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RSJ alum ask the tough questions in American political coverage

By: Jonathan Bradley
October 23, 2020
Photo of a man at a Bernie Sanders primary event. Photo courtesy Tamsin McMahon.

A man holds Bernie Sanders signs at a Sanders event during the Democratic Primary. Photo courtesy Tamsin McMahon

Many Ryerson School of Journalism alumni are covering one of the most pivotal American elections in history, and they say the lessons they learned in j-school are coming in handy. 

Some prominent RSJ alumni who have been reporting on the 2020 American presidential election are CTV News Washington bureau chief Joy Malbon and Bloomberg News White House reporter Josh Wingrove. There are plenty of other alumni who are holding American politicians accountable. 

Adrian Morrow, an RSJ alumni non-graduate who left the program in 2010, works as the Washington correspondent at the Globe and Mail. 

Morrow volunteered to report on the American presidential primaries in early 2016. He spent a few weeks in Iowa, Texas, and Florida. 

Paul Koring, the previous Washington correspondent, left the Globe and Mail that fall, so Morrow applied for the job and arrived in January 2017. He filed his first story, external link as a U.S. correspondent from Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. 

Morrow said it has been hectic covering the 2020 American presidential election. 

“This has been one of the most turbulent years and campaigns in American history,” he said. “Last winter, I was covering Joe Biden town halls at Iowa dive bars and shadowing Bernie Sanders’s volunteer army in South Carolina. Through the spring, I was writing on Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic and reporting on anti-racism protests in the streets of Washington.” 

He said his favourite memory from covering the election was at a community centre in Hazleton, Pa.,, external link a few months ago. Hazleton saw a large number of Latino immigrants arrive, external link in 2006, and the mayor passed laws meant to make them leave. These laws ended up being overturned by the courts

High school students of all races were handing out food hampers to people affected by the economic crash at a Hazleton community centre one morning. It was a reminder despite all of the political vitriol in the USA, there were places people could come together. 

One of the most useful lessons he learned at RSJ came from streeter assignments in Don Gibb’s first-year reporting class. Gibb encouraged him to always push for more. 

“I think about this often when talking to people at campaign events for Trump or Biden, or at protests, or [with] voters at the door,” he said. “I’m not just looking for someone’s thoughts about candidate x or cause y. I want to know why specifically they think what they do, and whether there’s anything in their life that connects them to the political stand they’re taking.” 

Steven D’Souza, an RSJ class of 2000 grad, works as a foreign correspondent at CBC News. 

D’Souza had been working at CBC for about 14 years in various capacities before he landed a job with them in New York. One of these previous roles was as a local video journalist in Toronto. 

D’Souza did plenty of his own camerawork and editing during his reporting career, which prepared him for the job in New York. His role is to operate as a one-person bureau, so at times, he does his own reporting, camera, and editing. 

He said covering the 2020 American election has been a challenge unlike any other he has faced, because it keeps changing. 

“We plan out stories, target areas we think are important stories to tell, and then the news cycle goes into overdrive and unexpected events hijack the best laid plans,” he said. “It's a constant game of catch up that is impossible to win, so you have to be smart, pick your spots and try to keep it all in perspective.” 

COVID-19 has scaled back coverage and travel, so he has not covered the election on the ground as much as he did in 2016. 

The oddest moment he has experienced during the campaign was at a Women for Trump rally in Pennsylvania where a woman driving a bus emblazoned with Trump photos and illustrations pulled up. This woman started to throw hats and signs into the crowd. No one had any idea who she was at first, but D’Souza says the rockstar-like feeling of anyone who has gone all-in for Trump is an experience to behold. 

He said the basics students learn in j-school are the foundation for a solid career. 

“From fact checking to the ability to embrace new technology, the skills I learned more than 20 years ago at Ryerson are still with me today,” he said. 

Paul Hunter, an RSJ class of 1982 grad, works as a foreign correspondent at CBC News. 

Hunter spent many years working as a journalist throughout Canada, learning about the country and the mosaic of people who live in it before taking a posting outside of it. 

“I strongly believe that if you want to report to Canadians from abroad, it's crucial to first understand how your own country works and to learn about the differences from one region to another within Canada,” said Hunter. “To achieve that, my view is you shouldn't just read about our country, but wherever possible, you should live it. That means leaving the city in which you grow up and getting out there.”

He spent time working for CBC in cities such as Saskatoon, Calgary, Toronto, and Ottawa. After all of this travel and covering three Canadian elections in the early 2000s, he was asked if he wanted to go to work in Washington. It took him a nanosecond for him to say yes. 

Hunter said the 2020 American election is a campaign like he has never experienced before. He described the campaign as exhilarating and exhausting. 

He said his favourite part of reporting on the campaign is meeting with so-called regular Americans. It is amazing for him to see the degree to which people in the USA are engaged with the election, the issues, and the campaign politics this time around. 

All of the people he encounters have an opinion about American politics and are happy to share it, even with a reporter from a Canadian television network. He has been to Trump rallies, voters’ backyards, and the proverbial Mainstreet USA. Every time, he comes away feeling he has learned new, amazing information about the USA from every person he meets. 

Hunter said the RSJ offers a real world journalism program for a real world vocation. 

“The reason I chose the Ryerson journalism program after high school was because of the hands-on aspect,” he said. “I learned so much from Ryerson about TV news, both technical and editorial. It gave me an understanding not only of what I need to be able to do and how to do it, but what others who work around me are doing.”   

Photo of a line up with Elizabeth Warren signs during the Democratic Primary. Photo courtesy Tamsin McMahon.

A line up of people holding Elizabeth Warren signs at a Warren event during the Democratic Primary. Photo courtesy Tamsin McMahon.

Tamsin McMahon, an RSJ class of 2000 grad, works as a U.S. correspondent for the Globe and Mail. 

McMahon has been with the Globe and Mail since 2015. She worked in the Report on Business section first, covering real estate. She moved to the USA in early 2017 to become the U.S. correspondent in California. 

She said covering the 2020 American election has been thrilling, fascinating, and exhausting. 

“It can be a challenge to keep up with all the daily news developments about the election,” said McMahon. “My goal as a correspondent for a Canadian paper is to cut through some of that noise and try to focus on bigger-picture stories that can help our readers make sense of what's going on here.”  

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced campaigns to scale back their events, so she has been doing more coverage from her laptop than from the road. She said she misses the energy from the rallies and live events she attended during the Democratic primaries and caucuses. 

She spent a week in Arizona talking to undecided voters, external link. Undecided voters seem few and far between, so she enjoyed hearing from people who are on the fence.

She said the RSJ’s strength is in the professors who come from a background of working in journalism and the school’s strong ties with the industry. The RSJ taught her how to report and write stories and be thorough when digging for information. 

She said it is important for RSJ grads to cover American politics because what happens south of the border influences Canada. 

“Canadians are pretty fascinated by U.S. politics, particularly during the Trump years,” she said. “But aside from the reader demand for coverage, the U.S. is our most powerful ally and our largest trading partner. It influences our culture, our economy, and often our own domestic politics.”  

Photo of a Joe Biden during the Democratic Primary. Photo courtesy Tamsin McMahon.

Joe Biden speaks at one of his campaign events during the Democratic Primary. Photo courtesy Tamsin McMahon.