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Posted by H.G. Watson on October 12, 2016
There have been big changes in CBC newsrooms over the years. Photo courtesy Jimmy Thomson.

There have been big changes in CBC newsrooms over the years. Photo courtesy Jimmy Thomson.

By Trevor Hewitt

When Peter Mansbridge began working at a Winnipeg newsroom in 1971, there was only one woman in the entire newsroom.

Her job? Answering the phone and getting coffee.

That is until one day when someone asked her, yet again, to do what had become a routine coffee run for the office. “Get your own damn coffee!” she replied.

A year later, that same woman was the assignment editor for the entire newsroom.

On Sept, 30, a live CBC panel in Toronto featuring Mansbridge and other CBC reporters discussed how news is changing, what makes a good story great and how to get the most out of a piece. Though the panel unanimously agreed that newsrooms had become better at representing racial and gender equality, they also explained how social media has added a whole new facet to the ever-shifting industry, changing the way in which readers communicate and interact with reporters.

For Duncan McCue, a longtime reporter for the CBC’s The National, social media has been a real game changer. McCue said that one of the biggest changes ushered in by the Twitter era was a transition in communication between reader and reporter. Gone are the days where the most common method for readers to interact with a newsroom was letters to the editor and the occasional strongly-worded phone call. “It’s a 24-7 commentary holding us accountable for what we're putting out there,” he said.

It’s also leading to more accountability on both ends of the media spectrum. While it allows readers to critique and fact check reporters in real time, it also gives reporters the ability to interact with their readers from different locations in a completely new way. “I’ve gotten some pretty meaningful tips on stories from the engagement I’ve had on social media,” said Diana Swain, CBC’s senior investigative correspondent. “People see an initial story and they go, ‘Oh, you know what you really need to look at is this,’ and it leads you to the next step.”

Rosemary Barton, host of CBC’s Power & Politics, agrees. “It gives me… an access to the country, that maybe I wouldn’t get otherwise,” she said, adding that social media has necessitated changes to how programs are run. Power & Politics now features a constant stream of tweets and Facebook posts that the program incorporates into the broadcast in real time.

But it’s not all positive. Barton said that she feels social media is one of the elements of journalism where misogyny is more common.

“There are lots of comments every day about how I look, what I’m wearing, what people think of (how) I look,” said Barton. “Some of them are nice, and some of them are real horrible.”  .

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“Just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean that you get to say nasty things about me on Twitter.”
McCue, who has reported extensively on Indigenous affairs, said that topic can attract racially-motivated hate over social media, something he said can be challenging at times.

Mansbridge takes a particularly extraverted approach to disparaging comments he receives online. “I’ll find out the person’s phone number … and I’ll call them,” he said, followed by audience laughter. “It’s great… we all know there can be confusion online about peoples’ meanings and the way you read stuff.”

When asked about how people usually respond over the phone, Mansbridge noted that it’s quite different than how they usually act online. “They just say ‘I really didn’t mean that’… they get right to it,” he said.

Panelists also had advice for aspiring journalists at a time where uncertainty about the industry is at an all-time high: go out and see the country. “That’s not just east to west, that’s north,” said Swain. “(Canada) is more than an hour north of every major city.”

McCue said that while an education is important, many of the greats have special, indefinable qualities that make them great reporters.  “Some of the best things that journalists bring to the table are the natural skills … how they were raised and where they come from,” he said.  For McCue, that natural skill is respect.

Adrienne Arsenault, senior correspondent for The National, agreed “It’s your job to keep your eyes wide open and your ears wide open and … park your judgments at the door and just listen to these people,” she said.  

It’s qualities like respect and empathy that Arsenault said help her the most to cope —even on the hardest days of the job. “You allow yourself to be an observer but smell it and hear it and taste the dust and watch what’s happening,” she said.

Recalling the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Arsenault told the story of an elderly Sri Lankan woman she met in the aftermath of the disaster. The only member of her family to survive the disaster, the woman simply couldn’t understand what had happened or why her children were gone. The woman was with a group of kids being taught art therapy. In her grief, she asked the organizer for a crayon and some paper, so that she could draw too.

“Those people get under your skin and I hope they stay there forever, because it allows you to … continue to … connect with them as people,” said Arsenault. “I would be terrified if I could turn it off at night. I don’t want to be that person.”

Trevor Hewitt is a freelance reporter in his third year of Ryerson University's journalism program.

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.