Newsroom managers slow to acknowledge stress injuries

Operational stress injuries in journalists can be successfully treated — and the earlier it’s dealt with the better. That was the most important take-away for me from this year’s Journalism and Risk workshop, offered by the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma at Western University on Saturday.

Organized by veteran journalists Cliff Lonsdale and Jane Hawkes, the annual workshop this year featured CBC Radio’s Rick MacInnes-Rae, London Health Sciences Centre’s Karen Pierre, London Free Press reporter Joe Belanger, and Canadian Press reporter Colin Perkel as panellists. Through video presentations and panel discussions, the workshop intends to prepare young journalists for the risks they’ll face — domestically and internationally — in the pursuit of their vocation. See my Twitter feed for a running summary (look for Nov. 10) of the day’s proceedings.

I was especially struck by two assertions by the panellists. First, it was Pierre’s view that stress injuries in journalists can nearly always be successfully treated, especially if they’re identified early on. Second, it was Belanger’s contention that newsroom managers generally don’t recognize stress injuries in their staff until they become very serious.

As a former newsroom manager, I can attest to the latter. Newsroom culture is not unlike the macho culture that pervades workers in emergency services such as police, fire and paramedical services — we compartmentalize the stress and shock, put it on a shelf, do our work and then go home. Too few newsroom managers appreciate the number of walking wounded within their organizations — and are too slow to recognize injury. Far too often, journalists are left untreated altogether and their efforts to cope with their accumulated injuries relegate them to sideline status. Some are demoted or transferred to other duties; others are forcibly retired or bought out.

It is incumbent on newsroom managers to deal with the injuries and stresses of their staff in a timely manner. In fact, a training module for newsroom managers, created by the Forum or some other organization, would be useful tool in many Canadian newsrooms.

Another memorable moment from this year’s workshop: Perkel’s very personal account of the final hours of the life of Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, who died covering the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. It was incredibly moving. A previous post on Lang’s death is here.

Panellists Rick MacInnes-Rae, Karen Pierre, Joe Belanger and Colin Perkel participated in Saturday’s Journalists & Risk workshop.

Ottawa issues warning to Canadian Mennonite magazine

When my electronic copy of the latest issue of the award-winning church magazine Canadian Mennonite arrived in my inbox last week, I was shocked while reading editor-publisher Dick Benner’s editorial. In it, he disclosed the magazine has received a warning letter from Canada Revenue Agency about its “political activities.” Additional details were published in a news story by board vice-chair Carl DeGurse in the same issue. The story disturbed me on two levels: one, sudden engagement of a government department with a magazine that has had a long history of provoking discussion about the interplay between church and state; second, the notion that Ottawa is, apparently, making subjective judgments about the political activities of Canadian charities, applying litmus tests by which their charitable status might be preserved or revoked.

Canadian Mennonite is the published under a partnership agreement between six different Mennonite bodies under the umbrella of Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service, which has charitable status so that individual church members (or others) may make personal donations. The magazine’s guiding principles, ownership and governance structures, bylaws and annual reports are all abundantly transparent and are available here. (Full disclosure: I served on the board of CMPS from 2004-2010; the last two years as board chair.) Throughout its existence, it has been a member of the Canadian Church Press and has regularly been recognized for excellence in editorial content and design.

Canadian Mennonite is, in fact, the successor to a tabloid newspaper called Mennonite Reporter, whose founding editor in 1971 was historian and church journalist Frank H. Epp. Owing to the nature of Mennonite experience and theology, both periodicals have a long history of reflecting the continuing struggle, within their constituents and readers, of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” Isolation from society, as reflected among the Amish (theological cousins to Mennonites) is one response; full engagement with it is another. There are many shades of grey in between. The point is that it is within the nature of the denomination, which sees peace and justice as primary motivators, to continuously grapple with the church-state relationship, including issues such as war, peacemaking, sanctuary for refugees, justice, humanitarian concerns, disaster relief, foreign policy and so on. Over the past century, Mennonite periodicals in Canada and the United States have reflected this. Many other denominations, such as the United Church of Canada, have had similar priorities.

I can appreciate the byzantine challenge that the CRA faces in trying to determine which applicants and holders of Canadian charitable status are legitimate. The task of separating the wheat from the chaff here must be complex and occasionally frustrating. And, indeed, it’s important for all of us, as citizens, that Canadian charities not be fronts from political organizations, fly-by-night operators, hate groups, foreign operatives and other schemes. To that extent, it’s appropriate for CRA to examine the nature and general activities of each Canadian charity on a regular basis.

But to issue a warning to an established church magazine over content that urges readers to carefully consider the voting records of MPs before casting their ballots, or opinion pieces that wonder about the Christian response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, smacks of administrative overreaching and interference, not to mention the chilling effect it has on religious press freedoms.

Application of the same type of monitoring to other Canadian charities would mean that CRA would begin vetting the homilies and sermons delivered in churches, synagogues and mosques (Canadian charities, all) or keeping a closer watch over the activities of AIDS societies, United Way campaigns, or community foundations for some sense as to their political leanings.

I’m glad Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press picked up this story yesterday, as have a number of other bloggers, writers, newscasts and websites over the past few days. Every Canadian charity should be concerned, even if Canadian Mennonite is the only member of the Canadian Church Press to have received such a letter of warning.

Update: Marcy Markusa of CBC’s Information Radio in Manitoba interviewed Benner regarding this issue on Nov. 9; that chat can be heard here.

Update 2: Here’s Dick Benner’s second editorial on the subject; this one in the Nov. 26 issue of Canadian Mennonite.

Madeline Sonik’s marvellous Afflictions & Departures

I confess that I don’t read as much fiction and creative non-fiction as I’d like. Given my occupation, I lean instinctively to periodicals, newspapers and their online equivalents.

But when I heard that Afflictions & Departures, a collection of essays by Madeline Sonik, had been nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, I logged on to Kobo’s website and downloaded the book right away.

I hadn’t read any of Sonik’s earlier work — not her poetry, as collected in Stone Sightings; not her collection of stories in Drying the Bones; not her earlier novel, Arms; not her children’s book, Belinda and the Dustbunnys. I admit I was intrigued by the fact that Sonik had made a career of writing, editing and teaching (currently at the University of Victoria) after first training as a journalist.

Sonik was more than just a classmate at the University of Western Ontario’s graduate school of journalism during the 1985-86 school year (the school has since become the graduate journalism program at Western University‘s Faculty of Information and Media Studies). As fellow grad students, we shared an office. At the time, I was a young father with a spouse and three children (and another on the way); she was an introverted writer and scholar who was destined to incorporate journalistic modes of research and writing into other creative pursuits, especially creative non-fiction. And so, in that office in the rotunda on the second floor of Middlesex College, we spoke relatively little of our vastly different backgrounds and personal lives.

I found Afflictions & Departures to be a intriguing and compelling glimpse into the life of a person I knew, but really knew nothing about. Sonik’s essays, which fuse historical references with autobiography, explore the disturbing complexities of families, the bewilderment of childhood, the loving yet strained and dysfunctional relationships between parent and offspring and the resulting perplexity of adolescence.

The book is a wonderful illustration of what can be achieved through the use of personal experience in creative non-fiction. On a more personal level, it reminded me of how little we sometimes know or understand of the way history, fate, circumstance and afflictions have shaped those with whom we interact every day. I’m probably speaking for many of my classmates when I say, “Madeline, we hardly knew ye.”

This year’s winner of the Charles Taylor Prize will be announced tomorrow and, of course, I hope Sonik wins. The other finalists are Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis; Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, by Charlotte Gill; The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit, by JJ Lee; and The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, by Andrew Westoll. The prize is worth $25,000.

An hour-long discussion among nominated authors of their works, moderated by Steve Paikin of TVO’s The Agenda, is here. Below, Sonik reflects on the impact of the Internet and online reading on her craft.

Update (March 5): Andrew Westoll won the prestigious prize for The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery. Congrats once again to all the nominees.

The Adventures of Tintin makes good on its promise

I don’t generally write movie reviews, but, given my previous posts on the theme, I can’t resist the temptation to weigh in on The Adventures of Tintin, the motion-capture feature film that premiered in North America last week. It was on my must-do list for the Christmas holidays and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

My personal interest in Hergé (Georges Remi) and his beloved graphic-novel character began when I was a child, with a series of books I checked out repeatedly from the Leamington (Ont.) Public Library. There, on the bottom shelf in a metal stack in the library’s post-Carnegie addition, was a small collection to which I returned often. My first encounter with Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the rest of Hergé’s characters was in Explorers on the Moon. Only later did I discover its prequel, Destination Moon, and the rest of the Tintin volumes.

Much has already been written and said about the famous Belgian author and his career. The most authoritative is French author Pierre Assouline’s biography, Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin. Attendant to the film’s release in English Canada (it opened in Quebec earlier — a bow to Tintin’s popularity in French culture), Assouline appeared on the CBC Radio 1 program The Current, with Anna Maria Tremonti, on Dec. 21. The podcast of that radio interview can be heard here.

Similarly, much has already been written about director Steven Spielberg‘s use of motion-capture technology to cast stars such as Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig in this film’s starring roles.

