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

There’s no such thing as unbiased reporting

Relying on elusive standards of journalistic ‘objectivity’ is misleading, and it is in our best interest to adopt more attainable ideals

There’s no such thing as unbiased reporting

A study conducted by prominent American journalists Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz in 1920 revealed some inconvenient truths about The New York Times’ coverage of the then-recently concluded Russian Revolution: one of the most prominent news organizations in the western world had effectively bungled their coverage of a major historical event. Lippmann and Merz found that the Times’ stories on the revolution were rarely based in fact, but rather shaped by the “hopes of the men who composed the news organization.” Influenced by the outcomes they were banking on, the reporters’ writing lacked the factual accuracy or balanced perspective necessary to deliver an informed report.

Essentially, Lippmann and Merz decried the Times’ coverage as biased. And so, the authors of the study, and presumably much of the public who read it, lost trust in the so-called ‘biased’ tendencies of major media outlets. By way of solution, Lippmann argued that journalism should embrace more of a “scientific spirit” — believing that ultimate fairness, or ‘objectivity,’ could be achieved in journalism so long as the journalists made the study of evidence of verification to be the cornerstone of their work. Thus ensued the era of supposedly ‘neutral’ journalism, when well-trusted news anchors like Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley would deliver stories seemingly without bias and seemingly without lack of context.

The notion of bias in news writing has since become one of colloquial discussion, and it is now one of the most common criticisms of the media. Most often, the label is imparted to news that readers believe is lacking relevant context, or to media outlets whose political views the reader disagrees with. At its most extreme, it is plastered across outraged comment sections and blog posts on the deep web, rooted in a conspiratorial belief that news organizations have pre-determined political agendas and feed purposely slanted reports to the masses.

Such polarization within the news world has resulted in publications whose self-imposed purpose is to provide contrast to what they see as an irreparably biased media landscape. Publications like Breitbart dedicate copious coverage to “Big Journalism,” aimed at debunking the “spin and narratives from the Democrat-media complex,” while outlets like The Intercept position themselves to be highly critical of the methods of mainstream channels like CNN. Even at the university level, publications like The Toronto Beacon claim to have been founded “as a reaction to the current state of journalism,” making specific reference to The Varsity’s coverage of a campus rally in 2016, among other incidents. None of these publications can be equivocated, but they do illustrate the extent to which people are frustrated with mainstream media coverage.

At the same time, it is counterproductive to leave blanket accusations of bias at that — for eliminating all bias from reporting is an impossible task. Reports are created by authors and shaped by editors whose perspectives and personal experiences are inherently injected into the final product. Even when reporting from the scene of the story, journalists make a series of judgment calls based on what they consider to be newsworthy. These decisions may alter information in the story depending on who is tasked with telling it.

In this vein, it should be acknowledged that the notion of ‘objectivity’ underlying the journalistic profession was developed and continues to operate within a context that privileges certain perspectives. It is no coincidence that Lippmann, Merz, Cronkite, and Huntley were all white men, a demographic that continues to hold a steadfast grip on the North American media profession, despite the substantial progress being pursued in this area.

Paradoxically, being ‘unbiased,’ ‘objective,’ or ‘neutral’ are themselves ideals laden with normative content, inherently dependent on the standards journalists use to determine the importance of information and to communicate what they believe is the truth. A bigger problem is that the normative nature of bias is effectively masked by widely accepted, seemingly neutral codes of ethics and best practices that have permeated the journalism industry. Figures like Cronkite were not delivering an unbiased account of the news, but rather an account shaped by the collective decisions of the CBS news team. In the codes of ethics of countless publications — The Globe and MailThe New York Times, and, yes, The Varsity — objectivity and impartiality are portrayed to be the ideal standard of a news report, despite that standard being ultimately unachievable.

The assumption that journalists need to annihilate all bias from their reporting imparts on them an insurmountable undertaking. This is certainly not intended to diminish the critical role journalism plays in our society; information-gathering and truth-telling are undoubtedly in the public interest. But pursuing best practices should entail a reconsideration of the language we use to describe the ideal state of the media, and in turn, shift our understanding of journalism away from amorphous or unattainable standards.

One solution that has been offered, including by our former Editor-in-Chief last year, is to substitute ‘unbiased’ coverage with ‘balanced’ coverage. The idea of balance, in the journalistic context, is based on the deceptively simple notion that all figures and institutions relevant to a story be given a fair chance to play a part in telling it. This also entails all pieces of information being put in factual perspective, meaning that truths and mistruths should never be given equal footing. Sometimes this is straightforward; in most cases, it isn’t.

There are also certainly things we can do to address the biases that underlie all journalistic work. The importance of the journalistic process demands such efforts, guided not by an impossible lack of normative ideals, but ultimately by better ones. More importantly, we can make the process by which we determine those ideals public, and we can encourage readers to subject them to thorough scrutiny.

