Lisa Sarracini
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Distrust, Disdain, Deceit

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The rocky relationship between journalists and activists: why it doesn't work—and how it can

“Cover the riots,” instructed Lisa Gregoire’s editors. Her bosses at the Edmonton Journal had a clear idea of the stories they expected to see from the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alberta. But when there were no riots to cover, Gregoire started producing articles with headlines such as “Calgary March Proves Critics Wrong,” and “G8 Protestors Act in Good Faith: Promoting Peace, Opposing Colonialism.” Having been a reporter for 11 years, Gregoire thought she had earned some credibility in the newsroom, but her articles went missing, got hacked, or were buried in the back pages. A senior editor deemed one story left-wing propaganda. That’s when she first decided to quit. “I was a pariah in the newsroom,” says Gregoire, who left in 2003. “They thought that I had gone over the line by hanging out with activists. Suddenly, I was no longer qualified to cover the issues – I was labelled ‘on the inside, too sympathetic.'”

For reporters, avoiding that label can be a challenge. “Journalists and activists are using each other all the time,” says John Willis, the former chairperson of Greenpeace USA. Willis now works with advocacy groups at Strategic Communications in Toronto, advising social-justice groups using lessons he acquired at Greenpeace in the 1980s. The organization now has 2.8 million members and offices in 40 countries, but it began crusading in 1971, when a few Vancouver activists set sail for a nuclear-testing site in an old fishing boat. The media ate it up and each side has happily fed off each other ever since. In 1990, for example, Greenpeace campaigner Gord Perks interrupted former Ontario premier David Peterson’s election announcement to play a taped message attacking the government’s environmental record. With camera crews all around, Perks and Peterson stood face-to-face – the activist’s scraggly beard and shorts versus the premier’s sweaty face and suit – the media couldn’t ignore the image confrontation or the environmental issues that were being raised. But things have changed. Now, old activist tactics don’t always capture media attention; journalists are reporting on complex issues less, and for both groups, cynicism is on the rise.

Journalists are understandably wary of becoming too sympathetic or being spun by activist groups. “There is the danger that a reporter can go from being a disinterested reporter to a biased participant – that sometimes happens,” says The Globe and Mail’s night editor, Bob Cox. His colleague Doug Saunders, the paper’s U.K. bureau chief, says that getting too close to activist sources is “a form of laziness that tempts every journalist – activist groups are among the easiest to cover since they send out great blasts of press-seeking information.” But activists also get burned when reporters distort or ignore their words and perspectives. Today, activists – particularly less established groups – work harder to get media attention that frequently isn’t fair or favourable, while journalists work in newsrooms with fewer resources than ever before. Still, the two groups rely on each other, engaging in a necessary tug-of-war, but always fearful of being manipulated and ending up down in the dirt. “The two have a symbiotic relationship and yet there is a deep distrust,” says Claude Adams, an instructor of broadcasting at the University of British Columbia. “Each side understands how the game works – and they’re very cynical about it.” Overcoming the profound distrust can be tricky, but some reporters are doing just that. Ultimately, it’s a leap of faith leading both sides to realize that a professional and mutually beneficial relationship is an achievable goal.

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Although Alanna Mitchell is a winner of the Global Award for Excellence in Environment Reporting, the majority of story ideas she pitches to her editors are not about the environment at all. In fact, the Globe’s provisional science and environment beat reporter writes primarily about science and considers the environment beat science-based, never activist driven. “It’s been very hard to get the science across to my editors,” she says. “They think if you write about the environment, you are left wing and radical and that you’re bought.” Some stories, though, are just too good for even the most skeptical editors to ignore. In 2000, a Calgary environmentalist phoned Mitchell with a great tip. He claimed that an oil and gas company was involved in a tragic scandal and presented enough information for the reporter to want to investigate. She spent two days trying to pin down the story, calling the company and the people involved – but the lead was a sham. “I just felt that I had wasted my time. The Spidey sense goes up now when I talk to people,” says Mitchell, still clearly peeved about the incident. “I’m very picky about the groups I use. Some, I simply don’t believe when they call me.”

Mitchell is particularly cautious because of her beat: “Environment stories are held to a higher standard because there is an appearance of activism that goes along with it,” she says. “I try very hard to strip that out of them.” Of course, there are organizations she does communicate with, notably conservative groups such as Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and Ducks Unlimited. They don’t try to spin her and they produce great science-based research that Mitchell says is “done in the spirit of informing rather than inflating emotion.”

When emotionally driven tactics become aggressive tactics – including property damage, assault, and vandalism – activists scare away even sympathetic reporters. “If some social activist group wants to squat in an empty building and seize it in the name of public good,” says the Globe’s Cox, “that group loses credibility because it’s breaking the law.” Before the Quebec City summit in 2001, for example, the Globe ran a special series on the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and CBC aired radio and television features on the issues. But when 6,000 cops with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets faced off against demonstrators, and small pockets of protestors smashed windows and painted media vehicles with slogans such as “Burn corporate media,” coverage of the issues gave way to coverage of the chaos. And any credibility the movement had gained was lost.

