Lessons from a j-student: 'We, as journalists, are all in this together'
By Katie Starr
As j-school students we know our future jobs as journalists carry risks, both physical and emotional. And in the first six months of the program here at Western University, I’ve learned you don’t need to travel halfway across the world to experience the risks that come along with being a journalist.
Earlier this monthI was lucky enough to attend a "Journalists at Risk" workshop at Western, organized by Cliff Lonsdale and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma and sponsored by the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS).
The workshop is an annual event for Western’s j-school students. This year’s panel featured Joe Belanger from The London Free Press; Karen Pierre, a trauma specialist from the London Health Sciences Centre; Rick MacInnes-Rae, World Affairs correspondent for CBC News; and Colin Perkel from the Canadian Press.
These intelligent and well-spoken panelists shared their experiences as well as advice for future journalists. The morning session focused on physical risks, and Cliff Lonsdale led us through some startling and sobering facts.
So far this year, 121 journalists and media workers have been killed. This number also includes deaths that happen while rushing to the scene, a danger I never really considered before the workshop. I find it so easy to get swept up in the excitement of breaking the story before anyone else. Social media tools, such as Twitter, have made sharing news faster than ever, but it's also creating a climate of dangerous risk-taking for journalists who want to be the first on the scene.
The panelists then discussed what they termed the “more banal” concerns for journalists: where will you get water and food? What will you wear?
The panelists had helpful and practical suggestions, ranging from wearing non-synthetic materials (nothing inflammatory in case of Molotov cocktails) to wearing a bike helmet because it offers head protection and is unobtrusive in a crowd. Carrying a bandana soaked in vinegar can help if you are pepper-sprayed, and Colin Perkel had my favourite bit of advice: “You can’t work if you can’t run.” Comfortable footwear seems like a given for journalists, but I know I’m definitely guilty of heading out to cover stories in a flimsy pair of ballet flats!
On covering civil unrest, Lonsdale reminded us that as journalists, we are observers and not participants. This can be easy to remember in the classroom but an altogether harder thing to hold onto when swept up in a crowd where a million different things are happening simultaneously.
The final morning panel focused on the unique risks female journalists face. The majority of attacks on female journalists take place in hotels, according to a video interview with Judith Matloff, a professor of journalism at Columbia University. We were cautioned not to ask for hotel room keys in front of people, not to get in an elevator with strange men, and to request a room on an upper-level floor without a terrace or balcony.
Colin Perkel, who has done three stints reporting in Afghanistan, suggested female journalists are able to get stories that males cannot. “You can get access into other worlds where men are not allowed in,” he said, recounting a story where the male translator had to sit on the roof and listen in to the conversation between a female journalist and two Afghan women.
Before breaking for lunch, the panelists briefly discussed digital security. Cyber protection is a newer one for journalists to worry about, but incredibly important. They suggested buying a cheap disposable phone in the country where you’re reporting instead of risking someone stealing your smartphone and getting access to everything you have on it—contacts, itineraries, numbers, stories, photographs, and more.
What really struck me about the morning session was how plugged in everyone on the panel was to the state of journalism right now. We know our field is going through a lot of changes, and this workshop addressed those changes in an approachable and realistic manner. Lonsdale and the panelists weren’t there to humour us or talk down to us, but to educate us and engage us in a conversation on the realities of journalism.
Lunch was a further opportunity to chat with the panelists in a more relaxed setting, and I was able to talk to Rick MacInnes-Rae about his experiences reporting in Chechnya, a region of the world in which I’m particularly interested.
After lunch, we heard about the emotional risks of journalism. This was a very moving session. We heard horrific stories of loss, pain, and coping. I felt honoured to be listening to the panelists share painful and intimate moments they have struggled with through their careers. We learned in the morning session that physical risks are not limited to conflict zones in far-away lands, and the afternoon session revealed the same truth about emotional trauma.
As the workshop wrapped up, I reflected on everything I had learned. I walked away with a much more realistic vision of journalism, but this didn’t make me feel terrified or depressed. Rather, I felt invigorated and inspired by the atmosphere of sharing and the mentality fostered by Lonsdale and the panelists that we, as journalists, are all in this together.