Ryerson journalism students demand a safe learning environment because the school has disappointed them. Like our media industry, changes must be made
The Ryerson School of Journalism is arguably one of the best schools in the country. As a journalist working in Canada, I meet some of the brightest, most spiritual and grounded people I have ever known from RSJ. There are spaces that shine with integrity and relevance.
Then there are other spaces that are dull and outdated and that cling tightly to the archaic ideas of journalism.
I have mentored and befriended many RSJ students over the course of my career. I believe in their possibility and because I know this industry is extraordinarily white, masculine and outdated – and changes need to be made. As we know, the major players in Canadian media often succeed through access, family networks and ties.
But for BIPOC and LGBTIQ2S + journalists, journalists living with a disability or anyone on the margins, this industry can be isolating. Dealing with fears, inequalities and anxiety beyond the usual stress at work is emotionally taxing.
So what about the students who aspire to enter this industry?
On International Women’s Day, the world of Canadian journalism was in shock at the announcement of the resignation of Janice Neil and Lisa Taylor from their respective positions as President and Associate President of RSJ. (Full disclosure: I’m working on a research project for a class in my master’s program, and Lisa Taylor is my second reader.)
Calls for change came from students in the form of a document titled “It’s time for a changeAnd it’s heartbreaking. The areas of concern included the racist treatment of BIPOC students and faculty (black, indigenous, people of color), and that “RSJ has failed to foster an environment that protects students who are part of LGBTQ2IA + communities” . It details issues of lack of emotional, mental and psychosocial security support, as well as a “toxic and emotionally strained” relationship between administrative members and the student body.
I have been in this field for over 10 years and while my journey into journalism is not traditional, the most important learning related to the work you do is actually in the field. It is by practicing your profession that you improve your skills as a journalist.
The students’ call for change had a significant impact on me as their testimonies detailed their traumas, including experiences with violent abuse, suicides, sexual assaults, Islamophobic and homophobic rhetoric – some of which, they say, took place as part of the RSJ program. I was stunned.
The past 12 months have been excruciating for racialized students, especially black and native students. Racialized journalists have also expressed how difficult it is to exist in predominantly white spaces in Canadian media. It is often overwhelming – especially for racialized women. Additional layers of institutionalized systems of oppression, including racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, are so deeply ingrained in Canadian media that it will take much more than a DCI (Diversity, Equity) panel or committee. and inclusion) to resolve them. Students must learn to navigate an industry that may not accommodate BIPOC, LGBTQ2IA +, or disabled communities.
Currently, students are encouraged to work without the stamps of a newsroom, and many marginalized students are asked to relive their own traumas or nurture non-racialized classmates and staff. Are their instructors like them? Can they relate to the problems they face? Or are they, too, of a singular objective? It is not good enough.
The university is meant to be a place of learning, hope and knowledge sharing. It is a place to foster community – one of the most important things in journalism for marginalized people.
These RSJ students have created a community to support each other because the adults have disappointed them. As established journalists, we have let them down. As a place of learning, RSJ failed them. It took their own courage to oppose it, show solidarity and speak out. Overly traditional journalists may call them “activists,” but they are dynamic and fight for themselves. Much sooner than they should have.
Canadian newsrooms are toxic. We know it. Classrooms cannot be.
They must be guided to a noble career with confidence and aspirations. They have their entire careers to be jaded and cynical. The industry is edgy, but “getting tough” doesn’t make you a great writer or journalist. Having integrity, being precise and having the mental capacity to deal with difficulties is crucial. How is it possible to become this type of journalist if the students are demolished at 18?
Earlier this year, Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah (associate professors at RSJ – and friends of mine) published their research in November 2019 on the lack of diversity in newsrooms. They are currently working on the Canadian Newsroom Diversity Project which seeks to create a demographic self-report tool and provide educational resources for editorial staff and newsrooms. This is critical and, as Malik explained, “As Canada’s demographics have changed, news outlets have failed to reflect the country’s growing diversity in terms of content and staff. ”
Society is changing rapidly and journalism needs to catch up. Students need support. And have offered a plan for what they need. Still, the field is far from level or even on which to play – let alone getting the chance to start in the middle. They are the future of our media. They will be columnists, producers and executives. And maybe we don’t deserve them, but journalism desperately needs them.
They are asked to prosper when they are not given the tools to survive.