On the national security beat: Michelle Shephard
How the Toronto Star reporter brings global conflicts home
By Vibhu Gairola
There’s often a half-packed bag at the foot of Michelle Shephard’s bed. Into the bag go writing and recording materials; one of her Nikons (she has a D90 and a D300s); a Maglite and a spare cellphone; clothes, sunblock and basic first-aid necessities; and running shoes, when possible. Before she goes, the Toronto Star’s national security reporter discusses story ideas with her editor, Lynn McAuley, and when they decide on one, Shephard says the appropriate see-you-laters—to her husband of 15 years, Starphotojournalist Jim Rankin; to her parents and three older sisters (although she once left without telling them where she was going); and to the two cats, Bernstein and Deep Throat, who will keep Rankin company while she’s away. “Bernstein sees when she has her bags packed and knows when she’s leaving,” Rankin says, “and she gets mopey. DT is oblivious.”
In the past, when the budget allowed, Shephard would travel with photographers; today, she most often works alone. While travelling, she usually reads up on the story she’s about to cover. Sometimes she sleeps, because, as she says, “I’m not a big chatter on planes.” Other times, she watches movies like Twilight, which she knows Rankin will refuse to watch with her back home. Meals are spartan affairs that usually involve hard-boiled eggs.
Stories and independent documentary projects can take Shephard through as many as 10 airports in 18 days, to places such as Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and behind the barbed wire of Guantanamo Bay. But the goal doesn’t change: she shuttles into and out of countries to investigate issues of national security and their fallout.
Budget cuts in Canadian newsrooms mean shuttered bureaus and more news reports picked off the wire. Few journalists are posted abroad anymore, and few conduct original reporting overseas on the company dime. Shephard’s beat is a hybrid, blending foreign correspondence with national security coverage. Cloak-and-dagger conversations about government intrigue and personal rights inform her stories. When she reports on national security, she writes about the people on the ground in ways that make them relatable to Canadian readers. Todd Breasseale, a lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Army and the man who manages Guantanamo Bay’s press dealings, puts it best: “Shephard is at once thorough, but also dispassionate. Her news reporting is very factual, but it is also uniquely humanizing.”
Although the future of the foreign correspondent is uncertain, and most non-Canadian foreign reports don’t explain the extent of Canada’s overseas interests, readers still want original reporting that allows them to understand this country’s place on the international stage. For now, at least, Shephard’s track record is proof that journalism of this kind can come from a Toronto-based reporter with half-packed bags. “The idea of foreign correspondence, nowadays anyway, is somebody in Johannesburg who is covering the whole continent of Africa,” says Shephard. But with something as convoluted and draining as national security, the 41-year-old says, “You just need people who are going to specialize.”
“There’s no question that 9/11 put my career in a different direction,” says Shephard. “If I hadn’t called my assignment desk and travelled down there. . . .” She was a 29-year-old city reporter covering crime when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. “I was the rookie on that story.” She drove to New York with Bill Schiller, a foreign correspondent for the Star, and Dale Brazao, one of the paper’s award-winning investigative reporters. Rankin and colleague Joe Hall made their way to Boston, from where the doomed flights had departed, while Rosie DiManno and two Star photographers joined their colleagues in New York.
They all stayed at the Algonquin Hotel and shared their ritual of morning coffee at a nearby deli. Schiller and DiManno usually reported on big events like then-president Bush’s speeches, and Shephard recalls that when others would discuss their story intentions over breakfast, “I would just listen to what they were doing, and I would do whatever they weren’t.”
Today, she acknowledges the privilege of having been a rookie on a topic as limitless as 9/11. While DiManno, Schiller and Brazao followed their own leads, Shephard had the time to immerse herself in different parts of New York, from firehouses to Afghan restaurants. “But I could do that,” she says with a quick smile, “because I was the add-on.”
Straddling both crime and security stories after 9/11 was a tough slog. “I was very much an A27 reporter,” she admits. But, having covered Toronto’s gang warfare in the late 1990s, Shephard was used to difficult stories that involved long-held grudges, machetes and death. It wasn’t long before she saw a similarity between crime reporting and security stories: “This idea that you can perpetrate violence against somebody because you object to them on a fundamental level,” she says. “In a weird way, it was a foreign extension to what I was covering.”
