposedly independent scholarship we read was actually sponsored by massive corporations. The same way we value the independent voices of scholars, we should value independent and uncompromised journalism.

As students, we are significant consumers of mass media and journalism and consequently, we should be both wary and critical of the way advertising is increasingly woven into the fabric of the press. Though it may seem we, as individuals, have little sway over these larger trends in society, but we can stay alert and call for integrity and accountability from our journalistic outlets.

Jaren Kerr is a third-year student at Innis College, studying bioethics and writing & rhetoric. He is The Varsity’s associate features editor.