Equity-seeking journalists including women and racialized reporters investigate some of the most important and hidden stories. Whether writing articles for newspapers or magazines, editing, posting on social media or digital media, or blogging, we need them to give voice to issues otherwise unheard. This makes the harassment and abuse they experience at disproportionate levels particularly vexing. It’s harmful to them as people and media workers, and it runs counter to the goal of making things better and fairer in Canada. We can’t achieve that goal without a diverse news media landscape and truth in reporting.
Every year, the Canadian Women’s Foundation presents The Landsberg Award in partnership with The Canadian Journalism Foundation to acknowledge and inspire feminist journalism It’s named after iconic journalist and author, Michele Landsberg. Past winners include Connie Walker, investigative reporter behind CBC’s Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo podcast, author and journalist Elizabeth Renzetti, and Toronto Star’s Alyshah Hasham and Wendy Gillis.
We’re joined by Robyn Doolittle, who won the Landsberg in 2018, and Christina Frangou, who won this year.
Robyn Doolittle is member of The Globe and Mail’s investigative team and a two-time winner of Canada’s Michener Award. She has probed suspicious business contracts, political corruption, and Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her “Unfounded” investigation, which explored the ways that Canadian police services handle sexual assault cases, prompted a national overhaul of policy, training and practices around sexual violence. Her latest book, “Had It Coming – What’s Fair In The Age of #MeToo?” was shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction. Doolittle was named Journalist of the Year in 2017.
Christina Frangou is a journalist, writer, and editor based in Calgary, Alberta. Her reporting has garnered multiple awards and nominations. She specializes in writing about health, medicine, and social issues: in 20+ years as a journalist, she’s written about addiction, bereavement, refugee health, firearm violence, safe consumption sites, and medical assistance in dying. On the lighter side, she writes about things like skiing and traveling and her favourite hairstylist. Selected credits include: The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Walrus, Maclean’s, Chatelaine, and Reader’s Digest.
Feminist journalism and journalists speaking to gender justice are vital, and they’re at risk.
What can we do?
I’m Andrea Gunraj at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
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Equity seeking journalists, including women and racialized reporters, investigate some of the most important and hidden stories. I was thinking about them on World News Day, September 28th. We need them to give voice to issues that are otherwise unheard. It makes the harassment and abuse they experience at disproportionate levels particularly vexing to me. It’s harmful to them as people and media workers, and it’s self-defeating for any of us who care about making things better and fairer in Canada. We can’t achieve our goals without a diverse media landscape and truth in reporting.
Every year, the Canadian Women’s Foundation presents the Landsberg Award in partnership with the Canadian Journalism Foundation. It’s named after the iconic journalist and author Michele Landsberg. We do it to acknowledge and inspire feminist journalism. Past winners include Connie Walker, investigative reporter behind CBC’s Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo podcast. Author and journalist Elizabeth Renzetti and Toronto Stars’ Alicia Hashem and Wendy Gillis. Today I’m joined by Robyn Doolittle, who won the Landsberg in 2018, and Christina Frangou, who won this year. Here’s a bit about them, starting with Christina.
So, I’m a freelance journalist who lives in Calgary, Alberta. I am someone who, I think, always wanted to be a journalist- that’s how I ended up here. I grew up in Saskatchewan and I grew up in a house where journalism was incredibly revered. My dad’s family were refugees and they lived in the same house with us when I was growing up and so we had loyalty to journalism that I think was unusual. I remember my dad having a subscription to The Guardian when I was a kid, like it would be sent from the UK all the way to our house in Saskatchewan. He had a subscription to newspapers from Cyprus that his brother would send. They’d come every day wrapped in blue paper. And so, I think I always understood that journalism played a really special role in shedding light on injustice and telling stories about people that were maybe not being paid attention to in the communities where they live.
