Putting pen to paper

Navigating the changing journalistic landscape
Lucas Bird - Opinion Editor

The New York Times headline glared out on my screen. The words reflected a phenomenon all too common on many progressive, university communities across North America.

“News or ‘Trauma Porn’?,” it began. “Student Journalists Face Blowback on Campus.”

The Nov. 14, 2019 article by Julie Bosman, Mitch Smith, and Kate Taylor highlighted a controversy on Northwestern University and Harvard University campuses after student-run publications at both schools received criticism from students alleging a lack of sensitivity in their reporting practices. These conflicts represent a growing tension between ‘traditional’ objectivity-focussed journalism practices and the increasing demand for empathetic approaches. These demands are becoming more pervasive as standards of best journalistic practice and cultural awareness of sensitivity continue to evolve. Such sentiments underpinned many of the events surrounding the Northwestern incident.

“Activists were trying to challenge journalistic norms and push for a more sensitive approach to reporting that considers the vulnerability of the people whose lives are portrayed,” the three Times journalists wrote.

Student journalists in Montreal find themselves in a similar position to their American counterparts. Schools across the city have been hotbeds of student-led activism, protests, and struggles for equity and social justice over the past several years. Accordingly, the evolving standards of journalistic practice are as visible in Montreal as they are at Harvard or Northwestern.

Mainstream media have not always succeeded in addressing these novel expectations of sensitivity, especially when financial priorities incentivize outlets to sensationalize events. In fact, over the last decade, news media has become increasingly commodified and polarizing. However, student publications have a unique relationship with their audience, one which makes the stakes of reporting much higher. These circumstances have required student journalists in Montreal to adapt their reporting styles. Additionally, other unique structural factors give members of the student press the freedom to operate in a way which mainstream media can not. Student publications are often independently funded and have incentives such as educational mandates which influence both reporting styles and a paper’s relationship with their readers. Accordingly, student journalists at both McGill and Concordia have sought to exercise a novel approach to reporting, one which focusses on how the narrative a journalist is creating intersects with the identity of the persons it concerns.

Over the last 20 years, the profitability of mainstream news media has led to the increased sensationalism in reporting. When the events or experiences of individuals are commodified, it can not only distort the audience's perception but it can also be harmful to the individuals themselves. Student journalists are not immune to this phenomenon, however they are differently positioned to address this kind of challenge. Katelyn Thomas, Editor-in-Chief of Concordia University’s The Concordian, recognizes and values the comparatively independent, unfiltered, and measured point of view student papers can uniquely provide. The Concordian, like publications on McGill’s campus such as The McGill Daily and The Bull & Bear, is independently student-run and student-funded. Thomas expressed how this agency differentiates student journalism from mainstream reporting.

Thomas noted that although The Montreal Gazette, for example, often does excellent coverage of minority groups and issues, they are owned by Postmedia. During the last Canadian federal election, Postmedia publications across the country ran an ad for Conservative Party candidate Andrew Scheer, an endorsement which, to some readers of the Gazette, might seem like an odd pairing for the paper’s often decidedly left-leaning takes. These are the sorts of private interests that Thomas believes are critically absent from independent, student-run papers.

“There is more room for an advocacy-based approach in student journalism [...whereas with mainstream media] you’re funded by a company. Obviously, that does place some restrictions on you,” Thomas said. “In student press, where I most see it [as successful] is when we are able to be critical of the university in particular.”

Thomas stressed the importance of a more intimate relationship between a campus paper and the university community. She believes that if resistance comes from the student body regarding a particular piece or perspective of the paper, it results in a more genuine engagement between the reader and the author than in cases where an endorsement of an individual or idea has been driven by private interests. Because student journalists have an ability to connect with members of their audience in a more direct way, if only because campus communities are more tight knit, it puts them in a position to respond to and deal with criticism.

“We have more liberty to talk about whatever we want to talk about,” Thomas said. “So, the backlash that we face is purely because some people [in the university community] are upset about looking like jerks rather than us actually having our arms tied behind our back.”

Student journalists have a unique opportunity to craft a narrative for a very specific group of readers. Accordingly, most still appreciate being held accountable for their work when encountering criticism from their audience. In a separate capacity, and in the case of a university like McGill, which has a plethora of student activist communities, student journalists can provide an important platform to activists if they mobilize properly. Emily Black is a News Editor for The McGill Daily, a publication which takes a unique, social-justice oriented approach to journalism. Black expressed the importance of facilitating the self-told stories of marginalized communities and avoiding sensationalism.

“We try our best to make sure we are not just picking up stories when they get intense and [...] leaving them there,” Black said. “It is so important to make sure that, as a reporter, you’re following up and making sure that you’re [promoting] the voices of those communities.”

Black believes that there is no such thing as true objectivity in journalism. Accordingly, she stressed the necessity of doing on-the-ground reporting in a non-invasive way. In the case of protests, for example, this means providing coverage in a way which does not take away from the space occupied by activists who are members of the relevant communities.

“When you’re going into demonstrations, remembering your positionality and understanding what space you’re taking part in and what space you’re taking up is crucial,” Black said.

Black spoke to some of the more tangible ways that the Daily has evolved their reporting style to focus more on echoing the stories already being told by members of communities, such as those messages put forth by Indigenous community leaders at the recent Holding Space event held in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Black explained the logic behind their strategy for covering an event like this one.

“Rather than typing up a full article, [...] we’ve tried to focus on representing the speakers and the people at the demonstrations themselves,” Black said. “The idea is that rather than an 800 word article that I’ve written, what appears is a page filled with photos of the speakers and the words of the speakers themselves. [....] What we don’t want is a situation where members of these communities feel we are speaking for them.”

It is the awareness of reporting strategies like these which have allowed student publications at McGill and Concordia to take a more delicate approach to journalism, one which pays particular attention to whose stories are being told. This aspect is especially important given news media’s legacy of overlooking Indigenous, Black, disabled, queer and other marginalized communities.

At both McGill and Concordia, student news publications are a community largely dominated by white students. Nonetheless, student journalists at these institutions, as well as journalists in mainstream publications, seek to facilitate the stories of historically oppressed communities, communities which they are not necessarily members of themselves. Sarah Farb is the Executive Editor of The Bull & Bear, the Management Undergraduate Society’s student-run news magazine. Farb recognized the meticulous care required to adequately cover issues while recognizing one’s own privilege.

“Our perspective [at the Bull & Bear] is not in a total monolith but, you know, [our position] is obviously something we are mindful of,” Farb said. “It is something that I, in leading discussions, often find myself having to step back and remind myself of.”

Becoming involved in journalism on campus itself comes with barriers to access. Many editorial positions demand time and energy while not offering any kind of, or extremely minimal, remuneration. Consequently, student journalism is a field that is implicitly privileged. Farb described that the ability to reorient oneself and recognize the plurality of others’ experiences is crucial to responsible journalism. She says that this awareness always frames how her reporting is undertaken.

“In approaching writing or coverage, I try to specifically investigate what other people think, particularly people who don’t have the same experiences that I’ve had, it is something I think which centres around having careful judgement in each case rather than institutionalizing some policy,” Farb said.

In a similar vein, Thomas described the difficulty of covering events and stories that she feels may be inappropriate to occupy as an individual who doesn’t share the lived experience of the individual whose story they are telling. Many student journalists feel that increasing the diversity of newsrooms would help to solve this problem.

“I’m really interested in telling stories that I find mainstream media doesn’t tend to focus on,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, I struggle a lot with the fact that I am a white person and I want to tell these stories but I don’t want to take away the space from somebody else to tell their own story.”

Although Thomas felt guilty for a long time about this aspect of her job, an encounter with Wameesh Hamilton, a CBC journalist and a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, at a student journalism conference helped shift her perspective. Hamilton’s point was that until newsrooms reach parity and there are more Indigenous reporters to tell their own stories, it would be irresponsible for settler journalists not to write about these issues.

However, she also said that because of the discordance between identity and narrative, the team at The Concordian exercises extreme care when putting together sensitive pieces. This attitude towards sensitivity is one way that privileged individuals hoping to share the stories of others can practice journalism which uplifts marginalized communities rather than drowning them out.

“We make sure that anything that could be interpreted in a way that we don’t mean it to be is flagged,” Thomas said. “That’s not just for minority groups. We would do the same thing if someone wrote a piece on domestic violence, for example. Any sensitive topic we are very particular about.”

University campuses are contributing to a changing cultural environment where identity and experience have become guiding principles for how journalism is carried out. In adapting to the cultural consciousness of campuses, student journalists like Thomas, Black, and Farb are working within an emerging methodology in reporting.

For Farb, her job ultimately comes down to two simple and necessary questions.

“In the end, it is just about asking, ‘Are you willing to be considerate?’ and ‘Are you willing to be open minded?’”