Experts on everything from epidemiology to their own neighbourhoods are needed in public discourse more than ever. Here’s why media and subject matter specialists should work together

While telling complex stories comprehensively and accessibly is a common goal across much media, demand for specialized, explanatory journalism in Canada has shot up during the pandemic. Academics with previously rarefied public health expertise were thrust into the spotlight as people grasped — and continue to grasp — for an understanding of everything from spike proteins to vaccine efficacy and coronavirus variants.  

At the same time, sources say Canadian journalism seems more dependent on traditional medical and scientific expertise than ever, a racial reckoning and the need to understand the layered impacts of the pandemic on Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities also highlighted Canadian journalism’s lack of diversity and major blind spots when it comes to community expertise.

Publications and programs across the country are trying to address these gaps by training people outside of the industry to publish journalism that goes beyond daily coverage. These models offer a potential roadmap for finding crucial stories that might otherwise go untold. They could also show how to respond to crises with specialized knowledge and a renewed focus on humanizing data at a time when sources say the industry has been training journalists to be generalists while losing beat reporters.

In spring 2020, Poynter senior scholar Roy Peter Clark argued that we were entering a  “potential golden age for explanatory journalism” during the pandemic, in part because of its tenets of “civic clarity” and mission to take responsibility for what audiences understand. “It is not being practiced just by journalists. Other experts from science, business and government have joined the fray.”

Heidi Tworek, associate professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia is the lead author of a 2021 report about Canadian explanatory journalism. She says the work to support academics creating journalism may take time, but it can “bring new voices into the room, (offer) greater diversity of perspectives, (and) turn up unusual people.” This is especially true, Tworek says, for many researchers who might not think their work is interesting enough to be presented for a wider audience and may need editorial support.

“Part of it is the issue of time for journalists, because you would either have to find someone or you’d have to work a little bit more intensively with them. But we’ve sometimes seen that these pieces generate huge amounts of traffic.” She says, for example, the article cited in her team’s report about the time in a presidential debate when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head and the symbolic history of flies in Western art garnered more than 1.24 million views. “So that’s, I think, a bit of a push for journalists to realize some pieces of explanatory journalism can actually be incredibly impactful and popular.” 

“As the public wanted to learn more, we had academics who wanted to share their knowledge more.”

Publications like The Conversation Canada, where academics serve as reporters, might be well suited for this burgeoning era. With seven other editions across the world, the non-profit outlet launched in Canada in 2017. Authors must be university-affiliated researchers, academics or PhD candidates, and their articles may be freely republished with credit under Creative Commons licensing.  

According to CEO Scott White, The Conversation Canada saw an 87 per cent increase in readership during the spring of 2020 (a spike he says is on par with their other global editions). White says the number of pitches the outlet received also increased by 103  per cent from 2019 to 2020, a jump that is especially apparent when comparing spring 2019’s 273 pitches to spring 2020’s 783 (a 187 per cent increase.)

“As the public wanted to learn more, we had academics who wanted to share their knowledge more. It was quite amazing and a little bit overwhelming for our staff,” he says of the onset of the pandemic. “I think there was a real quest for reliable information.” 

Part of The Conversation’s funding comes from their post-secondary partners, which pay membership fees and receive benefits including workshops for their academics. White says these workshops introduce academics to writing for non-academic audiences and primarily focus on discussing and formalizing ideas for pitches. 

In almost all of the over 125 sessions they’ve had since 2017, White says there’s been an academic who realizes their work could be published as journalism. 

Another program trying to fill the specialization gap is the Fellowship in Global Journalism, which launched in 2012 and is designed to teach subject-matter specialists how to cover their area of expertise as beat reporters for media around the world. 

The fellowship is a eight-month certificate program which is now at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Starting with a five-week intensive bootcamp, fellows have story meetings and classes every  week, and mentors prepare them to find and pitch stories to the program’s 16 global media partners (primarily in the United States and Canada.)  

Before the pandemic, fellowship director and assistant professor Robert Steiner says that one third of the fellows’ pitches might get picked up. For the last few years, he says, that number increased to more than half, as there seems to be “a lot more appetite” from editors for these specialized stories during the pandemic, one of the more recent developments in a decade-long trend of editors becoming more comfortable “and in many cases more hungry,” says Steiner, for subject matter specialists as contributing reporters, not just opinion writers.  

The program might also fill the gaps left behind as the journalism industry loses beat reporters. Over the past decade, Steiner says media companies, save for maybe the largest publications, have laid off beat reporters because they’ve been around the longest, are the “most expensive” and therefore are the most likely to be let go. Or, Steiner says, beat reporters might be more likely to take a package offer buyout because they have the experience, industry connections and name recognition that could get them jobs elsewhere. 

“(The sector as a whole has) turned beat reporters into general assignment people … and lost a lot of specialized reporters,” he says. “And yet what’s been happening at the same time is that the audience’s needs for specialized coverage of complex issues — (even) way before COVID-19 — has really gotten much deeper.” 