One journalist reporting on the protests was The Gazette’s Sue Montgomery in Montreal. She maintains professional relationships with radical and anarchist groups, a continuing hub of activist activity in Canada – but remains suspicious. “There has to be some credibility,” Montgomery says, “or they might make us look like idiots.” She cites the example of a group called Les Sorcières (The Witches). These pro-choice activists held a press conference in a park across the street from an antiabortion protest outside Henry Morgentaler’s clinic to declare that women’s reproductive rights were being threatened. Montgomery went to the conference, but the group members insisted on remaining anonymous. “It was ridiculous,” Montgomery recalls. “You can’t call a press conference, make a statement, and not give your names.” After enduring such unprofessional stunts, many journalists agree with Mitchell when she says, “When you’re writing about social-activist issues, you have to have your bullshit radar on really high.”

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In August 2004, hundreds of thousands swamped the streets of New York City to protest the Republican Party’s National Convention. But Jaggi Singh, perhaps one of the most recognizable Canadian activists, wasn’t there. Of course, anyone who saw the front page of The New York Daily News a few days earlier wouldn’t have known that. The article reported that Singh was a dangerous anarchist who had received firearms training from a militant Black Panther and would be leading “anarchists hot for mayhem.” All the juicy details were bogus. Meanwhile, the New York Post, a competing paper, published a photo of Singh shooting off a handgun. A friend of his who saw the picture notes: “It is some brown guy with high cheekbones and a Harry Potter haircut, but it’s not Jaggi.”

These were extreme fabrications, but they exemplify why many activists, including Singh, are distrustful of the media. Singh first gained celebrity status after plainclothes cops nabbed him and slapped him with an assault charge, which was later dropped, at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation protests in Vancouver. Now, he doesn’t throw himself into the spotlight readily because he doesn’t like how the media develop cults of personality. “I didn’t choose to be covered in the way I have been,” he says. “I’ve said no to interviews far more often than I’ve said yes.” In 2001, CBC’s the fifth estate aired a documentary profile of the social-justice activist, but producers found it difficult to get his cooperation. In fact, they had to work through his girlfriend to convince him to talk. “Often, people clamour to get in front of a microphone,” says Anna Maria Tremonti, the host of the piece. “But Jaggi didn’t clamour.”

Still, Singh tries to use the media strategically. He isn’t always happy with the results, though, as he was reminded in September 2002. He submitted an 800-word op-ed piece to the Globe about a demonstration against the appearance of Benjamin Netanyahu at Concordia University. Although he knew the headline would be changed, Singh proposed the title, “Netanyahu and free speech.” Instead, the headline became “Day of Broken Glass,” and ran with a photo of a protestor smashing a glass window. The Kristallnacht reference – comparing protestors to Nazis – couldn’t be more obvious or damaging. “With the Daily News, it was just blatant misrepresentation,” Singh says. “But the Globe couldn’t have marginalized me more with that headline. It was beyond the pale.”

Furthermore, when journalists make stark generalizations about activists they make it tough to develop good relationships. In June 2002, for example, the National Post sent Rebecca Eckler to follow an activist at the G8 Summit in Kananaskis. Eckler chose a 19-year-old protestor, pierced and tattooed, who drank Nestea, wasn’t well informed, and wasn’t particularly articulate. “I went to the protest on Sunday,” Eckler quoted her, “and immediately afterwards I found myself using my debit card, taking money out of a bank machine in a food court in a mall so I could buy ice cream.” Using one person to point out all the predictable hypocrisies, Eckler mocked the whole movement.

Activists also have difficulty collaborating with journalists because of the media’s incessant focus on confrontation and spectacle. Reporters often overlook complicated issues in favour of a repetitious narrative of violence. Newspapers are working with less money and space, and the issues raised by dissenting groups are often too intricate for journalists writing for daily publications to cover at all. “Activists talk about causes that are complex,” says Gazette reporter Catherine Solyom. “Daily reporting demands that things be portrayed in black and white. You have little space to deal with the complexities.” So, even journalists who do care about the issues activists raise can’t always cover them. This only adds to the deep distrust. “Activists tend to feel that journalists don’t take them seriously, and if they don’t do something violent, they’re not going to get any attention,” says Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at King’s College. “It is, unfortunately, probably true.”

At the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, for example, activists made a concerted effort to avoid violence. But many journalists seemed unimpressed with the softer tactics. Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow received a phone call from an Alberta-based Globe reporter after Kananaskis, who said, “I want to congratulate you; you did it really well and all the media noticed. By the way, do that one or two more times and we won’t report on you again.”

“I guess we’re damned if we do,” Barlow responded, “and damned if we don’t.”

