Public Editor: How can journalists ethically report on a student’s death?

Experts say reporting can cause contagion; where does The Varsity stand on principled journalism in these cases?

Public Editor: How can journalists ethically report on a student’s death?

Content warning: discussions of suicide.

Some journalistic practices, such as including details about suicide or adding the word “suicide” in headlines, can potentially make suicide contagious, according to a study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

The study identified significant associations between elements of media reports and suicide deaths. It touched on how reporting on suicide can have a meaningful impact on suicide deaths. In short, it says that journalists and media outlets should carefully consider the specific content of articles before publication.

Following the death by suicide of a University of Toronto student at UTSG more than a month ago, the question of whether The Varsity does a good enough job reporting on suicide is something worth looking into.

For the most part, The Varsity has noticeably taken steps to ensure that its readers are properly being walked through sensitive storytelling. For example, every story pertaining to the topic of suicide begins with an advisory message, such as “Content warning: discussions of suicide.”

It’s a popular belief in many newsrooms that one should only report on suicide if there is some overriding public interest in doing so, an example of this is the Toronto Star’s policy on the matter.

In our case, reporting on a student’s death can be of public interest, seeing as this was the third death by suicide of a U of T student in the span of  over 16 months, and students across all three campuses have been demanding better access to mental health support for some time now.

In an interview with Time, Dr. Ayal Schaffer, a psychiatry professor at U of T who co-authored the CMAJ study, said that reporting on suicide is not the problem, rather it’s how it’s being done where the trouble lies.

“Our goal is not to blame journalists; it’s not to tell journalists how to do their jobs. But it is to provide a pretty strong research base to support specific guidelines about how reporting on suicide should be done,” Schaffer said in the interview.   

Time noted that the research analyzed stories published between 2011 and 2014 on the topic of suicide that appeared in 13 publications with wide circulations in Toronto. It found nearly 17,000 stories that mentioned suicide, including 6,367 articles where suicide was the major focus. It is worth noting that about 950 people in Toronto reportedly died by suicide during this timespan.

When searching for how many stories The Varsity has written with the word “suicide” mentioned, there were over 500 results. To some, this is a large number of stories circulating around suicide, and to others — given that The Varsity has written countless stories over the years — it is an insignificant number.

According to Josie Kao, Editor-in-Chief of The Varsity, she found herself, like many journalists, covering an “alarming number of deaths on campus” when she was acting as News Editor last year. Kao then decided that The Varsity needed a responsible guide on reporting on suicide.

“We know that we have a huge responsibility as a media organization to prevent contagion and at the same time de-stigmatize mental illness,” Kao wrote.

These guidelines included which terms to use when reporting on suicide, as well as in the event that a death occurs on campus in a public place, on campus in a private place, or off campus.

“Not all situations warrant reporting on… because the risk of suicide contagion is so high. I’m extremely proud of the work that the paper has undertaken since I began working here, and I truly believe that student journalism is at the forefront of responsible reporting on suicide,” Kao added.

It’s important to ask how students on all three campuses at U of T feel about upsetting stories that are told every day. Does it make them feel informed about what is going on on campus and equip them with all the information needed to confront the school and demand change?

Or does it instead make them feel scared that someone who walked the same halls, sat in the same lecture hall, ate at the same cafeteria, wrote the same exams, might one day want to end their life? Or what if they themselves feel that they can also take their life because others are doing so?

I would like to know how readers feel about this topic and where they stand, reading the tragic circumstances surrounding one of their own.

As your newest public editor, I want to make it my mission to look at both sides of the reader’s perspective so that we can work together in creating an educational, yet safe, environment for all.

Osobe Waberi is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at

Disclosure: Osobe Waberi is currently a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Daniel Dale speaks at UTM’s Snider Lecture

Washington reporter for CNN talks Donald Trump, the Ford brothers

Daniel Dale speaks at UTM’s Snider Lecture

Reporter Daniel Dale gave the Snider Lecture at UTM on October 3, where he discussed his reporting on Donald Trump and the Ford brothers, as well as disseminating truth in a precarious media landscape.

