Responsible and democratic storytelling for World Press Freedom Day

May 3 is the UN-recognized World Press Freedom Day, and Saranaz Barforoush thinks it’s time for a re-set. As a journalist and assistant professor of teaching at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Journalism, Writing, and Media, Barforoush holds a unique perspective on what’s at stake for the future of journalism.

In her view, it is paramount for journalists to consider how their changing industry – particularly the use of social media – is impacting their mental health.

“I really want on this World Press Freedom Day for journalists to think about their mental health,” she says, encouraging journalists to learn how to unplug. “If we don’t have journalists who can function, we’re not going to have a very democratic society.”

“Likes” threatening democracy

Barforoush regards journalism as a profession of service and care for the public, so social media “likes” or reposts should not be the only indicators that a story is worth telling.

“While it’s important to see how many eyeballs we get on stories – it’s important for our numbers and for our bottom line – it still needs to be honed into journalists that this is just one part of how your story is coming out,” says Barforoush.

Thinking of her own students, she notes that social media expectations may leave journalists, particularly women and women of colour, vulnerable to online harassment and the pressure of only reporting on popular narratives.

Journalist and UBC assistant professor Saranaz Barforoush says journalists’ mental health is important to consider when talking about press freedom. | Photo by Alfred Hermida

While she recognizes how social media can be an effective tool for journalists and those living under authoritarian governments, Barforoush remains concerned about how these expectations could impact Canada’s press freedom.

She fears that if journalists can not carry out their responsibility of reporting on meaningful, true stories with proper context while minimizing harm, then citizens will be left to verify stories on their own.

To this end, she encourages thinking about press freedom beyond things like state-sanctioned threats, and highlights how journalists can still be silenced in a democratic society.

“On paper, we are very advanced in terms of press freedom,” says Barforoush. “But how free and supportive do journalists feel to do their job in this country? Regarding expenses, the money they are paid, future job security, the hate or pressure they might feel online, those all affect our sense of freedom.”

An undying sense of responsibility

Barforoush also sees another challenge to Canada’s press freedom in the lack of diversity in stories being covered – a problem that may stem from the expectation that one can only cover the communities they belong to. She points out that better media literacy education can encourage interest in journalism at a young age, leading to more people capable of responsibly covering stories about different communities.

“Canadian journalism could really benefit from expanding this knowledge of storytelling so that a person who wants to cover stories about Indigenous issues knows how to do that responsibly, compassionately and respectfully,” she says.

When it comes to press freedom, Barforoush also emphasizes audience engagement through finding new ways of storytelling, such as using humour and interactive features or getting journalists to explain their process of reporting.

She believes that with proper support, including government grants, journalists can innovate their storytelling methods and better connect with their communities. The importance of connecting with communities is top of mind for her as she works on a current project in the Downtown Eastside.

“The future is in community journalism, as in connecting with the community, making it work, making relationships, earning our trust back, and for that we need time and more people,” she says. “When you go into communities, that’s what’s encouraged by community members… What I hear from community members is that we want people to spend time with us.”

Beyond covering local issues responsibly, Barforoush cites the high number of journalist deaths in Gaza and emphasizes how journalists in Canada ultimately have a responsibility to cover meaningful stories – a responsibility that is also a privilege.

“At the end of the day, it’s a profession about responsibility,” says Barforoush. “A profession about really saying what matters, about being the public’s eyes and ears – whether you’re reporting even in entertainment or sports or whatever it is – the responsibility never goes away.”

Leave a Reply