The other part I think of my growing up that’s still a big part of my life is I grew up in a house where we talked about health care all the time. Both my parents were health care workers. My dad was an international medical graduate who had come to Canada and was a doctor in a rural community. We lived in a house that literally backed onto the hospital parking lot and I remember him, you know, racing out of the house if it was a very big emergency, he’d drive the half block to get to the side door of the hospital. There were a lot of discussions in my house growing up about barriers to health care, about difficulties people had in accessing health care, and it was very clear to me at an early age that Canada’s health care systems are very reliant on the willingness of certain individuals to work at more than 100%. I think we are starting to see the collapse of that kind of a system.
I started freelancing about 15 years ago to make money for grad school, and I started covering an area of healthcare that’s very male dominated. I was writing a lot about surgery. And I think at the time maybe 25% of surgeons, general surgeons, were women. And so, I really, over 15 years had an opportunity to report firsthand on what women were doing in the field to make change and I learned a lot about the way that unconscious bias affects health care outcomes. That’s really the recurring theme in my reporting, across my career. I did a lot of medical reporting early on because I was supporting my husband through medical school and residency. He died right at the end of residency from cancer and that has had a huge effect on the way my career has played out. I always wanted to do more feature writing when he was done training. I thought I’d be able to do it knowing that I’d have some financial support. I decided that I wanted to do it anyway, even though he wasn’t around anymore. It was important to me to try, and so I’m very aware of how hard it is to try and survive as a feature writer anywhere, but especially maybe in Canada where magazines don’t do a great job of supporting freelance writers financially. It’s always kind of been a field where it’s just easier to work if you’re already wealthy.
Well, I am a journalist with The Globe and Mail. I’m a member of the investigative team. I came to the paper in 2014 after spending about a decade at The Toronto Star and when I was at The Star, I was a general assignment reporter. I covered police. I covered City Hall. In terms of the types of stories I like to cover, wow, I mean it’s really evolved throughout my career, but to be totally cliche, I like to hold power to account. I mean, one thing that I’m really aware of whenever I walk through the doors at The Globe is that there’s just a very small media footprint in Canada. I am really lucky to work at a place that has resources. So, I want to use those resources and use the rope that my bosses give me to go after stories that aren’t being told.
In recent years, some of the stories that I’ve done that have gotten the most attention are really focused on the gender gap. You know, whether it’s the investigation that we did called Unfounded, looking at how police handle or mishandle, I should rather say, sexual assault cases. Or our recent series called The Power Gap, which looked at how women in the workplace continue to fail to advance, fail to be represented at the highest levels, but also in any management role. Those are the stories that are, you know, that have been top of mind of late.
Christina, you won the Lansberg award for stories about systemic discrimination in medical and legal systems. How would you boil down what you covered in those stories?
You know, it’s funny because all the stories that were included in my Lansberg nomination are so different. A few of them are the stories of women in extraordinary circumstances. And yet, there’s one theme throughout all of these, and it’s the same thing I’ve been reporting on my whole career. It’s that Canada’s health systems and legal systems were built by men and are designed for men, and even now continue to operate in a way that benefits men. And after all these decades, it is not self-correcting. I have an obligation as a journalist to write stories that’s not just about one interesting woman, but looking at the long history that led up to where she is now. And I think that’s the consistent theme in all these stories.
Robyn, you won the Lansberg award for your reporting on our flawed approaches to sexual assault investigations. What themes stood out for you?
That’s such a big question. There are, I mean, I’m just thinking off the top of my head, so many different routes I could go with that answer. But I guess, you know, so much of this comes back to this feeling that is pervasive in our society, and not just among, you know, among men and women, that sexual violence isn’t that big of a deal. I think that’s like, so much of what it comes down to, you know? You see this come up a lot in police investigations and there’s types of sexual violence that are taken very seriously. That cliched woman in a white dress from Sunday school, walking down the street, being nabbed and pulled into the bushes. Like that is the story that people are comfortable with, where we know it is for sure wrong.
When you get into situations like where there is sexual violence in an established couple, where they’ve had consensual sex in the past, there’s just this feeling that a rape with someone you’ve already had sex with is not as serious. I honestly think that that’s what it is, and it’s you see that when you look at sexual harassment in the workplace as well. It’s like, well, how big of a deal really is that? And that sense of like, “I don’t know how big of a deal this is”, really, it taints the reaction from companies, from authorities, from everyone, because, well, do you really want to send someone to jail over this? I mean, let’s talk about like, an incident of alleged sexual violence. “Well, they were both drinking, I don’t know, it’s kind of complicated…” To actually have real progress, we need to address that point, that feeling that “this isn’t really that big of a deal, can we all just move on?”
Can you tell us anything about the stories you’re working on now?
It’s very hard because I’m a freelancer, so I definitely can’t tell you anything in advance. But you know, I would say it again, ad nauseam perhaps, but continuing on with the same theme like I have two stories right now that are looking at failures in the medical system and the legal system, at the same time. You know, one story is about how a medical school ignored a problem within their ranks for a long time. It was very hard for people to speak out and this went on for a long time and it was only stopped when there were so many patients harmed by this that it became a legal issue as well as a problem within the medical system.
And that’s not rare, this is happening every day across Canada. It’s hard for people to make the decision to speak out. It’s hard for a journalist to pull all this together in a way that you can do these stories. The other thing I’ve been spending a ton of time on in the last couple of months is I’m doing a lot more teaching now. I’m really excited about the kind of work that young journalists in Canada are working on and their doggedness and their determination. These stories haven’t come to light yet. But you know, it’s a real feeling of being a super proud Mama bear watching new stories come together. I can’t wait for them to go out into the world.
Oh, wow. Well, when is this airing? I’m trying to think if I don’t want to scoop myself. Yeah, so the Power Gap series has been looking at different sectors and particularly in the public sector because we looked at data that was available around high income earners, so those are earned over $100,000. Because I really, I’m a big fan of like data transparency, that’s how you kind of move the needle, I think, is just putting actual numbers to it and not just kind of anecdotes. So, I have another, I think really great one with my colleague Cheng Wang around the pay gaps in medicine. We’re going to continue to do more work on the gaps in law, transitioning into other types of reporting that isn’t specifically related to gender, but I think will help the gaps. Because again, I just think, like so much of the problem in Canada, no matter what story that I’m working on, is around how opaque our society is. Like so many of these gaps, whether it’s a pay gap, whether it’s a promotion gap, whether it’s the gaps in terms of how police counts or manage or handle sexual assault cases, the gaps in their investigation, it’s all possible because it’s invisible to the public. And when you actually make this information out there to see, you can start tracking it. You can start applying policies and procedures to make things better and from there you can determine if things are improving or not. Like you have metrics with which to work on. So, I think a big priority for me is finding ways to make things more transparent and that’s ultimately going to lead to so much positive change.
We’re really concerned about harassment and abuse of women and racialized journalists. It seems to be a regular occurrence and it’s only growing. What can we do about it, Robyn?
If you frame the journalists who are covering you as part of the opposition and the public or your supporters accept that view, then it becomes very hard as a journalist to do your job because you’re defending your work and also yourself. So, I think that it was a, you know, a political tactic that some politicians and populist politicians in particular, have really glommed onto. And that’s partly why you’re seeing this rise. I think there’s a lot of misogyny and hate and homophobia and racism and transphobia out there, and people can feel big for a couple of minutes going on their device in their basement and banging out some horrific emails to people. I mean, the ideal situation would be that if you support a journalist and you want to help them out, like subscribe to their outlet, send their editor a note saying what great work they’re doing, leak them a story, you know, help them that way. I mean, I don’t really know what the solution is to this, which is the sad thing. I think there’s real work to be done on how we deal with these types of complaints and whether they’re taken seriously and investigated. We’re just kind of sorting through that, but it certainly makes the job very taxing, I will say. Like that you can’t just kind of put, you can’t just, like when I was in journalism school, I didn’t think about having to be, you know, a quote unquote public persona and getting attacked, right? Like, especially, you know, you’re a newspaper reporter, you’re not on television, your face is not out there. You just think you’re gonna be a byline and it’s a really difficult thing to navigate. It can be very draining and it can be scary and you can feel very alone. Especially, you know, if you’re feeling like you aren’t being supported. It’s just such a part of the job that people don’t, I think, realize just how draining it is. And you know, I have it much, much better than so many of my colleagues.