When best-selling author Linda McQuaig started working on her latest book, It’s the Crude, Dude, her first stop was Ottawa, not Calgary, or Houston, Texas. And she wasn’t looking to talk to politicians or bureaucrats. Instead, McQuaig wanted to visit Elizabeth May, the Sierra Club of Canada’s national executive director, because she was certain the environmentalist could get her research off to a strong start. “I’m very impressed by how well informed groups like the Sierra Club are,” the writer says. “They not only have genuine concern for the public good, but a real concern for accuracy in reporting – they want the story told right.” McQuaig contacts May and other activists regularly for research. Working for a newspaper can be particularly challenging, she notes, because it’s impossible to have a good understanding of all the issues all the time. That’s where groups like the Sierra Club and Council of Canadians become invaluable. “I don’t want to take a group as a final source, but they can direct you to other experts and lead you in the right direction,” she says. “Most don’t even care if I quote them – they just want to get the information out there.”

While McQuaig is happy to talk about her relationship with May, many journalists and activists are reluctant to reveal the details of their positive encounters – the former afraid of compromising their credibility, and the latter afraid of losing sympathetic contacts. Still, many rely on each other to accomplish a similar objective – to communicate information to a mass audience. “Activists are cozy with journalists because they need each other,” says Saunders. “Much of what you see in any day’s newspaper originates from activists of one sort or another, whether or not they’re acknowledged in the copy.” The Gazette’s Solyom suggests that the relationship can be mutually beneficial. “I have a good relationship with activists,” says the reporter, who has written articles about radical Montreal groups, like the Anti-Capitalist Convergence and refugee-rights groups like the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees. “They want coverage and I want to write interesting and important stories.” Even Singh acknowledges that not all his dealings with the media have been bad. “There are some journalists who are willing to take time on a story,” says Singh. “That doesn’t mean days, it just means making a couple of calls and getting all the background information so the story is not exploitative.” Yet, while journalists and activists may both live by the old adage of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, a reporter must maintain some objectivity while an activist will always adhere to a clear agenda. “The relationship can be positive,” suggests Strategic Communications’s Willis, “as long as there is a real distinction between what each group does.”

There’s a real distinction at the Journal between reporting on activism and reporting on environmental issues. In contrast to Gregoire’s unhappy experience in 2002, award-winning features writer Ed Struzik produces first-rate environment stories, and Hanneke Brooymans has covered the environment daily for about three years. “It’s a major issue here in Edmonton,” she says, “but the environment is something everyone is interested in, right?” Not everyone – after all, Brooymans is one of only a few environment beat reporters working at newspapers in Canada. Part of her approach to covering the beat is to speak to a variety of organizations on a regular basis. She believes many groups – including the Pembina Institute, a Calgary think tank, and Clean Air Strategic Alliance, which is concerned with air quality in Alberta – help her present balanced stories. Still, she never assumes an organization is reputable right away. “I look at how long it has been around and talk to colleagues about their dealings with the organization. It takes time to establish an opinion.” And, like Mitchell, Brooymans has been duped once before, though she’s unwilling to divulge any details. “But I see no reason to begin distrusting all activists as a result.”

A group she does maintain a close relationship with is the Sierra Club. With 10,000 members and active since 1963, the group is dedicated to protecting our ecosystem from hazards, including toxic chemicals and human over-consumption. “We rely on the media a tremendous amount,” admits Sonja Mihelcic, the prairie chapter director. “But reporters depend on us too, especially if they have a looming deadline.” Some journalists have interviewed Mihelcic at length and then used only the most controversial statement, or omitted her point of view entirely. Brooymans isn’t one of them, though. In fact, she and Mihelcic talk several times a year and the two hold one another in high regard. “The Sierra Club is a group I have come to rely on as being knowledgeable, eloquent, and well-versed,” Brooymans says. In October 2004, for instance, Brooymans covered the release of the Sierra Club’s annual report card. In an article headlined, “Alberta fails environment exam: Sierra Club’s assessment superficial, government says,” Brooymans gives voice to both government sources and the environmental group. Of course, it doesn’t mean the Sierra Club or other groups get all the coverage they want. “The story,” the reporter says, “still has to have a hook and be relatively new.”

It’s difficult to produce fresh and engaging environment stories day after day, but Brooymans knows that including a range of voices gives her pieces depth. “That’s what journalism is about,” says Tremonti, who is now the host of CBC Radio’s The Current. “We’re supposed to go into the corners that might make people uncomfortable, because then, maybe, they’ll start thinking.” Ultimately, getting into those corners requires shedding the contempt that marks the typical activist-journalist relationship, a strengthening of trust, and the abandoning of detrimental labels, like those slapped on Gregoire. “To be an activist is not bad,” says Tremonti. “These are people who devote much time to figuring out what’s wrong with things and how to make them better.” And, for many journalists, that’s a resource too good to pass up.

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