When Toronto Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh went undercover on the croissant production line in a Toronto factory, she learned firsthand what workers were experiencing.
“I was really conscious of keeping up with the pace of production and not losing my job and doing things right and making sure I didn’t get fired,” she told Story Board during a phone interview.
She was so preoccupied with the tasks at hand, she said, that she had no time to think about her safety around the powerful machinery in the industrial bakery.
“I think that’s exactly why these workers are vulnerable. Because you don’t get the training and you don’t have enough time to think about your surroundings and you don’t necessarily have the experience or knowledge to know what is a safety hazard and what isn’t,” she said.
Her undercover stint resulted in an explosive story about working conditions at the factory and the company’s extensive use of vulnerable temporary workers.
Mojtehedzadeh is presenting a webinar for CMG Freelance on January 31st in which she’ll share her experiences and the lessons she’s learned during three years spent reporting on the changing workplace and workers’ rights.
Building a new “labour beat”
Although the number of reporters assigned to the labour beat has plummeted sharply in recent years, Mojtehedzadeh said she’s encouraged by an increasing interest in the subject by journalists.
“I think the issue has really gained a lot of traction over the last few years,” she said. “Whether or not other outlets have someone who’s dedicated to this beat, we’re definitely seeing a lot more coverage of related issues than when I started.”
The scope of her beat, she said, is a little different from what was traditionally covered by the labour beat.
“I like to see it as an updated labour beat at the Star,” she said. “We’re often writing about issues around precarious work and that sort of thing rather than the more old school approaches to labour reporting, just because I think the issues have changed a lot.”
These days, Mojtehedzadeh said, there’s a steady flow of tips coming into the newsroom. She’s established a good rhythm to her work that balances daily reporting with digging into longer term projects. But it took some time to build that momentum.
“When I first started, I was really focused on building contacts and getting in touch with what the issues were, because I was really new to the subject,” she said.
Building relationships with grassroots organizations, she said, is a good way to start.
“It’s about cultivating relationships with groups who you trust, that have a good relationship with workers,” she said, “and that trust you as a reporter, that you will handle the story with the right amount of sensitivity.”
Mojtehedzadeh acknowledged that it can be difficult to do deeply reported investigative work as a freelancer, but she says there’s a payoff to investing the time needed to become an expert in a topic.
“Having a niche skill or a niche interest or a niche expertise is a selling point. It makes you stand out from the crowd,” she said. “Knowing how to build a beat is a great skill to have as a journalist so I think it’s a worthwhile exercise, for sure.”
Webinar registration details
For more advice on labour reporting, register for the webinar “Reporting on Labour Issues with Sara Mojtehedzadeh.” It’s scheduled for Wednesday, January 31 at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
Mojtehedzadeh will talk about safety in the workplace, working with vulnerable sources and best practices for pitching labour-related stories. Her presentation will be followed by a live Q and A session.
You can register to participate at this link. CMG Freelance and CWA Canada Associate Members can use their membership numbers to register. For a limited time, CMG Freelance is making live viewing of webinars available to non-members. If you’d like to watch this one, you can use the special code “Storyboard” in place of a membership number.
Topics of previous webinars include negotiating, cybersecurity, freelance tax planning, and a series on social media for freelancers. Past webinars are archived for members on the CMG Freelance website.