It suffices to say that The Adventures of Tintin was a thrill, and cancelled my doubts about whether the books could really be successfully adapted to the big screen in a way more pleasing and true to the spirit of both Hergé and his creations than was the animated TV series from the early ’90s. Tintin aficionados, however, will recognize the fact that script of the current feature film is really a composite creation of three different Tintin books: The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Crab With the Golden Claws.

That fact notwithstanding, The Adventures of Tintin is the truest rendition to date of the spirit of Hergé’s boy reporter and his accompanying cast of characters. It was a joy to watch, offering a warm, two-hour soak in a reverie of distant childhood. The film’s end portends a sequel, likely based on Red Rackham’s Treasure as a starting point. But my personal hope is that Spielberg, Peter Jackson and their other collaborators would someday get around the Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon — partly for old times’ sake and partly for the creative possibilities those plots would open to the filmmakers.

Remembering a great journalism educator

Les Anderson (WSU)

I was saddened by the news this morning that Les Anderson, 62, a journalism professor at the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University, died yesterday evening of a heart attack.

To most of my Canadian journalism colleagues, Anderson will be an unknown. But to anyone who has had anything to do with journalism in central Kansas, he was an icon.

Anderson was my first journalism professor; I first encountered him in a news writing course at Wichita State in 1982. I’ll always remember the joy and humour that suffused his teaching. To him, journalism was the most interesting, exciting and noble of pursuits. And while he was a stickler for detail (as all good j-profs are), he never failed to bring his trademark warmth and enthusiasm to the classroom. He cared on a personal level about every one of his students and cemented in me a belief that journalism should be my career.

Ironically, Anderson and I got reacquainted only in the past six months. The connection was assisted by Jesse Huxman, who, with his spouse, Susan Schultz Huxman, moved from Wichita to Waterloo, Ont., this spring. Susan is the former director of the Elliott School and is now the seventh president of Conrad Grebel College; Jesse is a well-travelled communications executive and news producer who is now the communication strategist with Mennonite Foundation of Canada.

The video below tells the story of Anderson’s career much better than I can. And it’s laced with precisely the kind of humour that Anderson would have appreciated.

Brown, Cimolino call for democratization of culture

To some extent, what happened in London, Ont., at last week’s Creative City Summit was routine and unremarkable. Organizers of the biennial gathering of the Creative City Network of Canada booked some convention space and hotel rooms, invited a few guest speakers, drew up an agenda that left plenty of room for workshops, excursions and networking, and sent out invitations to members. And it all seemed to go off without a hitch.

The messages relayed by the summit’s two keynote speakers, however, challenged the assumptions that lay at the heart of centralized culture planning (and the summit’s participants were, after all, culture planners from municipal bureaucracies across the country). They were also messages worth hearing by a much broader audience.

As I mentioned in a column in The London Free Press last week, San Francisco-based arts consultant Alan Brown was refreshingly plain-spoken in his description of “six domains” of creative culture (due to a lapsed passport, Brown addressed the gathering via Skype). He urged delegates to take a wider “ecological” view of culture: “While some of your communities might not have much of a formal arts infrastructure, and while your budgets may be small and getting smaller, you must realize that creativity is a currency in a different economy – an economy of meaning.  In this economy, wealth is attainable for everyone, because every human being is intrinsically creative, they just might not know it yet,” Brown said.

“Everyone has a stake in the creative capital of their community, especially businesses, elected officials, parents, and the education system.  The arts, of course, are a major stakeholder in the creative capital of their communities, but sometimes I wonder why we don’t act like it.  Too many arts groups have grown complacent and comfortable producing professionally curated arts experiences by professional artists for professional audiences — and lost touch with the vast sea of creativity all around them.  And they wonder why resources are dwindling and community support isn’t as high as they’d wish.”

Brown offered a copy of his speech to the summit, along with an apology for not being able to attend in person. Conference organizers promised to post it on their website, but I’ve not seen it there yet, so I’ll post it here.

Alan Brown on Creative Capital, May 11, 2011

The following day, Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, tilted similarly toward a bottom-up arts culture. Cimolino retold the stories surrounding the creation of the festival in the 1950s and how, at various points in the history of his community, strategic decisions were made by citizens and their politicians to allow an arts-rich culture to take root. Cimolino’s stories about Stratford’s history were really a prelude to his plea for support of Culture Days, a national event slated for this fall and for which he is chair of the steering committee.

Cimolino’s address, his short video on Culture Days and a question-and-answer session lasted about 45 minutes. I edited out the video portion (but see the link below) and the Q&A to produce an audio recording of about 22 minutes in length. You can listen to that here:

Antoni Cimolino on Culture Days

The video Cimolino presented about two-thirds of the way through his address is below.

Thanks to the board, staff and organizers of the Creative City Summit for allowing me to attend — and to Conestoga College, my employer, for providing the professional development time to do so.