This gap is highlighted every time there’s a crisis, Steiner says, like the 2008 financial crisis, when media suddenly needed reporters with specialized knowledge of economics, housing markets and finance, only to “turn to the newsroom and realize, ‘we’ve laid off half of those people.’”  

Steiner also says that attitudes around reporting on areas where a writer has lived experience are shifting. 

“We created this firm wall: ‘you’re either a journalist or you’re not. And if you’re a journalist, you’re not allowed to be anything else in your life,’ which is unrealistic,” he says, unless companies can afford to pay for lifelong salaries and pensions, as well as “pay the price for not hiring anyone who comes in with knowledge of the field.” 

Steiner adds that at the fellowship, they actively manage potential conflicts of interest on a story-by-story basis, which he says leads to better coverage. He says they disclose any conflicts to editors and readers and adds that “usually, by the time we even speak to the editor we’ve dropped whatever story ideas there were that would have presented a conflict, or … put them off to other people.” (At The Conversation Canada, articles include a “disclosure statement” under the author’s byline with information on relevant funding sources and affiliations. 

 “We’ve said, ‘OK, we recognize that you’re involved in this issue, you know this issue, you’re connected to this issue. We’re not going to ban you from covering it because you’re involved in it. In fact, quite the opposite. You’re involved in it so you know more.’” 

Filling knowledge gaps ‘where the most important stories are happening’

The Local is an independent Toronto-based health magazine that has been reporting on the social determinants of health since the publication’s launch in 2017. 

Senior editor Nicholas Hune-Brown says the nature of the publication’s work means that its four-person editorial team is constantly creating data maps to analyze and visualize complex data like vaccination to diabetes rates by neighbourhood. As “certain pockets of the city kept lighting up,” it seemed to show a need for a different type of journalism fellowship.

Hune-Brown says the patterns that emerged in those maps highlighted which communities and neighbourhoods were most affected by the pandemic. At the same time, he says, there was a “parallel conversation” going on about Canadian journalism’s overwhelming whiteness and, “essentially, a lack of journalists from the specific communities where the most important stories are going on.” 

As a publication they were able to cover stories from communities that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise

So the team started The Local Journalism Fellowship, with the aim to provide “training and mentorship to aspiring and emerging journalists” from racially and geographically underrepresented communities.

The fellowship was distinct in that it was explicitly open to people without formal journalism training. Hune-Brown says the two four-person cohorts in 2020 and 2021 varied from people with no previous journalistic background, to freelancers and people with only university experience: “people who can tell different stories than we might if we just go with the usual group of Canadian writers.

“I know that from the outside, sometimes this industry looks very opaque and mystifying. Particularly if you don’t have much experience, it can be hard to figure out how it works and how to get your way in,” he says. “That’s part of what hopefully this experience does — demystifies some of that.”

Initially started as a pandemic one-off, Hune-Brown says the fellowship went so well that it’s become a staple for their publication, and the fellows’ new perspectives improved The Local. He says as a publication they were able to cover stories from communities that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, like one about the Tamil Press (a story which he says affects a huge group of Torontonians that the reporting fellow knew and understood because she read those papers.)

Or there was a photographer who grew up in a Jane and Finch-area apartment building where a vaccine rollout was taking place, and “could pop over and take those photos and do those interviews in a way that would have been harder for someone to parachute in and do.” 

“It was pretty clear in the pandemic when daily newspapers were sending their usual reporters … that level of storytelling you’re getting wasn’t particularly deep. I think what we were trying to do was combat that,” he says, adding that he’s since seen outlets establishing more of a presence in areas where these crucial stories were happening in the province, like the Peel region, which includes Brampton.

Hune-Brown also says the challenge to running the fellowship is not finding suitable candidates — it’s finding funding to both pay their fellows fairly and host seminars that give them the kind of educational experience that goes beyond coffee runs. 

Tworek’s research also details several pitfalls in the current Canadian explanatory journalism landscape — practices like academic tenure incentives that prioritize publishing in peer-reviewed journals, link taxes that require platforms like Google and Facebook to pay for news but may leave small publications without bargaining power in negotiations with big tech and targeted online harassment that may dissuade researchers from sharing their knowledge in the public sphere. 

But Tworek says making explanatory work widely available and easily digestible is beneficial for a multitude of reasons, including making research on crucial issues like climate change and the pandemic quickly accessible for policy makers.

“If we believe in using taxpayer dollars to create academics, then I think most of us would be quite pleased to have their research presented in ways that are easily digestible to the vast majority of Canadians.”

There’s also the idea that academic writing is often inaccessible, either because of its use of dense and complex language or more directly because of scholarly journals’ paywalls. And, as Tworek and her team’s report points out, the very research that’s unavailable to the public is often funded by public money (which raises further complications when and if explanatory journalism is published behind a newspapers’ paywalls). 

But especially with the use of Creative Commons licensing that allows for free republication of academics’ work, Tworek says explanatory journalism can disseminate a researcher’s sometimes decades-worth of academic knowledge “in a way that’s accessible to a wide public.”

“And if we believe in using taxpayer dollars to create academics, then I think most of us would be quite pleased to have their research presented in ways that are easily digestible to the vast majority of Canadians.”

