Data privacy: Why should we care?

News that the U.S government has been quietly collecting data from telephone and internet services has upset many of our neighbours to the south.

But the story’s been raising privacy concerns up here, too.

Many Canadians want to know about this country’s surveillance techniques and what kind of information Ottawa might be collecting as we make calls, answer emails, or sign into websites.

This week on CBC Live Online, we explored privacy and data surveillance — and I made my on-camera debut to fill in for regular host Lauren O’Neil.

Our panel included:

  • Daphne Guerrero, the manager of public outreach and education for the Officer of the Privacy Commissioner.
  • Tamir Israel, staff lawyer with the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa.
  • Alfred Hermida, an online news pioneer and associate professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.


Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 12.10.12 AM


Time to pay attention to what’s happening in El Salvador

Posing by La Puerta del Diablo in El Salvador. January 2012. (Photo by Beatrice Carletti)

Posing by La Puerta del Diablo in El Salvador. January 2012. (Photo by Beatrice Carletti)

One of my resolutions this year is to learn more about my birthplace and cultural homeland: El Salvador.

I can already tell you that 2013 was the right year to commit.

This is an election year, there’s a remarkable truce happening between rival gangs, it’s been 25 years since my uncle became a national hero … and, oh yeah, my little country is locked in an extremely high-stakes legal battle with a Canadian mining company that could bankrupt the government in one not-so-unlikely scenario.

On that last point: El Salvador wants to become the only country in the world to completely forbid mining. Needless to say, Pacific Rim is not prepared to let them do that.

Listen, and learn more: Pacific Rim Mining Corp vs. the government of El Salvador

Missing David Rakoff

David Rakoff reads before a crowd in 2008. (CC by Pop!Tech)

This past August, we lost David Rakoff — a gifted humorist and storyteller who has been affectionately described as a pointed pessimist and Gen X’s Oscar Wilde.

Like many other fans, I was introduced to David’s work through the hit podcast This American Life and have since put his many books on my to-read list.

His wry humour and keen observational skills, paired with his distinctive voice, helped make TAL the beloved podcast that it is.

(And — lest I go on too long without mentioning it — he’s Canadian.)

David’s first cancer was discovered when he was in his early 20s — and he was only 47 when he died of sarcoma. It’s a terrible thing, and a damned shame.

I’m thinking about him tonight because I recently re-listened to Our Friend David, a TAL episode entirely dedicated to his writing. I feel compelled to share a particularly beautiful excerpt from his autobiographical piece on realizing he liked men.

(I highly recommend listening to it in its original context, though.)

Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that you’re being visited by your own future?

They come so rarely and with so little fanfare, those moments. They’re not particularly photogenic.  There’s no breach in the clouds to reveal the shining city on a hill. No folk dancing children outside your bus. No production values to speak of.

Just a glimpse of such quotidian incontrovertible truth that — after the initial shock of the supreme weirdness of it all — a kind of calm sets in.

“So, this is to be my life.”

Thank you, David, wherever you are. We are worse for all the things we didn’t get to hear you say.

Listen to Our Friend David here.

Notes on Freedman’s Letters to a Young Journalist

Samuel G. Freedman is an American author, journalist and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Samuel G. Freedman’s sage if sentimental book Letters to a Young Journalist is a meditation on what it takes and what it means to be a journalist.

His intention is not to provide the “specific, situational guidance” of a gifted editor, but rather to discuss the habits of mind, the work ethic and the moral ethos necessary for journalistic excellence.

Those looking for a practical how-to guide should look elsewhere. As suggested by the title, the book reads like a series of letters from an old hand to an eager rookie. (Think Sophie’s World for cub reporters.)

Freedman states his intentions early on:

“I want you to believe, as I believe, that you have chosen a profession of consequence and value, a profession that requires no apology, a profession that can make you happy.”

A return to journalism as ‘honest broker’

Make no mistake, Freedman is deeply nostalgic and unwavering in his belief that tradition is a crucial teacher. He is, after all, a product of long-standing institutions like the New York Times and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

He defines journalism as “an honest broker of information” that has been “assiduously reported, verified for accuracy, and written without bias or partisanship” – a definition that emerged over the past century to dislocate its deeply partisan precursors.

