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I Signed Up to Study Journalism. What They Taught Me Was Activism

· 11 min read
I Signed Up to Study Journalism. What They Taught Me Was Activism
Photo by Sincerely Media / Unsplash

Even by the hyper-progressive standards of the Canadian education sector, Ryerson University in Toronto has distinguished itself as being unusually energetic in its social justice messaging. Last spring, Indigenous activists destroyed the statue of the university’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, on the basis that he helped design Canada’s system of residential schools. By way of response, the school’s president could not even bring himself to criticize the vandals, but rather expressed his relief that none of them were injured during the course of their crime. He also pledged that “the statue will not be restored or replaced,” and asserted that these events only showcased the importance of the work being conducted by a task force looking into the renaming of the university. To no one’s surprise, that task force not only concluded that Ryerson should be renamed, but also that the school should make amends for its previous association with the Ryerson name, as well as implement the usual litany of new Indigenous- and black-themed consciousness-raising courses and programs. (While no new name has yet been chosen for the school, numerous Ryerson scholars now have taken to referring to their school as “X University.”)

As I learned, the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ), from which I graduated last year (and which is now grouped under Ryerson’s “Creative School”), was ahead of the rest of the university when it came to social-justice puritanism. Back in early 2020, my affiliation with school publications came under attack after I wrote a column for a third-party outlet arguing for the disbanding of equity, diversity, and inclusion offices at Canadian universities. I was then banned from writing for the Eyeopener, one of Ryerson’s student newspapers, on the basis that my Christian viewpoint on LGBT issues would make “members of our community, especially queer, trans and non-binary folks … no longer feel safe.”

Then things got even stranger, as Jen Gerson of the Line reported a year later:

As campus dramas tend to do, this whole episode escalated to satiric proportions. Bradley’s continued presence at the [journalism] school appears to have opened a Pandora’s box of longstanding campus grievances that found their way into an open letter reportedly signed by 150-plus students. It alleged that Ryerson [staff] had created a hostile environment, particularly for racialized and LGBTQ students. The main piece of evidence cited for this claim was that the school hired Toronto Star public editor Kathy English, a white woman, to teach a course on equity and ethics. English’s sins: [She’d] “influenced” [black activist] Desmond Cole to leave the [Star], and was accused of inviting [conservative politician] Maxime Bernier to an “all white” editorial-board meeting. She also “challenged” students’ experiences, and made them feel as if their positions were “unjustified.” This prompted the resignations of Janice Neil and Lisa Taylor, the school’s chair and associate chair, whom we are quite sure were not getting paid enough to deal with any of this.

I’d anticipated none of this cancel-culture melodrama five years ago, when I first learned I’d been accepted into RSJ. I remember the moment exactly: 9:40am on Friday, January 20th, 2017, in Room 317 of Cardinal Carter Catholic High School. I was in my politics class, checking email on my cell phone shortly before the class bell rang. The news filled me with pride: At the time, at least, RSJ was considered Canada’s top journalism school. And I anticipated that my years there would be filled with rigorous training in the tradecraft of objective reporting. What I received instead consisted in large part of social-justice programming. This came as a surprise to me. In 2022, the co-option of Canadian legacy media outlets by progressive activists is widely known. But back in early 2017, the phenomenon was less obvious.

My orientation session took place seven months later, on August 29th. A few minutes after the appointed start time, a journalism professor walked to the front of the room, formally welcomed the journalism class of 2021 to Ryerson University, and then launched into a mocking rant about then-US president Donald Trump. As a conservative-minded person, I supported some of Trump’s policies. But the fact that I disagreed with this professor wasn’t what struck me. Rather, it was the fact that our inaugural lecture on the practice of journalism consisted of a one-sided political harangue.

This sort of spectacle was to become a recurring phenomenon. During one Critical Issues in Journalism class in second year, for instance, the professor delivered a free-form monologue about how newsrooms were too white, too male, and too “cis” (i.e., non-trans). Once she’d finished lecturing us about diversity, a fellow conservative student asked if the need for diversity extended to viewpoint diversity. Needless to say, the answer was no.

In an Editing Essentials class in fourth year, right after the 2020 US presidential election, my professor expressed disgust that Trump received more votes in 2020 than in 2016, despite “the lying, the homophobia, the racism, the sexism.” She told us that white people in her age range needed to do better. My professors could make comments like this without worrying about anyone calling them out, because they know few students would dare. A 2020 study conducted by Heterodox Academy indicated that 62 percent of sampled university students believed that the political climate on campus prevents students from saying what they believe—up from 55 percent in 2019. The surveyed students were American, and I’m betting that the corresponding number for Canadian undergraduates would be even higher.

And future students will have it even worse. In March 2021, shortly before I graduated, RSJ announced an action plan to “put equity, inclusion and support for students at the heart of what we do and how we communicate with one another.” The five measures that RSJ committed to were:

  • “Supporting the establishment of a permanent student equity task force … to address critical equity concerns inside and outside the classroom.”
  • “Re-examining and re-designing our curriculum to incorporate critical content that draws from experiences of historically marginalized communities, including but not limited to Queer, Indigenous and Black communities, as well as faith communities who may be historically marginalized.”
  • “Hiring at least two faculty members who reflect the RSJ’s changing student demographics and offer a diversity of experiences and perspectives on journalism and its practice.”
  • “Providing journalism-focused equity training to faculty, staff and instructors.”
  • “Offering more frequently existing RSJ courses that take critical approaches to these issues—Reporting on Race, Reporting on Indigenous Issues, Reporting on Religion and Queer Media.”

A university publication reported that Kamal Al-Solaylee, the journalism professor who’d been appointed as transformation lead, would be focused on the manner by which “journalism schools in 2021 need to be redefined, especially in a time of social unrest for BIPOC communities.” This included (in Al-Solaylee’s words) studying how RSJ had become “an incubator for a lot of the things that are wrong in the industry.” Most unsettlingly, the Ryersonian reported, Al-Solaylee said “the administration needs to focus on conversations that are being had between faculty and students. Journalism schools need to do a better job of making sure students are understanding the way free speech is not applied equally … and the ways in which some students’ words are seen as acceptable while others are not, based on their race or sexual orientation.”

It sounded a lot like a euphemistic way of indicating that RSJ students would soon have their speech monitored more closely for evidence of wrongthink. And I met with members of the school administration to voice my concerns, especially in regard to the way these steps were being sold as a necessary means to ensure the school was a “safe space.” During this meeting, I mentioned the research contained in the well-known 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. None of the administrators had read it, and one made it clear to me that he would never do so.

RSJ isn’t alone. The Carleton School of Journalism (CSJ) in Ottawa, which also has enjoyed a prestigious reputation, adopted its own similar action plan in 2020. Responding to a lengthy “Call to Action” that threw all sorts of race-based accusations at the school, administrators thanked these student accusers (“for speaking out to us about this, loudly and clearly”) and essentially fell to their knees in a posture of atonement:

Carleton University’s journalism program is the oldest in the country. As such we have a responsibility to acknowledge the role we have played in the perpetuation of systemic racism in the education of young journalists. Equally important, we have a responsibility to be clear about the actions we are undertaking as we try to address the very real concerns about the lack of diversity and inclusion in our program. We have not done enough to ensure that our racialized students feel welcome and heard in our classrooms. Nor have we done enough to ensure that all of you acquire the capabilities you need to report on the full diversity of communities and individuals who make up Canadian society and the world.

In the “diversity and inclusion plan” that followed, the listed promises included:

  • “A new academic post—the Carty Chair in Journalism, Diversity and Inclusion Studies … The successful applicant will create new course offerings, establish a program of research and bring a focus to the Journalism program’s efforts to foster an environment that cultivates diverse journalists.”
  • “First-year introductory undergraduate courses will now have a strong central focus on diversity and inclusion. For example, the winter term course will be renamed Foundations: Practising Journalism in a Diverse Society, and will be anchored firmly in the belief that real change starts with a clear understanding of how to cover communities that have long been marginalized. And at the graduate level, foundational courses will reflect the same focus. And a new Master’s course on journalism, race and diversity will be launched in September.”
  • “Journalism faculty members and contract instructors will be given clear guidance to be mindful of diversity and inclusion issues in course design and delivery and in interactions with students. To ensure real change in course content throughout—including the selection of topics, readings, assignments, examples and guest speakers—the program will continually assess curriculum and provide a Diversity and Inclusion checklist to assist instructors as they build their courses. And to support the use of that checklist, the program will ask everyone who teaches to participate in unconscious bias training in preparation for this coming fall and beyond.”
  • “The journalism program will make it mandatory for all students to complete a course in Indigenous history.”