“One of the biggest problems when it comes to journalism is the speed at which we’re required to do it, (which) immediately hampers the idea of these complex and nuanced questions that we need to be asking ourselves.”

Vinita Srivastava, senior editor of culture and society at The Conversation, says there is a gap in mainstream Canadian media from a critical race perspective that she is trying to fill through her work. She says scholars writing about contentious and important areas often need proactive support to prepare and potentially protect them from harassment. 

Srivastava says a lot of her time and resources as an editor are spent on building trust relationships with contributors, and explaining to them that their work will not be misrepresented, used exploitatively or taken out of context in the ways that many tell her has happened when they’ve spoken to the media before.

“One of the biggest problems when it comes to journalism is the speed at which we’re required to do it, (which) immediately hampers the idea of these complex and nuanced questions that we need to be asking ourselves,” Srivastava says. “Especially when you’re looking at race, speed is an enemy. Because speed means that we’re going to fall back on the stereotypes that we rely on.”

Srivastava has conversations with her contributors to make sure they understand that they are taking on a public persona when they publish their work for a wider audience, and that this comes with “sometimes volatile, often racist comments from the general public,” which she adds is often especially vitriolic for The Conversation’s Indigenous authors. 

A 2021 survey about journalism and online harm found women, LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC media workers are at greater risk and experience more, and more severe, harassment. 

As host and producer of The Conversation’s Don’t Call Me Resilient podcast, Srivastava also sends letters to guests before their episode goes live including pre-emptive techniques that they can use to mitigate potential harassment surrounding their episode. (They were partially developed based on a call with Tworek, she adds.)  

Although she and Tworek also point to the responsibility of academic institutions, many of which have media departments and potentially the resources to support their scholars’ work, Srivastava says that it’s important for these techniques to become a process and shared effort in newsrooms — not added invisible labour of racialized editors and reporters. 

Explanatory journalism could be a way to help support “the diversification of voices in the policy process,” says Dr. Kate Mulligan, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “But it does take some support from mentors and systems to encourage people to take up that space.”

“Especially for many people who are women or coming from marginalized communities, we have to develop particular skills and relationships in order to be able to do that in a way that is safe for us in the public sphere,” she says, “but also builds our confidence, because many people have been socialized to step back and let other people lead.”

Mulligan says she spends a lot of time working with her students to build that very confidence, which was part of her focus as an instructor for a course within the Dalla Lana Certificate of Health Impact — a part-time program with the same mentored practice philosophy as the Dalla Lana Fellowship in Global Journalism that is more explicitly focused on health-related professions and health journalism. 

Mulligan added a new advocacy and government relations mini-course within the program in hopes of filling the gaps she saw in political acumen in public health training more broadly. The mini-course aims to train students to navigate the multi-directional movement of information and policy influence — that she says has long since moved past the traditional, one-off academic press release — and make “visible those invisible rules about how we influence.” 

For example, in class Mulligan spoke about the collection and use of race-based data in the early pandemic. The unwritten rule, Mulligan said, was that her and her team had to “strike while the iron was hot,” building a petition, tagging key journalists and policy makers while centring the work of her colleagues that are well-connected in Black communities. (Mulligan particularly emphasizes the extensive contributions of policy analyst Sané Dube in this initiative.) 

“There’s a need to bring together people with journalistic experience, media experience, political experience, (and) policy development experience together to help mentor and create networks around students so they don’t graduate and then find themselves in systems that can’t support them to do what they want to do.”

Mulligan says race-based data was something experts and researchers had been working on for years without having the “same level of influence.” Now, she says, social media means they can get their research out publicly, to a wider audience. 

“When mainstream media face significant constraints with respect to who they can pay and how much they can pay … that impacts what they report on,” Mulligan says, adding that they may also have political goals and views as institutions. “So the democratizing power of social media is that we can use citizen journalism and community journalism to share alternative expertise and perspectives.” 

Mulligan says that moving forward, quantitative data also needs the qualitative, where she says we still have voices missing because “the ones who are always most impacted (are) sometimes … busy being impacted.”

“I think the biggest misunderstanding or misconception is that communities somehow don’t have the knowledge or capacity. They usually do, what they lack are the resources and the access to power.”

“You need to pay people to do that work. You can’t expect marginalized communities to do it for free,” she says. “In other words, they can’t only be sources all the time, sometimes they have to be the authors, and the writers and the journalists.” 

Mulligan says she sees more community journalism as part of the solution — community members telling their own stories with the support of other journalists, researchers or institutions in the form of co-writing, or investing resources in local communities to “develop or unlock skills and capacities that are there.

“We equate expertise with training and career experience. But there are multiple ways of knowing and forms of knowledge in the world. And we all have expertise in our own lived experience,” she says. “I think the biggest misunderstanding or misconception is that communities somehow don’t have the knowledge or capacity. They usually do, what they lack are the resources and the access to power.”

This story was reported as part of the 2021 J-Source/CWA Canada reporting fellowship, funded at arm’s length by CWA Canada.

Emma Buchanan is the 2021 J-Source/CWA Canada reporting fellow.