“It was a radical step for journalists of the early 1900s to actually conceive of their work as a public service, untainted by personal belief, rather than an act of advocacy,” he writes.

Those who puzzle at journalism pre-Twitter may find Freedman’s anecdotes impossibly quaint, but to dismiss them is to refuse to look in the rearview mirror. (And, yes, objects are closer than they appear.)

He argues that we are witnessing a high-tech resurgence of a cynical, venal journalism that reverberates through “ideological echo chambers,” catering to those who would like to confirm what they already believe, and little else.

Sometimes he names names, blasting Fox News Channel as “a political movement masquerading as a news organization” and defends the fairness doctrine, however limited, as a superior standard to those that have replaced it.

“Journalism must do more than pander to prejudices,” he writes, adding that journalists cannot hope to reverse the trend toward disparagement and distrust of the media without renewing their commitment to excellence and public service.

Gone are the days that journalists, like Woodward and Bernstein, were widely regarded as heroes and news anchors, like Walter Cronkite, were trusted and respected. But the silver lining may be found in those that a battered profession now attracts.

“One thing you can say about the present unpopularity of journalism is that it drives out all the uncommitted,” Freedman points out, adding, “intellectual curiosity, vigorous research, acute analysis, and elegant prose will never go out of style.”

In defense of idealism

The unselfconscious sincerity of this book will not be palatable to everyone. Freedman admits he is not afraid to hold himself to a moral standard, or to sound naïve or sentimental.

He reassures fledgling reporters that their idealism and the clichéd desire to make the world a better place should not be so easily dismissed.

“[A]nyone who doesn’t enter journalism believing it is a moral enterprise might as well move straight on to speculating in foreign currency or manufacturing Agent Orange. There will be disappointments enough over the course of your career; your initial idealism must be a pilot light, flickering at times but never extinguished.”

Perhaps one of the most useful functions of the book is to point to common challenges and the reactions that quixotic young journalists, specifically, are likely to grapple with.

“Guilt is the sign of an active conscience. Undifferentiated compassion is a place to begin,” he says of navigating a world of issues that are knotty, gnarled and not so easily parsed.

“[The] most compelling journalism rarely takes the form of chronicling the battle between good and evil … The trickier and more valuable task is to illuminate the collision between good and good, or at least between competing versions and visions of what is good policy, a good community, a good citizen.”

Freedman encourages cub reporters to retain their humanity, to accept the burden of independent thought, to be wary of loyalty oaths and to realize that mistakes are rites of passage.

“To be witness, observer, and storyteller . . . is to reject the easy comforts of conventional wisdom and popular dogma. It is to welcome the dissonance of human events and to render that dissonance with coherence and style.”

He acknowledges that putting one’s readers, listeners and viewers first is not always easy, for instance when a community claims you as its own and/or expects you to further their interests.

“Many people will confuse an open ear with the promise of friendship, and some journalists, to their discredit, will encourage the misapprehension. The relationship between journalist and source, with both seeking some advantage from the other, is filled with ambiguity,” he says, blasting Janet Malcolm’s famous indictment of her fellow journalists.

(Although I quite enjoyed Malcolm’s book The Journalist and The Murderer, I agree that she was wrong — or at least not entirely right.)

Lessons learned the hard way

Freedman says he hinges his credibility on his failures more so than on his successes.

His cautionary tales and pointers get more specific as the book progresses. For instance: You should rarely use unnamed sources; don’t get addicted to approval; you will get “less stupid” over time; your first job won’t be the place you spend your life; read books as an apprentice, not a spectator; before you start an article, finish the sentence, “the heart of the matter is …”

He also stresses that preparing to be a journalist means preparing to be so much more, and questions the value of a standalone journalism education.

“I despair over every journalism class I took that could have been a class in political science or English literature or virtually anything else,” he admits. “All too few journalism programs, especially at the undergraduate level, strive to build your cultural and historical literacy and to imbue you with intellectual curiosity.”

This romantic regret was a theme throughout the book. Freedman – unlike the hard-nosed, strictly pragmatic editors of comic book newsrooms – encourages young journalists to do much more than read newspapers and pound pavement.

He argues that young people should also develop cultural literacy and an appreciation for the aesthetic experiences; seeking idols and inspiration in literature, film, jazz and “every great art.”

