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Posted by Tamara Baluja on December 16, 2013

By Neal Ozano

Can a journalist also be an activist? When Halifax Media Co-op journalist Miles Howe was arrested Nov. 26 for the third time by New Brunswick RCMP, many questioned if he was indeed a journalist. Howe was reporting about SWN Resources’ exploration for natural gas near the small community of Rexton and the Elsipogtog First Nation, which claims the land.

During the arrest, police seized Howe’s cellphone and camera and to-date have not returned it, claiming they form part of an ongoing investigation.

Howe lived among protesters at their camp for more than a month, where he did much more than take notes—he took sides. At a speech uploaded to YouTube on July 8, 2013, Howe addressed the protesters, saying “I want all to be united in purpose, and that is, no shale gas in New Brunswick, and no shale gas in the Maritimes.”

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 It’s comments like these that led St. Thomas University Professor Philip Lee to argue that Howe wasn’t a journalist on a segment of CBC New Brunswick’s  Information Morning on Dec. 1, titled “Journalist or  Blogger?”

 “(He) can’t be involved to the degree he is and be considered an independent investigative journalist,” Lee said on CBC.

 The Media Co-op called for an apology and retraction after the CBC segment aired, as well as equal airtime for Howe, who was not invited to the panel. Lee  refused to apologize. When asked to explain why, Lee told J-Source, “I don't think you can, in a clear-headed, open-minded way, pursue true stories when you  are invested in a cause, when the objective of your reporting  is a particular political outcome.”

 But Howe said the work he does is just journalism from a different perspective. “This is my beat. That’s all that’s really happening here. I don’t think people would  get this (information) otherwise,” Howe said.

 “It’s a perspective, and an aspect of the narrative that hasn’t necessarily been given attention in this area, maybe ever,” Howe said. “So, fuck it, right? That’s  important work and I’m quite willing to do it by attempting to put it into some perspective.”

 The 36-year-old Halifax reporter likely doesn’t fit most mainstream media’s concept of a “journalist.” At the end of the CBC panel, host Terry Seguin said CBC’s  director of journalistic standards and practices, David Studer, said CBC couldn’t call Howe one, because “journalists are supposed to be fair, balanced and  neutral.”


But Howe’s brand of activist journalism is gaining credibility among other mainstream journalists.

During the same CBC discussion, CBC veteran and retired Halifax Chronicle Herald editor Dan Leger called Howe “a hot-headed fanatic.” But in an email to J-Source, Leger said Howe’s brand of “participatory journalism,” as he calls it, “has a place within the spectrum [of mainstream media] (of Canada’s media).” Leger said pieces by Howe on SNW’s alleged breaking of New Brunswick’s Oil and Natural Gas Act and former premier Shawn Graham’s family connections to fossil fuel rights in New Brunswick “are perfectly suitable pieces of reporting that would be taken seriously by any publication.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists also came out in support of Howe saying in a press release that “it’s inexcusable police would detain any journalist for doing their jobs, especially the same journalist for the third time in months.”

And far from being alone in his field, Howe’s ilk is part of a rising tide of “journalists” who either join up with (or actively deride) the movements or people they write about.

One of those is Halifax’s The CoastWeekly news editor Tim Bousquet, who said “balance is bullshit.” The Coast garnered its first-ever Michener nomination in 2012 for Bousquet’s writing about the estate of Mary Thibeault, who died leaving Halifax mayor Peter Kelly as executor of her $650,000 will. For eight years, Thibeault’s benefactors went unpaid while Kelly skimmed $160,000 from the estate. He didn’t run again for the mayor’s seat in 2012, and was removed as executor of the will, likely because of Bousquet’s reporting.

There was rarely any doubt in Bousquet’s reporting whether he thought Kelly was guilty. As a writer, he wore his biases on his sleeve, for all to see. “It’s fine to have bias, I mean, we all have bias, so it seems to me better to be upfront about that, or to be obvious about it; this is how I’m viewing that story,” Bousquet told J-Source.

Bousquet has also been critical of Halifax’s Trade Centre Limited, which runs the city’s main sports centre and convention centre virtually without oversight, and the construction of a gigantic second downtown convention centre, which he asserts is guaranteed to lose money and is being built on false financial premises.

“I don’t try to hide that in some fake bullshit objective reporting around it. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m critical of it. I’m looking at this institution, and I’m going to look at it through the lens of someone who’s quite critical of it,’” he said.

Could this type of journalism be on the rise? 

Ben Sichel, one of the founders of Halifax Media Co-op, said if the numbers mean anything, more people are finding its brand of activist journalism worth supporting. Sichel says just a year ago, “our entire budget for the national media co-op was comparable to one CBC reporter’s starting salary.” According to Media Co-op documents, the organization brought in just over $102,000 between April 2012, and March 2013, through grants, donations, and subscriptions. And in the two weeks before Dec. 6, during the peak of Howe’s coverage (and his arrest), the Co-op added 40 new paid subscribers who were willing to pay, despite the fact that the content is free.

Howe has got a new camera and phone through crowdsourcing to replace the ones seized by the RCMP. He just hopes his words have some effect on the people reading them.

“I write in the hopes that … the people involved in it can gather information from it, and potentially, at best, see themselves reflected in it as well, so they can feel that this is from the perspective of a resistance—this is what it looks like,” he said.“Is that journalism? Yeah, I think it is.”

CORRECTION: Two quotations from Philip Lee that originally appeared in this story but were later shown to have been taken out of context were removed on Dec. 17, 2013.



Neal Ozano is the former editor of OpenFile Halifax and has reported for the Halifax Daily News, CBC Radio, Halifax Magazine and numerous other publications. He has worked previously as Howe’s editor on one occasion.  


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As a big consumer of news in its many forms, my question w/ activist journalists is how does one recognize the difference between facts and opinion? While I don't believe pure objectivity in reporting is possible, I wonder how becoming part of the story in the way Mr. Howe is improving the profession?  I do see that his reporting is, at times, incomplete, and contains very little balance. Is journalism without balance still journalism? I'm not sure it is. 

If the Halifax media coop were providing balance to its coverage of the ongoing dispute, then having competing voices might provide it. Some the information shared by Mr. Howe is devoid of context, follow up, and /or "both sides" of the story. In his reporting he is clearly and admittedly trying to influence the public opinion to see the world as he does, and so, as such, may withhold information which may not reflect positively on his cause. 

Does he provide valuable information for readers to digest? Undoubtedly. But is it journalism or is it editorial opinion based on Mr. Howe's biases?

If this is the changing face of journalism, I am concerned, because while Mr. Howe's intention is to stop shale gas development at any cost, I'm assuming that his reports will not provide balance and therefore should be viewed skeptically, and unfortunately, more than the main stream media, which I always read with a great deal of skepticism. 

Professional's may consider it journalism, but,  in my opinion, I don't think it is a healthy form of journalism and further erodes the public trust in journalists generally. 




The question is backwards.

Can activists be journalists? No.

 They are propogandists.

Can journalists be activists? No.

Journalists carry a sacred trust relationship with their readers that they are obligated to protect and to ensure that in fact they are presenting the facts to the reader, as clear of bias as possible. 

This new breed of activist-journalist does not carry that responsibility nor can they when their entire premise is that they are providing a point of view. Normally we place that on the editorial page or from columnists. In those venues the reader knows exactly what they are getting...someone's opinion.

 Activisits who pose as journalists, remember the days when it was only undercover police who did that, mislead their readers and should simply be upfront with their readers. They are activisits and here is what I think...and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, that changes when they attempt to pose as journalists.

 Milan Kundera told us "The journalist is not merely the one who asks questions but the one who has a sacred right to ask, to ask anyone about anything...the power of the journalist is not based on the right to ask, but on the right to demand an anwer."

 An activist posing as a journalist breeches that sacred trust. And it is a serious issue for the CAJ. When we tell a Senator he cannot be a freelance journalist how do we justifiy activists coming out of the woods claiming to be freelancers posing for pseudo propoganda sheets/newspapers and grabbing press credentials from these alleged newspapers. 