If there were plenty of jobs for J-school graduates, journalism schools might be excused for larding up their course offerings with ideologically fashionable topics that have nothing to do with good journalism. But the opposite is true: While journalism schools continue to admit large numbers of students, career prospects for graduates are few. And those on offer don’t pay much. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 67 Canadian news outlets closed down. Some reopened in a different form, but the overall downsizing has left hundreds of older journalists unemployed. New graduates are thus left competing with these more experienced workers for jobs.

There were about 130 students who began RSJ with me. Out of these, about 80 graduated after four years. A few landed great jobs with well-known outlets. And a handful of others found jobs in related fields such as communications and digital marketing. There are also people like me who went off to grad school while writing freelance. But many others are working as low-skill service workers in unrelated fields. Some are completely unemployed and have no way of paying off their student debts. From what I can tell, this underemployment isn’t a new phenomenon. I recently spoke with someone who’d graduated from RSJ about 15 years ago. She told me that only about a sixth of her classmates continue to work in journalism.

So why are we still bringing in such large numbers of students into journalism school when the majority of them won’t get work in their desired field? It’s telling that even the people running these schools now seem put off by their own trade, and are more interested in regurgitating the same bromides about diversity that are common currency in every other liberal arts program.

Not only should journalism schools limit their incoming classes in keeping with the low demand for their graduates; they should also expect more from those they choose to admit, not only in regard to academic qualifications, but also in terms of ideological resilience. I wasn’t a fan of Kathy English’s teaching style, but she did an adequate job teaching her course on ethics; and she had every right to take a questioning, Socratic approach with students who voiced their “lived experience” as if it were holy writ. When those students came to complain about being drawn into classroom debates by English, administrators should have told them that they will encounter many objectionable opinions when they become working journalists (assuming they are lucky enough to enter the profession). If you can’t handle opinions you disagree with, journalism isn’t the career for you.

My experience showed me how small cliques of activist students are now permitted to call the shots at places such as RSJ. In particular, I recall how some of them bullied the administration into changing the names of the Ryerson Review of Journalism and the Ryersonian. The latter student publication had produced a series of articles called “Monumental Challenges” in 2020, which looked into the issue of removing the Egerton Ryerson Statue and renaming the university. One article, which has been removed from the website, listed reasons why the university should not be renamed. It was a well-reported story, but naturally some claimed it was offensive. And soon thereafter, the mob scored a win when the RSJ opted to change the names of both publications (to the Review of Journalism and On the Record respectively).

Certain things have become unsayable at the school. For instance, we all had to pretend that RSJ still has a diversity problem, even though a single glance at the faculty page indicated otherwise. While the slightest misstep can get you called out or even investigated if someone accuses you of making the climate “unsafe,” my own critics felt they had carte blanche to call me a racist, bigot, and (somehow) an Islamophobe whenever I said anything they found disagreeable. University administrators have no interest in weighing into these controversies in any way that might put them offside of prevailing dogma. Their strategy is to obey the mob, keep their heads down, and keep getting paid.

Perhaps the greatest irony at play here is that, for all their pretensions at being au courant, RSJ is behind the times when it comes to the avenues available to those journalists whose work is actually in demand. I heard little about Substack during my time at RSJ, for instance, even though former New York Times writer Bari Weiss now uses it to make a reported US$800,000 per year. The preferred career direction promoted at RSJ is still to ingratiate oneself with the same old legacy outlets—especially the CBC, much of whose back office is populated by Ryerson grads.

When I graduated from Ryerson, the president gave a speech about how, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students had strived to remain committed to their studies. “Stay close to Ryerson,” he told us, “for together, we will shape the future.” But not all of us want to shape the future. Some of us just want to report on the present in an unvarnished way. And if that’s a skill you’re looking to hone, I really can’t recommend journalism school as part of the process.

As I was writing this article, RSJ finally named a new chair: Ravindra Mohabeer, a specialist in “critical theories of media, digital, and visual cultures and practices,” with a focus on “social invisibility and community.” According to a Creative School announcement posted on LinkedIn by RSJ professor Janice Neil, Mohabeer is “a member of a newly-forming Canadian Communication Association committee for Racialized and Indigenous Scholars with whom, in concert with his students, he is launching a podcast that aims to showcase scholarship, interview BIPOC pioneers in the discipline, and engage in equity-focused intergenerational conversations between established and emerging scholars and students.”

From what I can tell, Mohabeer doesn’t have any day-to-day experience in producing actual journalism. But perhaps that’s fitting. In the current environment, that sort of knowledge would only get in the way.

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