One subchapter that struck me, particularly because I see so many of my peers beating themselves up for struggling after graduation, was In Praise of Gradualism.

In it, Freedman argues that the important thing (especially in your twenties) is to develop your day-to-day skills – even if that means starting out in a smaller market.

“I can say that I have never seen a truly gifted young journalist go unrecognized. Maybe in the short run but never over time. There just isn’t that much excellence loose in the world that news executives can afford to ignore it.”

The P word we usually extol is passion, but Freedman says the key is patience. When you have the chance to work, whittle away your inexperience by honing your craft. And remember that the shine doesn’t last.

“Journalism is a business of proving yourself anew every single story, every single day.”

My overall thoughts about the book

The book isn’t perfectly packaged. For instance, its subtitle – The Art of Mentoring – is unsuitable, even misleading. And sometimes the chapter names and subsections seem arbitrary, as Freedman peppers similar points throughout the book and forces in some passages that probably could have been shortened or cut out entirely.

Buy this can all be forgiven if you think of this text as a correspondence – affectionately written –and of Freedman as a man of letters.

I quite enjoyed many of his literary references. I loved the introduction to his chapter on reporting, which compared two main characters in Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman to reporting and writing.

“Valentin is the part of every journalist that wants to be a social reformer, and Molina is the part that longs to be an artist.”

But as much as I liked the metaphor, I can see how others might lose patience with such meandering passages. What is lateral thinking to some may seem pointless detours to others.

And though I was generally absorbed, there were times I doubted our tastes were aligned. For instance, in his chapter On Writing he recommended a “brilliant” description of an explosion from The Temple Bombing (page 121 of Freedman’s text) that I found far too verbose and image-saturated.

Still, despite these criticisms I walk away with positive feelings about this book. I enjoyed it, and I found myself feeling affection for Mr. Freedman, who is so earnest it’s hard not to like him.

I’d especially recommend it to journalists with artistic ambitions, and to those who appreciate not only the lasting relevance but also the dissimilarity of their elder’s experience. (Those who would visit a seasoned writer for a cup of coffee, and not mind if that cup became several.)

Finding meaning in the worldview of another person, especially those of other backgrounds and generations, is one of the cardinal skills of journalism – and there are enough kernels of wisdom in this relatively short text to make it plenty worth your while.


Have you read this book? What did you think? If you’re a fellow bookworm, look for me on (Username: FabReads)

The magic of Mars on social media

Hello friends, sorry I’ve been rather silent lately. The summer is a busy time for young writers at It seems all the folks with families make sure they get their summer vacations, and we newbies get to chill our coffee and warm their seats.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit bleary-eyed at work today. You see, I stayed up late last night doing this.

Luckily, my fascination with all things martian ended up helping me at work, where I rounded up some stellar social media content about the highly anticipated Mars landing — which I’d like to share here, as well.

These two aren’t my most popular Storify curations of all time (this one about the Higgs boson particle, in Comic Sans font, probably is) but I’m so enamored with my latest geeky topic that I want to post about it as many times as I can get away with in one day.

Hope you enjoy, fellow space cadets! Click on either preview to read the full story:

6 Father’s Day gifts for unconventional dads

If your father — or papi, baba, tatay, pai, abba — doesn’t really wear ties, hates fishing, and couldn’t care less about “the game” (whatever the sport may be), he’s not alone.

Here’s a roundup of Father’s Day ideas for a different kind of dad.

NOTE: For some reason, WordPress is not letting me embed my Storify, so please click here or on the image above to see the full list. Many apologies for the extra step!

What is journalism? An overview for the uninitiated

This post was written for my 16-year-old cousin Lola, who recently told me that she wants to be a journalist.

So, let’s start by making sure she knows what she’s getting into, shall we?

Town-crier announcing the latest news on the island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, 1938.

Throughout time and across societies, human beings have had a basic need for knowledge beyond their own experiences.

Long before the internet, the newspaper and the 6 o’clock news, certain community members dedicated themselves to gathering and sharing information about the events and issues of the day. (Think: messengers, town criers, minstrels or coffee house nouvellistes.)

And for the past few decades, the term “journalist” has referred to a person — usually a man, often without formal qualifications —who earns a living by writing for a newspaper or periodical. This educational video from the 1940s sums it up well.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many journalists began to think of their craft as a profession, with writers and editors forming organizations, and university departments offering formal education in journalism.

