During the chaos of the G20 summit, news came from many sources–some
credible, some incredible. Has journalism degenerated into amateur hour?
This week, we feature Michelle Medford‘s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.
Fenced in by wire and concrete, guarded by thousands of police officers dressed in riot gear with gas masks and shields, G20 leaders gathered inside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre at the end of June for their fourth summit. Police had already made 32 G20- related arrests in the week leading up to the meeting that began on June 26, 2010, but by the end of the weekend, after several protests, riots and acts of vandalism, the tally rocketed to more than 1,000. Although already astonished by the level of violence in the city and the rising number of arrests, there was one moment that clearly surprised CTV News Channel reporter Scott Laurie while on air: the arrest of his producer, Farzad Fatholahzadeh. The crew immediately turned to catch a shot of two police officers escorting their colleague away, his hands behind his back, secured by a plastic tie, his press pass in clear sight around his neck.
Fatholahzadeh wasn’t the only one representing the “legacy” media who was cuffed, roughed up or booked by police that unsettling weekend. Others included The Globe and Mail’s social media columnist Lisan Jutras; National Post photographers Brett Gundlock and Colin O’Connor as well as Post interns Liem Vu and Cory Ruf; The McGill Daily reporter Stephen Davis; and Torontolife.com freelancer Aaron Leaf.
Then there were the “alternative,” or “independent,” or even freelance journalists who were accorded similar treatment. One was Jesse Rosenfeld, a Canadian freelancer writing for the Guardian’s online Comment Is Free section. When Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda, caught sight of Rosenfeld’s arrest, he took the news to his Twitter page, tweeting “the journalist identified himself as working for ‘the guardian.’ he talked too much and pissed the police off. two officers held him”; “a third punched him in the stomach. totally unnecessary. the man collapsed. then the third officer drove his elbow into the man’s back”; “no cameras recorded the assault. and it was an assault.” Police charged Rosenfeld with breach of the peace, though this was later dropped.
Others included Jesse Freeston, of the alt-media site The Real News Network; Adam MacIsaac, who was covering the summit for the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition; and Amy Miller, a Montreal-based freelance journalist who contributes to little-known monthly magazine The Dominion.
Naturally, Canadian media organizations were outraged. “When a major disturbance occurs in Canada’s largest city, the role of the journalist is to inform the public,” said Arnold Amber, president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, in a press release following the protests. “There is no reason for them to have been detained or attacked while doing their work.” The Canadian Association of Journalists president, Mary Agnes Welch, echoed Amber in a public statement: “This kind of behaviour by police toward the media is not acceptable in a democracy like Canada.”
The expressions of disapproval weren’t confined to Canada. On his organization’s website, Anthony Mills of the International Press Institute said, “We are concerned at the reports that journalists covering the G20 summit were arrested and allegedly assaulted by police.Journalists have a right to cover such events, including any protests that accompany them, without interference or harassment from police.”
Soon, though, the collective outrage over the treatment of their fellow journalists began to splinter. On Sunday, June 27, the G20 leaders and their entourages started heading home, but even as the security fences were coming down, the clash over who exactly constitutes “the media” was escalating.
Globe reporter and columnist Christie Blatchford touched off the first skirmish with her July 2 column. She was blunt: just because you’ve published your opinions on a website doesn’t make you a journalist. “First, journalism is not merely a collective of the self-anointed,” she declared. “For all that it may not be a regulated profession, neither is it just a coming together of people with cellphones, video cameras and blogs as receptacle [sic] for an apparently endless stream of unfiltered, unedited consciousness.” In regard to the various independent or alternative journalists who have complained about their treatment, she wrote, “[L]et us not pretend that these folks are working journalists or that they are the equivalent.”
Why? “Their work isn’t subject to editing or lawyering or the ethical code which binds, for example, the writers at the Globe. The websites on which they appear don’t belong, as do most reputable newspapers in this province, to the Ontario Press Council, a body which hears complaints against traditional journalists and publications.”
A few days later, Ira Basen, a columnist for CBC.ca who has worked for CBC Radio since 1984, published “The New Journalism and the G20,” exploring the same issue somewhat less acerbically. He welcomed the trend toward media democratization—“the ability of people who were previously denied a voice in the mainstream to now have their voices heard is undeniably a cause for celebration”—but pointed out that there is a definite downside: “When everyone is a journalist, no one is a journalist.” Read the rest.