John Ferri, the Star’s digital editor, was the first to ask Shephard if she wanted to cover national security full time when he was city editor in the early 2000s. She began travelling regularly for the beat in 2006 under David Walmsley, now CBC’s director of content. “Where do you need to go?” he asked. “Go with a photographer for two weeks.” She went to Pakistan. These days, she works most closely with McAuley, an uncompromising editor known for her blue pen, who started managing the foreign desk in 2011.
Shephard’s ethos is simple: “If I want to find something out, I just keep going at it.” Living in Toronto helps, too, because it’s one of the most diverse cities in the world. “Any country you want to go report on,” she says, “you can go 20 minutes from the newsroom and find somebody who’s an expert.” Over coffee dates, she has painstakingly nurtured contacts within Canada’s intelligence community, on condition of anonymity, because “it’s not in their interest to talk, except when it is.”
New experiences are a big part of the beat. In 2009, Shephard tried khat for the first time, because chewing the leaves for an amphetamine-like effect is common in many African and Middle Eastern cultures. She felt the full effect in 2011 on only her second chew, and it kept her up until 4 a.m. With rumours that Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group al-Shabab was being funded by khat money, and reports of seizures of the plant at Canadian airports, McAuley and Shephard developed a plan to follow khat “from soil to parking lot.”
The article, published in August 2012, revealed how the Somalis in Toronto argue for and against decriminalizing the drug. “The link to national security was tenuous,” Shephard admits, but the story showed khat to be a cultural and economic force with ties to Canada and the United Kingdom—not just an East African concern.
Stories like this are reminders that national security is not always about collateral damage and shadowy government policies. Shephard isn’t a war correspondent or conflict reporter, and hasn’t yet been embedded in the military. She doesn’t usually wear protective gear while on location, because when it comes to interviewing civilians, she says, “There’s nothing worse than coming out in a Kevlar vest and a helmet, and they’re in a sarong and flip-flops.” And Shephard stays in her hotel if the situation gets too dangerous. “We have a safety protocol,” says McAuley,“so she has to tell me every day when she’s in and out, especially in a place like Mogadishu.
That’s where she met Ismail Kalif Abdulle in 2010. He was 17 when al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that recruits young men, publicly amputated his right hand and left foot because of his refusal to join. Shephard’s story about Abdulle led to Project Ismail, a campaign started by the Somali community in Toronto to get Abdulle out of Mogadishu. The teenager eventually gained refugee status in Norway, and today he is attempting to secure citizenship. But it is impossible for Shephard to forget how innocents like Abdulle are exposed to needless violence.
Her own upbringing, on the other hand, was fairly innocuous. Shephard was born in Toronto and raised north of the city, in Thornhill. Aside from the time her family spent in Hawaii when she was in kindergarten, she hasn’t lived outside of Canada for more than six weeks. She admits she used to have a simplistic, Manichean perspective of the world and how its legal systems worked. “Now I try not to be cynical, but it’s very clear that justice means different things to different people and different countries, and unfortunately, the life of one person is not considered the same around the world.”
Shephard and Abdulle are now friends. Last November, after working on a documentary in Amsterdam, she visited him in Norway for the fifth time, and her parents sent him a care package that included a Toronto Maple Leafs scarf, a shirt from Roots and mittens from The Bay.
His is one of the stories Shephard cannot let go of, and his name sits above Rankin’s on the dedication page of her 2011 book, Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism’s Grey Zone.
Decade of Fear was meant to be Shephard’s goodbye to the national security beat. But now she says, “It’s taken me 10 years to get some expertise on this issue, so it does seem a shame to just move on.” That reasoning makes sense, given the expansive and amorphous nature of the beat. Paul Champ, an Ottawa-based human rights lawyer who deals with national security issues, defines a security concern as “something that is against the safety and interests of the state.” This includes any form of violence for political, as opposed to pecuniary, gain—any impediment to the activities of the state can qualify as a security challenge. That’s why the Canadian government keeps track of suspected security threats even if they aren’t operating on domestic soil or specifically targeting Canadian citizens.
The sensitivity of security concerns means a large part of the decision-making process is confidential and inaccessible to most people. By this standard, people in power can use the blanket term “national security” to justify myriad actions, including clamping down on debate and dissidence. That’s why many perspectives are needed within the field to keep governments responsible and readers informed.
