by Marcus Medford in Toronto
Journalism students say they find value in learning how to report on immigration and race issues. Many would like to see more specialized courses focused on diversity and inclusive reporting.
“There’s never been a time in my life when this has been more important,” says second-year journalism student from the University of Toronto, Tijuana Turner, referring to the current refugee situation and Justin Trudeau pledging to bring 25,000 Syrians to Canada.
“For example, describing it as a ‘flood’ of refugees isn’t okay when most people associate a flood with disaster,” she explains.
Turner moved to Canada from Jamaica two years ago to study at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus (UTSC). She says the course “Covering Immigration and Transnational Issues” offered at UTSC, which teaches students to analyze news coverage, has helped raise her awareness.
The course includes material on how media outlets frame stories related to race and immigration and how these frames can shape people’s perspective. Before taking it, certain things went over Turner’s head, she explains, but she’s become more critical.
“You shouldn’t start by saying ‘Refugee Tom...’ That's not inclusion, that’s ‘us vs. them.’ You should try saying, ‘Tom, who is a refugee,’” Turner explains.
Teaching critical journalism
datejie green is the Asper Fellow of Media at Western University and a lecturer at UTSC.
green teaches “Critical Journalism”, which she describes as a “mobilizing, embodied, intersectional approach to journalism” meant to give students a fresh set of eyes to critically engage journalism. The course examines how media cultures address gender, ability, class, sexuality and race.
“We want to learn about intersectional ways of thinking and mobilize that critical analysis to make sense of everything and write respectfully,” green shares. “These are not static, abstract ideas that we learn and leave in classrooms; these are things journalists need to have at their disposal.”
Class discussions involve examining the impact and importance of perspective in media. green’s objective is to cross cultural divides in a humanizing way. She says she is open with students about her experiences – as a woman, as someone who’s black, lives with mental illness and is a lesbian – and how it relates to perspective.
“That shouldn’t detract from my validity as a journalist or a teacher; it’s just a frame. But it allows me to explain how my body is experienced, why and what’s the impact,” green explains.
Fatima Al-Sayed is a second-year journalism student in green's class. She says the course is “extremely important” because students become aware of different perspectives, which helps journalists “not to write from pre-conceived ideas or ignorance.”
“As a woman who wears a hijab, I know the image the media portrays of me because it’s my day-to-day life,” Al-Sayed explains. “I feel like my role in journalism is to change that perspective, but I can’t if I get pulled into that kind of thinking.”
Integrating diversity lessons throughout j-school
Specialized courses aren’t the only way to teach these concepts in journalism school. At Langara College in British Columbia, lessons about perspective and diversity are integrated into every course, explains Frances Bula, chair of the journalism program.
Bula says that in addition to having classrooms and newsrooms that are ethnically diverse, it’s crucial for students to understand the importance of diversifying their sources.
“From day one, we talk about the importance of diversity and the dangers of getting too comfortable talking with people from a similar age, gender, race, or income background,” Bula explains.
Journalists should also look to groups who may not have access to the media or may not speak perfect English, Bula adds.
Petti “Peg” Fong, the assistant department chair at Langara, says courses solely about reporting on race and ethnicity aren’t necessary for journalism students.
She adds, though, that it’s important for students to understand that audiences and sources come from all different backgrounds to help prevent stereotypes being perpetuated by the media. This is taught throughout other courses, she explains.
Students’ role in addressing media bias
A study from Australia noted that negative and stereotypical coverage of Muslims can foster alienation, which plays into the hands of extremists, says Brad Clark, the journalism and broadcasting chair at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Clark did his doctoral dissertation on representations of ethno-cultural minorities in Canadian media.
Clark says that news gathering should be more inclusive, especially stories that focus on specific communities, or else it runs the risk of stereotyping and misrepresenting.
He also says that journalism students can play an important role in addressing implicit biases of mainstream media.
“They must be allowed to influence news gathering when it strays into the realm of the stereotypic,” he says. “Students need to understand that sometimes it is OK to explore the experience of race, that talking about race isn’t the same as being racist.”
These issues have become increasingly relevant for j-school students to explore, says Lysia Filotas, a second-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. Carleton, like Langara doesn’t have a course dedicated to reporting on race and ethnicity, but incorporates it in lessons, something Filotas finds valuable.
“As a reporter, it’s important to learn how these topics colour one’s world views and how not to project that onto someone else during the interview and writing process,” she explains.
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by datejie cheko green (@seeksolidarity) in Toronto, Ontario
“How can I help?” For the last five days, that refrain has been like music to the ears of Ratna Omidvar, Chair of the Steering Committee of Lifeline Syria in Toronto. The non-governmental initiative, barely six months old, hopes to rally private citizens to self-organize as “sponsor groups” to resettle Syrian refugees.
