Racialized journalists and j-school students are finding ways to mitigate the harm caused by the journalism industry
Daysha Loppie began studying journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University in September of 2020. Loppie was passionate about the arts and culture beat, but didn’t feel fulfilled only writing for school. “I want to take it beyond these singular, isolated assignments that get marked and then disappear into the ether of academia,” she said.
Loppie found the writing process extractive, as students are simply trying to meet deadlines, often with little to no regard for the interviewees and their stories being told. In The View From Somewhere by Lewis Wallace, he describes extractive reporting as using sources “the way mining companies use land — as a resource to dig into, and then leave behind.” This is exactly what Loppie aims to avoid. “Community is a super important aspect of journalism,” she said. “J-school is very often at direct odds with that. It’s an interesting conflict to manage, especially as they’re preaching ‘Build trust! No extractive reporting!’ But then you’re putting me in a position to do extractive reporting.”
Many journalists begin their careers believing they can foster social and systemic change by covering underreported issues in mainstream media. Journalists, often marginalized, who start out in j-school have that belief stamped out of them early on through the rigidity and limitations posed by the industry. Mainstream media operates as most major corporations do: valuing profit over people. The focus on timeliness and a good story outweigh the capacity for personhood necessary for empathetic journalism. The same can be said of the experiences of post-secondary students attending journalism schools. Through corporate journalism and academia, writers are finding themselves at odds with the practices and limitations of the industry.
School had always been a major part of Loppie’s life. For a while, she found herself deriving self-worth from the institution and the grades she got. This quickly changed as she began to lose faith in the structure of the program and industry as a whole. Loppie noticed a recurring comment when her pitches were returned. “What they said in the feedback was that my pitch read like an opinion piece.” Loppie was frustrated and conflicted. “This pressure to remove myself from my stories is hard to navigate, especially as I strive to write stories about community, when I’m a part of that community.” She didn’t see it as inserting herself into the story, rather she was simply reporting on communities she happened to be a part of. And yet, j-schools emphasize this idea that if you cover your own communities then there is an inherent bias present.
This journalistic principle of removing oneself from the story and being entirely unbiased — this myth of “objectivity” — is one that many Black, Indigenous and racialized journalists have come head-to-head with their entire careers, and it starts in j-school.
Saarah Rasheed, a Carleton journalism graduate, recalls how during her years in j-school, in order to pick a story topic, her professors would ask: “‘What do people care about? They care about their bank account, they care about their own well-being. There’s this nefarious belief already that people only care about themselves going into [journalism], which is not true of everybody.” Just because the industry as a whole prioritizes corporate interests, doesn’t mean individual journalists do. However, the beliefs instilled in corporate newsrooms often trickle down to j-schools as journalism professors often work in the industry before joining academia.
Rasheed explains that everyone carries their lived experiences and perspectives with them when they come at a story. “The way I write a story is gonna be completely different than the way someone else writes a story,” she said. “Even if we have the same sources, the same research, the same articles.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, she says.
It was the summer of 2010 when the G20 summit took place in Toronto. After a weekend of protests and more than a thousand arrests, police released detainees from the makeshift detention centre erected at 629 Eastern Ave. Hundreds of people were let out into the rain that Sunday night. Many without their shoes, socks, ID, medication or keys. Desmond Cole was one of them. Cole and several others all went back to one of their homes and prepared a large meal. Seated in a circle eating freshly-made rice, noodles and vegetables with peanut sauce, they finally began to process the events of the weekend. The violence and policing Cole witnessed at the G20 solidified what he had been feeling for many years about the government and the police, and his lack of faith in either. “Our society is not what it says it is,” he said. And so, Cole turned on his voice recorder, faced the rest of the circle and said, “I want you to tell me everything.”
That was the start of Desmond Cole’s journalism career, where he began to document what wasn’t adequately being covered by mainstream news outlets.
Robert Ballantyne, a Cree-Mohawk journalist and Carleton grad student discusses in a Briarpatch article the limitations of journalism: “Journalism was a practice established within the settler-colonial state, so that is its boundary.” The structures of journalism were created and operate to maintain the status quo.
