When a 12-year-old who had been identified as gifted was interviewed by a reporter about a change at her Toronto-area middle school, she told her what she believed the other adults in the room — her mother, her teacher and her principal — wanted to hear. The story was about the school’s rebranding and new focus on student well-being. In the published article she is described as an overachiever, whose parents feared a nervous breakdown. The article then explains that teachers organized “an intervention of sorts and made her understand the importance of achieving balance in her life. It worked.” That’s the part that bothers her. She says it didn’t actually “work” — there was no quick fix. Now, a decade later, that child is an adult and wants to set the record straight about the pressure she felt at the time and the reality of her middle-school experience.
That was the story idea Kendra Seguin, a fourth-year journalism student, wanted to pitch in my advanced podcasting course last fall but, at first, she was hesitant.
Kendra had a doubtful look in her eyes as she approached me to ask if this idea was “good enough” to meet the criteria for the assignment. The moment I heard her pitch I realized two things: Kendra has no idea this is the strongest pitch so far and — my plan for this course might actually work.
I had assigned students to dig up a story from 10 years earlier, anytime in 2012, and track down someone from that story who was not in a position of power at the time. The goal was to learn about that experience and what’s happened since. The strongest pitches would be produced as episodes of the documentary podcast that our Toronto Metropolitan University audio journalism class named We Met U When ...
The idea was partly inspired by Shoe Leather, a documentary podcast course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Shoe Leather, designed by professor and podcast creator Joanne Faryon, is an investigative podcast that delves into New York City’s past by tracking down people who were at the centre of news stories many decades ago.
In my course, I set out to teach audio storytelling while also exploring power dynamics in our journalistic practice. After 24 years in industry, most of that time at CBC, I had made the move to academia and hoped to get students thinking critically about how and why some communities are under- and misrepresented in news stories, and the potential consequences that some people experience as a result of their interactions with journalists.
While the definition of a “position of power” was open to class discussion, Kendra’s story idea involved a 2012 interview with a minor who clearly was not in one.
As a class production team — students working as podcast producers with me in the role of executive producer — we discussed pitches and explored how best to focus these stories. Once we narrowed down the strongest (and most doable) pitches, students worked in small groups to develop the stories into 15-20 minute documentaries. Each documentary would be an episode of our podcast.
Kendra teamed up with classmates Carolina Pucciarelli and Sael Forster and together they tackled every question I threw at them. Does the interviewee say the 2012 story was inaccurate? Yes. Why? As a child, she felt pressured. By the reporter? No. So this is not about a reporter who messed up? No. Does the interviewee blame the reporter? No. Does it bother her that the story is still online? Yes. Has she requested it be taken down? No. Did a parent authorize the interview? Yes. Can you interview the parent? Yes. How was the child chosen? What was she told about the interview at the time? So many questions…
During one of our class discussions I was asking students to consider who else they should be interviewing for their stories and Carolina was the first student to suggest contacting the original reporter. Great idea! But would the reporter be willing to talk? Carolina was the only student in the class to successfully track down the original reporter for her group’s episode and secure an interview. It turned out the original education reporter is, in fact, still reporting on education at the Toronto Star.
It’s important to emphasize that in 2012, that reporter had followed the common journalistic practice of interviewing a minor the school suggested, with the consent of a parent. And she reported what she was told during the interview. Still, it was unsettling for her to hear that one of her former interviewees had felt pressure from other adults in the room.
“I would have hoped that having her mom there and people that she trusted like her teacher, and the principal would have put her at ease,” said the reporter.
The woman who had been interviewed by the Toronto Star as a child in 2012 is bothered by the fact that her name pops up online in relation to that article, revealing more about her younger self than she would like at this stage in her life. She’s also bothered by her own part in that article leaving the impression that the wellness program “worked” for her when in reality she continued staying up late that year, worrying about grades and high school applications.
As an industry, we’re now more aware of the potential impact of one’s name being searchable online indefinitely, so many journalists and editors are starting to reconsider rigid policies that rarely permit online stories to be removed — which pulls at the concept of the right to be forgotten.
Last June, Bruce Campion-Smith, then public editor of the Toronto Star, announced that the paper would take a new, more open approach to requests to remove or edit online stories.
In an opinion piece, he wrote that the Star realized it needed a “new policy that was more accommodating and compassionate to better recognize the lasting harm an article can have on an individual’s personal and professional life.”
The woman Kendra and her team spoke with, however, said she has not requested the article be removed and she did not intend to make that request. Still, hearing about her experience made the Star reporter pause and reflect on the challenges of interviewing minors.
“Hearing (former interviewee’s) experiences really made me realize that I don’t want a kid to feel like they are saying something that they want the adults in the room to hear … it’s eye-opening for me.”
As a new professor, I was beaming with pride that my students’ work had the power to affect how experienced journalists think about their work and our best practices as an industry.
Then, just before publishing the podcast, we hit a glitch.