Dale works for CNN as part of the fact-checking team and was previously a reporter at the Toronto Star for 11 years. His efforts to fact check Trump’s every comment and tweet has gained him international attention and a sizeable Twitter following — over 619,000 strong as of October 6.

However, it was here in Toronto, while reporting on the former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and current Ontario Premier Doug Ford, that Dale first delved deeply into the practice of fact checking and outwardly pointing out false political claims.

After Rob Ford falsely accused Dale of peering over his family home’s fence, he wrote an article for the Star titled, “Rob Ford is lying about me, and it’s vile.” This prompted Dale to think that, “if I can use the word ‘lie’ in a story about me, why can’t I use it in all the other stories?”

He went on to create a “campaign lie detector where [he] would count… how many false, inaccurate, dubious claims the candidates made.” Dale noticed there was a disparity in the number of lies Rob Ford would tell in comparison to the other candidates and thought that “the disparity was important in itself… that disparity told the story.”

Soon after, Dale went to Washington, DC and “was sure that it was going to be much more normal… and of course, Donald Trump comes along in June.”

Dale found it “distressing how much Donald Trump was lying… and not only the frequency of the lying, but the triviality of the lying.” He noticed that news outlets and papers were reporting what Trump said, without identifying false claims to be as such.

In order to promote what he calls “a truth-centric model of political journalism,” Dale suggests that the media engage in a number of practices, including that no one should “quote a politician saying something false without noting that it is false,” using the term “lie” when it is the most accurate way to describe a claim, and giving less airtime to political figures that have a history of deception.

Dale often encounters people who think his work is useless and that “facts obviously don’t matter in this era,” to which he responds: “what is the job of a journalist in democracy, if not to provide accurate information to whoever wants it?”

The president still has supporters despite what Dale describes as a “full-blown truth crisis with Donald Trump.” However, in an article for the Star entitled “Donald Trump voters: We like the president’s lies.” he points out that many Trump supporters do not believe the president’s every word without question.

The Varsity caught up with Dale after his lecture to inquire if he was seeing any trends in Trump’s lying in the lead up to the 2020 US Presidential election. “Over his first two years in office, immigration was his number one subject of dishonesty,” said Dale. “Over the summer, it’s been the economy and trade, and I think that reflects concerns about… a possible recession… some sort of slow down.”

How U of T prepared me to become a freelance science writer

As an undergrad, I learned biology, chemistry, and how to believe in myself

How U of T prepared me to become a freelance science writer

When I finished my degree in December 2016, I wasn’t sure what would come next. It felt like staring into a giant abyss, but at the same time, I knew there was something out there for me.

I first got the idea to pursue science writing after reading some bad science journalism — more specifically, writing that misrepresented statistics, sensationalized findings, and lacked the critical perspective that I craved. I thought maybe I could do it better. I knew I had a good science education, good writing skills, and a very critical eye.

I didn’t really know how to break into the field, so I just searched on Indeed for freelance science writing jobs. I came across an ad looking for someone to write articles about science and cannabis, and I thought that there was a real need for good information on the subject.

I expressed this opinion in my cover letter, and it turned out the boss shared my values. I freelanced for the company for a few months before they hired me in full-time capacity, and I worked there until the company was sold a year later.

That was how I got my start. I’ve been writing about science and medicine for two and a half years now, and I love what I do. I’ve written about diabetes, ALS, Alzheimer’s, genomics, oncology, and, of course, cannabis, among many other topics. I find it meaningful to communicate important health and science information to the public.

I’ve had the chance to interview doctors, patients, laypeople, and experts to feature in my articles. I’ve read hundreds of academic journal articles. I’ve learned so much, both about science and about people, and I still get excited every time I land a new project.

These days, I work from home — or wherever I happen to be. I am a freelance writer, which means I own my own business and set my own hours. I find my own clients and sometimes pitch my own ideas for writing projects. It’s an active, involved process, but I find it is worth it to not have to work in an office, full time, for someone else.

I built my business slowly, and it was uncomfortable at first. I had to email people I didn’t know and ask them if I could work for them. I had to follow up on emails that didn’t get a response. I had to call people, meet people, and network. I had to decide how much money my time was worth. I had to be vulnerable.

But looking back, I think I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable during undergrad. U of T pushed me beyond who I thought I was, and in that way, it prepared me for my own personal entrepreneurial journey, and all the challenges that have come with it.

I studied both arts and science equally during my time at U of T. I graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science with a major in neuroscience and minors in bioethics, and Buddhism, psychology and mental health.

The gruelling life science courses challenged me to become more diligent, more hardworking, and more thorough. I made it my personal goal to get my GPA as high as I could, and with time, I was consistently earning As.

Although it was difficult, a U of T life science education is second to none. It made me confident I could tackle any topic within the realm of medical writing, and I’ve yet to find one I couldn’t manage. More broadly, the experience gave me the belief that I could face a challenging situation and succeed anyway.

I also took philosophy and cognitive science courses, which satisfied my curiosity and love for ideas, theories, and abstraction. They were almost all essay-based, and I became a better writer, thinker, and debater for taking them. I frequently take an interdisciplinary approach in my science-writing because of this aspect of my education.

I have faced some challenges along the way, aside from the hard work of building up a clientele. Although my education had prepared me to start as a science writer, I still had to learn a new skillset to succeed.

University does not teach you to write for the general public. It teaches you to write at a high level of abstraction, for better or for worse. I learned to write with shorter sentences and to use simpler concepts. I learned what the average person knows about the human body. I practiced editing other people’s work at my full-time job, and I’ve since gotten a lot better at writing for the layperson.

I’ve had to be humble and write about things I don’t find interesting or don’t agree with. I had to work for free a few times to get my name out there. I’ve had to accept the editor’s authority and let go of my attachments to certain stylistic flourishes and turns of phrase. Almost everything I write for the web gets edited in some way I don’t like, but I’ve found a good balance between fighting for what I want and accepting the changes and moving on.

U of T challenges you intellectually and emotionally to be your best. It does not compromise your education to make things easier on you. It demands that you rise to meet the challenge, and it will absolutely leave you behind if you do not. Undergrad hurt, but it ultimately made me stronger.

When The Varsity reached out and asked me to tell my story and reflect on my time at U of T, I was thrilled. As I reflect on my undergrad experience, I realize all the ways it’s helped me become the person I am today, and I feel grateful.

My advice for undergrads is to grind hard and trust that you are building up resilience. You can turn that resilience into something profitable if you are willing to do uncomfortable things. If you are learning about something you’re passionate about, developing transferable skills, and increasing your resilience, you will figure out how to make a living once you graduate.

Try your best to be grateful, even when it’s hard. It gets easier after graduation.

Laura Tennant is a Toronto freelance science writer and U of T alum from the class of 2016. She’s written for a variety of clients, including Diabetes Canada, the ALS Society of Canada, Geneseeq Technology Inc., and

UTM: Reporting on Trump, the Fords and the Facts with Daniel Dale

Award-winning reporter Daniel Dale has built his career on fact-checking politicians. At the 2019 Snider Lecture, Dale will share his stories about his time at CNN and the Toronto Star covering Donald Trump, Rob Ford and Doug Ford. He’ll focus on his fact-checking work—why he started it and kept doing it, why facts still matter in this era, why it’s important to call a lie a lie, how people across the spectrum have reacted to what he does and how the media is still failing in handling political dishonesty. He’ll also offer some advice to citizens about how they can contribute to a fact-based discourse.

This event is open to the general public.

