Intimidation, violence and fines: The struggles of being a journalist in 2020

At a time where the world needs them the most, reporters face strong impediments to their job

Over a month ago, The Concordian published an article covering pro-Armenia student protesters who called on Montreal city mayor, Valérie Plante, to support Armenians in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute. It’s the kind of beat story that’s perfect for young reporters who want to get their feet wet in news coverage: a conflict being covered worldwide, with a local connection to grassroots support among fellow students.

Unfortunately, this reporting attracted the wrong sort of attention, prompting a stern letter from the Montreal Consul General of Turkey, sent not to The Concordian, but Concordia University. Key to their concerns was the inclusion of two photos, each featuring a woman holding a sign stating “Turkey = Terrorist,” no doubt a response by the protester to the cluster bombing in the region, often aided by Canadian drone technology.

Politicos in office or at the dinner table have long opined how journalists are vital to a democracy and the need to protect them and their work. After all, public discourse from news coverage is often the only way we educate ourselves once we leave school. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book, The Elements of Journalism, found in almost every journalist’s bookshelf, describes this urgency as news reporting’s chief commitment, “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

But that goal is challenging and getting harder. Reporters are working with less time, less money, and fewer resources than those who would seek to influence their coverage. Young, freelance and student journalists are especially vulnerable, as they have nowhere near the same security as employed reporters. And even those privileged few still face trials, as diminishing advertising revenue has seen their budgets evaporate. Adding to the issue, journalists have a long history of dealing with intimidation, and you can see why it’s becoming tougher to inform people of what’s going on.

It was only a few years ago when I was an undergrad, and the Maple Spring was raging. Red squares adorned almost every student coat, and pots and pans protests took place every night. While the demonstrations garnered international attention, eventually leading to the fall of that administration’s time in government, student journalists’ treatment was less covered. Being kettled, heavily fined for photographing and documenting, or straight assault were standard plays inflicted on young reporters by the Montreal police department, that saw anyone under 30 as a threat. As a student journalist struggling to pay your rent and tuition, how do you have the time to fight huge fines, fees, and court dates, on top of all the regular challenges life flings in your direction?

This past summer, a few reporters over at The Link were intimidated by police following a Black Lives Matter protest. Non-lethal guns were drawn on them and medics who were also present, as they pleaded with officers while kneeling on the ground at Place des Arts.

And when we aren’t scared of power-tripping cops, journalists can be threatened by the public. In 2018, far-right activists (read: fascists) stormed Vice Montreal’s offices after they published on the rise of attacks perpetrated against anti-fascist protestors. And this year, a TVA reporter was assaulted by two anti-maskers, who bear-hugged her while she covered their protest live on television. And let’s not even open the can of worms that is reporter harassment on social media.

Was the Turkish Consul’s response intimidation? Probably not directly. But it’s telling that a student newspaper in Montreal, thousands of kilometres from the conflict, caused such concern that they not only wrote a letter but sent it to the school where these same reporters were learning their craft. The editorial staff’s emails are publicly available on The Concordian’s website, so it’s unlikely this was an oversight.

Student, freelance, or full-time, a journalist commits to journalism. I say commits because we are committed to accuracy, fairness, and representative work and because we commit to this vocation. We pledge to this despite being routinely demonized, so much so that our safety isn’t a priority.

But let’s remember — without good journalists, you have nothing but marketers and merchants influencing you to buy and believe what is on their agenda this minute. We need better protection, but it can’t only be through legislation. It has to come from you. So the next time you see a journalist intimidated, please speak up. Whether it’s at your dinner table, in your Zoom call, or on social media, defend those who defend your right to know. Because without us, you won’t be ready when the intimidators come for you next.


Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab


Good journalism shouldn’t be free

Journalism is in a crisis — print and digital advertising revenues have collapsed.

According to the Local News Research Project, over 250 news outlets have closed their doors in the last decade in Canada, and many more have had to lay off journalists to stay afloat.

Now that advertisers are turning to social media, news organisations are being forced to change the way they do business, and many are turning to audience-paid models.

You have probably encountered some of these before: The Montreal Gazette gives you five free articles per month, and outlets like La Presse ask you to contribute a small amount monthly.

Paywalls have likely discouraged you from reading an article or watching a news video in the past. Why pay when you can get the same information for free elsewhere?

Well, I think it’s time to stop expecting quality journalism to magically appear on our newsfeeds.

As an audience, we need to differentiate between quality and commodity, and start paying journalists accordingly for the service they provide.

We can’t expect journalists to be the watchdogs of society, to attend city council meetings and political events, to investigate corruption and keep the powerful accountable, and then write engaging articles about it… for free.

Journalists are members of society, and although journalism may be their passion, it is still their profession: they need – and deserve – to get paid for the work they do. Especially since, as the National Association of Journalists in The Netherlands has reported, they have to do more work with fewer colleagues and less resources.

If we don’t pay for quality journalism, there will be no quality journalism.

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, only seven per cent of Canadians paid for news in the past year, and most of these people only paid for one news subscription.

These are not promising numbers, and paywalls seem to work only for certain legacy news organizations like The New York Times.

However, we as an audience can make the decision to pay for journalism and help small, local news outlets thrive. And, as a 2018 study by digital news company The Discourse has shown, when we pay for news through memberships and subscriptions, journalists are incentivized to directly serve our communities and perform public service journalism – such as solutions and investigative journalism – instead of selling our attention to advertisers.

As U.S. media critic Jay Rosen said, a subscription business model is about “re-establishing a direct relationship between the users of news and the producers of news that is strong enough to withstand the telling of hard truths.” It allows the audience to pay directly for the news they value, and provides the news people need in addition to the news they want.

This kind of journalism is incredibly important in this day and age. We can’t rely on news outlets owned by millionaires or funded by foundations to give us in-depth, unbiased information. These organizations, by virtue of where they get their funding, cannot be fully independent. Even if these donors have no bad intentions, The Columbia Journalism Review has shown that journalists feel the influence of these donors, and that affects the journalism they do.

The only way to get quality journalism that does not influence us, but inform us, is to willingly pay for it. I believe paying for journalism should become as natural to us as paying our monthly phone bill.

To be clear: I am not arguing for paywalls. Business models based on making certain tiers of information only accessible to those who can afford it are a recipe for disaster.

I am only arguing that those of us who can afford to pay for news, should. If you can afford to pay for a Netflix or Spotify subscription, you can afford to pay $10 a month for The Montreal Gazette to provide you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen.

We have the power to change the way journalism is done: when we directly fund small, local news organisations, we give them the resources to produce in-depth stories from a range of perspectives. And when larger news outlets see that we want diverse, complex coverage of issues that affect us, they will follow suit.

Ultimately, in the words of Last Week Tonight host John Oliver, “sooner or later, we are either going to have to pay for journalism, or we are all going to pay for it.”

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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