How sensitive can a journalist be?

Why don’t the newscasters cry when they read about people who die?
At least they could be decent enough to put just a tear in their eyes.

- lyrics from “The News” by Jack Johnson

Photo by TimOve on Flickr

Journalists are often celebrated for being thick-skinned, tenacious, clever, intrepid — but, sensitive? When did you last hear praise bestowed upon a sensitive journalist?

The quotation above, charming though it may be, would probably startle viewers if it were to actually happen. Can you imagine your news anchor tearing up at every sad story? How would you react to a reporter delivering news with quivering lips?

For better or worse, reporters are generally expected to keep a professional distance from their subjects, to perform under pressure, and to keep it together despite their emotions. They may be at the scene of a devastating car crash, or they may be interviewing the victims of a natural disaster, or they may be covering a gruesome murder trial, but they have to maintain a certain level of composure in order to do their job.

I appreciate this, and I understand how quickly we would burn out if we allowed ourselves to feel the full emotional impact of every difficult situation. We remind ourselves that our first responsibility is to the public, and that they need us to stomach it and tell the story.

But all that being said, reporters are people too — and, to be honest, I feel relieved when they speak of their emotions.

I remember asking Adrian Morrow, a young reporter I met at the Toronto Star, how he got used to calling the grieving families of the deceased. It was one of the things I dreaded about the job – being “that damn reporter” on the other end of the phone as people suffered through the worst day of their life.

Adrian didn’t tell me how he got used to it, because he didn’t.

“It doesn’t get easier,” he said, his voice slow and steady. I later found a blog post he’d written on the subject - The Toughest Call a Reporter Has to Make.

Oddly enough, this made me feel better. It’s okay to have our hearts pounding in our chests. It’s possible to remain calm and focus on the other person. The Globe’s Stephanie Nolen has said of covering tragedy: “I have no right to feel shitty.”

Although I admire Nolen’s bravery, I try to imagine her crying. Maybe it’s so I’ll feel better as she brings me to tears with her work.

And a few seasoned reporters have chronicled their dark nights of the soul.

A while back, I blogged about CBC reporter Dave Seglins, who said he was left a “blubbering mess” after covering the Russell Williams trial.

“To my own surprise, and terror, I melted down, incapacitated by several bouts of anxiety, panic and uncontrollable dread that I’ve never felt before — and hope never to again,” confessed Seglins in a J-source article. His reporting showed no traces of his struggle, as he “pushed away all the horrors, and instead focused on the next deadline.”

Seglins broke down in the privacy of his home, and needed counseling in the aftermath of the assignment. He now cautions others not to “succumb to newsroom bravado” when they need help processing traumatic events.

And then there’s Liam Casey, another former colleague of mine at the Toronto Star. His latest piece, Suicide Notes, begins with this short explanation:

I contemplated killing myself five years ago. Now, to help others, I call on all journalists to break the silence on our final taboo.

Not only does Casey let us see him at his worst, he calls on our entire profession to brave the depths of human suffering and cover suicide — something we “just don’t do” under normal circumstances. I realize that this is about more than sensitivity, but Casey’s story is a testament to how much we can move people when we step out from behind the curtain.

I’ve only mentioned my emotions a few times, but to be honest the newsroom moves so quickly that sometimes I just work through it and come out the other side. I don’t allow myself to process it as often as I should, and I’m often startled when I do get choked up.  That’s why it’s useful to remember the following:

Reporters are people. They are not disembodied eyes. They  struggle with complex inner lives. And when they share this struggle, despite professional norms, it’s not necessarily a weakness.

If these reporters are any indication, it takes a lot of strength to be sensitive.

TWITTER FEEDBACK

Journalism? Are you crazy?

What do you mean watchdog? I'm obviously a parrot! (Many thanks to my dog for modeling)

I recently began my job as a teaching assistant, and I’ve already had to clarify that I’m not a madwoman.

I’ll explain momentarily, but here’s some background: I’m assisting in the UBC School of Journalism’s only undergraduate course. The subject is New Media, and the class has proven to be a magnet for students who want to figure out if this field is right for them.

One such student interjected during the most recent lecture. We were looking at the Newspaper Death Watch website quite generally, but a specific poll caught the student’s eye.

“How would you answer that question?” she said to the instructor, Candis Callison.

The question: What would you tell a college student considering a journalism career?