Register online to attend in-person or watch the live-stream:

Integration of social media-motivated cultural movements into course content is long overdue

K-pop and #MeToo courses bring academia closer to contemporary issues and subjects, challenge the traditional canon

Integration of social media-motivated cultural movements into course content is long overdue

My favourite part of What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy is his scathing yet hilarious criticism of other artists and styles. The most poignant part is when Tolstoy draws a distinction between the increasingly absurd art of the “upper classes” and the art of the “masses,” for it reveals how culture is a power dynamic in itself. U of T’s introduction of two new courses motivated by mass media significantly deviates from academic tradition.

Culture can denote separate judgements on the quality of social practices and values. One is a historical purveyor, and the other is a body of features representing a society’s progress.

Although people are exposed to many cultures in modern life, there still remains a belief that some cultural features are more prestigious or developed than others. In a simple offhand remark about social media or reality television, there is an inherent act of discrimination against less “cultured” content and those who adhere to it, which may spiral to reinforce other prejudices.

This same attitude informs the content of our academic studies, guiding it toward certain subjects over others because they are supposedly more intelligent or insightful. These subjects often express male-dominated, upper-class driven, and Western traditions.

This makes U of T’s decision to offer two new courses which explore K-pop fandoms and the #MeToo movement significant, because these courses break with a Eurocentric tradition and recognize the impact of popular media movements on twenty-first century values and lifestyles.

Our contemporary world is marked by rapid changes in technological mediums which affect how we communicate and connect with others, in addition to providing a platform for cultural homogenization, globalization, and radicalization. There is nothing more relevant to our understanding of culture than the social reality in which we live.

These courses might not be impartial or apolitical, but the subjective experiences that students bring into the classroom present an opportunity for meaningful discussion — discussion that allows for different perspectives to be heard and new ones to arise.

Subjectivity is already an alternative tool for understanding that appears when a person reads-in modern or personal perspectives on historical events, makes assumptions and generalizations about other civilizations, and pieces together social conditions from a variety of partial sources.

Upon close consideration, it’s baffling why the inclusion of K-pop or the #MeToo movement took so long in the first place. There is no justification for people who believe that popular culture cannot positively contribute to classroom settings other than notions of cultural superiority.

Media culture is complex and integral to the structure of social events, just as much as topics with ‘greater academic worth.’ Opponents of these classes are no longer begging the question. They are finding new reasons to enforce hierarchies.

U of T must embrace the generational and technological differences that shape society without judgment, and adapt its curriculum so students can address issues of here and now, as will be done in the K-pop and #MeToo courses. To perpetuate a false perception of culture is, as Tolstoy would say, absolutely absurd.

Emily Hurmizi is a second-year Philosophy student at Victoria College.

“The overriding story of our time”: The Varsity’s pledge to cover the climate crisis

We are joining over 250 media outlets around the world in the Covering Climate Now initiative

“The overriding story of our time”: <em>The Varsity</em>’s pledge to cover the climate crisis

In 2015, governments around the world signed onto the Paris Agreement to address the climate crisis. They agreed to implement plans that cut greenhouse gas emissions such that the rise in global temperature this century remains below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  

But since then, governments and institutions continue to delay investing in a bold and sound climate strategy that significantly reduces emissions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014–2018 have been the five hottest years in recorded history. As of July, 2019 is set to take either the second or third spot. 

Canada is at particular risk: it is warming at twice the rate of the global average. A Council of Canadian Academies report from July indicates that the crisis poses major threats to Canada’s physical infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems, and fisheries. Extreme weather events, like the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, are occurring more frequently and are more severe. In Canada, the economic cost of the crisis is measurable in the billions

That is why, this week, The Varsity has joined over 250 media organizations around the world in the Covering Climate Now initiative. A joint initiative of The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, the campaign is intended to engage media outlets in a week of sustained climate coverage in the leadup to the crucial United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23. At that summit, world leaders have been called on to submit “concrete, realistic plans” to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

The crisis is closer to home than we may think. Institutions like U of T are complicit. In 2016, President Meric Gertler controversially decided to refuse divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the overwhelming contributor to the crisis, and yet continues to present U of T as a global leader on environmental sustainability. 

