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Can a journalist be an activist? Let's hope so

Shortly after his most controversial public appearance yet, Desmond Cole tweeted: "Have y'all noticed that when I speak my truth, I'm often described as an activist, but no longer as a journalist or author or radio host?"

Toronto media reports told how Cole, who writes for Torontoist online and the Toronto Star in print, disrupted a meeting of the Toronto Police Service Board this week by raising his fist and refusing to leave after giving a short presentation. The meeting was adjourned and Cole was escorted out by police.

Sure enough, the CBC described Cole as "the journalist and activist," but did not mention who he writes for. The Toronto Sun reported it this way: "A Toronto Police Service Board meeting was hijacked and forced to adjourn Thursday by an anti-carding activist." It did not identify him as a journalist.

Only the Star identified him fully, running its story under the headline "The Star’s Desmond Cole makes a stand."

Other journalists either did not appear to understand Cole’s mission, or disagreed with a journalist creating such a scene. The Sun's Joe Warmington, for example, tweeted: "This is u acting disgracefully. Not police. Not mayor. U r wasting their time. And embarrassing yourself."

So who is Desmond Cole anyway -- a journalist or an activist? Is it possible to be both?

Apparently not, according to the paper he writes for as a freelance columnist. The Star, in its Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide, says the following: "It is not proper for journalists to be both actors and critics. It is a journalistic obligation to ensure that our reputations as fair-minded fact-finders are not compromised by any open display of political or partisan views on public issues nor tainted by personal involvement or personal axe-grinding on issues the Star covers."

That would seem to prohibit what Cole did. He writes about issues affecting Toronto's black community, especially the police practice of "carding" -- stopping, interrogating and documenting people not suspected of any crime, a practice that has been shown to overwhelmingly target young, black males. So what is this columnist doing disrupting government in order to draw attention to things he writes about?

The meeting he spoke to was discussing new provincial guidelines that set strict limits on carding. Cole and other critics say Toronto police should not be allowed to continue to access information gathered from carding. Another speaker, lawyer Peter Rosenthal, said he couldn’t understand how Toronto police could continue to condone carding when a recent report by two University of Toronto criminology professors said its usefulness is "substantially outweighed by convincing evidence of the harm of such practices."

Cole’s protest -- after which he said "F--- the rules of procedure" -- prevented others from speaking on the issue and left much of the agenda untouched. That sounds like a violation of the Star's rules against "active participation in community organizations and pressure groups that take positions on public issues."

I wrote the paper’s first editorial policy manual in 1984, and included that very rule.

The Star invoked it in 1986 to win a landmark labour arbitration case against a general assignment reporter named Susan Craig, who challenged the paper's attempt to prevent her from heading a labor organization called Organized Working Women, or giving her another job until her term as president expired. The paper's concern was the possible perception of bias in her reporting. The arbitrator in the case ruled that "the employer is entitled to take reasonable precautions to ensure that its public image is not tainted" because readers might doubt the objectivity of the Star 's reporters and their ability to report the news impartially and fairly.

So what should the Star do about Desmond Cole? I hope they do nothing to him. I hope they instead rewrite their ethical guidelines to distinguish between what is expected of a news reporter and what a crusading columnist like Cole should be allowed to do.

Given years of foot-dragging by Toronto police on the issue of carding, what Cole did was understandable, dramatic and courageous. That shouldn't upset any of his readers who understand the passion he brings to this issue. They do not expect him to be objective or impartial.

Furthermore, he did not prevent the police services board from conducting its business. They decided themselves to adjourn their meeting. They could have simply had Cole escorted off the podium for overstaying his welcome, something they eventually did anyway after everyone had gone home.

I think his action to sabotage the meeting was extreme and perhaps excessive. But, at a time when newsroom cutbacks are curtailing newspapers' abilities to cover civic events, I think his role as a journalist-activist is essential. The ethical rules that govern newsroom behaviour need to catch up to him.

Cole rose to prominence on the cover of Toronto Life in May 2015, when he wrote a personal story titled: "I’ve been stopped by the cops on the street 50 times. I’m not a criminal." His story not only swept the 2016 National Magazine Awards (winning one gold and two silver awards), he told J-source that he was pleased with the reaction to the article: "Our media doesn’t like to talk about racism. One of the interesting things about this piece is that it's sparked a conversation about race that I haven’t seen in this city before."

Cutbacks in the Star newsroom have reduced its editorial staff from 450 to 150, eroding the precious little diversity it once employed. Years ago, Star reporters did notable investigative work to expose the racial bias in carding, and editors stood fast against an ill-advised lawsuit filed by the Toronto Police Association. But no one on staff today is able or willing to cover the issue like Cole.

Columnists perform a special service for newspapers, and the best ones are often described as activists. One of the best at the Star was Michele Landsberg, one of the first journalists in Canada to address sexual harassment in the workplace, racial discrimination in education and employment opportunities, and lack of gender equality in divorce and custodial legal proceedings.

In 2005, the Canadian Women's Foundation established the Michele Landsberg Award in her honour, to recognize outstanding young women and their accomplishments in media and activism. That award, however, tends to honour conventional journalists. The 2017 winner was Tavia Grant, a reporter at The Globe and Mail for 12 years who wrote the series "Missing and Murdered: The Trafficked" focused on how Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by human trafficking. Other winners have included Star columnist Heather Mallick, and Janet McFarland, a business reporter with The Globe and Mail whose reporting raised the issue of gender inequality on corporate boards.

Cole has certainly won his share of awards already in his young career covering race in Toronto. But I think he needs the Star’s endorsement to continue his activism, without seeming to operate outside the paper’s ethical rules.

Image: Flickr/KnightFoundation

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