The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics reads, “Fairness is a balanced and impartial presentation of all the relevant facts in a news report, and of all substantial opinions in a matter of controversy. Fairness demands that journalists place inaccurate or misleading public statements in factual perspective.” As opposed to ‘objectivity,’ the goal thereby becomes to strive for balance, which is arguably more concrete.

The procedures that underlie the operations of The Varsity and many other publications reflect that ideal. These include ensuring all figures implicated in a story are given the chance to comment, offering disclosures about potential conflicts of interest, and making source materials available upon request. At a fundamental level, it also includes pulling back the curtain on how the news is made. The Varsity has endeavoured to do this by hosting a Reddit AMA earlier this year, by opening our office to the public, and by writing editorials like this one.

When publications fall short of achieving their objectives, public editors step in. The role of Sophie Borwein’s column in The Varsity, for instance, is not only to critique the publication and respond to reader complaints, but also to offer a perspective that we cannot, in acknowledgment that the journalists who write the news are intrinsically tied to its making.

We can also look to other outlets for guidance. Publications like The Intercept will publish the documentation that an article is based on alongside the original stories. Meanwhile, the Times uses The Reader Center to justify its journalistic choices to its audiences, a tool that has come in particularly useful following the controversy surrounding its profile on a Nazi sympathizer from Ohio. These methods, and others like them, arguably reflect the idea that a newspaper should be in direct, democratic dialogue with its readership.

Finally, recalling concerns about whitewashed, male-dominated newsrooms, promoting a diverse range of perspectives is integral to the pursuit of fair and balanced reporting. Striving for diversity also means being sensitive to the responsibility that journalists have to those persecuted, marginalized, and disaffected members of our society — to offer them a voice and to probe and critique the institutions that hold power against them. This responsibility is not characterized by neutrality, either; it is principled and normative, as it should be.

In the 1920s, Lippmann and Merz rightfully exposed the blatant political slant underlying the methods of a major journalistic institution. In today’s highly fraught media climate, with accusations of bias and fake news flying left and right, our community finds itself at a similar pivotal moment, and the way forward remains unclear. Our shift in perspective toward media bias, however, should also prompt a shift in how readers respond to it, for that response will be integral in shaping what the profession eventually becomes.

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.

Fact-checking Facebook

How getting our news from social media changes the nature of the information we receive

Fact-checking Facebook

On October 31, The Independent reported that more than 126 million Americans may have been exposed to Facebook posts “disseminated by Russian-linked agents seeking to influence the 2016 presidential election.” This astounding figure, representing more than half of eligible American voters, is indicative not only of the serious effects that foreign agents may have had in the 2016 American election, but also of a larger trend in the way that people access news.

Accessing news from social media instead of from more traditional providers like television and newspapers is becoming increasingly popular. According to Pew research from August, two-thirds of Americans report that they get at least some of their news directly from social media sites, with 20 per cent confessing that they do so “often.”

The source from which news is accessed has an important effect on the nature of the information received. And although it is easy enough to mandate that social media platforms regulate themselves by blocking or labeling misinformation, this may prove to be far easier said than done.

While we should be concerned that news providers — in this case, Facebook and Twitter especially — are motivated by profit instead of by truth, the problem is far more nuanced than that. Media sources have long been businesses first and foremost. The first news program to be broadcast in colour was Camel News Caravan, brought to you by Camel cigarettes. Walter Cronkite, long known as “the most trusted man in America,” uttered slogans for Winston Tobacco between segments.

It is not the profit motive that makes getting news from social media so dangerous; rather, it is what profit motivates these platforms to be. Whereas concern for the bottom line prompts traditional media to be fair and balanced, the effects it has on social media are far more nefarious.

Before the ubiquity of social media, a lack of options made the average consumer occasionally frustrated but generally informed — and on the same page as his neighbour who, regardless of political affiliation, ultimately got the same set of facts.

This is because, perhaps paradoxically, the business side of traditional news outlets actually incentivizes balance and parity of points of view. As long as the information cannot be tailored to suit the preferences and biases of each individual viewer, fostering a sense of fairness and impartiality is simply the best way to maximize viewership. The left-leaning viewer and the right-leaning viewer are forced, due to simple dearth of options, to get their news from the same source. For this reason, to avoid losing half of the market, traditional news outlets have had to be balanced enough to keep people of all political stripes tuning in.

Today, the algorithms that determine our news feeds are not hindered by lack of options. It turns out that people prefer confirmation to truth, agreeability to variation, and corroboration of previously held views over new, challenging evidence. Within Facebook’s incessantly shifting network are innumerable echo chambers, enclosed by a barrier that is impenetrable to dissenting views: profit. Now that the news provider can tailor the information it provides to the exact preferences of the viewer, the profit motive — which seeks only to ensure eyeballs on advertisements — no longer values impartiality, but rather the continued confirmation and exacerbation of those preferences.