Emissions historically produced by the industrialized north are the major contributor to the current crisis, though the global south is now also producing considerable emissions.  Despite this historical imbalance, vulnerable populations in the global south and Indigenous people around the world, including in Canada, are the ones who are disproportionately impacted. 

The climate crisis is real, it is here, it is urgent, and human beings are culpable. If we cannot rely on our governments and institutions to take necessary action, then ordinary citizens must tell the truth and call them out, and we, the media, must lead this charge.

Covering Climate Now

We are one of only four newspapers in Canada to participate in the initiative. The Toronto Star, our Queen’s University peers at the Journal, and our Ryerson University peers at The Eyeopener will also engage in climate coverage this week. Other Canadian magazines, journals, and digital news sites also chose to participate.

At The Varsity, climate coverage is nothing new. However, to participate in an initiative that treats the climate crisis with the global, collaborative, large-scale attention that it deserves is unprecedented for us. 

Between September 16 and September 23, The Varsity will publish at least one article every day to draw attention to the crisis. This editorial is the introductory article to our series, and each day of the week will feature a different section’s coverage: News, Comment, Business, Arts & Culture, Features, Science, and Sports will all participate. 

Like The Nation, we hope to convey that the climate crisis “is not just one more story but the overriding story of our time.” With coverage from all seven of our sections, the climate crisis affects us in all facets of our lives.

Our commitment to climate journalism

This week will be the beginning of an expanded effort to cover the climate crisis, especially as it concerns the U of T community. We will continue to cover efforts made by student activist groups and youth climate activists, such as the Fridays for Future campaign and Leap UofT, and hold the U of T administration accountable to its complicity the crisis. 

U of T groups and students will participate in Global Climate Strikes scheduled to take place this month, in line with the UN summit. The Varsity will be there to tell those stories.

Our Science section has just launched a “Climate Crisis” subsection to consistently cover the issue. Our style guide is being updated to ensure that the passive language of ‘climate change’ is avoided. Instead, we will henceforth use ‘climate crisis’ or ‘climate emergency.’ After all, when the world falls into a recession, we call it an economic crisis; the troubling state of the planet ought to proportionately receive an alarm, too. 

Finally, we will also be dogged in correcting any form of false balance surrounding the climate crisis: for example, any form of skepticism or denial of the crisis will be contextualized as false. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter, and journalists must fairly attribute weight to sides in a given story on the basis of evidence. For this crisis, the facts cannot be debated, politicized, or treated as partisan. 

In sum, we hope that the Covering Climate Now initiative will inspire our editors and contributors this year, and for years to come.

Deciding the next four years 

The need for climate journalism is also crucial in the context of the upcoming Canadian federal election. Consider when, last month, Elections Canada (EC) warned environmental groups that advertising the legitimacy and severity of the climate crisis could be deemed partisan. Such ‘partisanship’ could require such environmental charities to register as a third party with EC, subject them to scrutiny from the Canada Revenue Agency, and potentially jeopardize their tax status. 

This ‘partisan’ ruling, and blatant suppression of climate speech, was a result of the position of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, according to an EC official which espouses climate denialism among other far-right views. That is the unfortunate reality of climate discourse today. Whereas our leaders should be debating how to best tackle the problem, we are stuck at debating the reality of the issue itself. 

Inadequate approaches to the climate crisis are not exclusive to fringe politics. Our supposedly progressive prime minister, Justin Trudeau, offers voters a paradox: he believes that Canada can reduce emissions and address the crisis while it continues to invest in pipelines, extract Alberta’s tar sands, and empower the very cause — fossil fuels — which is responsible for the crisis.  

The climate crisis is not debatable, and it is certainly not resolvable through halfhearted policy. Furthermore, ‘the environment’ cannot just be another issue among the myriad of other issues in this upcoming election. Rather, the crisis is entangled with other concerns that voters may have — like economic growth and development — and, in fact, presents us with an opportunity to re-envision how we organize ourselves on this planet. Taking care of our environment is necessary to have a viable economy; economy and environment go hand in hand. 

Indeed, the crisis is not about economic sacrifice, but about transformation. It is about divesting from fossil fuels and using our technological ingenuity to immediately and fully transition into alternative sources of energy. It is about embracing the future, and restructuring our economy in a way that will create new, sustainable sources of livelihood. 

The role of media, then, is to cover these positive opportunities that the crisis provides and to challenge politicians who are impeding our progress. Ahead of this federal election, the crisis is a top concern for voters, and media must commensurately cover the issue. This is about deciding the next four years — and taking immediate action to mitigate and adapt to the crisis. 

As U of T students, we must recognize that we are the future. Soon, we will be graduates, workers, and leaders in our community, country, and the world. It is us who will inherit the planet, and it is up to us to create a sustainable planet for those that come after us. Let’s vote accordingly. 

And journalists, including student journalists, must be committed to responsibly telling the story of our lifetime. That is why we are dedicated to Covering Climate Now. 

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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

Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference

U of T students, faculty represented at Canada’s first national science communication conference for graduate students

Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference

Science communicators from universities across Canada sharpened their skills at ComSciConCAN, the country’s first national science communication conference for graduate students, held from July 18 to 20 at McMaster University. 

The two-and-a-half-day event drew inspiration from the US-based ComSciCon workshop series on science communication, which was first held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2013.

ComSciCon has since expanded to include flagship workshops across the US, but ComSciConCAN marks the first time the conference has been hosted in a different country.

The inaugural Canadian conference featured four panel discussions, six hands-on workshops, and over 25 experts from a diverse range of science communication careers.

In attendance were 50 graduate students from 26 different institutions across Canada, who were selected out of a pool of over 400 applicants from a wide array of scientific backgrounds.

Conference trains students with skills in science communication

To Dr. Maria Drout, a member of the ComSciConCAN organizing committee and professor at U of T’s Dunlap Institute, the conference’s main goal was to give graduate students the tools they need to succeed in any science communication endeavour they choose to pursue.

“The idea is to empower graduate students to be leaders in whatever field they choose, and to be able to effectively communicate in those ways,” Drout said to The Varsity.

“No matter what field you’re in, your effectiveness comes down to not only how good you are at the technical aspects, but [also] how well you can share your findings.”

To this end, the workshops and panels held throughout the conference focused on training graduate students with the skills they need to succeed in all forms of science communication — from working in media and journalism to effecting change through science policy and activism.

In the “Media Interview Skills” workshop, for example, science communicator and Daily Planet television series co-host Dr. Dan Riskin taught students how to effectively talk about science “outside their wheelhouse” of expertise.

The students participated in mock media interviews and learned how to craft key talking points to use in the face of even the most unexpected of interview questions.

They also had the chance to present their research in one-minute ‘pop talks’ that were meant to be engaging and accessible to a non-expert audience. Audience members could hold up cards labelled as either “JARGON” or “AWESOME” to keep the talks on track and jargon-free.

Another activity was the Write-A-Thon, during which attendees were divided into peer editing groups and assigned an expert reviewer to help craft a publication-ready science communication piece. 

Many of the pieces written at previous renditions of the conference have since gone on to be published in major media outlets.

The importance of representation in science media

In addition to gaining hands-on experience, a running theme throughout the conference was the importance of representation — both in scientific fields as well as in science communication endeavours.

In the “Communicating with Diverse Audiences” panel discussion, Professor Hilding Neilson, from U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, spoke about acknowledging and listening to unique audience perspectives. Neilson works on blending Indigenous knowledge into the U of T astronomy curriculum, and he shared his experiences by incorporating those knowledge pools into astronomy.