We are unfortunately in our area experiencing exactly this kind of creeping phenomenon as a group of activists launched  what they call a weekly newspaper but it is in fact political propoganda sheet and there is nothing wrong with that, but we must call a spade a spade and be honest with our readers.

 That honesty and openess is the line that divides the journalist from this novelty of an activist turned journalist who is hiding behind press credentials to voice their opinion and gain access to decision makers. And that my fellow journalists serves only to discredit journalism.

Lynda Powless


Turtle Island News

Activists not journalists? What a line.

"David Onley, a journalist and high-profile advocate for people with disabilities will be installed as Ontario's 28th Lieutenant Governor at the Ontario Legislature." Ottawa Citizen Sept 5 2007.

One man's advocate is another man's activist is, in another country, a person committing treason against the state. 

That is such a bogus argument about "traditional" media having no bias. My dad was CBC News Director for New Brunswick. For decades CBC could not have local station because Irving Corp lobbied the Federal government (Liberal and Conservative). The whole province was controlled by Irving media interests. The agreement to open Fredericton was the stories that reflected on Irving interests had to be vetted by the Station Manager, who would regularly kill anything about pollution etc since Irving was a major contributor. My Dad got a reprimand about one story.

Same situation in Halifax. Captain Briggs who ran Halifax had his pet topics and he forbid any news story that went against the "party line".

All media in Canada is controlled by a few people. CTV/Bell/Globe and Mail, Transcontintal, CBC, Pellideau. Anyone working for those organizations knows the rules. Like CTV will not report on the CBC.

The only liklihood of getting some honest reporting is from people like Tim at the Coast and bloggers. Of course they can get it wrong, and have bias. That's no different than the Executive Director of every CBC News room who censors the news by controlling assignments and killing stories that are politically incorrect. "Sorry Bob or Barb, your story got cut. Not enough time in the broadcast."  How do you keep a CBC reporter in line? Pay them $102,000 a year.

The Supreme Court of Canada gave the same rights to free expression that the big boys have to the new media types. Learn to live with it.

The question is backwards.

An activist posing as a journalist is a propogandist.

A journalist becoming an activist owes his readers an explanation.

In this case the gentleman is clearing attempting to providing his insight into a national story and should have been interviewed not treated as a journalist. The fear now is how will the CAJ differentiate between activists posing as journalists to control the message and authentic journalists?

 I pose the question because an activist newspaper that has arisen in our territory is posing as a newspaper but is indeed headed by well known activists so is it a newspaper or a propoganda sheet. I would think the latter and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, except it misleads readers and violates a sacred trust that exists between a journalist and its readers.  As Milan Kundera told us "The journalist is not merely the one who asks questions but the one who has a sacred right ot ask, to ask anyone about anything...the power of the journalist is not based on the right to ask but on the right to demand an answer."

 No where in that quote did he mention this new breed of activist-journalist and neither should he. Posing is a journalist has using been relegated to the world of under cover cops. Now we  see activist claiming to be journalists to demand answers and put the journalist sacred trust at risk.


I disagree :)

All papers have bias. We have come to accept the mainstream bias because it represents the Family Compact - Your In Good Hands With The Harper Government. 

What did the Globe and Mail recently announce? They just want readers who are rich. Wow that's a bias that will slant every story towards low levels of social benefits and low taxes on the rich. According to your rules, that bias should be on their masthead.

The Toronto Star was always known to be a Liberal paper so there's bias but it was not a statement on the editorial page.

What's CBC's bias? Telling Canadians how wonderful the CBC is, how "exclusive" their stories are, how lucky we are not to catch "health-scare-of-the-week" and how evil the Sun is.

The National Post has bias and old Conrad Black always had bias but now it has shifted to sympathy for the high-and-mighty-rich who have fallen from grace.

The internet is full of bias but it is pretty apparent to the wise reader.

What we don't need is censorship, by the government or by self-interested media barrons. It's a brave new world.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.