As long as we prefer to return to sources that confirm our views, it is difficult to foresee how getting news from social media could be anything but divisive. Many have called for the platforms themselves to clearly distinguish disreputable information on their sites; Facebook has begun to do so by designing a new banner that will alert viewers to posts that are disputed by the requisite number of sources.

However, these measures can only address a small part of the larger problem. We need to begin by distinguishing two issues: the proliferation of false informatio and the entirely different issue of inaccessibility of dissenting views.

The first issue seems, at least at first glance, far easier to fix — social media should clearly indicate when false information is being presented. However, this solution is not as simple as it seems. For starters, it’s one thing to remove an unfounded news piece from the site, and it’s quite another to censure the contributions of actual individual users.

Using social media as news sources blurs the line between news providers and news consumers. This is troubling because while there is a long tradition of holding news providers accountable if their content is manifestly false, the rest of us are not usually held to the same standard. But social media is built around the contributions of individual users, and there is a big difference between fact-checking content submitted by third-party sources or corporations and censoring the views of regular people.

This applies just as much to opinion as it does to news. For example, I might write a status about how the Star Wars prequels are better than the originals. As obviously false as most would think this claim is, is it Facebook’s responsibility to correct me?

Once social media sites begin marking the submissions of individuals as plainly false or fallacious, it seems inevitable that there will be considerable backlash, even if the demarcation is correct. Also, if the last 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that people will doubt the credibility of news outlets long before they will doubt their own views. If Facebook positions itself as one of those authorities, it will lose eyeballs and then profits, which will seriously test its resolve.

It is not clear that the problems presented by making social media our primary news source can be solved by intervention from those platforms. This is especially true due to the inaccessibility of challenges to our views. Indeed, the only real solution may be cognizance. It is only awareness of our vulnerability to bias that will make us less vulnerable to misinformation; it is only consciousness of our inherent hostility toward dissent that we might become more accepting of it. If we can learn to question our own biases, to pause for a moment before hitting the ‘share’ button to consider our own motivations, then perhaps we can begin to undo the damage that has been done. One thing, however, is abundantly clear: whatever we’re doing now is not working.

Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

On the importance of The Rebel Media

The right-wing media outlet resembles activist movements across the political spectrum — and serves an important purpose in doing so

On the importance of The Rebel Media

Yell as loudly as you can and perhaps it’ll make a difference — this model of resistance has proven popular with the political left, as is evident looking at activist movements over the past 20 years. And from civil rights to environmental legislation, this model of resistance has proven effective. The political right in Canada does not have this same reputation — rather, the political right has been perceived to be more concerned with their own money than with grassroots activism.

The Rebel Media, a fiercely conservative online platform based out of Toronto, breaks this mould. It is loud, reader-funded, and blunt about its beliefs — a perfect model of leftist grassroots activism. It covers issues of what’s considered to be political correctness on university campuses, provides a platform for pro-life perspectives, and comments on perceived failures of the current Liberal government. It is marked by a desire to reject the status quo of what it sees as an overwhelmingly left-wing media landscape.

The Rebel’s provocative and often offensive content has led some to question its purpose, and ultimately whether it deserves to exist in the first place — podcasts by Canadaland and Safe Space have expressed these sentiments. Key arguments against The Rebel being published are that it is more activism than journalism, and that the opinions it publishes are bigoted. 

While I am not here to dispute either of those points, we ought to consider the following: if The Rebel were a leftist organization, would there be a problem? The Rebel shares similarities to many other media organizations that hold oppositional political sentiments, and it serves an important purpose in Canadian media and society.

The Rebel has never touted itself as a news organization pursuing fair, ‘objective’ reporting. In fact, the description on their website states, “We don’t just report the news, we participate in it.” This is not a foreign model to Canadian media; outlets such as The Dominion and This Magazine describe themselves as representatives of the people who support them and as agitators with radical roots, respectively.

Moreover, both This and The Dominion were created to fight a perceived status quo. They created outlets that explored the issues they cared about, issues that were ineffectively covered by traditional media outlets. 

Similar to activism of the left, The Rebel has brought together the voices of those on the fringe. In the ’70s, feminism brought together groups of people who were oppressed by a traditional patriarchal society. However, bringing together those individuals revealed a plethora of intersectionalities that inevitably created inner conflict. Feminism was not a big tent movement, although it provided solidarity among many people. While aspects such as reproductive rights and equal pay became topics of solidarity among all factions, movements such as womanism emerged due to feminism’s inability to represent all women.

Similarly, after the closure of the Sun News Network, The Rebel began as an outlet for individuals who believed there were not enough conservative voices in media. The organization promised that it would incorporate the ideas of its audience into its daily content and avoid the pitfalls of traditional media. This rhetoric is similar to movements on the left: a cry for inclusion, whatever the cost, and a desire to be seen, regardless of the response.