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, the scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous People’s Health, also spoke about the importance of prioritizing Indigenous sources of knowledge. Bourassa was a speaker in the panel discussion on “Communicating through Policy & Activism,” and currently leads the advancement of a national health research agenda aimed at improving and promoting the health of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples in Canada.

“[The conference] made people think on a number of occasions,” Drout said. “Not just learn immediate skills, but actually think about how to position themselves and their research in the context of society in Canada.”

Drout also told The Varsity that she was really pleased with how the conference went, and feels excited about ComSciConCAN’s potential going forward.

“This was just the launching-off point. The hope is for it to continue to grow, because clearly there is a huge appetite, and many students who’d like to participate,” she said.

“Within Canada, we’re now hoping to launch many more workshops in the next few years — both continue to do these nationwide conferences, but also do local versions in many cities across the country.”

Support 140 years of campus journalism — The Varsity’s levy is worth it

Why the student press is vital under the Student Choice Initiative

Support 140 years of campus journalism — <i>The Varsity</i>’s levy is worth it

In 1890, on the 10-year anniversary of The Varsity’s founding, its editors wrote to the student body to thank them for their support of the young newspaper. In words that still ring true to this day, they promised “to make The Varsity a mirror of the events, the lights and the shadows of college life, and moreover a true exponent of the views of the undergraduates of the University of Toronto.”

The Varsity is one of Canada’s oldest student newspapers and one that takes its role as a platform for student voice no less lightly. Yet we are presently facing an existential threat: the Ontario provincial government’s Student Choice Initiative (SCI), which allows students to opt out of our levy.

After almost a century-and-a-half of serving the University of Toronto community, we are writing to you now to ask for your continued support of our mission to provide meaningful and balanced journalism. Please stay opted in to The Varsity’s levy.

We know that this is no small favour. While our per-semester fee is one of the lowest in Canada — $2.87 for undergraduate students and $0.80 for graduate students — there are students for whom opting out of all fees would provide enormous financial relief. However, for those with the means to do so, we ask that you consider supporting The Varsity’s work. 

This includes our efforts to keep students informed about our community, to act as a watchdog for campus institutions, and to provide a platform for students to speak on the issues of the day. We also provide a wide range of opportunities for students to develop their professional skills, whether through writing for seven different sections, or through photography, illustration, graphic design, and copy editing. Through their contributions, students can be a part of the larger student life and community at U of T. 

With our consistent record of financial transparency and journalistic excellence, we hope that you will put your trust in us to keep you informed.

Our recent work

Whenever news breaks that affects campus life in a major way, The Varsity is always there to uncover the truth and deliver it to more than 100,000 students, staff, and faculty at the University of Toronto.

Consider when the then-Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and current Minister of Long-Term Care, Merrilee Fullerton, announced the SCI back in January under a cloud of suspicion. Our reporter was the only journalist at the Queen’s Park press conference to ask about an apparent lack of consultation with students and campus organizations in the decision-making process.

We were also the first newspaper, ahead of other more established media outlets, to publish the unofficial guidelines of the SCI, lifting the veil on what had been a highly secretive process until that point. It was the first time that the public was able to see which groups were specifically targeted.

Our reporting has also drawn attention to important administrative decisions on campus. In the fall of 2017, we revealed that U of T was proposing a university-mandated leave of absence policy, which allows the institution to unilaterally place a student on leave from school for mental health reasons.

We covered the policy from start to finish, amid strong public outcry from students and even the intervention of Renu Mandhane, the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. And since then, we have been on the ground to document the ongoing mental health crisis on campus.

The Varsity’s journalism has also brought along real change. When The Varsity and The Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper of Queen’s University, reported that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities had come under fire for delaying the results of the provincial survey on sexual violence on campus, the survey was released to the public soon after, shining a light on the important topic.

The SCI as a challenge to student community

A student newspaper provides a service central to a campus community from which all members can benefit, as we’ve noted in a past editorial. Levies enable students to collectively pool resources to provide services accessible to all. As noted in that editorial, the opt-out model is problematic because it treats students as private, individual consumers, as opposed to participants in a broader community.

Consider Canada’s single-payer health care system: we all pay into and benefit from essential health care services. But the dilemma, as with health care, is that students do not always know that they need a particular service until they actually need it. Even if you do not regularly interact with The Varsity today, you could benefit from our services in the future — such as our ability to hold campus institutions, especially the U of T administration and student unions, accountable.

National media outlets also rely on campus newspapers like The Varsity to pick up on campus stories that would otherwise be underreported. We have a track record of doing this, from reporting on Muslims Students’ Association executives receiving surprise visits from law enforcement, to covering protests to student death on campus. These are just two recent examples of U of T stories that have received wider attention.

We also understand that students are frustrated that their levies might be abused, especially by student-run organizations. But The Varsity is on the frontline when it comes to student union accountability and financial mismanagement, such as when broke the story about the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) lawsuit against its former executive director and two executives.

While student unions such as the UTSU still have much of their levy considered to be “essential” under the provincial government’s guidelines, The Varsity does not. Staying opted in to The Varsity enables us to ensure that student organizations spend your essential fees responsibly.

The opt-out option makes it difficult for us to hold institutions accountable. The challenge is not just the possible loss of our funding. Each year, The Varsity must wait until autumn to determine our funding, rather than be assured of it well in advance. The opt-out option therefore destabilizes our operational stability by creating financial uncertainty and thereby obstructing long-term plans and projects.

Future projects 

With the federal election coming up, we hope to be the definitive source of information on student issues for the University of Toronto community. Much like how we covered the recent provincial and municipal elections, we aim to profile candidates running in all three University of Toronto ridings, host debates, and provide political analysis.

The Varsity also aims to increase coverage of the crucial issue of the global climate crisis. The University of Toronto is an immense institution and there are a myriad of stories waiting to be unearthed about how the school and the people in it are helping — or not helping — the fight against the climate crisis.

Moreover, we hope to continue our expansion of UTM and UTSC coverage, which was made possible with the creation of bureau chiefs for the two campuses last year following a successful levy increase the year before. Having these positions enabled us to break major stories and cover student unions more effectively, and we plan to expand into covering other areas of student life.

Finally, there are countless ongoing projects that require more resources, such as our blog, our efforts to highlight marginalized groups on campus, our video coverage of U of T sports teams, and our new events calendar, which we hope will become the go-to place to find a comprehensive list of events around the university. 

These projects are made possible through our student levy, without which we would not be able to fund them. We are very excited to bring them to life and others like it, but we need your support to make it happen.

Earning your trust

We are humbled by the past century of trust placed in us by students and we hope to keep it through not only continued truthful reporting but also through financial and governance transparency.

On our website, you can find our audited financial statements of the past decade. The Varsity is grateful to be funded by students and we are committed to telling you where your money goes. This includes how we pay our editors a fair wage in line with other student publications and provide professional development opportunities to our hundreds of contributors.

The Varsity is also committed to openness in governance, and our Board of Directors, which is run by students and open to all members, provides oversight on our operations. Any student can run to serve on it. Likewise, our Public Editor holds The Varsity accountable and addresses readers’ concerns.

For the past 140 years, The Varsity has been fortunate to have had the support of the students it serves, and we hope to be able to continue to provide the U of T community with comprehensive and trustworthy coverage for years to come. The University of Toronto is a vibrant university filled with brilliant, compassionate members from diverse backgrounds. It is only with your support that we can continue to be both a mirror and a spotlight for our community.

Students can choose their opt-out selections for the fall 2019 term on ACORN by September 19.

To learn more about our work, and why you should stay opted in to The Varsity’s levy, visit

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