The organization’s goal is to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the next two years, and inject momentum into the government’s overall target of 10,000 over three years.
Since publicly unveiling the project on Wednesday, Omidvar, who is the Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, has been overwhelmed with offers of support. But there’s an edge of concern in her voice. “Becoming a sponsor and understanding the routes and process are extremely complicated,” she concedes.
Overseas and in Canada, securing asylum, transit, authorized entry and appropriate and supportive landing have become far more complex than during this country’s first mass refugee resettlement more than a quarter century ago. “The application forms alone have gone from three to 52 pages in that time,” Omidvar says.
A History of Refugee Lifelines
The time she’s referring to is 1979 when members of Canada’s civil society – individuals, community groups and Church groups – created the first organized private refugee sponsorship program. It was in response to the international humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia, the aftermath of decades of war against France and the U.S.
Known as Operation Lifeline, the citizen-led response addressed the plight of the “boat people” – those fleeing wars, devastation and repression in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the late 1970s, regional and neighbouring countries had reached their capacity to receive refugees and began to refuse asylum to new arrivals.
After surviving multiple waves of displacement, many were forced to take the most unpredictable and treacherous exit path of last resort: the sea. In the face of thousands lost to drowning, the international community finally stepped up.
Today, many in Canada’s now well-established resettlement sector see the similarities in Syria’s conflict. The needs of Syrian asylum seekers are eerily familiar, with nearly four million outside the country and seven million internally displaced.
Canada's Global Image
Back in 1979, Operation Lifeline managed to resettle more than 60,000 Southeast Asians in Canada over 18 months, providing harbour and hope to future generations. It marked a turn in citizen generosity toward groups that did not match the British and French heritage that previously dominated immigration norms. It also earned Canadians a prominent international reputation for being a globally minded, welcoming society.
Although the government’s official welcome mat has shrunk in recent years, the people behind Lifeline Syria are feeling the citizen spirit return.
Many from that original effort have helped inspire and inform the project this time around, including former Toronto Mayor, John Sewell, Professor Emeritus at York University, Howard Adelman, former Ontario Deputy Minister of Citizenship, Naomi Alboim, and Dr. Wendy Cukier, founder of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute. Cukier plans to repeat her role as a sponsor.
And there is a notable difference with Lifeline Syria, as a core group of established Canadians of Middle Eastern, South and East Asian origin are leading the project, with experienced staff on watch.
More Than Writing a Cheque
Canada’s private sponsorship program is “unique in the world,” explains Lifeline Syria Project Manager Alexandra Kotyk. “We’re the only country that permits non-family groups to join forces as “Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH).”
A lesser-known achievement of Operation Lifeline, the SAH permits groups of five or more individuals to pool their resources and share the liabilities of sponsoring refugee individuals’ and families’ first year of resettlement in Canada.
With this arrangement, family members can gain the support of faith-based or other participating self-organized citizen-sponsor groups, Kotyk explains. They don’t have to wait for the government process alone to help accelerate refugees’ path out of harm’s way.
Lifeline Syria is attuned to the hundreds of questions people have and “will be hosting at least one monthly session” explaining private sponsorship, Kotyk reports, noting the first workshop for 50 people at Toronto City Hall filled up in three days.
Kotyk adds that sponsorship is not just about money. After being granted refugee status at camps in the region, “sponsored Syrians arrive in Canada as permanent residents.” It’s up to sponsors to connect them to housing and orient them to schools, health care and their new life.
Omidvar, herself an immigrant to Canada by way of multiple migrations and forced displacement in Europe and Asia, agrees. “Writing a cheque is easy. The hard part is holding the hands of these families, once they arrive.”
Far from being a cautionary message, Omidvar, like her colleagues in this initiative, is excited as she describes how “almost 100 per cent of the people I’ve met” are eager to get involved. She notes that her own circle of university colleagues might consider sponsorship as a group, a template that she finds full of promise.
“Let’s look for private sponsors in unusual places. Think of your book club or walking club. Think of the IT department if you work in a big organization. Think of your street, your residents associations. Think of your school communities.”
The veteran of anti-poverty and immigrant inclusion work in Toronto adds, “It’s an opportunity for people to come together to share the burden, and in doing so, really connect with each other … When I think about all the work I've done, somehow this work at this particular moment feels marvellous.”
by datejie cheko green (@seeksolidarity) in Toronto
Canadian freelance journalist and humanitarian Ali Mustafa died in Aleppo one year ago this month. He and seven others were killed by a Syrian government bomb while searching for survivors among the rubble from a blast that struck the same spot minutes before. I first met Ali through union and student solidarity work at York University in 2008 and 2009. I saw the spark of his journalistic vision take form in the bold cooperative newspaper he created there with friends and allies: the YU Free Press. He was a colleague, a comrade and the softest soul of a man you could find.