Political philosopher John Stuart Mill once argued that in a free society, all should have a right to speak. Permitting all members of society to voice their opinions freely prevents the harm that would result from what Mill referred to as the “tyranny of the majority” — a situation in which, due to a lack of dissidence and lack of protection for the few who dissent, the majority of citizens can actively oppress those who do not subscribe to their beliefs. ‘Bad’ opinions will have the chance to be refuted so long as the right to speak is secured for everyone.

A cry like this attracts all types of characters. The feminist movement was largely funded by middle-class white women, ostracizing minorities and lower classes. While the intentions of a movement may be virtuous, those who fund these movements may sway its goals. Whether this is the case for The Rebel can be disputed, but what is clear is that its movement has exposed a pocket of Canada that is not habitually represented.

Regardless of its current state, one thing is certain about The Rebel: the organization has stayed true to its desire to be the voice for the community of readers and writers to which it caters. In the spirit of John Stuart Mill, I would encourage those who disagree with the content presented by The Rebel — or any other media outlet — to take the time to respond to it. Actively voicing your dissent places you within the conversation and allows you to participate in the marketplace of ideas that Mill advocated for. To say The Rebel should not exist, however, is to say that not all people should have a voice — and that is antithetical to the values of a liberal democracy.


Gabrielle Warren is an incoming third-year student at Trinity College studying Political Science.

An “appropriation prize” is an insult to Indigenous writers

What happened with Write magazine should prompt media outlets to prioritize Indigenous peoples in their coverage

An “appropriation prize” is an insult to Indigenous writers

The spring issue of Write, a literary magazine published by the Writer’s Union of Canada, was supposed to celebrate works by Indigenous writers. However, as is often the case when Indigenous writing is published, a media firestorm quickly redirected the public’s attention elsewhere.

Editor-in-Chief Hal Niedzviecki came under fire for his editorial in the magazine, where he wrote that he does not believe in cultural appropriation and that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” Consequently, Indigenous writers featured in the magazine expressed their deep disappointment that such a piece was featured in an issue intended to celebrate their communities’ works. Niedzviecki has since apologized and resigned from his post, calling his lack of foresight “tone-deaf.”

The negative attention Niedzviecki received then prompted some of the biggest names in Canada to jump to his defence. Prominent editors and writers at the largest media organizations in Canada eagerly voiced their support for the hypothetical “appropriation prize” that Niedzviecki suggested be awarded to authors who write about peoples with whom they have nothing in common. A pot of money jokingly pledged to the cause even emerged on Twitter.

The Niedzviecki case and the subsequent media support in his favour are telling reminders that there is sore disregard for Indigenous perspectives in Canadian media, and that the industry must make more room for Indigenous peoples to tell their own stories.

Niedzviecki apparently intended to argue that Indigenous peoples, continually suffering the effects of cultural genocide, are rediscovering their voice by writing narratives outside their own cultures. Statements in his piece seem to align with this position: Niedzviecki mentions the importance of finding the “right measures of respect, learning, and true telling,” and that “if we steal stories or phone in a bunch of stereotypes, readers will know.”

Yet opening a magazine issue devoted to Indigenous writing with the line “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation” penned by its Editor-in-Chief hardly approaches the bounds of appropriate editorial decision-making.

Clarification is in order, because Niedzviecki seems to imply that protecting writers from cultural appropriation presents an obstacle to creativity within the Canadian literary community by limiting the scope of what one can write about. However, appropriation is not ‘writing what you don’t know’ — it’s taking the customs of another culture and denying their origins, profiting off them as if they were your own.

We also cannot ignore the topicality with which cultural appropriation is frequently approached in popular discussion; however nearsighted Niedzviecki was, framing his piece in terms of appropriation was unmistakably meant to stir the pot.

Niedzviecki ought to have known better. The fact that he did not is unsurprising.

In a piece for Global News, Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie writes of “a persistent notion that continuing to exploit Indigenous people is an inherent right.” Gimmicky replicas of traditional artefacts and tasteless Halloween costumes demonstrate the world continuing to distort Indigenous culture for profit and entertainment. And this instance is hardly the first time Indigenous perspectives have taken a back seat to provocative writing by powerful people.

[pullquote-default]An Indigenous Elder once told Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue that the only way an Indigenous person would be featured on the news is if they were “one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.”[/pullquote-default]

The Canadian media has time and time again been complicit in this process. An Indigenous Elder once told Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue that the only way an Indigenous person would be featured on the news is if they were “one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.” When Indigenous people do make headlines, writers often play on stereotypes about criminality and alcoholism, never mind that scholars have repeatedly confirmed the connection between social issues within Indigenous communities and Canada’s colonial past.

The role of culture in this process cannot be understated. For First Nations people, preserving culture can be virtually analogous with preserving Indigenous knowledge, identity, and self-determination. Social and cultural dislocation has in fact been cited as one of the causes of higher rates of self-harm and suicide among Indigenous peoples compared to the non-Indigenous population.

The media, in turn, has a vital role to play in shaping public opinion and choosing what stories are told. Wilful blindness to the potential consequences of what is published, in a context where too few Canadians know enough about our country’s colonial history, can be toxic to Indigenous communities.

Editorials like Niedzviecki’s are important to take seriously because of their potential reach. A Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) project on Ontarian media coverage of Indigenous issues revealed that editorials and opinion columns made up a substantial portion of the heightened negative coverage that occurred in response to ‘Idle No More’ protests. McCue believes that senior opinion writers in city newsrooms are influential in setting the tone when Indigenous communities are covered.

It consequently becomes difficult to stomach the idea of an “appropriation prize,” to turn a blind eye to white and well-paid media executives placing bids on what is essentially a continuation of Canada’s colonial legacy. Calling out the Canadian media on its lack of diversity is hardly an overreaction, yet few in the industry seem willing to confront the problem head-on.

Only two extensive surveys on diversity in Canadian newspapers have ever been conducted. The most recent one, in 2006, found that minorities were vastly underrepresented in newsrooms at all levels of circulation. Smaller-scale studies have since confirmed these findings, yet news outlets have not budged. In 2016, CANADALAND attempted to collect data about diversity in Canadian newspapers and was met with radio silence; with only three papers willing to contribute, the prospect of publishing systematic data was deemed a lost cause.

[pullquote-features]It is Indigenous writers who are in optimal positions to tell deeply authentic and compassionate stories about marginalization and resistance.[/pullquote-features]

Indigenous narratives in particular continue to be sorely underrepresented in Canadian media. JHR surveyed over two million stories across 171 Canadian publications from 2010–2013, finding that Indigenous stories made up a cumulative average of only 0.28 per cent.

Part of the reason for this, it appears, is that many journalists do not attempt to seek out Indigenous sources to contribute to their stories. Others, not understanding Indigenous issues, avoid the topic entirely. In turn, media executives in charge of daily news agendas hesitate to cover Indigenous issues due to a reluctance to raise the “same old stories.” That would be well and good if enough were being done to try and change the status quo — which hasn’t happened since the first European ship landed on Canadian soil.

The Canadian Journalism Project’s J-Source has also investigated this issue. Of the 125 columnists they surveyed in 2016, only 5 regional columnists were Indigenous, and there were no Indigenous columnists at the national level.  This is compared to 50 regional and 14 national columnists who identified under no equity criteria — none of whom were Indigenous people, visible minorities, women, LGBTQ persons, or persons with a disability.

Supporting Indigenous writing — as Write tried and Niedzviecki dismally failed to do — is one step toward progress. Indigenous communities have much to contribute to the Canadian media landscape, and given their lived experiences, it is Indigenous writers who are in optimal positions to tell deeply authentic and compassionate stories about marginalization and resistance.

This is not to say that white columnists can’t write about colonialism, and certainly not that Indigenous writers should be pigeonholed into doing so. But considering the scarcity of Indigenous perspectives in the mainstream media and the pressing need to cover communities’ stories in a timely and respectful manner, newspapers should try harder to make room.

Fortunately, some have got the right idea. JHR has launched a mentorship program for Indigenous journalists in Northern Ontario, as well as a scholarship and internship program to help interested Indigenous students break into the field. In 2015, the Canadian Association of Journalists awarded the Don McGillivray Award, a prestigious journalistic honour, to McCue and the rest of his team at the CBC for their coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Simultaneously, progress on media diversity is painfully slow, and the appropriation prize debacle is a notable setback. Respecting Indigenous narratives, publishing Indigenous authors, and collaborating with Indigenous organizations should be top priorities, both in the broader media community and locally at The VarsityMedia outlets must make concrete commitments if they seriously intend to confront this issue. Unfortunately, it is not clear that all of them do.

Blackness under scrutiny

Amid disappointing portrayals of Black Lives Matter, the Canadian media must do more to advocate for racial justice

Blackness under scrutiny

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once warned of an unsuspecting threat to Black liberation called “the white moderate.” He defined white moderates as people who prefer the “absence of tension” over the “presence of justice” and say, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” The white moderate “paternalistically believes that he can set the timeline for another man’s freedom.”

If Black Lives Matter (BLM) is today’s civil rights group, then Canadian media is the white moderate at best and an antagonist at worst. This has become strikingly evident, given the outpouring of disappointing coverage in response to BLM Toronto’s (BLMTO) recent sit-in at Toronto’s Pride Parade — coverage that makes a mockery of the BLM movement, while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge that anti-Black racism continues to exist both in Canada and the United States.

In the Toronto Star, for instance, an editorial claimed that, while BLMTO is usually righteous, their actions at the Toronto Pride Parade went too far and stepped on the toes of allies. The activist group, an ’honoured guest’ at the parade, apparently should have opted for friendliness over confrontation, given the fact that the LGBTQ+ community are considered their allies.

Such a naive comment is symptomatic of the moderate, who supposedly understands and sympathizes with the cause of the marginalized but cannot tolerate the rage and urgency that naturally underlies it. It also ignores the fact that LGBTQ+ people can be racist as well. When reflecting on the public’s response to their sit-in, Rodney Diverlus of BLMTO tweeted that the first group of people to chant “all lives matter” —  a phrase that trivializes racism and violence against the Black community  by insisting everyone be treated equally despite unequal levels of disadvantage —  were white queer people. There is clearly still more work to be done.

As John Ibbitson wrote in the The Globe and Mail, the face of the gay rights movement has always been that of a white, middle-class man. Sexuality aside, an otherwise privileged group like this faces much less resistance in having their rights acknowledged than Black people, much less the many Black women and trans people who populate BLMTO. This reality explains why Pride can be infuriating to people of colour; at the end of the day, it still appears to be a celebration of cisgendered white men, despite the fact that monumental moments in the fight for queer rights, such as the Stonewall riots, were both initiated by people of colour and trans people.

Ibbitson’s more conscientious analysis is in stark contrast to that of his colleague Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail’s star columnist and plagiarist-in-chief. In typical Wente fashion, her piece was condescending, bereft of depth, and overall dismissive of views that challenge her own. She called BLMTO “bullies” backpacking on the racial tensions of America, as if Canadians were innocent of racial resentment. For Wente, BLMTO simply ought to have been happy they were present at Pride; she believed the group’s protest was little more than whining. She crudely labelled most of BLMTO’s demands as asking for money for their personal projects, ignoring the fact that they have consistently urged Pride to strive for greater visibility, the inclusion of South Asian and Indigenous peoples, and increased accessibility for people with disabilities.

Wente took particular offense to BLMTO’s demand for the elimination of police floats in future parades. Her view that police floats symbolize “solidarity and inclusion” ignores the fact that both Black and queer people, and especially trans people, are justifiably fearful of police, who have a history of subjecting these groups and other marginalized groups to scrutiny, harassment, and violence. With this context in mind, seeing the police occupy space on a float in a parade dedicated to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people is a taunt — and a violent one at that — for many queer people of colour.

Perhaps the most insulting part of Wente’s column is that she claimed Toronto is so much better for Black and queer people than other places in the world, consequently insinuating that Black and queer people should be grateful to only have to experience the lesser of two evils.

Nathan Chan/THE VARSITY

Nathan Chan/THE VARSITY

Similar sentiments were penned in the National Post, when Robyn Urback — despite acknowledging race as a factor in the pushback against BLMTO — wrote that Pride was an example of the political left “eating itself,” because two groups concerned with progress clashed. Holding groups that claim to be progressive to account can only be a positive thing, and BLMTO was right to expect more of Pride.

One can argue that today’s Pride, embellished with corporate sponsors, pinkwashing, and shallow support, is now more a celebration of past achievements than an event seriously concerned with marching further towards equity. Certainly, considering the backlash to BLMTO, the parade is a far cry from its political roots, meant to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which were initiated in protest against police brutality and led by queer and trans people of colour.

The media’s less-than-savoury takes on BLMTO are particularly appalling considering the position from which BLMTO is speaking. Amid the frequent shooting of unarmed Black people in both the US and Canada, BLMTO’s demand to ban police floats from the parade is not surprising. It is unnerving, to say the least, to march alongside an institution that can destroy you with impunity. One need only to look at the dozens of instances of police brutality against Black people in the United States ­— Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile are just four of the Black lives that have been taken by police. Closer to home, the violence persists: consider the shooting of Andrew Loku by Toronto police, and the recent death of Abdirahman Abdi, a mentally ill man that was beaten to death by the Ottawa Police.

It is not that BLMTO’s demands or their strategies cannot be criticized. Yet, such criticism must be directed in a constructive manner, in a manner that, at the very least, acknowledges anti-Black racism and does not obscure the truth.

[pullquote-default]All marginalized groups find themselves underrepresented in journalism, and that’s a moral and a business problem.[/pullquote-default]

Fortunately, not all media perspectives on BLMTO have been so narrow-minded. While it isn’t necessary to share the identity of those one writes about, Desmond Cole, a Black writer, provided much needed context and clarity in his Toronto Star column amid a series of tone-deaf hot takes elsewhere in Canadian media. He notes how the media-manufactured Black vs. queer dichotomy erases the intersectional issues that queer Black people face — issues that arise as by-products of two overlapping marginalized identities, each with their unique lived experiences of oppression. Furthermore, Cole discusses how queer people of colour are alienated at Pride and in LGBTQ communities as a whole. Though it was not his responsibility to do so, Cole did well in explaining why BLMTO’s actions were justified, and this was a welcome contrast to many of the more dubious perspectives provided by his colleagues.

The reaction to BLMTO’s actions at Pride are symbolic of a bigger issue in Canadian media: an alarming lack of diversity. All marginalized groups find themselves underrepresented in journalism, and that’s a moral and a business problem. Identity cannot replace journalistic ability, but it can add valuable nuance and context when covering queer and racialized communities. Journalism where people are able to tell their own stories — if they choose, not because they are tokenized and pigeonholed to do so — can only be seen as a positive.

This is not to mention the fact that the media, by means of reaching a large audience, can set the stage and the standard for what kind of content constitutes legitimate, appropriate journalism. When BLM is caricaturized, but their notable achievements are not given air time, the seedy priorities of the media shine through — they paint racial justice activists as people not worth listening to, while obscuring discussions of their actual work.

Even beyond this, there are undoubtedly more overt and crass instances of racist content being published by the media. The Varsity is far from innocent of this — in 2007, for example, a blackface cartoon was published in our paper, something that we have yet to formally issue an apology for; we aim to officially amend this disgrace in the coming weeks.

Canadian media should commit to increasing diversity in newsrooms, which would increasesthe quality of journalism. Without Desmond Cole, there would only be one Black columnist in the mainstream media: Royson James of the Toronto Star. The Varsity now has a diverse masthead, but we do not entertain the notion that the mere presence of diversity will be enough to combat racism, both in terms of our workplace environment and the content that we publish going forward.

In order to work to combat racism in the media, a conversation needs to be had about the way race and racial issues are portrayed to the public, as well as the responsibility that media outlets have to tell a conscious story, not just one that makes headlines.

Malicious is the message

Racialized narratives surrounding the Orlando shooting should make us wary of media bias

Malicious is the message

When I heard about the shooting at Pulse nightclub on Sunday, June 12, the first thing I did was turn on the news to learn all the details of what had happened. Yet, things were different for a Muslim friend of mine; he had little interest in going on social media, or anywhere else, for information about the shooting — because he knew people would be talking negatively about Islam.

He wasn’t wrong. On Sunday, within minutes of reporting that the shooter’s name was Omar Mateen, CNN also told its viewers that he was raised in a Muslim family, supported ISIS, and had Afghani heritage.

This comes in stark contrast with other news reports; on the same day as the Orlando shooting, a white man was arrested on route to the Los Angeles Pride Parade with multiple guns and explosive materials on him. Yet the media did not report on his race, religion, heritage, or family beyond that. Donald Trump did not jump on the chance to tweet hateful things about white people, and Hillary Clinton did not blame the man’s religion for his actions. On the other hand, both politicians used Orlando to further their Islamophobic agendas and rhetoric, with Trump reiterating that the USA needs to suspend Muslim immigration, and Clinton blaming ‘radical Islamism’for the day’s events.

[pullquote-default]For years now, whenever there has been a shooting or bombing in which the perpetrator has had anything to do with Islam, or has been a person of colour from another community, stories about the individual have dominated news cycles for days.[/pullquote-default]

This is clearly not a new phenomenon; the same thing happened after the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Boston. For years now, whenever there has been a shooting or bombing in which the perpetrator has had anything to do with Islam, or has been a person of colour from another community, stories about the individual have dominated news cycles for days.

It takes both liberal and conservative news channels and political figures no time at all to blame violence on Islam, overshadowing what is arguably much more important — in this case, the fact that the Orlando shooting was clearly a hate crime against the LGBTQ+ community, and disproportionately targeted racialized persons.

The mainstream media’s greatest mistake when it comes to the Orlando shootings was using the deaths of queer people of colour, specifically the Latinx LGBTQ+ community, to vilify another marginalized group. Instead of deliberating on why it is that queer and trans people of colour face disproportionate amounts of violence compared to white queer and trans people, the media focused on painting Muslims in broad strokes as inherently homophobic people, neglecting to recognize how this might affect queer Muslims.

Instead of drawing attention to hypermasculinity and easy access to firearms as contributors to the attacks, much of the media fostered more hate following the deaths in Orlando by playing into the East/West dividing rhetoric — which ultimately helps radical terrorists to carry out their motives.

We expect the news that we consume to be objective. However, this is problematic, because people of colour and racialized religions are talked about disproportionately after events like the Orlando shooting. Even though research shows that the people who commit the highest number of mass murders in America are young white men, we continue to associate brown men with terror. The media is partially to blame.

[pullquote-default]The way that Islam and men of colour are talked about on the news feeds into an active discourse that condemns Islam and people of colour simply for existing. [/pullquote-default]

The way that Islam and men of colour are talked about on the news feeds into an active discourse that condemns Islam and people of colour simply for existing. When we hear so much negative information about certain groups of people — particularly in times of crisis, when emotions and tensions are high — this information only serves to reinforce other stereotypes and channels of discrimination against these groups. As a result, individuals begin to believe hateful messages about these groups. We become angry at Muslims, and afraid of people of colour.

Furthermore, these marginalized communities then have to bear the consequences of sensationalist news reporting. After Islamophobic rhetoric rose to the surface following the Paris attacks, many Muslims all over the world reported being harassed — a mosque in Peterborough was set on fire, several mosques in the States were vandalized, and harassment against Muslims in London, England tripled.

Every religion has extremists, yet every day people who have racialized faiths are held responsible for crimes they would never commit and do not condone. In the case of Orlando, while the media focused on Islam, we heard much less about other oppressive actions against LGBTQ+ people, including those who had been victimized in the shooting.

We heard little, for example, about the Westboro Baptist Church — a radical religious group — who viciously protested homosexuality outside a funeral for a victim of the Orlando shooting. We heard about all the politicians who were supposedly saddened by the shooting, but the media neglected to mention the names of the many politicians that voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which makes homophobic hate crimes illegal under US federal law.

The way that we are given information in times of crisis should be something we are constantly analyzing and deliberating for ourselves. The Orlando shooting was a horrible tragedy, but the media has prioritized Islamophobia over paying respect to those 49 lives lost on June 12. Do not take what is given to us by major news outlets as absolute, and do not let rhetoric distract you from what is truly important.

In memory of the victims, here are their names.

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Amanda Alvear, 25 years old

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old

Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old

Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old

Cory James Connell, 21 years old

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old

Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old

Frank Hernandez, 27 years old

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old

Kimberly Morris, 37 years old

Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old

Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old

Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old

 

Shailee Koranne is a third-year equity studies student at Victoria College.

Safe haven in the spotlight?

While considering Canada’s efforts to help refugees, beware of media bias

Safe haven in the spotlight?

This past December, crowds gathered at airports in Toronto and Montreal to welcome the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada in the coming months. The warm and enthusiastic greeting they received is the envy of people across the world, especially with the recent rise of xenophobic populists like Donald Trump in the United States and Marine Le Pen in France.

Simultaneously, it also provided a great photo-op for a recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appear more ‘open’ and relatable, at least in comparison to his predecessor. Prime Minister Trudeau even went as far as urging Canadians to welcome the Syrian refugees in his Christmas message in The Toronto Star.

There is no doubt that Canada’s efforts to take in refugees should be applauded – in fact, many of our peers came to Canada in a similar way. However, it is also important to view Canada’s contributions from a global perspective, and take caution not to become complacent.

it is also important to view Canada’s contributions from a global perspective, and take caution not to become complacent

The 25,000 refugees — Immigration Minister John McCallum says as many as 50,000 refugees, at least 70 per cent from Syria, could arrive by the end of this year — the Liberal government has pledged to bring to Canada by February is a mere drop in the ocean, given the number of civilians in the region. There are around four million refugees across Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, at least one million living in Lebanon alone, where they make up almost one-fifth of the countrys population. In Jordan, the influx of people is roughly equivalent to almost the entire population of Canada moving to the United States, in less than two years. The Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan — a tract of land once fitting for a post-apocalyptic film set — is now the fourth-largest in the world and houses around one hundred thousand refugees.

To make matters worse, about six million people remain internally displaced in Syria. Of the five million refugees generated by the Syrian civil war, 51 per cent are 17 or younger. There is growing concern about the ‘lost generation’ – children growing up in refugee camps, uneducated, angry, and bored.

The sheer scale of the issue is of particular importance when considering the coverage of the crisis by major outlets. Appealing to emotion is an easy way for outlets to capture bandwidth and sell advertising. Portraying the new government in a positive light is also an easy way for a public broadcaster, gutted by funding cuts, to win some political clout.

The CBC’s coverage of the arrival of the first plane carrying Syrian refugees came off as a desperate attempt to lionize the Prime Minister to an angelic status. It may be heartwarming for viewers to see the Prime Minister fitting children into winter jackets, and the Premier of Ontario handing out stuffed animals. However, these apparently grand gestures pale in comparison to the work required in the great project that is solving the refugee crisis.

The Liberal government’s openness to Syrian refugees is not even that groundbreaking as far as policy goes. Since 2005, Canada has admitted over 260,000 refugees. The largest source is not Syria, Somalia, or Haiti – countries typically associated with refugees – but Colombia. Ongoing low-intensity conflict over the past 50 years has brought over 17,000 Colombian refugees to Canada since 2004. Even as the first group of refugees arrived from Syria to the Prime Minister’s official welcome, another group of Ghanaian refugees were arriving without fanfare.

Certainly, we should be proud of Canada’s contributions to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. But, especially as students, we have a responsibility to be critical of a fawning media and a camera-ready Prime Minister. There are other conflicts around the world that continue to affect millions of people, and those individuals deserve just as much of our attention as the most recent group of proud, new Canadians.

Jonathan Wilkinson is a fourth-year student at University College studying international relations.