In September 2015, Cole began writing a twice-monthly column for the Toronto Star. “White journalists paid their mortgages writing about Black people being stalked and surveilled and harassed and detained and beaten by the police,” he says. “But then when I got to the Star, I was told, ‘You’re writing about this subject too much.’” The censorship and policing of non-white journalists is just another facet of corporate journalism, and j-schools exercise this same narrative.
White journalists paid their mortgages writing about Black people being stalked and surveilled and harassed and detained and beaten by the police. But then when I got to the Star, I was told, ‘You’re writing about this subject too much.’Desmond Cole
Rasheed recalls how in j-school, if her story targeted a distinct demographic, she always had to find a relational aspect of her story that would affect the general society, because otherwise why would it matter? “And by general society, I, of course, don’t mean everyone. I just mean white people,” she said.
Shireen Ahmed, a sports journalist who teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University, says the current structures of journalism are very much part of a larger history of capitalist media. Journalism, as it stands, does not operate on ethical principles. It seeks the largest audience to generate the largest amount of money, she said. And how is that done? According to Cole, mainstream media does this through sensationalism, graphic violence and demonizing certain groups of people while playing it up for the audience.
This practice is also demonstrated in j-schools. “If it bleeds, it ledes,” is a common truism thrown around journalism classrooms to get students to understand what audiences supposedly want to see.
Despite this, Ahmed notes how a part of the tenet of journalism is harm reduction; ensuring the least amount of harm is caused during the reporting process. Trauma-informed journalism is a practice that ensures sensitive topics are approached in the right way to minimize the potential for harm. “But people don’t practice trauma-informed journalism because it is at odds with the capitalist system. [They] just want clicks,” said Ahmed. They aren’t going to change what hurts people because what hurts people is making them money. In a Briarpatch article, IndigiNews managing editor Emilee Gilpin says everything journalists report on is in relation to the Canadian economy, “as if that’s just the assumed reality, as if that’s the world view that we’re all working from.”
Because these institutions of journalism are corporations, they’re going to reinforce corporate values. “The greatest limitation of most corporate media — of all corporate media — is that the profit motive comes before anything,” said Cole.
Both the journalism industry and the j-schools funneling students into it have the same goals and scope, so it’s no wonder that both marginalized students and journalists feel hopelessly at odds with their field.
Similar to many other industries, journalism is not a practice that can be reformed. It has to be approached from radically different perspectives. In an article written by Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah, they report that over a 21-year study of Canada’s largest publications including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post, “as the proportion of white people in Canada’s population declined, the representation of white columnists increased.” The overrepresentation of white people in the industry and the neglect of Black, Indigenous and racialized journalists is one element of proof that the industry is beyond reform.
Independent journalism is one of the ways in which journalists can create a paradigm shift. Cole notes how Black people have been doing this for ages. “Black people were making their own media, newsletters and pamphlets and handing them out to one another — there was lots of underground activity like this,” he said. “They’ve created their own sources of information because the corporate sources of information were not interested in telling their stories.” And so, the practice continues today.
Cole left the Star in 2017, after essentially being forced out when his superior reprimanded him for engaging in a political disruption outside of work. “If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation,” said Cole in a blog post. He continues freelancing and has since published his own book, The Skin We’re In. Ahmed started a feminist sports podcast the same year, alongside four other folks: Amira Rose Davis, Brenda Elsey, Lindsay Gibbs and Jessica Luther. Loppie started an arts and culture blog in 2020 called Good Fortune, focusing on the Black experience in Toronto. And Rasheed now works for a water sustainability nonprofit that acts as an alternative to mainstream publications.
In an attempt to combat the corporate realm of journalism, journalists have taken to independent forms of media and sought to establish community through their reporting. In doing so, it creates a more empathetic environment for both reporters and those being reported on. Ahmed says the way in which independent media will flourish is through community and the forms of storytelling that aren’t recognized in mainstream institutions. Fighting corporate journalism is an exhausting feat and journalists and students alike need community to fall back on.
“I’m only still here because of community,” said Ahmed. “At the end of the day, it’s people that hold me up. Sometimes, I lean so hard on colleagues I’m practically horizontal. Because that’s just what you have to do.”