Ali came from loving, humble, yet disconnected beginnings in a Toronto neighbourhood kept out of the city's wealth. Early on, he observed how establishment media neither reflected nor welcomed his Canadian experiences and perspectives. Nevertheless, he believed his stories were of value, as were those of the majority like him. He knew their lives mattered.
Unlike many who change themselves in order to access powerful environments exclusively for the enfranchised, Ali didn’t waste time trying to fit in. Instead, he banded with peers to create new outlets for journalism, forums for dialogue and avenues for cross-cultural and transnational expressions of love and possibility. He journeyed from Canada independently to meet people organizing to transcend poverty and sectarian violence in Brazil, Palestine, Egypt and Syria. He was determined to document their lives in places where few with the power of a Western camera and English language networks bothered to venture.
Despite his meagre means and lack of formal institutional legitimacy, Ali hustled as a freelancer to learn and practice as much as he could about the craft of photojournalism. He followed the path of so many forerunners and contemporaries, chronicling uprisings, witnessing atrocities and recognizing everyday heroes. His images were powerful, his documentation meticulous. Ali’s photographic works managed to humanize the dehumanized on all sides of the conflicts he covered. This was no small feat for a self-trained photographer in an age of ubiquitous digital image creators.
Ali put his skills to use and his body on the line to share the urgency of people whose lives he knew to be fundamentally more precarious than his own.
He felt it was the least he could do.
Ali (pictured to the right from his Twitter profile picture) was present for the protests at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, August 14, 2014, where he remained day and night to document what is now known as “Egypt's Tiananmen Square.” It was a state-orchestrated massacre, the biggest mass killing of civilians in modern Egyptian history. Like all who survived and witnessed it, Ali came away traumatized.
With his increasing exposure to violence and disparity, Ali’s brightness shifted toward depression over time. Friends whose journeys between the Middle East and Canada paralleled his own remarked how Ali became burdened by the historic, tragic events he witnessed. His sense of frustration and loss was compounded by his professionally marginalized and occupationally vulnerable position as an independent journalist.
The International News Safety Institute says that photojournalists like Ali “who take extreme risks to get a story but are subsequently unable to find a way to get it on air are particularly at risk [of post traumatic stress disorder]—probably because at the core of PTSD is the concept of meaning.”
Struggles of a Freelance Journalist
Freelancers constantly struggle to get news agencies to take their journalism, acuity and safety seriously. Despite successfully making reliable contacts and building tight networks in the region, Ali found that it was constantly a hard sell to find takers for his work and to get paid. Even worse was that agencies were most responsive to the work that put him at the scene of highest exposure to violence. And for these photographs, according to a close friend and colleague, he would be paid a mere $20 per image.
In the winter of 2013–2014 Ali grew distant, slept less and was confused and disoriented about where he should go (and where he could afford to go) next. He worked furiously to map out new plans for documenting the lives of Syrians who were caring for each other amid the violence and crushing scarcity of war and international isolation.
Friends found it difficult to get through to Ali, not just practically, but amid his mental fog. If he’d had access to the support of an editor, an agency, an association or a media union, perhaps they could have recognized the signs and got him the assistance he most needed: the funds to return to Canada (or to find safety in the region), health insurance to cover acute and ongoing counselling, more extensive and appropriate safety training, and protective personal equipment.
We will never know if comprehensive institutional support and intervention could have spared Ali. What we do know is that it would certainly help those freelancers currently in the field, and those who will, sooner or later, find their way to such engaged reporting.
As the world of news media shifts toward more and more precarious journalism, how will we organize in support of freelancers’ safety? Do news consumers, governments and advocates seeking documentation and media companies who buy their works have a role to play in the health, welfare and livelihoods of the independent journalists on the front lines?
I certainly believe we do, and I applaud and join with the organizations and advocates that have taken action on this urgent issue. I invite readers here to share your thoughts and strategies.
datejie cheko green has 25 years of experience in public broadcasting, civil society, scholarly, arts and human rights sectors. She has worked in Canada, Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea on transnational projects with local and international reach. As Freelance Organizer with the Canadian Media Guild, datejie has been building supports for independent journalists, communications, technical, creative and knowledge workers toward equitable occupational health and sustenance. Find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.
This post was originally published by green on LinkedIn. Republished with permission.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit