Out of all my personal stories, none might be less believable than my path to becoming a “academic investigative journalist”, a term I coined as a result of my academic approach to investigative journalism, which often focuses on public policy matters. What began from a desire to improve my writing and to get into a habit of looking over my speed writing before clicking send, snowballed into leveraging my experiences and educational background to write about things that were of interest to me and that I thought might pique the interest of others.
In the four years that I have been writing for The Voice Magazine, during the investigative process I have had some individuals randomly tell me things like, “We can not name any potential bills after you.” and “You do not have a background in immigration, and you are not a lawyer, what makes you think you are qualified to write about immigration as it pertains to the law?” Then there was a fun two-week waiting period after I requested to connect with the FBI’s media department, and one of the questions asked during this screening process was whether I had ever worked with the FBI before. Although I wanted to respond by somewhat mirroring their question and making reference to an award-winning TV series by asking, “Have I ever worked with the FBI? Do I give off Neal Caffery from White Collar (2009-2014) vibes?”, I used better judgement. Eventually hearing back from them and getting to where I needed to go.
Perhaps the cherry on the cake of my academic investigative journalism is having two consecutive frivolous police reports being filed against me by small-time street level officers regarding questions I had wanted to ask police brass, and a request I made as a sitting board member of my local community association. The police reports were void of any mention to these questions and factual information, and they somehow required six police officers to be mentioned in them. More weird, the police reports make it clear that the two officers who filed them only did so after their supervisors told them to do so, essentially making it so that they would be absolved of any wrongdoing since they had “followed orders”. One of the officers who filed the first report happened to be our community resource officer who attended our community association meetings every month. Another one of those six officers also included an officer who was representing the Chief’s Office, but never identified himself as such and instead only stated that he was replacing the supervisor of one of the supervising officers. On the other hand, to counter the actions of the small-time street level officers, other officers went out of their way to refer to me as “buddy”, which was kind of funny.
One byproduct of that series of events is that it allowed me to add this joke of an interaction to my arsenal of knee-slappers, “How many Ottawa Police Services officers does it take to file two consecutive frivolous police reports? I have gotten up to six, just do not ask me to elaborate on the kind of thinking that was involved on those two occasions.” On a more serious note, it helped me uncover other public policy deficiencies related to the institution of policing and systemic failings at the provincial level. Overall, the positive and fun interactions have significantly outweighed the few isolated incidents of “What the f@ck?”, but the biggest takeaway from everything has been how there is so much scepticism about anything that has to do with journalism and questions that are aimed to get at the core of an issue. Simply put, the journalism landscape is more toxic now than ever before, and it is worth looking into why that might be.
Yellow Journalism. Tabloid Journalism. Click Bait.
Hearing someone yell, “fake news”, is far more understandable than hearing someone say, “yellow journalism”. The term “yellow journalism” is somewhat of a forgotten term that was used in the early 1900s to describe journalism that was an exaggeration of facts, sensationalized, and focused on grabbing a person’s attention in the hope that it would result in them buying a newspaper. The way it worked was that the undesirable elements of a story that made it less exciting or provocative would get removed, and the focus on stirring up controversy or creating a scandal turned out to be a quite lucrative model. Back then, a tabloid-like title on the front page of newspaper could sell a newspaper on its own, and since Google and Bing did not exist the readers would often believe the entirety of what they read – there was no fact checking back then.
Over the decades, however, more and more stories that had been published would end up getting exposed as complete fabrications, everything from the lives people lived to how businesses did business. It resulted in some reporters being exposed for lying and some publications getting the reputation of being conspiracy peddling mediums. However, everything seemed to change after the arrival of the internet, when discussion boards and chatrooms began to be leveraged to expose news stories from the past as being fake stories. Then Google added the “news” extension to its search feature, archived news pieces became available, and with the arrival of Facebook and Twitter, the entire media and communications landscape changed over a few short years.
Communities that had historically struggled with disenfranchisement and who had to rely solely on media outlets to have their voices heard also became able to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of stories, as did the elements of fringe that only existed in chatrooms and discussion boards. Facebook and Twitter put a picture to people’s voices, but more importantly it allowed for everyone to congregate on the platforms and to create somewhat of a global community where everyone had instant access to everyone. Then when cell phones began to have 2- and 3-megapixel cameras and when they became able to record videos, that was the beginning of the end. Few could have imagined how this combination would eventually end up challenging peoples’ belief systems of the world we lived in. Soon enough, stories that might have been considered too unbelievable, too extreme, or too risky for media outlets to publish bypass media outlets all together and instead made their way on Facebook, Twitter, and eventually YouTube.
Individuals who understood how to leverage boosting services during the early era of social media and how to manipulate social media algorithms are the recipients of an unfair advantage over legacy media outlets who are late to the game. Legacy media outlets are unlikely to spend the same amount of money in order to gain viewers. Even if legacy media outlets did manage to breakthrough, the manner in which the public consumes news has changed so much, a lot of it is unmonetizable, like breaking news posted on X (formerly Twitter). However, the same fight that was fought over people to buy newspapers back in the 1900s has returned in the form a fight that is fought for clicks, eyeballs and engagement over different social media platforms. And the yellow fever that was once exclusive to yellow journalism has seeped into politics and throughout civil society.
The worst of yellow journalism, “Finally. Someone who thinks like me.”
Perhaps the most dehumanizing piece of writing that I have ever come across dates back to 2016, an article titled, “Finally. Someone who thinks like me.” After reading the article, it represents the very worst that journalism has to offer. It is so bad that referring to the article as journalism feels wrong, because the purpose of the article seems to have been a desire to paint a broad picture of the kind of people that voted for Donald Trump. The “perfect candidate” was a woman who lived in a small town in Pennsylvania and who was open about her mental health struggles, her struggles with employment, and who seemed to have experienced a significant amount of trauma in her life.
Almost immediately into the article, things start to go off the rails when the woman mentions conspiracy theories that had to do with a former President’s faith and orientation. The woman also shares how she experienced sexism and harassment in her professional career, and how it ended up giving her PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Then there is reference to the town she lives in being economically insecure, which was once full of work in coal mines and on railroads. There is even mention how sometimes the woman even forgets to take her medication, how she was even hospitalized for radicalization and posting online threats directed at the President, and how she had once been a Democrat. By the end of the article, it is impossible not to feel bad for the woman who seems to have lived a difficult life and been exposed to a lot of traumatic experiences, having fallen on hard financial times, and still struggling to find balance in her life.
The article seems to have been a hit piece from the get-go and as a way to get at Trump at the expense of an unwell woman in her 50s, but there are so many unanswered questions about how it came to be. How did this writer find this woman, and what did they tell her for her to agree to share some of the most intimate parts of her life? Did this woman know that she would be portrayed in the manner that she was? More importantly, however, how did nobody think that this article may be a bad idea, that it dehumanized a 50-year-old woman in order to score cheap political points against a person who was also known for dehumanizing language? Whatever the story behind this article may have been, hopefully articles like this one can be relegated to a point in time where journalism’s trajectory took a slight dip.
From following our North Star to chasing dysfunction.
Pure journalism has never been about dehumanizing people as if they were a soulless combination of meat and bones and nothing more. Pure journalism has always been about focusing on good governance and transparent institutions, the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, societal highs and lows, and celebrating the freedoms of democracy. Because the world is full of countries that will jail journalists and dissidents when they make it known that they want to celebrate the freedoms of democracy and bring to light the issue of uncomfortable truths,
After Donald Trump entered the world of politics, however, it is hard not to feel that the institution of journalism dipped and continued to do so into the Covid-19 lockdowns. It might be one of the hardest falls from grace for any institution; seeing journalism move away from chasing the North Star and reporting on the stories that mattered most to stories that chased dysfunction and othered people. But that story that needs to be told from this period, including articles like “Finally. Someone who thinks like me,” is that the institution of journalism had a close call with national disunity. All because of an infatuation over someone who thought greatness was what showed up in the rearview mirror on the path forward despite history telling us that greatness has always been the result of people looking toward the future. But now I think journalism is back on its trajectory and trending in the right direction, and that is what matters most.
What matters most is how a person’s mind works.
What started out as a way to improve my speed writing and get into the habit of looking over what I write has contributed to me continuing my lifelong learning, somehow becoming a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and even getting media accreditation status with the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions. Yet being told that laws can not be named after you is something one would expect to hear if they were asking for recognition or reward. Then being told that you are not a lawyer, nor do you have a background in immigration is something one would expect to hear if they were condescending towards another professional. Although I did neither of those things when I had individuals say those things to me, I was not offended, nor discouraged, because easy thinking, shallow thinking, and bad thinking seems to plague our society at all levels.
Whether a person went to a fancy school to get an education or not has no bearing on that individual’s ability to think and to understand. What matters most is how a person’s mind works. Even not having a post-secondary education does not make a person less than, because our world’s history is full of people who were autodidacts, forced to learn on their own, and likely came out better for it. The true measurement of a person is how their mind works and whether it is capable of deep thinking, hard thinking, and good thinking. Best of all, everyone is capable of developing their mind to that level of thinking, and it starts by burning the midnight oil.