Shephard tells stories from the perspective of those most affected by unrest and pain. Champ believes her defining characteristic is writing empathetically, “even when it’s a situation that’s very difficult to relate to, even when it’s a unique situation that most people couldn’t imagine.” Others, such as The Globe and Mail’s Colin Freeze, Champ says, look at security issues from the perspective of the states involved.
Reporter Graeme Smith was posted to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009 for the Globe, but few Canadian staff reporters live in wartorn countries or terrorism hot spots today. This is sometimes fortunate—both international and local journalists within zones of unrest often become targets themselves. In February 2007, Smith’s Kandahar bureau was raided by masked gunmen. Later that spring, he was caught in a firefight between Taliban and British forces, and, in 2009, he had to leave Afghanistan because some potentially dangerous people were looking for him. Immersed storytellers like Smith and shuttle journalists like Shephard are necessary—while the former get to experience the heart of the country, the latter fly back home to keep up with the conversations of policy-makers here in Canada.
Smith says Shephard “manages to take the same empathy you’d bring to a story about some kid who’s disadvantaged, who lives in some slummy part of Toronto, to people on the other side of the planet.” He also cites Shephard as a mentor in the acknowledgements of his first book, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, which won the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Shephard’s empathy is costly in a field as marred as the national security beat is by the dark facets of human nature. The good and bad memories of a journalist’s travels often must be confined to token objects. Smith still keeps a ballpoint pen given to him in 2007 by a detainee he interviewed in an Afghan prison, and Shephard, who doesn’t otherwise enjoy shopping, has a huge collection of scarves; her favourite is an orange and red one from Jordan.
Even though her mode of operation means she doesn’t deal with long episodes of violence or with direct threats, she tries to hide the pain she experiences on the job. “When you’re dealing with people who are going through tragedy, they don’t need to be looking after you,” she says. “So you try to keep it together.”
Keeping it together can be as simple as playing foosball to reduce stress; Shephard also loves to run and to spin. She jokes that she initially pursued her certification as a spin instructor in 2007 as a form of procrastination while writing her first book. Today, she says she keeps “the legs spinning to stop the head.”
Shephard says what’s frustrating about her job is that “you can’t cover everything. I constantly feel like I’m not covering what I should be . . . and these stories just keep on going.” She also keeps on going, perhaps to her own detriment. A reputation for never saying “no” hangs about her. And McAuley admits matter-of-factly, “I wish sometimes that she would not take on so much, just for her own sake and sanity.”
It used to be just writing books and articles on the beat. Now Shephard is on the board of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression; she writes stories for the Star, has published two books and a Guantanamo-centred ebook and helps with independent documentaries when she can. “I’ve let things slide a little,” she says. In moments of fatigue, she admits to being inundated with board responsibilities or the fear that she isn’t pulling her weight. The self-confessed Twitter addict feels swamped with emails— “which I never used to!”—and forgets to respond to them sometimes. “I just feel like now I am mad at myself that I’m making people feel that way.”
One of Shephard’s biggest sources of comfort is Rankin. “You cover traumatic things,” she says. “The politics of our paper are sometimes overwhelming—you have to remember a life outside of that.” That life includes watching Homeland with Rankin, when they have the time, and vacationing in remote, sans-Wi-Fi destinations where Shephard reads as many as six books while the neighbours watch the cats back home. “For us, that’s a reconnect,” she says. Costa Rica used to be a favourite destination, but now there are too many wireless access points to sever her connection to the real world.
Three-and-a-half hours away from Shephard and Rankin’s home in Toronto’s Leslieville, Algonquin Park is fast becoming their holiday spot of choice. The two rent a canoe and travel from Smoke Lake to Canoe Lake. After the first portage, there is no phone service. These times are never really about the great outdoors. “I want to be unreachable,” says Shephard. “I want to stop talking about everything.”
- Mental health: why journalists don’t get help in the workplace
- Caught on Camera: How citizen video told Sammy Yatim’s story
- More Than a Love of Craft
- The Brampton Guardian’s Uphill Battle
- How BlackBerry execs bullied journalists and why nobody fought back
- Sally Armstrong: the editor who changed women’s magazines
Vibz Gairola was the Production Editor for the Spring 2014 issue of Ryerson Review of Journalism.