The options:

  1. What, are you nuts?
  2. It’s a noble profession, but be prepared for a life of poverty
  3. You can make a decent living, kid, but you’d better specialize
  4. Go for it! This is a great time to get in on the ground floor.

Candis smiled and turned to me. (I am, after all, a student who decided to get into journalism despite the terror in my grandmother’s eyes.)

“What do you think, Fabiola?”

Well, I denied being “nuts” (though I did joke about embracing my status as a child of chaos) and wrote a follow-up forum post for the class. I started by saying that there is no short answer. Instead there’s a fascinating and ongoing debate. In fact, smart and experienced people hold a wide spectrum of views.

Although this is clearly dodging the question, I’m glad a student raised it so early in the semester. We’re going to revisit it often and, as we navigate the variables, I’d wager that opinions will change several times throughout the course.

In the meantime, I mentioned one point I’ve found interesting: CBC journalist Ira Basen believes that the “crisis in journalism” is not just economic but also existential. In fact, his two-part podcast on “News 2.0.” is a great entry point into the debate.

Part One

Part Two

I encouraged them (and you!) to take a break from the books and check it out. It’s a great overview of a complex landscape.

Some friends on twitter also weighed in:

It’s too early to give away my thoughts on the matter, but clearly I was not deterred – even after attending many harrowing lectures and conferences, and reading tons of doomsday material.

Jesse Brown, for instance, started a speech for a room full of student journalists called “The Future of News.” He laughed at us as we leaned forward in our chairs and then told us the real title of his presentation, captured in the following photo:

Jesse Brown dashes dreams, but makes it damn funny.

(Spoiler alert!) Fabiola Carletti went to J-school anyway and, nearing graduation, still really wants to do this thing. She also thinks a lot of the journalists she admires are, well, just a little crazy — and she’s okay with that.

Note: Fabiola also lapses into the third person, from time to time.

Challenge yourself to be a better journalist in 2011

New Year's fireworks. Central Park, New York City. By Fabiola Carletti

Are you a journalist without any New Year’s resolutions?

Well, if you would like a back-to-basics approach this year, the good folks behind the Canadian Journalism Project (CJP) have come up with a short list of challenges that might interest you.

The list, published on J-Source.ca, is deceptively simple. As they note, it “requires perseverance, integrity and commitment year round.”  Each of the five goals is also a link to a relevant article that may serve as a source of inspiration.

In 2011…

  1. I will admit to my mistakes
  2. I will promote greater public accountability
  3. I will not plagiarize
  4. I will strive for accuracy
  5. I will defend press freedom

My  favourite article is attached to goal #4. It’s called “Teaching accuracy takes more than punishing mistakes.” Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps this sounds a bit confusing: fear is good, but also bad; mistakes are bad, but also instructive. That’s exactly the point. Teaching accuracy is a multi-faceted process. It’s complicated, and in truth it never really ends. You can’t learn accuracy the way you learn to add and subtract. It’s a process and a combination of learned behaviours, not a matter of memorization or motor memory.

And speaking of resolutions, J-Sources has committed to regularly updating their  ethics section this year, which will help guide journalists long after the New Year zeal has worn off.

Meantime, the Toronto Star’s Sarah Millar has posted her own 5-goal list. She has explained each challenge in tight little paragraphs, which I recommend you read in full on the Star’s intern blog. Here are the basic points:

1. You are what you tweet

2. I will spell check before I post

3. I will talk to real people

4. I will find something to do that’s not work

5. I will join the conversation

Maybe I secretly love the number four but Sarah’s fourth point is my favourite on her list. I’ll quote it below, but I should quickly mention that I received similar advice from the Star‘s Roger Gillespie. When I asked him to name an important quality in interns, he said:

“We want journalists who have lives,” and added that he doesn’t like seeing young people camp out at their desks. I agree with him. If all we can do is talk shop, that’s as sad as it is boring.

Sarah’s topical point:

It’s not just journalists bringing their work home with them, people in every profession are finding it hard to leave it behind. A New York Times article from last August said multitasking is causing more journalists to burn out younger than ever before. So in 2011, turn off the BlackBerry and do something outside of the office. It could be joining a sports league, or starting a class in a subject that interests you. Whatever it is, it’s three hours a week that you can make just yours. Three hours where you aren’t on your email and on call. You’ll be a better journalist if you’re refreshed.

So, even though these resolutions may seem very basic, that also means they’re realistic. (Hooray!)

If you’re a  journalist, try them out. If you’re a reader, expect no less of your journalists.

TWITTER FEEDBACK

Gay is not a synonym for stupid

Last night, a trending topic on twitter* really annoyed me.

The offending tag was #stopthatthatsgay, and people (who may or may not realize how public and permanent their tweets are) were making inane comments like:

Recently, the media has reported on a string of suicides by gay youth and youth perceived to be gay. Many of these kids were routinely mocked or beaten up at school, and these tragedies have prompted a very public conversation about ending homophobic bullying. When I saw the trending topic last night, I thought about the banality of torment.

This morning I woke up to see that my words were being re-tweeted by many other concerned twitter users:

I also received a link to a petition to stop the tag and a link to a more general awareness-raising site “Think Before You Speak” that is trying to discourage the derogatory use of phrases like “that’s so gay.”

I also saw counter-tags like #loveislouder, #itgetsbetter, and #carryonthatscute. I hope that anyone struggling with bullying sees the support, and not just the insensitivity.

And, if you really want to use the word “gay” as an adjective, at least use it correctly.

 

Adj.
1.
gay – bright and pleasant; promoting a feeling of cheer; “a cheery hello”; “a gay sunny room”; “a sunny smile”
cheerysunny
cheerful – being full of or promoting cheer; having or showing good spirits; “her cheerful nature”; “a cheerful greeting”; “a cheerful room”; “as cheerful as anyone confined to a hospital bed could be”
2.
gay – full of or showing high-spirited merriment; “when hearts were young and gay”; “a poet could not but be gay, in such a jocund company”- Wordsworth; “the jolly crowd at the reunion”; “jolly old Saint Nick”; “a jovial old gentleman”; “have a merry Christmas”; “peals of merry laughter”; “a mirthful laugh”
jocundjollyjovialmerrymirthful
joyous – full of or characterized by joy; “felt a joyous abandon”; “joyous laughter”
3.
gay – given to social pleasures often including dissipation; “led a gay Bohemian life”; “a gay old rogue with an eye for the ladies”
indulgent – characterized by or given to yielding to the wishes of someone ; “indulgent grandparents”
4.
gay – brightly colored and showy; “girls decked out in brave new dresses”; “brave banners flying”; “`braw’ is a Scottish word”; “a dress a bit too gay for her years”; “birds with gay plumage”
brawbrave
colourfulcolorful – striking in variety and interest; “a colorful period of history”; “a colorful character”; “colorful language”
5.
gay – offering fun and gaiety; “a festive (or festal) occasion”; “gay and exciting night life”; “a merry evening”
festalfestivemerry
joyous – full of or characterized by joy; “felt a joyous abandon”; “joyous laughter”
6.
gay – homosexual or arousing homosexual desires
homophilequeer
homosexual – sexually attracted to members of your own sex

 

Again, thanks to everyone who re-tweeted my response — you’ve made today much more bright and gay than yesterday! And, since I started with a little humour, I’ll end with a musical number created back when proposition 8 sought to restrict the definition of marriage in California to opposite-sex couples — a situation that got better.

(By the way, I should say that many religious groups opposed proposition 8. For instance, the California Council of Churches stated that Proposition 8 would infringe on the freedom of religion for churches who wish to bless same-sex unions.)

—————————–

*In case you don’t use twitter: trending topics (or TT) come up on the sidebar to list what people are tweeting about. Often times, these topics are preceded by a “#” (or hash tag) to make it easier to mark the phrase off as a topic of conversation.)

So, you want to work at the Toronto Star radio room?

Today I combed my hair and sat on a panel of savvy second year students at the UBC School of Journalism. Our area of expertise: summer internships.

I’m not going to lie — it was pretty wonderful to see the look of muted terror on the first year students’ faces.

I’m not a sadist, folks. Let me explain: I remember sitting in their spot last year and wondering if I should just ditch J-school and run away with the circus. And, from unscientific polling, I know that most people in my class have felt the same way at some point.

This is how I felt about internships last year. Comic credit: Natalie Dee

(It’s also worth mentioning that Kathryn Gretsinger, our awesome prof and internship coordinator, noticed that a disproportionate amount of insecurity was coming from the ladies. “Why are all these brilliant women coming into my office with all of these doubts?!” she exclaimed. So, to my female colleagues: you got this!)

Not only were all the worrywarts in my year bright and capable, they can now tell stories about the interesting and variegated positions they secured in Canada and abroad. This year’s highly capable crew will do the same.

