Karen Unland, Taproot’s co-founder, is bringing her perspective as a leader of an independent journalism startup to the future of ethics guidelines for Canadian journalists.
Karen has served on the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) ethics advisory committee since September 2021. Board-appointed, the committee exists to provide advice on ethical issues faced by Canadian journalists in their regular work. Its 11 members, drawing on experience in independent and mainstream media and academia, meet about once a month to discuss key issues and develop policy and discussion papers.
"Something that has emerged, for me," said Karen, "is an appreciation of how smart the committee members are and how deeply they think about these issues. It is intellectually stimulating to have these discussions."
Karen said the committee offers a space for "sober second thought away from the thrust of daily decision-making" and allows members to thoroughly interrogate the profession’s foundational principles and practice. One recent discussion paper, for example, sought to define the meaning of journalism to capture dramatic transformations and growing diversity in the kinds of activities that could be considered journalistic work.
In early 2023, Karen joined a subcommittee to review the CAJ’s Ethics Guidelines. This widely cited document, which is designed to help new and seasoned journalists hold themselves accountable for their professional work, has not been updated since 2011.
"This is the sort of topic that I like to nerd out about," said Karen. "Although I am not the only representative of independent media, I thought it would be valuable to bring perspective from someone working in an emerging newsroom and running a journalism business."
Karen’s participation also took her to Vancouver in mid-April for the CAJ’s annual conference. She moderated a panel featuring fellow committee members Pat Perkel and Anita Li. Perkel is a former executive director of the National NewsMedia Council and a veteran of small newsrooms in northern Ontario; Li is the founder of a hyperlocal environmental publication called The Green Line and a journalism innovation newsletter called The Other Wave. They outlined how they are approaching the revision of the ethics guidelines and solicited opinions for working journalists in the audience about how they use them.
Taproot is helping to shape the future of the industry
Karen said she is approaching the review of the ethics guidelines in much the same way as Taproot approaches its work, by focusing on the end user. That means considering how to make the guidelines as useful as possible to journalists who may be working in new newsrooms or depleted ones that lack institutional memory or robust policies of their own.
"I think we’ve made some really decent progress around updating the guidelines for the world we find ourselves in right now," said Karen, "and future-proofing them a bit for things that come along that we can’t yet anticipate."
Karen is grateful to the CAJ for this opportunity to take part in national conversations shaping the future of our industry.
"We want to reassure our readers that Taproot is here for the long haul," said Karen. "We conduct our work the best we can and with a view to continuous improvement. Because of this, we are increasingly able to access opportunities and share what we know and learn with others."