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The journalist-turned-activist spoke at an event hosted by the Ryerson Review of Journalism
Activist and freelance writer Desmond Cole said that objectivity is “bogus” and spoke about his 2017 departure from the Toronto Star to a crowd of student journalists Tuesday evening at a Ryerson Review of Journalism event.
Cole, well-known for his criticism against the practice of police carding, now largely writes about issues of social justice and his experiences as a black man in Toronto.
Objectivity — the idea of acting free from any bias or emotion — is a concept typically praised in journalism, though Cole said he thinks true objectivity is impossible and that journalists often try to hide behind a camera lens.
“A camera lens is not a person who does not have feelings or preconceived notions of the world,” said Cole. “It doesn’t have an analysis. It’s simply there to record, as is its function, but we seem to want to pretend in journalism that we can be the lens, that we can actually come into our world and into our reporting without any preconceived notions or bias.”
Cole also spoke about his decision to depart from the Toronto Star — a newspaper that did not fire him, but rather, made his working conditions unbearable, he claims.
After a year of pressure from higher-ups at the Star to limit his writing about racism and engaging in protests outside of work, despite the fact that he was a freelancer, Cole chose to leave. At the height of his career at the Star, he wrote one column per week, though that was later cut to biweekly.
“Twice a month — that’s 24 times a year, and I was supposed to give up my liberation struggle or alter it significantly for that,” he said.
The conversation was hosted by the Ryerson Review of Journalism, a student-led magazine published by the Ryerson School of Journalism that examines news media issues.
Ashley Fraser, co-host of the RRJ’s Pull Quotes podcast, led the conversation with Cole. She said that RRJ editor Sean Young, who is a teaching assistant for the Critical Issues in Journalism course at Ryerson, had the idea of inviting Cole because of his students.
“A lot of the conversations that lots of second-year journalism students were having was this whole idea of like, ‘Hey, I’m on social media and I’m at a protest — can I post about this?’” Fraser told the Ryersonian. “Some students do, but others don’t, so that kind of sprung the idea of having this conversation.”
Heidi Lee, a second-year journalism student, said she found Cole’s take on objectivity to be refreshing and something that she felt that she would need the night to absorb.
“I feel like [he’s] very different from J-school … sometimes I feel like I’m too young to make a statement or to have my own theory of what activity is as a journalist, but I think it’s good that we also have this perspective,” Lee said.
Students in journalism school often hear about the push to build one’s personal brand, and Lee said she thought Cole’s comments on how aggressive branding isn’t what matters the most really stuck with her.
“[I realized that] instead of focusing on how cool I am as a journalism student, I should focus on what I write and what I report and how I contributed to the community as a journalist,” she said.
Cole’s departure from the Star is often discussed in journalism classes and in conversations around the role of activism in journalism.
“I’ve never had a full time job or paid in a union,” said Cole. “So the fact that people talk about me at all is fascinating.”
Cole’s new book, “The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power,” is set to be released on Jan. 28, 2020.