Ok, now to the goods.

After a summer at the Toronto Star, I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two about what the folks at 1 Yonge St. look for in a radio room intern. So, without further ado, I’m going to lay out some general advice for those interested in the particular position I obtained.

My only qualifier: this is my opinion based on my personal experience. Please take it for what it’s worth.

Landing a job at the Toronto Star Radio Room

My first day at the Star. Photo stealthily snapped by Roger Gillespie (iPhone enthusiast).

  1. Read the Toronto Star in general, and the GTA section in particular. You should be aware of all the developing stories going on in the city, and be able to intelligently comment on the most prominent issues of the day. Don’t be afraid of the print edition. I’m sure they’ll find it heartening to hear about you literally flipping through their paper.
  2. Understand the particulars of the job. I’ve written about it tons — just search “radio room” on this blog — and so has the guy that gives you the job, Roger Gillespie. His description of the position and the latest round of hires here.
  3. Keep your finger on the pulse of the radio room. Follow their tweets on twitter (@starradiobox) and read the intern blog. Be able to pick out radio roomers that shine, and (if true) explain how your style resembles theirs. Also tell them about something new you can offer. Maybe a story was blowing up in the blogosphere far before the Star caught on and you would have been an early warning system.
  4. Read up on and respect the Atkinson principles. The Star’s commitment to social justice, and the money they put into investigative work, is rooted in a set of principles named after the Star’s first publisher, Joseph Atkinson. In short: “a progressive newspaper should contribute to the advancement of society through pursuit of social, economic and political reforms.” He was particularly concerned about injustice, be it social, economic, political, legal or racial.
  5. Acknowledge the uniqueness of the internship. The fact that the Star actually pays and nurtures its interns is not something to take for granted. Radio roomers participate in a series of workshops, start with shadow shifts under the watch of veteran interns and editors, receive information packages — like the famous box bible — and are encouraged to be as prepared as possible for a completely unpredictable job. Interns are also referred to as “Staff Reporters” in their bylines, but with great honour comes great responsibility. No hiding behind qualifiers like “student” this time.
  6. Highlight moments in which the Star did great work and also offer constructive criticism. This shows that you didn’t start reading the paper the day before your interview. Reference good coverage that dates back a few months (ex: the G20 live blog) or any of the Star’s more recent awards. You should also politely point out a few areas in which you think the Star could improve.
  7. Know and mention good bylines you follow. I mentioned Rob Cribb’s investigative pieces, Chris Hume’s incisive opinion pieces, and Cathal Kelly’s humour writing, but I also mentioned the work of other young interns doing great work (Jesse McLean, Madeleine White and Jennifer Yang, for instance). Yes, this means reading and reading and reading. You should know how the Star did on a few major stories and perhaps compare it to how the other major papers covered the same issues.
  8. Be genuine. You know the Star often looks at uncomfortable topics (Do the police profile people of colour? Are seniors being well treated in nursing homes? How do young women express their feminism today?) So, figure out what you think of the Star’s slant and be self-reflexive about your role in all this. Why do you really want to write for this paper? If you believe in what it does, that’ll come through. If you don’t, that will too.
  9. Dress to impress. Some people showed up on the first day of the job in t-shirts and jeans, while others wore suit jackets and collared shirts. In the words of my Prof. Joe Cutbirth, how you dress may be the difference between seeming like some kid who’s just doing a gig and an ambitious young professional. Look the part you want to play, not just for the interview but for every day you arrive at work.
  10. Once in, make it count! Getting the job is just the beginning. You should really begin with the end in mind, imagining what it will take to have editors notice you and keep their eye on you even after your internship is over. Good luck, young ninjas. The fact that you read through this whole post and are actively seeking advice is a very good sign. When anxiety strikes, remember the motto from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic! 

Doing journalism the June Callwood way

Naming of June Callwood Way. June pulls the cord to unveil the sign. CREDIT: Ron Bull Toronto Star

Janet Malcolm was wrong.

In a famously cynical quotation, she decries journalists as people who prey on the vanity, loneliness or ignorance of others, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Every journalist knows this, she asserted, provided they aren’t too stupid or full of themselves to notice what is going on.

And although Malcolm is herself a reporter, she calls the profession ” morally indefensible” in her 1990 book The Journalist and the Murder.

Enter June Callwood: a decidedly empathetic and socially active journalist who lived her philosophy of kindness until her last days.

This was a woman who actually did all the things that sometimes sound contrived and trite in ethics classes: writing to change the world, speaking up for the vulnerable, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

She was interesting and humble, refusing performance makeup in her CBC television days, learning how to fly a plane as a side project, founding charitable and change-oriented organizations, bringing compassion to her work.

She was a professional human being.

I’m not saying Malcolm isn’t talented and insightful. I devoured her book with great interest last summer and often felt convinced by her severe depiction of journalism.

Neither am I saying Callwood is the only exception.

The point, I think, is that there comes a time when a young journalist must ask herself what she really wants to achieve in this often amorphous profession and what kind of an agent she imagines herself to be.

Personally, I think it’s far more rewarding to follow the June Callwood way.

Instead of the negative navel-gazing, why not focus on how to practice solutions-focused journalism? Malcolm’s book is about the damage a writer can do … but what about the difference a writer can make?

I leave you with a more positive quotation that Callwood spoke while receiving the Writers’ Trust Award for Distinguished Contribution in the last year of her life:

If any of you happens to see an injustice, you are no longer a spectator. You are a participant. And you have an obligation to do something.

June in her own words
The last interview of her life

People like me: reporting on “at risk” youth

The Humber River, where the boy was found. Photo by Gary J. Wood

My throat felt dry when I first heard about the teenage boy who had been found dead in the Humber River.

The proximity was startling. My family lives only minutes from the river. And, as I soon discovered, the boy had gone to the same high school that my sister now attends. He later transfered to my cousin’s school.

Reporting on the story was difficult. It literally hit home.

I was about 14-years-old when I moved to Rexdale. Although I was scared of the neighbourhood at first, I have come to appreciate it — despite its stigma as a troubled community rife with crime and despite some of my own encounters with its grittier side.

The terrible things that have happened in the area do not define it as a community.

Now, this 17-year-old boy has been shot and pushed into waters I know well.

My inner skeptic reminds me of how much I hated the way these stories were covered in the media before I, too, was part of the media. He’s young and he’s black and he’s from Rexdale. Let’s just say I was doubtful that he’d get the attention Jane Creba did.

This, too, is a tragedy.

No one should be attending a funeral for such a young kid. No boys should be on trial for killing their peer. As one of the boy’s classmates said, “No one knows what happened. People shouldn’t assume.”

It’s true. We don’t know what happened. The Sun has reported that the suspects were best friends with the victim, and an unnamed witness said they were all playing ball the last time he saw them. Everything seemed fine.

At the end of the day, it’s just heart-breaking.

In a post called ‘Rexdale, the beautiful‘ I wrote: …every time a story of hope is dropped in favour of yet another fear-inducing slogan; every time a young person is looked upon with tenuous suspicion; every time moral crusaders cheer when society gives up on a young offender. . . Rexdale endures another shot to its ever pulsating heart.”

I had to negotiate all these thoughts when assigned the task of covering homicide number 33 for the paper. One of my editors searched my eyes and said, “Are you emotionally attached to this story?” I think it’s more accurate to say I am invested in this all-too familiar narrative. When I wrote about it for the Toronto Star, I tried to avoid the frame of fear and blame. This is how I ended my article:

Although the investigation is ongoing, his friends hope the public won’t pigeonhole the teen.

“Don’t stereotype him as just another kid from Rexdale that got gunned down,” said Broglio.

Diana Alves, Dowden’s classmate from Michael Power, agreed.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover, just like you can’t judge a child by where he comes from,” she said

I asked these kids to reach out and trust some unknown reporter to tell me about their friend. They said he had an infectious laugh, and that he was someone you could really talk to. He leaves behind families in two homes, including a number of siblings.

He would have been entering his last year of high school had he not died this summer.

(As you may have noticed, I haven’t mentioned the slain teen’s name in this post. This is because he may be the victim of other teens, who cannot be identified under the Young Offenders Act, and I’m uncertain about this point of law. One of my editors told me we can continue to name the victim but some television news organizations have stopped. Just a reminder, though: the three teens who have been charged with first degree murder have not been convicted. And as the Toronto Sun is reporting, they have their own stories.)

I leave you with a beautiful song by one of Rexdale’s own, and the song for which I named this post.

Heaven, is there a chance that you could come down
And open doors to hurting people like me?
People like me, people like me
People like me, people like me