As executive producer and professor of this class, I contacted the people my students had interviewed for each episode. We had discussed informed consent in class and students had been assigned to obtain consent for publication, but I needed to double check.
That’s when we realized there was a miscommunication between my students and the Toronto Star reporter. Her understanding was that the interview would be used only in class.
Since informed consent is such a crucial part of this course and our practice as journalists, I told her that I’d pull that interview out of the episode. Another option was to redo the interview with full knowledge that it would be published. The Star reporter took a few days to think about it. My students (and I) were sweating it out, but even this component of production became an important learning experience.
In the end, the reporter kindly agreed to be re-interviewed. It meant getting my students and our audio production specialist, Angela Glover, back into the studio. I told my students we are re-recording, re-writing, re-voicing, just like the pros.
Despite that hiccup, the Toronto Star reporter said she valued the work my students had done.
“We don’t typically, as reporters, get this feedback years down the line so it’s been an education for me. I appreciate that.”
It was a learning experience that student producers were eager to share in TMU ’s J School Now newsletter.
“I hope listeners leave the entire podcast thinking about the power that news stories can have on the people from the moment that they are first interviewed, to years down the line,” said Kendra.
That episode was assigned as required listening in a first-year multimedia reporting class in the Winter 2023 semester.
Not every story was so clear cut from the beginning. Several students learned that the more you dig, the more a story can evolve and journalists need to be able to pivot. They also started learning to trust their instincts.
Maddy Mahoney and Brit Weaver, final year graduate students in this course, produced a powerful story that turned out differently than they had expected.
They spotted a 2012 news story that included the term “Hug-a-Thug.” The story was about a community program that helped youth break away from gangs. Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford often used the term to describe programs he considered ineffective and it made its way into several news reports, even when Ford was not quoted.
Maddy and Brit tracked down one source from the original article, a community leader who still works with youth, including some who were formerly incarcerated. They assumed he would take issue with the article for including a term they saw as racist. They discovered he took issue with Ford having used it in general but not with the article. Instead, he said he appreciated that the article was focused on recognizing the value of community work that was transforming young people’s lives.
That interview led them to a second person from the original article. But this person was reluctant to speak with journalists. He told them he hadn’t done media interviews in about eight years due to negative experiences with reporters from various media outlets.
Discovering what went wrong in those past interviews became their mission. The focus of the story was no longer the term “Hug-a-Thug” but the reasons why this second community worker refuses media interviews. It was a deep dive into informed consent. Maddy and Brit, who are not Black, needed to build trust with a source who had experiences with journalists that negatively impacted his work within Black communities.
I did my best to coach them as they negotiated the interview request — which involved multiple conversations — but the pressure was on them to gain trust and access to this source.
In the end, they established a relationship and successfully recorded insightful interviews.
During one of the interviews, their source told them not to “mess it up” or else he might not agree to any future interviews.
After hearing the source’s experiences with journalists, who he said extracted information from him and then misrepresented him and his community, Maddy and Brit were determined to get this story right — they named their episode “Don’t Mess It Up.”
Once again, just before publication I made that call to double check that we indeed had the consent of both sources.
In this case, the community workers did understand it was about to be published. But they would have liked to hear the episode before it was published. I explained that, as a journalist, that is not a practice I am comfortable with. However, I strongly believe sources sharing personal experiences deserve to not have a shock when they hear the final story.
So I walked them through the facts covered in the script and the ways their work was described. They wanted more clarity on the specific work they do in their communities and that required a few script changes.
This of course meant re-recording and re-editing parts of the documentary. We cannot risk getting any story wrong but it would be especially damaging to make a mistake in a story about someone who normally avoids journalists for that very reason.
Maddy and Brit shared what they learned through this process within their episode and also in the bonus episode that includes all the student producers’ reflections on this experience.
“It was really powerful to hear our main source speak about how his bad experiences have made him wary of journalists, to the point where he actively avoids interviews,” Maddy said in an interview with J School Now, TMU’s journalism newsletter.
She hopes others learn from listening to this episode.
“I would want people to walk away thinking about how the way we cover things today really does impact the kind of stories we will be able to tell in the future.”
Despite all our double, even triple-checking the work, we were on egg shells once it was published — until Brit heard from their main source. She texted me immediately.
“He said thanks for keeping to your word and … we are allowed to contact him in the future,” she wrote.
What a relief. We were exhausted and joyous and proud.
I think all the students who produced episodes of We Met U When … surprised themselves.
They certainly amazed me with their commitment to learning and doing each story justice.
Just as Kendra didn’t initially realize the strength of her story pitch, I didn’t realize my students were so ready to rise to the challenge.
I hope this is just the beginning of what we, as a journalism community, can learn from my students and their hard work.
This fall our class will produce Season 2 and I can’t wait to hear the stories — and the lessons — my next group of students will share.
Shari Okeke is Assistant Professor in Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University, story editor for TCM’s award-winning podcast The Plot Thickens Season 4: Here Comes Pam and creator of Peabody-nominated CBC podcast Mic Drop.