Urbi Khan is a reporter at the Toronto Star and a 2020 graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism. She was one of more than 70 researchers who worked on Generation Distress and played a key role with the team of journalism students from Ryerson University.
Q: What was it like being a student working alongside more than 80 reporters, journalism students and academics at 10 universities across Canada and the U.S. on a major investigative series with media partners including the Toronto Star, the National Observer and NBC News?
I felt that I was professionally supported as I had this vast network at my fingertips.
As I worked through the project on youth mental health alongside my fellow classmates, as well as followed the research and reporting by journalism students, reporters and researchers from across North America, I felt that something substantial and concrete was falling into place and eventually, we would have a breadth of writing and reporting. Working on this project as a student made me feel that I was working on something that would define something for people, for the public. I felt I was working on something that would make a difference. And as a journalist, that is all you can really ask for from your work.
Q: How does the IJB’s collaborative research and reporting model differ from the journalistic work you’d done previously?
For me, the collaborative research and reporting model was definitely a new approach to journalistic work. Most of the previous work I had done as a student, and as an editor of various student publications, consisted of lots of late nights alone, in front of my laptop, typing away on a story. But IJB’s model encouraged me to broaden my horizons, look beyond the lens of a journalist, and understand what academic researchers are thinking and how they work. It gave me time to think about the research process. It also gave me space to experiment with my reporting process and really take time to think about how to interview sources while dealing with sensitive stories. This forced me to look for patterns in my own reporting and research, now I was thinking what were the players, the decision-makers in these stories telling me? Is there some sort of middle ground? Is there a solution to the problem?
There was just a lot of discussion and listening and reading more than writing which allowed me to take in the work, the stories, and the people in these stories for what they are worth instead of thinking about an impending deadline. With a collaborative research and reporting model, I did not get stuck doing the reporting and the research alone, I got to bounce ideas back and forth with colleagues. These discussions further confirmed, for me at least, why these stories about youth mental health were important. There is an emotional toll on the work and with a critical and objective mind, as a journalist, you learn to understand the broader patterns and issues that come out of big stories that involve a lot of people and voices. IJB’s model definitely helped me harness my critical thinking abilities when it comes to reporting and research.
Q: How do you think the lessons learned will impact your reporting going forward?
As a reporter, you often get bogged down in the details and develop a tunnel vision, forgetting to be present in the story and to pay attention to the fact that the story is living, breathing and happening in real-time. This may sound spiritual, but I have really learned to be present and compassionate with my sources and fellow reporters while keeping my ear to the ground. I have learned that when you find a source, you let them guide the story. I have learned not to come into a story with a set lede already figured out in my head. All this extensive research and background work will help prepare you for your reporting and subsequently with the art of the interview and then the next step would be sitting down to write.
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in taking part in an IJB project?
The only advice I can think of when you come into taking part in an IJB project as a student is that you understand that this project is not just finding a story, reporting and then writing. Sometimes, you may not have a fully-fledged story, sometimes it may just be an idea that needs to be worked out by doing a lot of research, reaching out to various people and interviewing. This process can take months. But that is why being part of a collaborative newsroom helps: you have an established relationship with academics, researchers, as well as student and professional journalists to help you with the process. Taking part in an IJB project means there will be a lot of back and forth, critical thinking and discussion. But these discussions are key to prepare you to move forward with your reporting in a stable way.
Lastly, being present in the world with your story will be an asset for you as a reporter. As journalists, our identity is often intertwined with our work and we may have difficulties having that work-life balance. But on the youth mental health project I worked on with the IJB, I found the stories often bled into our personal lives and are not just work. There is a sort of serendipity when we can carry reporting ideas into our personal lives, providing a fresh perspective –– a light bulb moment –– and bringing personal urgency to the work.
Of course, these are stories dealing with extremely serious real-life issues with real-world consequences, so do not be afraid to take time for your own self-care and feel free to have these conversations with your instructors. This is a learning environment where you are still recognized as a student and your personal concerns that may affect you and your work should be welcome.