Christina, what can we do to support feminist journalism and feminist journalists today? Seeing the stories that are getting published, I feel we’re at a moment of both risk and renaissance.
I love this question, and I hope you have all afternoon for me. I like that you called it a renaissance. I don’t know if you are aware of this study, and it was an American one. It came out like five years ago, I can’t, no, you know what, it came out around the time that Trump was elected. I was looking at some of the coverage leading up to his election and looking at coverage of reproductive issues specifically. It found that the dominant voices in stories about reproductive issues were men, the majority of bylines were men, and the majority of sources were men. Is that still true today? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s as stark as it was. But I think it’s only changing because people are really, really pushing for change.
I guess I would answer your questions in two ways.
So, what can we do? What can readers do? What can people outside the world of journalism do?
I actually really struggle when I see blanket criticism of journalism, and we’ve seen a lot of this over the last two years. There was a very popular hashtag for a while, #canadianmediafailed. I would just ask people to be smarter and more specific in their criticisms. We have thick skin. We’re used to being criticized. We make mistakes. And you know, we don’t make them lightly. I think most of us carry like a, you know, a heavy weight every time we make a mistake. I know, I don’t sleep. By all means call out problems you see with stories or with journalists. But I would avoid sort of the blanket criticism of journalists because it feeds into the harassment of journalists that we’ve been talking about. It feeds into this world in which, you know, women journalists are being attacked, harassed, and sort of threatened in person and online every day and we’ve really seen an uptick in this in Canada over the last six months. There are, you know, half dozen women journalists, who are primarily women of color who are bearing the brunt of it. And we all have an obligation to speak out against this. And when you see that kind of harassment, please report it and speak out against it.
You know, put your money towards feminist journalism. Subscribe to organizations that you think are doing a good job. You know, I know a lot of Canadians subscribe to organizations like The Washington Post or The New York Times or The Atlantic or basically large American organizations. And that’s fine. But that’s not enough. We really need to be supporting journalists here at home. You know, I see complaints all the time, “Oh, this story has a paywall”, “This story has a paywall”. But, I’m telling you, journalists are not in this for the money. We’re not doing very well. Most of us are really working on these stories, especially for freelancers, because we think it’s important. We need money in able to keep doing this. You know, some organizations that I think are doing a good job. I think The Narwhal is doing a really good job, you know, I have a long home at Chatelaine, as did Michele Landsberg, and Chatelaine never shies away from these stories in my experience. The Globe does a really good job on this. I mean, Robyn’s work has been fantastic. And so, make sure that you’re supporting journalism in Canada.
I think there’s room for foundations to set up funds that can help women reporters. The National Women’s Media Foundation has funds that help freelancers go out and do stories, and I think that’s really where the future of journalism is. It’s people coming in and giving money to support setting up funds so that journalists can go out and do these stories. And it’s not lost on me that you know I’m speaking to you today. When we’re watching the situation in Iran, and it was, you know, a female journalist who broke that story, who went into the hospital, interviewed Mahsa Amini’s family. What we know of that journalist now is that she was arrested and she’s been in solitary confinement for the last week.
Alright, now, what?
Feminist journalism in Canada needs our support. Subscribing to outlets that do a great job of this reporting and promoting diverse voices is a good place to start.
Please stay tuned to the Canadian Women’s Foundation for more opportunities to support feminist journalism and equity seeking journalists addressing gender justice issues.
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