Matt D’Amours was still in journalism school when his live Twitter coverage of arrests at a Montreal student protest made him a trending topic on the social media site.
The mobile reporter at CBC Montreal attributes some of his subsequent success to that night in 2015, when he was on the ground for The Link, Concordia University’s student newspaper, and captured the attention of media worldwide for his breaking coverage of police and protesters clashing inside Université du Québec à Montréal.
“A big reason why I am in the position that I’m in in the industry is because I made a name for myself on social media when I was a student reporter,” says D’Amours, who is now teaching a social media course for the first time this fall at his alma mater.
But the social media landscape is very different than it was eight years ago. D’Amours finds himself back in the classroom at a time when journalism educators across Canada are rethinking their course content and soulsearching about journalism’s reliance on powerful tech giants such Facebook and X, the site formerly known as Twitter.
With Facebook blocking news in Canada to retaliate against the Online News Act and X owned by media-bashing Elon Musk, journalism schools are struggling with the practical implications. How do you teach emerging journalists to use social media for storytelling or to promote their work when links can’t be shared and some j-school publications are already being blocked?
“I think everyone is grappling over it right now,” says Archie McLean, a multimedia journalism professor at Mount Royal University and a faculty advisor for the Calgary Journal. “It’s something we’ve been discussing, how to approach this, how to teach this, how to talk about this.”
Journalism schools are also asking questions about the ethics of encouraging – and often requiring – vulnerable students to participate in platforms where they can encounter hate, harassment and threats.
At the same time, journalism educators must gauge the cost of students losing much-needed exposure if they ignore popular social-media platforms, especially if the current state of relations turns out to be temporary.
Students still need to learn to use social media for journalism, including promoting their work, says Toronto Metropolitan University journalism professor Angela Misri.
“I am of the opinion, and my co-instructors are of the opinion, this is a moment in Canadian media where we are trying to settle things out with the tech giants,” she says. “However that settles out, this is not going to be the state that we’re living in for the next five, 10 years or whatever.”
Teaching the new reality
Misri says her fourth-year course that publishes On The Record will include discussion of marketing, distribution and policy changes in Canadian media.
Ori Tenenboim, who co-teaches decoding social media at the University of British Columbia, is also supplementing social media production with discussions about uncertainty.
“For me, one of the most important things now is to have an honest conversation with students about this new reality. What is the Online News Act, or Bill C-18? Who is impacted? What are the possible implications? What do we know and what don’t we know?” Tenenboim says.
But that doesn’t mean journalism schools should shelve social media, he adds.
“We also don’t know if and when things are going to change,” he said. “Is this the new reality now? Will it change several weeks or months from now? So we feel we still need to teach them how to craft content for Instagram and other platforms, though we also need to adapt and talk about other platforms as well.”
Interviews with educators in six journalism programs – Concordia, King’s, Sheridan, Toronto Metropolitan, Mount Royal and UBC – showed there is a wide range of assignments and activities to either supplement or replace course staples such as live tweeting, Instagram or Facebook sharing and content creation for those platforms. For example, creating short videos on such platforms as TikTok is shaping up as a popular alternative this year while LinkedIn comes up as a distribution platform.
However, instructors also caution their programs will continue to focus on core journalism that is not dependent on any one platform.
Cheryl Vallender, journalism co-ordinator and professor at Sheridan College, says her program will keep doing what it’s been doing, albeit with tweaks, particularly in the course that publishes the Sheridan Sun.
“As a small program, the focus is on teaching journalism skills with less emphasis on the platforms,” says Vallender. “We have so much to get into two years that social media isn’t our main focus.”
The program plans to put disclaimers on courses containing social media, saying they are subject to change because of the Online News Act.
Tim Currie, who teaches at University of King’s College in Halifax, sums up the sentiment of several educators when he says that now is a good time to rethink journalism’s dependency on tech giants as a distribution network.
“I think everyone who is a publisher right now is wondering: ‘is it worthwhile to build audiences on platforms that we’ve learned now can change with the winds?’” says Currie, who teaches the course that publishes The Signal. “Social media is here to stay because of the storytelling that is being done but the last couple of years have shown how unreliable the platforms can be. The imbalance of power has brought everything home. I don’t think we can go back to where it was.”
Trish Audette-Longo and Janice Tibbetts teach journalism at the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication.