Last May, Desmond Cole, the outspoken, former, freelance columnist for The Toronto Star, stepped down from his work at the paper after he protested the act of carding — the process by police of detaining and documenting the information of individuals who are not suspected of a crime. Cole refused to leave the speaker’s chair at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting until the board committed to putting an end to carding, that disproportionately affected members of the Black community. Cole’s disruption brought the meeting to an early end.
While Cole was neither fired from nor disciplined by The Toronto Star, there were concerns at the paper that he overstepped his role as a journalist and acted more as an activist, breaking with the newspaper’s policy that says, “it’s not appropriate for Star journalists to play the roles of both actor and critic.” The Star’s editorial page editor, Andrew Phillips, spoke with Cole about policies regarding the standards that freelancers must uphold.
“It’s not that I transformed that day from a journalist to an activist, that’s nonsense,” said Cole in an interview. “That whole conversation was a complete distraction, an intentional one, from the fact that carding continues in the city of Toronto.”
The question of whether a journalist can be an activist at the same time is a divisive issue in the journalism world. A panel held at Ryerson University on Sept. 26, titled, “Activist, advocate, columnist, reporter: Where’s the line?” brought together journalists to discuss how they acknowledge the line, the need for diversity in the newsroom and Desmond Cole’s departure from The Toronto Star.
“The line for me has been and always will be blurred,” said Vicky Machoma, a national columnist for Metro News Canada who covers race, gender, politics and culture. “As a black woman, that’s always going to inform my work. As journalists it’s our job to take that advocacy on and then inform other journalists and make sure those changes are made. In essence, journalism done well is advocacy.”
For Mochama, Cole’s decision to leave the paper gave voice to one of her worries as a black journalist. “[It] confirmed what black journalists thought about these institutions: [they] want to hear from you, but [they] don’t want you in the building,” said Mochama. “The very whiteness and maleness of this industry makes me cross lines that I didn’t know I had to. You start to lose communities entirely if they stop being represented in your audience.”
In an interview, Cole pointed to the Atkinson Principles, a list of editorial principles that former Toronto Star publisher, Joseph E. Atkinson, viewed as the values and beliefs of a large, city newspaper.
“Atkinson’s principles seem to come at journalism from the idea that talking about it is not enough, but there is necessary action that must be taken once journalism uncovers truths and that’s the whole point of journalism, to make social change,” said Cole. “The Toronto Star did not want to support my particular form of activism against white supremacy and anti-black racism. That’s their choice but that’s why I had to go.”
Amira Elghawaby, communications director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said changing audiences are the reason why news organizations need to start re-thinking how they cover stories.
“The old way of thinking is that journalism can only sound and look a certain way when the reality is that audiences are always changing,” said Elghawaby. “I think authenticity is the key here, you need to be authentic in the story you’re telling. As long as we are authentic, transparent and clear about where we are coming from, we can find our audience.”
Speaking to the RRJ, Cole also touched on the future of journalism and stressed the need for more journalists from minority backgrounds. While he acknowledged that there are already a few diverse voices in large news organizations, he said some are tokenized.
“We’ll have so-called diverse voices but only the ones that don’t challenge our ideals, don’t challenge our comfort,” said Cole. That’s tokenism, it’s not about promoting diversity. I’m even tired of using the word diversity. I want them to hire more black people.”