Journalists also identified with a particular medium. The Oxford English Dictionary still offers a platform-centric definition of journalism, describing it as “the activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines or of broadcasting news on radio or television.”  (No mention of and/ors and the internet!)

Journalists’ identities have traditionally been tied to their newsrooms — or their respective “fortresses” as the BBC’s Peter Horrocks would say. Their daily task was simple: “to battle journalists from other fortresses.” (Think: scooping the competition on a hot story, scoring a high-profile interview, or being able to say “you heard it here first” after big news breaks.)

So, what has changed?

If we fast-forward to the state of the news media today,  we find that journalism as our parents and grandparents knew it has morphed into something very different.

Understanding journalism is now a much more complicated task,  as platforms converge and media-making tools become more widely available to the general public.

Long-established patterns of news production and consumption are being challenged by several forces, including:

  • Improvements in mobile and networking technology.
  • The digitization of content.
  • The convergence of platforms.
  • The reorganization of social relationships (from top-down to networked)
  • Changes in business models and structures of ownership.
  • The rise of participatory or citizen journalism.

Mainstream news organizations can no longer count on the control that comes with the scarcity of printing presses, airwaves and broadcast licenses, nor can they bank on the stable flow of advertising dollars, nor are they guaranteed the steadfast attention of increasingly disloyal audiences.

And so, as the media landscape changes, some thinkers have preferred to focus on journalism’s function above its form or platform. Here are a few useful definitions:

  • Veteran journalists and authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that we need news “to live our lives, to protect ourselves, bond with each other, identify friends and enemies. Journalism is simply the system societies generate to supply this news”.
  • Michael Schudson, an award-winning historian of journalism, defines it as “the business and practice of producing and disseminating information about contemporary affairs of general public interest and importance.”
  • Similarly, influential communications theorist James Carey noted that “news is a historic reality,” or an invented cultural form that both comprises and reflects a particular “hunger for experience” that has tended to be historically grounded in the “changing style and fortunes of the middle class”.
  • Sociology professor Gaye Tuchman says that a news report is a story, which is not to say that it is fictitious, but rather to remind us that news is a “constructed reality with its own internal validity”.

Journalism has been called a craft, a field, a job, a business, an art form … and a few less pleasant things I’m sure. Indeed, it is all of these things for different people, and thus an object of debate in and of itself.

Where are we heading?

As this shift occurs, it is no longer enough to identify journalists by employer or platform alone. Few rookie reporters expect to work for one employer their whole lives, and many are developing a personal brand instead of depending on their newsroom’s reputation.

Many journalists can now write print stories, and make videos, and live-tweet the news as it happens, etc.

My 16-year-old cousin Lola — the future face of journalism?

They sort of had to up the ante, as new players are increasingly getting involved in the stages of news production long controlled by trained professionals – whether they are bloggers challenging the established 24-hour news cycle to put “old news” back on the agenda , or citizens committing “acts of journalism” before the mainstream media can get there.

Horrocks notes that the fortresses are crumbling, and “courtly jousts with fellow journalists are no longer impressing the crowds.”

I wrote my thesis on this, and let me tell you: the recent literature is a sea of ideas to re-think, re-vamp, re-position, re-envision, and re-structure the definition of journalism.

Outside pressures are now forcing conversations that have not been popular for years — but some argue that this period of reflection may also be an opportunity. Schudson notes that journalism’s public nature and vulnerability is precisely what keeps it alive, changing and growing.

Perhaps by necessity, more reporters are taking the time to think about what defines their work, and why it matters.

As internet visionary Clay Shirky writes:

“Because social effects lag behind technological ones by decades, real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B – Rather, they go from A through a long period of chaos and only then reach B. In that chaotic period, the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable.”

So that, Lola, is a brief overview of this crazy thing called journalism. If you’re still interested, plug in your headphones and let CBC’s Ira Basen explain why your parents are much more surprised by all of this than you are.

Part One

Part Two

And when you’re done with all that, check out this blog I built for young people looking for practical advice: So, you want to be a journalist?

It features the advice from some of Canada’s most promising young reporters who call tell you all about the dilemmas, pains and absolute joys of these new circumstances.

Related posts from the Fab Files: