Ryerson Review of Journalism :: The Ryerson School of Journalism http://rrj.ca Canada's Watchdog on the watchdogs Sat, 30 Apr 2016 14:26:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Don’t Stop the Presses http://rrj.ca/dont-stop-the-presses/ http://rrj.ca/dont-stop-the-presses/#respond Thu, 21 Apr 2016 13:54:31 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8845 Don’t Stop the Presses This could have been the Review’s last print issue.]]> Don’t Stop the Presses

This could have been the Review’s last print issue.

In the fall, our publisher, Ivor Shapiro, asked the new masthead to research what the School of Journalism should do with the magazine. Going online-only was a definite possibility.

From a financial perspective, what many readers love about magazines—holding the paper, turning the pages—are liabilities. It’s not just about content: sitting down with a magazine is its own experience. Certainly that was the attitude of many Review supporters when rumblings about spiking the print edition surfaced last spring.

We advised Shapiro to keep the print magazine, but as the centrepiece of a broader strategy that also emphasized digital. He listened.

To show him this was more than just talk, we invested significant time in producing digital content and improving the website.

Now, rrj.ca extends our ability to cover Canadian journalism. This year’s masthead produced podcasts, a news and commentary blog, short online features and a weekly newsletter. While working on the diversity package that appears in this magazine, we realized there was much more to say. So we created a special web page devoted to extending the conversation. And if you read this issue’s stories online, you’ll find they include interactive elements that let you go deeper.

Challenging as it is to predict the future, it’s safe to say the Review is changing. Being on the internet doesn’t cheapen our work—it strengthens it. Being in print doesn’t make our product old-fashioned—it makes it authoritative. Magazines are about thoughtful, well-researched features that give context beyond what a same-day post can do. They’re the long take on events. That’s where the analog experience still has a place.

As we learned this year, it’s hard to describe what a magazine is today. The Ryerson Review of Journalism is the book you hold in your hands, the website you visit, the social media you engage with. It doesn’t exist in a single medium, and it doesn’t need to.

That’s an intimidating prospect and a challenge to execute. We’ve given it our best. And we hope you’ll like what you see.

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New Here http://rrj.ca/new-here/ http://rrj.ca/new-here/#respond Thu, 21 Apr 2016 12:10:18 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8841 New Here Reflections on being a journalist who didn't grow up Canadian.]]> New Here

“The NDP has the best track record in Canada for balanced budgets,” said Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the NDP, during the Munk Debate on Foreign Policy. A few people chuckle. “Oh, you’re right,” he paused. “I forgot I was in Toronto. There was one exception but it turned out Bob Rae was a Liberal.” Roy Thomson Hall echoes with the loudest laughter I’ve heard all night, but I don’t know why.

I make a mental note to Google “Bob Rae Liberal NDP” when all the bankers and businessmen can’t see me use my phone. By the end of the night, I’ve made lots of mental notes. I start to feel like I don’t deserve to be here, like my seat should have gone to someone who can laugh with the crowd for real—and not for the first or last time.

I came to Canada in 2008 to study at the University of Toronto. I was 18 and held an Egyptian passport, though I’d spent the previous 12 years living in the United Arab Emirates. Ever since, I’ve faced a barrage of unknowns from the social (why do people talk about the weather so much) to the practical (navigating the health care system).

I like to think I understand most of these areas now, but when I started journalism school in 2014, I realized there was a lot more I had to learn about Canada. On the first day of class, I was assigned a Toronto ward to cover throughout the municipal elections. I listened intently, then panicked all the way home. What’s a ward? Is it an electoral district? Why do they have different borders from a riding? I flipped through Discover Canada—a 68-page booklet of photos and facts that permanent residents receive to study for their citizenship tests. The word “ward” didn’t appear once.

I’m not the only one to go through this experience. Kate Sheridan is a freelance journalist who moved to Montreal from the U.S. in 2010. “You want to learn as much as you can but you don’t have the benefit of having these civics courses or the basic history courses that Canadians get in school,” she says. Another journalist, Mahnoor Yawar, moved to Toronto in 2014 from the United Arab Emirates to study journalism at Humber College. She’d already spent some time covering pop culture and technology in Pakistan, but wanted to cover crime, politics and other beats. There was a lot she didn’t know. “Honestly speaking,” she says, “I landed here knowing not much more than that Harper was prime minister.”

One of the first stories Yawar covered was Toronto’s 2014 municipal election. She spent many more hours reading and researching than her peers did. By the end of it, she was confident, but there was still unspoken context that no amount of reading would give her. “There’s always going to be that gap of what do things mean in context,” she says.

Even when I’m socializing with other journalists, I find myself lost amid the name-dropping. I just nod. Things became less funny when I started working on a story that required understanding Canadian television journalism. I didn’t grow up watching CBC or Global News; I grew up watching the five o’clock news in Cairo, and later, BBC.

I had no idea where to start, paralyzed by how much I didn’t know. I asked a journalism instructor if she could recommend books about the history of Canadian broadcasting? Instead, she put me in touch with a former television producer. Over an hour-long coffee, he gave me a rundown of everything I needed to know including the significance of news personalities and how television had changed over the years. I left with my head buzzing. I was lucky to get help, but I was still behind on my story. And asking for help from editors can be risky. Wouldn’t they just prefer to assign the story to someone who knows more?

I became a Canadian citizen just over a year ago, but the imposter syndrome lingers. I’m uneasy about my future in the industry. There are enough barriers without also worrying about asking stupid questions. (“What’s a classroom portable?” or “Why is this Canada versus Russia hockey game such a big deal?”).

The good news is there are some advantages. Sheridan, for example, has been able to avoid certain traps like regional and provincial biases. And, eventually, you end up learning more about current affairs than some non-journalist Canadians.

My friends tell me that Heritage Minutes are much more informative than Discover Canada, so I won’t be reaching for that book any time soon. As difficult, perplexing and embarrassing as it might be, I became a journalist because I like learning about experiences outside of my own—and the best way to learn about my new home is to keep being a journalist.

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Elements of Style http://rrj.ca/elements-of-style/ http://rrj.ca/elements-of-style/#respond Wed, 20 Apr 2016 12:08:48 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8832 Elements of Style Reflections on the power of personal style.]]> Elements of Style

“You’re going to court,” my editor told me on my second day as a National Post intern. “You need to leave now.” I was all nerves as I threw my recorder and notebook into my shiny, black purse and sprinted to the elevator. I was off to the sentencing of wannabe Toronto rap star and convicted killer Mark Moore. Christie Blatchford had been covering the case, but she was out of town on assignment, and I was the undeserving—but lucky—available person. As the elevator slowly dropped to ground level, I became consumed with anxiety knowing that Blatchford would likely read the piece. I scanned my outfit: a pleated, cream-coloured sleeveless blouse, a pair of fitted, cropped black pants and two-toned, leather-heeled sandals. Despite my panic, I felt confident about my choices; I looked put together. I’d spent the previous night picking out an outfit to convey that I took my stint at the Post seriously. My degree in fashion helped me realize that my personal style allows me to assert poise. Dressing well is as important as showing up to work on time. As the elevator doors opened, I took a deep breath. “As long as you look like you know what you’re doing,” I told myself, “people will think you do.”

The next day, senior writer Peter Kuitenbrouwer visited me at my desk. He was holding the paper, opened to my court story on A3—my first byline for the Post. “Nice work,” he said. “But I think you meant to write ‘peace’ instead of ‘piece.’” My confidence sank, but I adjusted my handcrafted necklace—a reflex I assumed was the female equivalent of straightening a tie—and thanked him.

The ability to convey confidence through clothing is something freelance writer Rea McNamara knows a thing or two about. During times of uncertainty, the former style columnist “glamouflages.” One time, when she felt particularly challenged, she wore red lipstick every day for a week. “I just needed to feel confident,” she says. “And if I didn’t feel confident on the inside, I needed to project that I had my shit together.”

I, too, like to glamouflage. Dressing up gives me an instant boost and makes me feel like I have control—even if I don’t. The way you present yourself sends the outside world a message. “Your sense of style,” says McNamara, “should be reflective of the life you lead.”

We construct identities as we select pieces of clothing. “When you make these conscious decisions about your own personal aesthetics, it feels like you have a sharper take on the world around you,” says Shawn Micallef, co-owner of Spacing and a dapper dresser known for his bow ties. He understands the powerful relationship between clothing and confidence and gets a kick when he leaves the house dressed up. Yet, when working at home, the stylish journalist dresses “terribly.” Unlike Gay Talese, who worked from home dressed to the nines, Micallef doesn’t need a uniform to be productive.

Talese’s style became part of his identity as a journalist. In Rachel Tashjian’s 2015 Vanity Fair article, Talese credits getting his first job at The New York Times to the three-piece suit he wore to the interview. “I was polite, well-dressed,” he said. “I just know, though I never got any confirmation, that I made a good impression.” Tashjian also notes how Talese’s obsession with clothing intertwines with his writing. “When I write stories, it’s like making a suit: the pieces hang together, and you sketch,” Talese said. “The whole process: handwork.”

An effortlessly cool persona makes Joan Didion a style icon in and out of literary circles. French fashion house Céline made her the face of its spring 2015 campaign. “Didion might be the ultimate Céline woman: brilliant, creative, vaguely recalcitrant,” Vogue wrote. She kept a detailed packing list—which included two skirts, cigarettes, a mohair throw and a typewriter—taped inside her closet. “The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do,” Didion wrote. “Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture.”

While some writers want to blend in, others stand out. Tom Wolfe’s uniform—his legendary white suit—became synonymous with his work. “Wherever he went, he was the outsider,” Micallef says. “Everyone knew he was the writer.”

During my last week at the Post, I wore gold-stained leather clogs I bought at a flea market after bargaining with a vendor for 20 minutes. Each time I slipped into them and reflected on the victorious price adjustment, they gave me confidence. As the heavy carved heel of the wooden soles hit the newsroom tile, I passed Kuitenbrouwer. “Nice shoes!” he said. I smiled, satisfied that he’d complimented my writing—and my footwear.

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A Capital Idea http://rrj.ca/a-capital-idea/ http://rrj.ca/a-capital-idea/#respond Tue, 19 Apr 2016 12:56:21 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8823 A Capital Idea Reflections on the politics of capitalization.]]> A Capital Idea

As a journalist of colour, I find few things as disheartening as an editor replacing “Black people” with “black people.” This first happened to my work with an essay about the racism I experienced while dating as a Black woman in London, Ontario. I was overjoyed when the piece appeared— until I saw that all of my capital-B “Blacks” had become sad, irrelevant “blacks,” except for the two that were in quotation marks.

I was devastated that a news outlet claiming to have fresh, bold ideas—including sections specifically for people of colour to contribute—chose rigid grammar rules over expression. With every “B” on the page, I was asking for Black people to be heard; instead, I felt silenced. Since then, I’ve lost almost every battle for the capital “B.”

Capitalizing proper titles for Black people has been on activist and journalist agendas for decades. For me, in the era of Black Lives Matter, capital-B Black is an act of defiance against a society that often paints minorities as secondary. That inferiority nags at me when I’m called a racial slur; when I’m forced onto the road because a group of white kids see me and won’t share the sidewalk; when a security guard follows me around a store. Trying to explain to your (often) white editor that Black is so closely tied to your own lived experience can be complicated and emotional. I’ve heard “I just don’t get it” too many times. But when the profession meant to expose systemic issues doesn’t “get it,” that becomes yet another barrier.

One of the earliest capitalizing champions was W.E.B. Du Bois, an American author and activist who started a letter-writing campaign in the 1920s. He demanded that publishers and newspaper editors capitalize the “N” in Negro, the official term for Black people at the time, to show respect. In 1929, Encyclopedia Britannica lowercased “negro” in Du Bois’s article prior to its publication. He wrote to the editor’s assistant, saying, “The use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans…[is] a personal insult.” Soon after, the encyclopedia restored the capitalization for the final version, and by 1930, The New York Times added it to its style guide.

No mainstream news outlets in Canada capitalize Black, and neither do most news sites such as BuzzFeed or Vice. The Canadian Press Stylebook says to “capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, tribes,” such as Aboriginal Peoples, Arab, Caucasian, Negro and Pygmy, but “write aboriginal…black, brown, [and] white.” James McCarten, editor of the CP Stylebook and Caps and Spelling, says that editors, bureau chiefs and staff members have discussed capitalizing Aboriginal, but Black falls under another broader style policy. “Black is not a race. Nor is white,” he says. “Both are generic terms and therefore are lower case. We are not currently considering a change in that regard.”

Anthony Collins, co-chair of the Toronto Star’s style committee, says the paper follows Canadian Press style and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which does not capitalize Black. While Collins says the Star has made strides with language around sexual orientation, disability and race in general, the conversation about Black hasn’t happened. “Language has power, and capitalizing words can be seen as a mark of respect,” he says. “But our chief goal as editors is to serve the reader, and in doing so, we are guided by established English usage.”

Some Canadian publications such as This Magazine have decided to start capitalizing. This year, the Review began capitalizing Black, Aboriginal and Indigenous after the masthead agreed it was a necessary step toward more accurate and respectful reporting on under-represented communities. Rabble.ca capitalizes Black “to acknowledge there is a shared Black experience that is larger than just sharing a similar skin tone,” says blog editor Michael Stewart. “It has cultural, social and political implications.” He adds that the Black and Indigenous writers he’s spoken to prefer the words to be capitalized. “We respect a community’s right to choose the way it describes itself.”

But that doesn’t mean all Black journalists are pro-capital “B.” CBC anchor Asha Tomlinson is torn: while she sees the distinction it can give, she thinks journalists should seek out where their sources are actually from. “Black and white have no origins,” she says. However, she notes that while the Black population in the United States is predominantly African-American, Canada’s is so diverse that journalists need an umbrella term when reporting on Black communities.

Style guides evolve, as does language. If we can change “E-mail” to “email” and take the “ed” out of “transgendered,” we can capitalize one letter to reflect the way a community identifies. Gangbangers, drug dealers, violent brutes—Black people have been victims of damaging stereotypes for years. After decades of non-Black folks telling us who they think we are, it’s time we get to decide how we want to identify.

As journalists, we have tremendous power in shaping how people see each other and, with that, a responsibility to get it right. We don’t get to call ourselves “progressive” if we’re unwilling to modify a community’s name just because it’s not in the dictionary. We should all know that black is a colour, but Black is for people.

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School’s Out http://rrj.ca/schools-out/ http://rrj.ca/schools-out/#respond Mon, 18 Apr 2016 13:26:41 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8820 School’s Out Reflections on being a teacher-turned journalist.]]> School’s Out

“You’ll love this story,” Mary Gordon tells me. We’re sitting in her Toronto office and I’m interviewing her about the program she started. Called Roots of Empathy, it sends instructors into classrooms to teach children how to understand each other. She tells me about a man who recently contacted her to say that after taking one of her sessions as a boy, he realized he was a bully. Now a teacher, he tries to prevent others from acting the way he did. Gordon thinks I’ll enjoy this tale because she’s found me out: I used to be a teacher—not that I was planning on telling her that when I walked in.

When I had asked her questions only someone who had studied the education curriculum would know, she seemed impressed. So I had to admit: “Well, I used to be a teacher.” It seemed irrelevant; it was another life that had nothing to do with my current one. I wanted to do my job as a journalist—not bang out my past for a stranger, as I’ve done hundreds of times. Gordon didn’t ask me any of this, though; she was just happy she could speak to me as a peer. And I realized that my past career could help in my current work.

Life experiences, professional or not, allow journalists to insert themselves and their knowledge directly into their stories. But this comes with positives and negatives: knowledge is helpful, but avoiding bias is a challenge.

We trust certain journalists as experts because of their previous professions. Author and journalist Michael Lewis, famous for books such as The Big Short, Moneyball and The Blind Side (all of which have been made into major motion pictures), was a bond salesman. “Twenty five years ago,” he wrote in New Republic, “I quit a job on Wall Street to write a book about Wall Street.” Meanwhile, Vanity Fair correspondent William Langewiesche, a former professional pilot, writes about airplane crashes from the perspective of a journalist. He looks at the lives of the people while using his aviation background to explain what happened and the technology involved.

Sharing her experiences is something Deborah Reid, who worked as a chef for 26 years, believes is an important part of her work as a writer. She has a particular interest in women who work in professional kitchens. For an essay on the sexism of the chef uniform, which is made to fit men, she interviewed three women—but much of her knowledge came from her own experience. “At first, that was just fine by me…I didn’t want to be different.” she wrote. Later, though, Reid realized she was abandoning her gender in an effort to maintain her status as a chef.

But being too close to a subject can also make writing more difficult. Journalists’ views can cloud the way they write or speak about a topic. That was another worry I had in the Gordon interview. I wanted to hear about her program and think about it critically, not let my biases throw me off. I needed to listen to her plan and decide, as an outsider, if it was viable, without getting pulled into what I wanted to believe as a teacher: that teaching empathy is possible. I had to evaluate, as a journalist, if it really was.

Lisa Bendall, who worked in the disability field for many years before going into journalism and whose husband lives with a disability, believes writing what you know has its “challenges and its upsides.” Although her background gives her credibility with sources, the desire to protect her expert status means she needs more control over the final product. She says, “The last thing you want to do is see your article in print and there is some horrific insertion that I would never want to be associated with.”

By the time my article came out in This magazine, I couldn’t remember why I thought it was so important not to reveal my background to my sources. Gordon had told me it was helpful to know I was a teacher. “That, to me, is a bonus in anyone who is interviewing me, that I feel that we are on the same human path,” she said. She shares information about her program differently depending on who’s asking.

The headline was “In their shoes,” based on an anecdote I included in the story. A teacher I worked with printed out illustrations of shoes and had kids step onto one another’s when there was a conflict. I hoped such real-life details gave the story credibility, as well as emotional power.

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Scientific Method http://rrj.ca/scientific-method/ http://rrj.ca/scientific-method/#respond Fri, 15 Apr 2016 15:28:40 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8814 Scientific Method Reflections of scientist-turned-journalist.]]> Scientific Method

I joked that my clothes smelled like burning tires most days in the summer of 2013. I worked in a lab, filling time between my third and fourth years of a chemistry degree. My stained lab coat protected me from spills, but it was no defence against the chemical smell of sulphur. As much as I enjoyed lab work, I didn’t want to move on to a master’s in chemistry or apply for industry jobs. After work, I was interviewing local bands and writing profiles, pursuing my secret love of journalism—something I’d always wanted to do, but was scared to go after because I was good at a more “practical” field.

My favourite part of the scientific process was always the end: writing reports and explaining concepts. When I started to write about science, I realized I could skip the hours of mixing chemicals or graphing results and, instead, use my knowledge to tell stories. Soon after, I applied to journalism school. But like the sulphur smell that summer, I’ll never get rid of the scientist in my brain. Thankfully, my chemistry background taught me how to be a better journalist—follow evidence, stay organized, be accurate and communicate well.

That training is most useful when I write about science. While it’s certainly possible to learn how to cover it well with time and effort, it’s much easier to make mistakes without training in basic scientific concepts. I can avoid common mistakes: overhyping poorly done research, using the wrong numbers or focusing on individual studies instead of the scientific consensus.

Even so, I’ve written only one story directly connected to my chemistry background—an exploration of how and why to get involved in lab research as an undergraduate. I have, however, used my knowledge to write about a wide range of related topics: dinosaurs, sexual health, ecology, space travel and mental health. Vivien Fellegi also takes advantage of her background when she writes. She worked as a doctor for twenty years while earning English degrees, and later, a master’s in journalism. In 2012, she left medicine behind to be a full-time freelance journalist. But her previous career taught her how to be a generalist unafraid of research. “As a family doctor, you don’t know everything,” she says, “but you know how to find out about everything.”

Like Fellegi, I apply the same process I used to learn chemistry to tackle other scientific topics. As a chemist, I wrote lab reports and made poster presentations explaining my research and what it meant. As a journalist, this helped me explain the significance of a new dinosaur on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as translate complicated technical names into memorable descriptions a general audience can understand. (“Albertadromeus syntarsus” became a “quick-footed plant-eater the size of a turkey.”)

The scientific method also applies to stories outside the beat. Steve Buist studied human biology as an undergrad, and now works as an investigative reporter and feature writer at The Hamilton Spectator. “Science is very regimented,” he says: hypothesis, method, collecting results and analyzing. “Having that sort of orderly approach can be very helpful when you’re doing a large investigative process.” Author and freelancer Alex Hutchinson, who left his post doc in physics to go into journalism, agrees: “General skills are more important and more useful to me than knowing how to calculate how fast a toboggan goes down a slope.”

Last summer, an intern at Now magazine, I was assigned a follow-up story about protests against high school dress codes. We wanted to look at the policies’ language to see if it was disproportionately targeting female students. I put on my scientist’s hat and chose variables to record in a spreadsheet from the policies of all 561 Toronto District School Board schools. I analyzed the data, plotted it on a map and wrote a narrative about it over the course of two days. I had to work quickly, but without experience deciding what data matters and how to efficiently analyze them—which I had from chemistry—I never would have been able to finish the story in time.

But there’s more to science than logic, formulas and data. At its core, an experiment involves observing, testing a hypothesis and writing about it clearly. Last winter, I spent weeks shadowing a photographer, walking through the snow for hours as he snapped pictures of graffiti on Toronto’s walls. I kept watching even as my feet went numb, noticing his behaviour and asking questions to add to the collection of data in my notebook about the city’s subculture and him as a person. When I got home, I fired up a spreadsheet, organized my material, searched it for trends and revised my hypothesis into a theme statement. Once again, science had made me a better journalist.

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Inconvenient Truths http://rrj.ca/inconvenient-truths/ http://rrj.ca/inconvenient-truths/#respond Thu, 14 Apr 2016 14:42:40 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8807 Inconvenient Truths Reflections of a freelance fact checker.]]> Inconvenient Truths

The email reached my inbox one January morning. An editor at an American science and history magazine had just sent me an article and wanted to confirm that I’d started fact checking it, “to be sure nothing slips between the cracks.” I replied that I hadn’t touched it yet—I had assumed that he would send me research material, perhaps an annotated draft or at least contact information for sources. He answered, “No, sorry. The writer seems to know what he’s writing about.” Still, he wanted the article checked and returned as quickly as possible. I cringed.

As a freelance fact checker, I often see editors value expediency over accuracy. Publications rarely have enough money or make enough time to vet everything. Most magazines check only their most important pieces—often just the ones that will appear in print, since online stories can be updated with corrections at any time. Yet checking is the most robust tool for ensuring our reporting is credible. It’s hard to see how we can promise good journalism without being accurate.

Lara Zarum, a freelance writer and editor who now works with St. Joseph Media (which publishes Toronto Life and other magazines), recalls a book review that ran in a magazine she used to work for. The writer had skewed some facts and details to fit his line of thought about the book, and Zarum, the fact checker, noticed. But the editor decided to let it slide. “For the handling editor, they were tiny things,” she says. “For me, they were huge.”

As freelancers, both Zarum and I have limited power. If an editor overrules our decisions, we have no formal standing to protest. Admittedly, a magazine editor has different priorities than a checker: while the former has to take readability and style into account, the latter cares only about the facts. But the only defence against inaccuracy is trust in the separation between editors and researchers. An editor shouldn’t be able to supersede a fact checker without good reason.

Now, many magazines have slashed their research departments in hopes of cutting expenses, and responsibilities have changed. Increasingly, editors will pull in freelancers to look at features. They allow little time—I once accepted a “small” last-minute job that took nearly 50 hours—and the checker’s primary responsibility seems to be reducing legal liability: a publication’s ability to point the finger and say, “Look. We checked!”

Even proper fact checking isn’t completely foolproof. Most (honest) checkers admit outright lies can occasionally slither their way into stories. Stephen Glass, who famously fabricated features for American magazines, pulled it off. So did Jack Kelley, a five-time Pulitzer nominee who would script fake sources to prepare for the checker’s calls. Mike Daisey, an American writer, called his spurious reporting “inspired by real events”; John D’Agata, who did the same, argued for “a genuine experience with art.” The list goes on—and those are only the liars who have been caught.

Streamlining fact checking leads to situations like Rolling Stone’s notorious “Rape on Campus” story, which fell apart after The Washington Post caught the story’s main source mid-lie. Some magazines will print inaccurate stories, realize their mistakes and do nothing about it. Just look at The Walrus’s “Above the Fold,” an online piece about recent letdowns in Canada’s newspaper industry: The author, Margo Goodhand, mentioned a 20-year-old Canwest copy editor who was looking over an op-ed about a city he’d never been to, but BuzzFeed determined less than a week later that the subject was in fact a 28-year-old paginator. After scrutiny (and a minimal correction that changed “twenty-year-old” to “twentysomething”), Jonathan Kay, the magazine’s editor, argued that the article is still broadly accurate.

Rudy Lee, an experienced research-editor-at-large in New York City, has seen white lies and mistruths make it into magazines for myriad reasons—consumer magazines trying to please advertisers, entertainment pages catering to celebrity publicists, literary publications indulging star writers. That’s how our checking culture has evolved: from high standards to increasingly lower ones as budgets get thinner. There’s a chance fact checkers may not be able to push back. “When you lose layers of rigour,” Lee says, “things become more convenient.” And it’s hard to bring old methods back.

This doesn’t apply to every magazine and every checking experience, of course. I’ve also worked for extremely thorough handling editors and admired the persistence of employers who gave me an extra 24 hours to make sure I could check every detail properly. There’s a reason the job still exists, and many people working in magazines understand the importance of getting a story right. Still, that appreciation seems to be diminishing.

In the end, though I never received an annotated draft of the history magazine piece, I managed to speak to a couple of the sources. Some details I could never really confirm, but I was satisfied that the article was mostly accurate. In today’s industry, for some magazines, that’s as good as it gets.

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Calling Out the Cops http://rrj.ca/calling-out-the-cops/ http://rrj.ca/calling-out-the-cops/#respond Wed, 13 Apr 2016 03:07:37 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8788 Calling Out the Cops Inside the Toronto Star's 17-year fight to expose carding—the investigations, the legal battle and the power of the press to provoke change.]]> Calling Out the Cops

Activists pushing for the end of carding used the Star‘s deep coverage of the issue—with quantitative evidence—as ammunition. Photo by Joyita Sengupta

In 1994, at 28 years old, Jim Rankin got his big career break and joined the Toronto Star’s city section as a reporter and photographer. He quickly discovered the newspaper was also the region’s unofficial police complaints bureau. A significant number of Black Torontonians told him they’d been stopped by police engaging in “racial profiling,” the targeting of people based simply on the colour of their skin. Still, Rankin would hear only a small fraction of these stories that haunted the city for decades, terrifying one segment of the population as another denied that they could be real.

There was the teacher who counted down from 10, waiting for the inevitable flashing lights, every time he saw a police cruiser pull up beside him; the law student stopped so often he began to feel South African-style apartheid was alive and well in Toronto; the young journalist approached by officers for walking down streets he “didn’t belong” on, in a city he had come to call home.

Rankin was struck by the fear and anger associated with these stories. So, he spent years trying to understand why the relationship between cops and Black citizens was so clearly troubled. After many interviews with police representatives and members of Black communities, he’d gathered hundreds of anecdotes and countless accusations from both sides. But he didn’t have enough data to comprehensively report on the sense of injustice.

That began to change early in 1999, his fifth year at the Star. Rankin was at his desk, looking through a run-of-the-mill press release from the Toronto Police Service (TPS) about a male robbery suspect.

As he read it, he noticed a bizarre reference, just one word, an adjective that would prove crucial to understanding the tense relationship between Black Torontonians and the city’s cops. That word was “yellow.” Rankin wondered: how could a suspect be described as yellow? Did he have jaundice?

The surprising answer led to more than a decade of groundbreaking reporting that has exposed “carding,” the nationwide police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people, even without suspicion of criminal offence. Many believe it is racial profiling.

The Star’s coverage of carding has been the result of a combination of persistent reporters, committed editors and supportive publishers willing to take on serious financial risks. Together, they make a strong case for how a healthy newspaper industry can amplify the voices of marginalized populations that democracies haven’t done nearly enough to serve.

One of the voices the paper helped magnify was that of Chris Williams, an academic and activist. “Investigative journalism, from the standpoint of a lot of people, is dying, primarily for fiscal reasons. This series,” he says, referring to the Star’s carding coverage, “shows how indispensable such journalism is for public education, for holding public institutions accountable and for fostering critical consciousness generally.”


The hunt for the meaning of “yellow” began when Rankin and then-colleague John Duncanson, who died in 2009, embarked on a year-long process of piecing together snippets of information from trusted police sources they’d built up throughout their careers. The first major breakthrough was the discovery of a fingerprinting program, the Repository for Integrated Criminalistic Imaging (RICI). One of the database’s headings, “colour,” allowed users to choose from white, brown, black, red or yellow when identifying suspects. These colour codes were converted into ethnicities before appearing in press releases. “Yellow” should have appeared as “Oriental” in the release—though police now use “Asian”—but a clerk at police headquarters had forgotten to make the change.

The journalists pressed police contacts to discover what else the force was tracking. “John Duncanson was a terrific cop reporter and could get almost anyone to talk and say things that they really shouldn’t be talking about with a reporter,” Rankin says. Digging deep through police contacts eventually yielded more gold, as Rankin acquired the name of two additional databases. After filing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request through the TPS, he learned that both contained race fields. This was the first hard evidence that Toronto cops were recording racial characteristics. These steps were crucial to putting together the information required for a specific enough FOI request to get the databases, which Rankin submitted in March 2000 after consulting his editors.

For two years, the Star negotiated with the police through the municipal FOI act. They reached a compromise in the summer of 2002: the TPS gave the Star access to the Criminal Information Processing System (CIPS), which allowed analysts to search for racial disparities in the way police treat people after arrests. “We knew more about what was in CIPS, and we had ideas about what we could look for in terms of differences that might speak to potential racial bias,” Rankin says. “We also had to be pragmatic. Police had never before had a request like this, and we knew it was eating up their resources—and ours.”

The Star’s “Race and Crime” series in October 2002 found that in cases of simple drug possession, Black people were taken into police stations more often than white people, and they were held overnight for a bail hearing at twice the rate. “The Toronto crime data also shows a disproportionate number of black motorists are ticketed for violations that only surface following a traffic stop,” wrote Rankin. “This difference, say civil libertarians, community leaders and criminologists, suggests police use racial profiling in deciding whom to pull over.”

The series had a huge impact according to Frances Henry, a retired York University professor and leading racism expert: “The fact that the Star and all those very good journalists they had at the time decided to do that piece of research and that series was a milestone, I would say, in journalism on race and racism in this country.” Henry and co-author Carol Tator, an instructor and consultant who has worked in the anti-racism movement for decades, cited “Race and Crime” in Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging The Myth of “a Few Bad Apples,” their 2006 book. “The series in the Star provoked a discursive crisis that continues to reverberate,” they write. “The concept of a ‘discursive crisis’ refers to a set of conditions that has a profound impact upon society and, more specifically, the state of minority/majority relations.”

But cops weren’t as impressed with “Race and Crime.” The Toronto Police Association (TPA), the union representing the city’s law enforcement, launched a lawsuit against the Star in January 2003, alleging the series labelled every officer in the force as racist. The TPA sought $2.7 billion in damages ($375,000 for each of its 7,200 members). “It’s cartoonish, the amount they were seeking,” says Rankin. “It’s hard to take it seriously, but at the same time, you go to bed at night and you think, what if we didn’t do it right? We all lost a lot of sleep.” Throwing out the case in June 2003, the judge concluded, “The allegedly defamatory comments and innuendoes in the articles cannot reasonably be understood as intended to apply to every officer in the TPS.”


“Race and Crime” was a success, and the Star had dodged a massive lawsuit. But Rankin wasn’t satisfied. As the years went on, he kept in touch with his police contacts to develop a better understanding of the database the paper had failed to acquire with the 2000 FOI request. He desperately wanted access to the Master Name Index (Manix). The information on hundreds of thousands of people in the database included their race, which officers marked on a contact card after stopping them. He filed another FOI request, but the TPS quickly denied it.

After the drama of “Race and Crime,” Rankin wasn’t surprised by the rejection. But he wasn’t about to back down. He went to his editors, and despite the likely challenges ahead, they were willing to take the TPS to court for information contained in the carding database. He was thrilled, remembering exactly why he loved working at the Star. Knowing that his colleagues, all the way up to the publisher, were committed to the story gave him the confidence to slug through a seven-year legal battle while continuing to report on allegations of police brutality and racial profiling.

In early 2009, the Star won the case, and the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the TPS to reimburse the newspaper’s legal fees. Rankin taped a copy of the $40,000 cheque, along with another for $35,319.49 from the TPA’s earlier failed class action lawsuit, to the side of his desk. They were souvenirs of the battles he fought in the name of good journalism.

By January 2010, he was looking over a breakdown of carding stops in Toronto from 2003 to 2008. The data he had used in “Race and Crime” was complex, but Manix was straightforward. “Within a day or two of looking at the carding database, we could see a pattern,” Rankin says. There was a shocking racial disparity: Black people made up 8.4 percent of Toronto’s population at the time, but a staggering 22.6 percent of contact cards. He recruited help from the Star’s investigative reporters, as most of his original team from “Race and Crime” had moved on. Over the next month, they put together a new series.

“Race Matters,” published in February 2010, reported that Black people were three times more likely to be stopped than white people; Black males aged 15 to 24 were carded 2.5 more times than white males of the same age; and Black people were carded at significantly higher rates than their overall census population in each of the city’s 74 police patrol zones. The series included interviews with Rohan Robinson, a teacher who became the first face of carding. He described being stopped by police 30 times since 2001 without being ticketed.

Black communities in Toronto already suspected they were disproportionately stopped by police and had discussed it for decades, according to Anthony Morgan, a policy and research lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the Black experience,” he says. Yet data confirming the systemic nature of carding, and its extent, was new. “It helped me recognize this isn’t just a feeling that something is wrong with these interactions,” Morgan says. “These things were actually wrong, and I was being targeted. Up until then, it was difficult to feel comfortable saying that.”

John Sewell, coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and former mayor, says the story made his group realize this wasn’t happening randomly or from an individual officer. “This was a real strategy of the police force, and was something that was requiring all police officers to stop random people and record data about them.”


Despite interest from civil liberty groups, Rankin was underwhelmed by the public’s reaction to the series. He expected outrage from Torontonians. Instead, he says, it didn’t spark the city-wide conversation on carding that he’d hoped would occur. Rankin and the other reporters had taken only a month to put together the story, eager to publicize the racial disparity in carding stops, especially after waiting seven years for the data. The rush to release the series meant there wasn’t enough in-depth analysis. “What I didn’t think of at the time was other comparisons we could have done there,” Rankin says. Those included breaking the analysis down to a neighbourhood level and comparing the results. “We didn’t frame some of the questions the right way.” He believes they could have exposed the racial disparity in a more provocative manner.

The series also lacked the sort of wide-ranging personal experiences that would have conveyed the pain of being disproportionately carded. This was a significant flaw since many supporters of the practice saw it as a relatively harmless way of gathering information. The people who typically came to the Star to discuss encounters with police were often involved in legal disputes with the TPS. But the carding sources were everyday people affected by the practice and scared of the potential backlash of stepping into the spotlight, according to Patty Winsa, a general assignment reporter who worked on the series. “It was very difficult to get people to speak out,” she says. “So we didn’t personalize it enough.”

Eager to tackle the story with a new angle, Rankin filed another FOI request in 2011 to acquire updated carding data, as “Race Matters” included data only up until 2008. The March 2012 “Known to Police” series that came out of this FOI request finally brought carding the attention Rankin felt it deserved and forced politicians and police to address the practice. Rankin, Winsa and several multimedia journalists used the new information to present a provocative question: was it possible every young Black man in Toronto had been carded?

“A Star analysis of Toronto police stop data from 2008 to mid-2011 shows that the number of young black and brown males aged 15 to 24 documented in each of the city’s 72 patrol zones is greater than the actual number of young men of colour living in those areas,” the series noted. The ratio of Black men who were carded increased in predominantly white, affluent zones.

Rankin and Winsa also explored what carding meant to people in patrol zone 121, located in the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood, an impoverished area of Toronto with a particularly high rate of carding. The series included interviews with Black youth and community workers from this area, immersing Star readers in the grim realities of carding, something Rankin felt past series had failed to do.

One of the officials he’d hoped would consider his reporting was Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) from 2005 to 2015. After the 2010 series, Mukherjee told Rankin, “I can’t explain to you why you see the pattern you see today, but come back to me in two years, and if we have not seen a change, then there will be some questions that we will need to answer.” Mukherjee was shocked to hear the disparity had increased and began pressing the TPS for change.

The Star, meanwhile, continued pushing carding as a story, although the most important addition to the next series came from two men outside of the publication. Williams filed an FOI request for his own carding data in June 2012. After receiving the data, he contacted his friend Knia Singh, a student at Osgoode Hall Law School, and urged him to do the same

Singh filed his request in December 2012, and then the two men contacted the Star. Williams believed working with the paper would be “beneficial to the community because the experiences of me and Knia intersect with the experiences of hundreds of thousands of other people.”

“Known to Police 2013,” published in September, told their stories and included powerful video interviews. The series stressed that both men are young, Black, without criminal records and active in their communities, and they still had been carded. Singh says the reaction to their front-page photos illustrates how important their stories were for shattering stereotypes about carding. “It looked like Chris and I were suspects in a crime, because you usually don’t see two Black people on the front cover unless they’ve committed a crime, right?” He adds, “Some friends of mine thought I had either committed a crime or was a victim of a crime until they read it.”

Just under a month later, the TPS released the Police And Community Engagement Review (PACER) report, suggesting substantive methods to work toward bias-free policing. Many of these suggestions were incorporated into a progressive carding policy reform the police board voted for in April 2014, and the number of contact cards issued had begun to drop the year before. A few months later, Rankin asked TPA president Mike McCormack what had caused the reduction. The union head responded, “There’s definitely a sense out there amongst my members that they don’t want to be the one that’s, quite frankly, on the cover of the Toronto Star.”

Civil rights organizations used the Star’s data analysis as ammunition to put pressure on the police. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in criminal justice at Indiana University who’s studying the views of Toronto police officers on race, says the Star had done a good job of reporting on anti-Black racism for years. Yet he also notes personal stories, common in the paper’s reporting before it obtained the databases, were typically ignored by police officials. “This type of data is often dismissed as being anecdotal because it’s individuals relaying their experiences.” But the databases provided quantitative evidence that was more difficult to dismiss, says Owusu-Bempah. “If it weren’t for the work of journalists, we would be much further behind in what we know now than we do.”

Shadya Yasin, a coordinator with the York Youth Coalition who works in the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood, believes the reporting helped transform attitudes toward carding. “When the Black community speaks about carding, it’s just like, ‘Oh, look at those people, it’s just their issue,’” Yasin says. “But when the Star’s reporting came out, it actually gave proof and made it real to other people who think it’s always just Black people complaining about race issues.” Singh adds, “The reality is, if the journalists didn’t cover it, it would be a dead issue. It would be very easy for the police to just trample our rights, and we’d never have any recourse.”

These investigative series also opened the door for Black journalists, personally affected by carding, to vigorously report on the practice with the aid of quantitative evidence. The Star’s Royson James has tackled carding in his columns, especially starting in 2014, and helped put pressure on politicians to address the problem. In April 2014, the TPSB passed what many believed to be a progressive policy. A year later, the TPSB reversed many of these changes when it passed a new carding policy.

In June 2015, James argued that the dismantling of the 2014 reform was “beyond disturbing.” Noting citizens’ lack of trust in the political system, James wrote, “They do not want to hear from Mayor Tory on the issue. He symbolizes the problem.”

Singh says James’s reputation played a role in mobilizing Black Torontonians against carding. Williams agrees the columnist’s attacks on carding were crucial. “Royson James plays an important role in terms of conveying the deep-seated sentiments of large segments of the Black population in particular and marginalized populations more generally.”

Few other columnists discuss carding on a routine basis, according to James, who says, “He who feels it, knows it.” He believed he was the only one able to give Black communities in Toronto a voice they lacked in Canadian journalism. “I decided I was going to have to be that voice,” James says, noting a sense of personal responsibility.

James’s writing over the years inspired Desmond Cole, a freelance journalist who began reporting on carding after reading “Known to Police.” His personal essay in the May 2015 edition of Toronto Life left a mark on the city. Cole believes his piece was especially influential because of the magazine’s audience. “This was really not in their mode, so it really, really grabbed people’s attention,” he says. “It was sent into the homes of people who aren’t used to reading about these kinds of issues on a regular basis, or maybe never have.”

Cole’s view on the lack of public knowledge of carding, which others share, raises a serious question: stories about biased policing have existed for decades, so why did it take so long for mainstream journalists to cover the issue?

Owusu-Bempah doesn’t blame the Star for the delay, claiming the fault lies with police since they don’t regularly release carding data. And that information was of the utmost importance, according to Sewell: “It was that data that just blew things apart.” The Star’s coverage is invaluable, says Williams. “Any time you have journalistic work that disrupts the privilege of such a powerful public institution, I think that’s vitally important.”


Public discussion about carding reached new levels last October, when the province of Ontario proposed draft regulations to regulate carding and, many hope, to eventually ban random stops. Rankin is eager to see what will come of these regulations, though he believes systemic bias in policing will continue and, therefore, the reporting will as well.

Despite these concerns, the announcement marked the beginning of a happy few days for Rankin. Current and former colleagues emailed and called to congratulate him for his dedication to reporting on carding throughout the years. “It took a lot of Star resources and a really dogged team of journalists, editors, data gurus and bosses to keep on this issue,” Rankin says. “Because I am the only one still on it from our 2002 series, it feels extra special to be able to see it through to where we are today.”

One message particularly stood out. Rankin left work the day after the announcement, walked his dog and came home to a phone call. It was Scott Simmie, one of five journalists who worked on “Race and Crime.” Simmie told his former colleague that his reporting was a legacy. “It hadn’t hit me until that,” Rankin says. “You’re lucky in this job if you can look back and say there’s something that we did that made a difference. That’s definitely one of them.”

As they chatted, people around Toronto picked up copies of the Star with a front page filled with an article from Rankin, a photo of Singh and a column from Cole. The headline blazed across the page in large, capitalized print and announced just how significant their work had been: “Random Carding: The End.”

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Collateral Damage http://rrj.ca/collateral-damage/ http://rrj.ca/collateral-damage/#respond Mon, 11 Apr 2016 17:30:33 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8760 Collateral Damage Coverage of Toronto's gang and gun violence perpetuates a dangerous narrative that puts Black communities in the crossfire.]]> Collateral Damage

“Oh my God/Oh my God/If I Die, I’m a legend,” shouted thousands of concert-goers through the haze of smoke and fireworks during the final song of Drake’s OVO Fest last August. For two people, those words foreshadowed the night ahead. As the three-day festival ended at Toronto’s Molson Canadian Amphitheatre around midnight, some excited fans tweeted on their way to the after-party at Muzik nightclub.

The Toronto Star later reported that Ariela Navarro-Fenoy couldn’t get tickets to the sold-out show, but she did get into Muzik. She reportedly texted a friend around 11 p.m. to let him know. Meanwhile, Duvel Hibbert also made it to the nightclub. Through- out the night, people posted on social media from the party, but around 3:30 a.m., journalists took over Twitter: shots had been fired at Muzik. On the club’s patio, Hibbert lay dead. Outside, Navarro-Fenoy had been hit by a stray bullet. By morning, both were dead, and three other people were injured. By the next afternoon, police formally released the victims’ names, but some journalists were already a step ahead.

The headlines reflected their findings: Navarro-Fenoy, who had an active social media presence, became the “beautiful, smiling” girl caught in a hail of bullets: “Drake fan was an innocent victim of Muzik shooting,” read a Star headline.

Hibbert received different treatment. A Google search for his name brought up a Canada-wide warrant issued by the Ontario Provincial Police in 2013 for his parole violation on a possession of a firearm offence. The Brampton Guardian titled an article “Muzik nightclub shooting victim had criminal record that included gun crimes,” and a Toronto Sun headline read: “Man slain at OVO Fest after-party was under house arrest.”

An online GoFundMe campaign for Navarro-Fenoy’s funeral costs surpassed its goal of $20,000. A campaign for Hibbert, started by someone identified as his sister Angie, collected less than $4,500. She begged people to look past the news stories about him—a life had still been lost.

The Muzik tragedy falls under one of Toronto’s biggest crime concerns: gun violence. While other cities have common crimes—stabbings in Regina and homicides in Winnipeg—gun homicides in Toronto get national coverage. The 2012 shooting at the Eaton Centre (followed by Danzig Street a month later), Yonge Street on Boxing Day 2005 and a Just Desserts café in 1994 represent the city’s gun problem.

The shooting deaths of youngsters Jordan Manners, Ephraim Brown, Kesean Williams and Lecent Ross also highlight the region’s issue with violent crime. While fatal shootings have dramatically decreased since Toronto’s “Year of the Gun” in 2005, shooting injuries—many involving young Black men from disadvantaged neighbourhoods—have increased. That worries the police and the public.

For years, media critics, lawyers and criminologists have denounced the coverage of gun violence, arguing that it perpetuates the stereotype that Black people, particularly Jamaicans, are violent gangbangers—Toronto’s obstacle to safe streets. In 2000, then-York University professors Frances Henry and Carol Tator analyzed two decades of English-language Canadian newspapers and found that reporters and editors not only contribute to the association of crime with Black people, but they also have the power to shape how the public views minority groups.

When Black shooters are easily identified, the crimes are “bloodbaths” that “spill” into Toronto streets, while others—like a January double murder in Toronto’s downtown Chinatown, which included three people injured on a busy nighttime street— are simply called “fatal.” In 2012, Christopher Husbands shot and killed two men in the crowded Eaton Centre food court, injuring four others. The shooting was called a bloodbath in some articles. Both the Star and the Sun described the Danzig barbecue as “Caribbean-themed” with “jerk chicken,” affiliating Black people with the shooting. Headlines and coverage involving Black shooters reflect sensational tones that spark fear of Black men and public panic about who is causing the shootings. And the focus on Black male shooters in high-profile cases and the underwhelming coverage of young Black victims suggest an implicit racial bias that, even in Toronto—known for its motto “Diversity our strength”—journalists fail to adequately address.

In the era of Black Lives Matter and a shift toward more diversity in newsrooms, journalists should be held accountable for how they report on crime when race is involved. They will have to learn to be sensitive to how their coverage can stigmatize an entire community. Such sensitivity is possible, but only if journalists are willing to report on the underlying issues.


Jamaicans started moving to Canada in large numbers throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, and many settled in Toronto, where newspaper employees were—and remain—mostly white. Turf wars erupted in low-income neighbourhoods over the crack cocaine trade, mainly run by Jamaicans in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The city was fearful, and mainstream news outlets often lumped all Black people together when laying the blame. “It was terrible,” says former Sun reporter Tom Godfrey, who worked at Contrast, one of Toronto’s first Black newspapers, in the mid-’80s. He remembers being one of only a few Black reporters in the city. “You could be from Africa or Jamaica, but it was all ‘the Black community.’”

Meanwhile, Black leaders condemned police for beating and shooting people, including Albert Johnson in 1979 and Lester Donaldson and Michael Wade Lawson in 1988. “Young Black males were thrown into police cars and questioned later,” Godfrey says. “It was open season.”

He remembers dozens of Black people lined up outside the Contrast office to report alleged police beatings. Often, they’d have blood streaming from their faces. “They thought Black community papers would give them a fair shake,” he says, since mainstream news often sided with police.

News outlets began seeing a trend in gun violence: Jamaicans were often suspects and victims, and reporters fed the public’s anxiety about Jamaican crime taking over Toronto. Timothy Appleby, then a police reporter for The Globe and Mail, wrote a three-part series in July 1992 called “Crime: the Jamaica connection.” Each instalment started on the front page. The first of the series was headlined “Island crime wave spills over” and stated that “a small but volatile group of young Jamaican males has altered Toronto’s criminal landscape significantly in the past three years.” The pull quote in the full-page spread showcased the words of a law enforcement official in Jamaica: “The people who migrate are the riffraff. The quality ones stay home.”

The death of Georgina “Vivi” Leimonis, shot when three Jamaican men robbed a Just Desserts café, riveted Toronto in 1994. Described as an act of “urban terrorism” by police, the story ran repeatedly in the city’s major outlets. Newspapers published more than 200 stories on the murder in the following seven weeks. Editorials demanded tougher immigration laws, and an op-ed by the Globe’s Michael Valpy said the “barbarians are inside the gate” committing “alien slaughter.”

Globe reporter Peter Cheney says it was the most sensational murder case he’d seen in Canada, which he attributes to the growing racial tension between Black and white communities. “The Jamaican community in particular felt it was singled out for coverage that reflected poorly on it,” he says. “Was there actually a crime problem in that community? Was the media guilty of racist coverage? I think both were true.”

A late-’90s study of the Star and the Sun by criminologist Scot Wortley found that Black people appear predominantly in crime, sports and entertainment stories, while white people overpopulate politics, business and science. In 1999, not much had improved. Henry, then Ryerson University’s chair of diversity for the school of journalism, and research assistant Marnie Bjornson found that about 40 percent of all stories about Jamaicans in those two newspapers, between 1994 and 1997, were in relation to “social problems,” including crime and immigration, and only 2 percent were positive.

In 1999, Cheney finished “a.k.a. Brownman,” his in-depth fea- ture on Lawrence Brown, who was later convicted of first-degree murder in Leimonis’s death. Cheney says the case crystallized the white fear of Black men who, until then, the public believed were only killing each other in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. “But then it spilled over into the ‘privileged’ community—the white community,” Cheney says. “And a white person was shot while getting dessert. And so the two worlds had intersected.”

A decade later, the Jane Creba case also unnerved Toronto. On Boxing Day 2005, a stray bullet hit the 15-year-old during a gang shootout while she shopped on a busy downtown street. Detective sergeant Savas Kyriacou called it “the day Toronto lost its innocence.” Creba’s death ended the “Year of the Gun,” which led to the formation of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) with $5 million from the province to create trained officer teams.

Wortley, now an associate professor at the University of Toronto Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies, believes the case gained public sympathy because it was a “perfect storm.” It was an interracial shooting, and Wortley says that “Creba was what might be called the ‘ideal victim’: young, female, white, innocent, caught in gang warfare,” adding that people were also interested because it happened on Boxing Day in a busy Yonge Street shopping area. “Those crimes generate fear because it suggests that violence has stepped outside of its normal boundaries.”

Six weeks later, York University student Chantel Dunn was killed in a shooting the police said was meant for her boyfriend, who escaped with injuries. “It took place near Jane and Finch,” says Wortley, referring to one of Toronto’s well-known “priority” neighbourhoods, a euphemism for low-income areas. “The impression is if you’re unlucky or stupid enough to live in a high-crime area, then those types of things happen there, so it’s not a big story.”

Each year in his introductory criminology course, Wortley asks his students to make a list of famous Canadian criminals. They throw around names: Bernardo, Homolka, Pickton, Magnotta, Olson—all white. When he asks them which group they think is responsible for most violent crime in Canada, they say African and Aboriginal Canadians. Wortley challenges students to name one offender from either group, but nobody can. “It illustrates how white crime is individualized,” he says. The public learns about their childhoods, jobs and mental illnesses, even excuses for the behaviour. “But minority crime is a cultural phenomenon. It’s a problem in the neighbourhood. It’s a problem with Jamaicans. It’s hip hop culture,” he says. “Everybody in that group is stigmatized by it.”


Listen: Rob Lamberti, who covered crime at the Toronto Sun for almost 30 years, talks about the mistrust between Black communities and the Sun, and what the paper got wrong when reporting on crime involving Black people


White victims of gun crime in middle-class areas get thorough coverage, but Black victims rarely do. Often, this is because Black victims are shot in low-income neighbourhoods, far removed from public spaces and with few witnesses. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Manners, the first student killed by a gun inside a Toronto school, was an exception because the shooting took place during school hours. Wortley says if Manners had been shot in a plaza near Jane and Finch late at night, it would have never received the same amount of coverage or been investigated by a safety advisory panel.

Jooyoung Lee, a U of T sociologist who specializes in gun violence and hip hop culture, says there’s a psychological term called the “just-world hypothesis” that applies to victims of gun and gang violence. “It basically means that people reap what they sow. The things that happen to people tend to be deserved in some way,” he says, adding that there’s a public belief that Black youth shot in disadvantaged neighbourhoods must be gang members and drug dealers.

The vast majority of gunshot victims Lee has encountered in his research are regular people hurt in the crossfire—because they live in high-risk areas, get hit by a stray bullet or are victims of mistaken identity. “When these things happen in Black communities, we tend to think, ‘Oh, it must have been just another guy or girl who was caught up in a gang or caught up in street drug dealing.’”

Lee says that journalists’ own prejudices and biases subtly influence their stories, sending a message to the public about who is and isn’t dangerous. As an American living in Canada, Lee has seen the disparities in crime reporting on both sides of the border. “In the U.S., race and racial inequality are such a big part of discussions about gun violence and social inequality,” he says. “But there’s a tendency to talk about Canadian society as if it’s ‘post-racial’—as if issues about racial inequality are American problems.” Regardless, Lee says the stereotype remains the same in both countries. “There’s a fascination with the dangerous young Black male who is a thug.”

Audette Shephard believes young Black men aren’t hardened criminals, but boys growing up under oppressive circumstances. In June 2001, her only child, Justin Garth Shephard, was found dead on a footbridge half a kilometre from his home in North St. James Town, Toronto. He had been shot in the head. The 19-year-old was a popular and gifted athlete who planned to attend college in Maryland. A single mom, Shephard was close to Justin: they spoke in their own slang, she spoiled him with gifts, they would sometimes go to church together and, on his 19th birthday, he tattooed her name above his heart. His murder remains unsolved.

To find solutions to end youth gun violence, Shephard now sits on the board of the Attorney General’s Ontario Office for Victims of Crime. She is also a co-founder and chair of United Mothers Opposing Violence Everywhere. Shephard estimates she’s done hundreds of interviews with journalists, and when she talks about her son at schools, she sees past the hard shell of youth that reporters can’t seem to crack. “Some of these young men act so macho, and then at the end, they come up to me with tears in their eyes,” she says. “They give me a hug and say they’re so sorry.”

Stories that perpetuate the image of the young Black thug make it difficult for the public to see the human side of Black youth.

This February marked more than a year since Toronto police temporarily suspended the controversial practice of carding, which disproportionally targeted Black men. That month, the Sun published a column with the headline “Shootings up since carding suspended,” suggesting that gun violence is increasing because the people most often carded by police—Black men— are no longer stopped. Staff inspector Greg McLane was quoted in the Star saying that there are “many variables” contributing to gun violence.

After the Danzig shooting, the National Post published an article entirely about the Hennessy bought for the party, saying it has “a reputation as the go-to drink in hip hop circles” and is “popular among rappers.” Below the article is a list of lyrics about Hennessy by rappers Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Mac Dre, who all wrote about gang life in their music, and two of whom were killed by gunfire.

A Post story in July about Mark Moore, a Toronto rapper convicted of murdering four people, featured two screenshots of Moore from rap videos. In one, he’s wearing gold jewellery and pointing at the camera. In another, Moore is rapping in a limo, wearing sunglasses and gold chains and holding stacks of bills.

Paul Nguyen was so tired of seeing people’s expressions when he told them he lived at Jane and Finch that he started saying he lived in North York instead. He noticed that journalists came to the neighbourhood rarely—only when crimes occurred. So, after graduating from York University in 2004, he created Jane-Finch.com to dispel its negative image. “We have a lot of young people here doing amazing things, winning all kinds of awards, competing on national levels,” he says. “I wanted to share and promote those positive things here.”

Nguyen says reporters feed the perception that the neighbourhood is dangerous. A TV reporter approached him to do a story on young people using music to escape gang life. One of Nguyen’s friends, known for wearing a bulletproof vest, was helping out. The friend showed a reporter where bullets had been fired near a convenience store. The lead for the next day’s story: “Sometimes a simple trip to the corner store in Toronto’s Jane-Finch neighbourhood means wearing a bulletproof vest.”

The reporter was Black, so his angle particularly shocked Nguyen. Another time, reporters came to do a live hit for a positive story—and brought two men Nguyen believed were security guards. As Nguyen says, “Jane and Finch is a brand.”

The annual Toronto Caribbean Carnival, which used to be known as Caribana, is also a brand known for gunfire. Stephen Weir, public relations manager since 1999, says the public sometimes still calls it “Caribana” and, each year, the carnival ends up in the news for “pre-Caribana” or “Caribana weekend” crimes. Weir says many journalists don’t realize that club promoters use the name to help boost attendance at events that aren’t affiliated with the carnival.

In 2009, Wesler Fabien, a Black man from Ottawa, was shot to death outside the Howard Johnson Hotel in the posh Toronto area of Yorkville. Even though police said the shooting wasn’t related to the carnival, several articles included that it happened on carnival weekend and that Fabien and a friend were visiting the city to attend. “Good or bad,” Weir says, “Caribana is thought of as everything that happens on the August first weekend.” Sometimes, crimes are linked to the carnival weeks before it even begins. On July 23, 2010, a teenager was shot and killed at a church basement party in Ajax, about 50 kilometres east of Toronto. A Durham police officer was quoted saying, “We’ve been told that it was a pre-Caribana party.” Weir says the event had nothing to do with the carnival—it wasn’t even in Toronto.

In 2015, a stabbing took place during Nuit Blanche, an all-night art event; later that night, a crowd at Yonge-Dundas Square threw bottles at police. CityNews published an online article that reported, “Nuit Blanche was taking place at the same time although there were no installations at Yonge-Dundas Square.” Weir says, “If it had been a mostly Black or Caribbean crowd, it probably would have been called a ‘Caribana riot.’”

He says journalists rely heavily on police, who can use “throwaway lines” that end up sticking. If an officer incorrectly links a shooting to the festival, Weir has to call reporters to clarify. Although most journalists will issue a correction, he says some refuse or don’t follow through.

Reporters rely on crime information from police press conferences, which can’t give the full picture because they’re usually focused on a specific crime. “I think that police sometimes have a vested interest in creating moral panics about particular types of crimes because it can help mobilize public support,” Wortley says. In two decades as a criminologist, he’s seen public spending and police power increase dramatically after sensational shootings.

News outlets fed into this when they quoted former police chief Bill Blair’s statement labelling Danzig the “worst incident of gun violence in my memory anywhere in North America” as he stood at the scene. This statement is an example of why Wortley urges journalists to think hard about their sources. His op-ed in the Star the next day criticized Blair’s inaccurate statement about Danzig, in which two were killed, while pointing out that 14 people died in the Montreal Massacre and 32 were killed at Virginia Tech.

Journalistic accuracy is critical, and race-based data on crime could help journalists show a more accurate picture of crime in Canada. But, unlike American law enforcement, many Canadian cops don’t analyze it. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in the department of criminal justice at Indiana University (although he’s originally from the GTA), says the information could help journalists dispel stereotypes: “We rely on news media from the United States, so we vastly overestimate Black and other racial groups’ participation in crime,” he says. Wortley adds that the vast majority of all communities are actually law-abiding.

That’s what Star columnist Royson James wanted to show. “Yes, we have murders and gun violence and Black people are involved,” he says. “And a number of times it’s Jamaicans. So it’s going to get reported. You can’t sugarcoat that. The problem is that’s all that gets out there.”

James came to the city in 1969 as a poor teenager from rural Jamaica. He worked at Contrast before joining the Star in 1981, trying to prove himself as a well-versed reporter at a time when Black journalists were sparse. But he grew tired of seeing Black people—mainly Jamaicans—making headlines as criminals and gang members. “Why can we only focus on criminals of Jamaican descent? It’s the same criminals we all hate,” he says. “It blocks out everything else that the community does because it becomes the overriding narrative of a people.”

Jamaica’s 50th Independence Day on August 6, 2012, offered a golden opportunity to showcase positive stories. James suggested a series of articles, including following as many successful Jamaican-Torontonians as he could in 24 hours. His editor liked the idea, but said it would be difficult to do in that time frame without using already known people. James and six other reporters with Jamaican roots, including Donovan Vincent and Ashante Infantry, accepted the challenge. They followed 50 people, including a lawyer, a teacher, TTC operators, a dentist and a surgeon. “My editor said there were too many doctors,” says James. Too many doctors. “That was one of the best days of my journalism career.”


It was so unbearably hot when Peter Kuitenbrouwer woke on the morning of July 17, 2012, that the fire alarm in his house kept going off. But he didn’t have time to fix it. His editor at the Post needed him to get to Scarborough, in Toronto’s east end, fast: the breaking story was the Danzig Street shooting. Several weeks earlier, a shooting at the Eaton Centre killed two and wounded five others. This one, at a community barbecue in public housing, also killed two but injured 23.

Dozens of reporters crowded around the yellow tape. Mayor Rob Ford and representatives of Toronto Community Housing were there. Kuitenbrouwer wanted to go beyond the story that officials would give, so he went into the neighbourhood to talk to locals—but it wasn’t easy. “‘White guy from far away shows up and wants to stick his nose in our business.’ It’s usually that way,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to get trust.”

He picked up an extra meal for a resident at lunchtime, and the two ate outside together—a small way to ease the tension reporters cause by swooping into low-income neighbourhoods to report on a crime and then leaving, which, to Kuitenbrouwer, creates an “us versus them” relationship.

His article, “Life and death on ‘the other side of the tracks,’” made the front page. He says the time constraints of daily news make it difficult to report on underlying issues, but it’s essential to try, especially with a case like Danzig. “You go in thinking this is a horrible, dark place where people shoot each other,” he says. “But then you hang around for a while and realize it’s just people trying to get on with their lives but having some struggles.”

The Star’s Jim Rankin has written several features about the lives of young Black offenders and those affected by gun violence, including Audette Shephard. He thinks journalists still aren’t doing enough to present a balanced image of Black people. “Reporting on crime like it’s a sporting event is not getting beyond the surface,” he says. “All stories need to be told, whether they’re about the one who pulled the trigger or the one who died.” For Rankin, it helps to understand the systemic racism the Black community faces—contributing to a lack of opportunity, poverty, hopelessness and low-wage jobs, which, among other factors, make youth vulnerable to joining a gang or selling drugs.

In 2013, Star reporters David Bruser and Jayme Poisson did an investigative series about the guns smuggled into Toronto along U.S. Interstate 75—weapons that, they reported, were responsible for over 70 percent of the city’s shootings. The stories showed how lax gun-control laws in the United States made for easier gun access in Toronto—a root cause of street violence reporters rarely discuss.

James believes hiring journalists of colour could help newsrooms better understand these underlying causes, instead of relying on officials. “If your news team doesn’t have people who interact with members of the Black community except in exceptional cases of crime and violence,” he says, “then that’s all you’re going to get.”


Listen: Jeff Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough, talks about the importance of addressing race in reporting and how his students are creating the discussion in their classes


Godfrey says reporting on the Black community has greatly improved since he started at Contrast in the ’80s. He thinks social media and digital journalism allow people to gather different viewpoints and question news outlets’ intentions.

Questioning the intentions of journalists is fundamental to admitting that Canadian news has a race problem, but it doesn’t mean all outlets will be quick to address it. While many journalists report on the underlying issues of gun violence in Black communities, some don’t think race plays any role in crime reporting. By suggesting racial bias doesn’t exist, reporters lose the opportunity to educate themselves and their readers. They also lose the chance to help repair mistrust between journalists and Black communities, especially in Toronto, the city with the largest Black population in Canada. All it takes to start are a notepad and an open mind.


Video by Eternity Martis

Featured image by Gary Denness

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The Next Frontier http://rrj.ca/the-next-frontier/ http://rrj.ca/the-next-frontier/#respond Mon, 11 Apr 2016 13:20:57 +0000 http://rrj.ca/?p=8743 The Next Frontier LGBT coverage is becoming more nuanced, one group at a time. Next step: trans people.]]> The Next Frontier

The Transgender Project seeks to tell its subjects’ life stories beyond their gender identities. Image courtesy of The Transgender Project

The camera captures Pina Newman and her sister Alyse directly within its frame. In October 2014, Newman is clipping her sister’s hair into sections and curling it with practiced ease in the washroom of the Winnipeg home where they grew up. The window, covered by sheer, white curtains with green squares, is visible to the side, matching the shower curtain behind them. Scattered makeup, face wash and hair care products litter the countertop—a common sight in washrooms shared by sisters. Unseen in the shot, Kevin O’Keefe, director and producer of The Transgender Project, stands outside the door asking questions.

The project began as a website that includes profiles of Canadian trans people in short video snippets. It then became a television doc series called Am I a Boy or Girl. Right now, the sisters are talking about how their relationship was affected by Pina’s transition. Pina admits, “I really made everything all about me,” while Alyse says it was confusing.

O’Keefe wanted to show the whole lives of trans people in these episodes. Having the sisters do something they’d normally be doing is less formal than a conventional Q & A and allows them to speak naturally. Pina always felt safe as a subject of the series, which premiered in October 2015 on ichannel, and thinks viewers saw the challenges alongside the positives. She has a great relationship with her sister, but she says the episode also shows that she struggles, just like everyone else.

Transgender people have started appearing more frequently in North American newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV and in documentaries. This makes sense given the timeline of activism, wrote Susan Stryker—who teaches gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona—in her book Transgender History. Coverage of homosexuality evolved from prejudice to acceptance, and next on the list is trans rights.

For mainstream news outlets, this means journalists have to figure out how to report on a community few are familiar with, let alone part of.

Only a few years ago, stories often included insensitive remarks about trans individuals and made unfair assumptions about the community. But journalists are now becoming more sensitive to the way trans people want to be identified and the difficult issues they face, including discrimination, murder, suicide and homelessness. It’s a good start, but the trans community wants to be better integrated into the news on a regular basis, with these issues investigated and discussed in greater depth.

Journalists who produce feature stories and documentaries have the time to research and understand the trans community in a way daily news seldom can. That’s why The Transgender Project is an excellent example of reporting on trans people. Some journalists’ understanding of the trans world is growing, but a more sensitive approach to the issues is still needed in daily news.


Early reporting on gay issues parallels the evolution of trans coverage today. Before the 1960s, gay people were usually depicted as dangerous psychopaths and sexual deviants. In 1964, journalist Sidney Katz worked with James Egan, a pioneer of gay rights advocacy in Canada. With Egan’s help, Katz wrote a two-part series for Macleans that documented the “secret lives” of gay men in Canada. Katz introduced readers to people who were generally hidden from the public eye at the time. They are “ordinary citizens in all respects but the one that makes them criminals before the law and outcasts in society.” He raised the “homosexual problem”: that they could not live their lives the way they wanted because the criminal code made them outlaws due to their sexual orientation. They couldn’t come out if they wanted jobs and often couldn’t even secure housing. Katz wrote about Egan’s experiences, giving him an outlet for his views about the need for social change. It was one of the first articles to look at homosexuality in a positive light, but it would be years before publications began accurately reporting on the gay community on a regular basis.

Today, replace “gay” with “trans” and we find journalism gradually developing a more sophisticated—and sensitive—approach. The reporting on Jenna Talackova, which spurred trans rights in Canada much like Caitlyn Jenner did in the U.S., can be seen as a turning point. Talackova was the first Miss Universe Canada contestant to identify as transgender. Selected in 2012 to compete in the pageant, she was disqualified when organizers discovered she was a trans person. Working with a lawyer, she fought the ruling. Before the case reached the courts, the organizers reversed their decision.

Talackova made it to the top 12 and received one of the “Miss Congeniality” titles. The story led to some of the first widespread positive coverage of trans people in Canada. “She’s all congeniality, pageant ready,” wrote Nancy J. White in the Toronto Star. White quoted Talackova talking about her own life: “You don’t get the sun without the rain…That’s how my story went.”

Although many trans people resent how journalists have portrayed them in the past, coverage in Canada has improved. When there is legitimate news, mainstream outlets usually try to get to it quickly and respectfully. The Huffington Post runs blog posts by trans writers and publishes pieces on a wide range of topics related to trans issues, including discrimination in schools and violence against the community. Lisa Yeung, managing editor of lifestyle, says the site just publishes whatever editors consider newsworthy. “If a story is important,” she says, “we’ll make the effort to cover it.”

When Alberta added gender identity and gender expression to the list of categories protected by the provincial Human Rights Act in December 2015, many news outlets covered the story well. A Canadian Press report, picked up by several publications, quoted trans people, not just government officials. The Edmonton Journal’s coverage educated readers about the percentage of trans people who attempt suicide and who feel unsafe in their schools and workplaces. CBC published an article written by a trans woman involved in the announcement and included subsections explaining the reasons—such as mental health and safety—the amendment was necessary.

When Jenner appeared on the July 2015 cover of Vanity Fair, CBC ran a story with a different angle. Instead of focusing only on the celebrity, Aleksandra Sagan wrote about how different Jenner’s life is from the majority of trans people. In “Caitlyn Jenner’s transition doesn’t represent most transgender experiences,” Sagan wrote, “what’s being presented as a seemingly fairytale story is not the reality for many transgender people who face long wait lists and costly procedures that public health services don’t necessarily cover.” In a similar story Maclean’s published online, Emma Teitel recounted the widespread response on social media to the Vanity Fair story, which she says was mostly positive. “But her swift acceptance by the public isn’t typical.”

Before Jenner, Cathy Gulli of Maclean’s wrote a detailed feature on trans issues in January 2014. The idea came to her after a copy of a book called Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices landed on her desk. She knew there was a story there, but she didn’t realize just how important it was until she got deep into reporting. The piece gives a balanced perspective on the pros and cons of allowing kids to transition, covers how parents can tell if a child might be trans and points out that it is not just a phase. The article also gets to the hard stuff: “These kids have among the highest rates of isolation, harassment, depression, addiction, self-mutilation and suicide of any population.” Gulli says this is one of the features she’s more proud of. For her, it was about “creating a platform for these families to tell their stories.” While reporting, Gulli asked her sources which pronouns they would like her to use in the story, and went with that. Some news outlets now follow guidelines on what language to use when speaking or writing about trans people. Some use recommendations created by GLAAD, a U.S.-based media monitoring organization founded by members of the LGBT community. Organizations such as the Manitoba-based Rainbow Resource Centre can also be helpful in educating staff about accuracy and awareness. CBC regularly updates its own style guide to help its journalists with trans stories and other language sensitivities.

This is helpful because some journalists don’t understand the importance of sensitive pronoun usage. Common mistakes include using transgender as a noun instead of an adjective, which reduces people to just one of their qualities; referencing a subject as being “born a man” or “born a woman”; and applying the wrong pronoun. To be fair, it can be difficult for someone who is cisgender (a term for those who identify with the gender assigned at birth) to understand why trans people are so sensitive to language. For most cisgender males, walking into a men’s washroom is just walking into a washroom. For many trans people, walking into a washroom is a daily challenge, reaffirming their difference as surely as when someone uses an incorrect pronoun.

Within the trans community, identifying someone incorrectly is no different than writing a racial slur. Mike Strobel, a Toronto Sun columnist who has drawn criticism for his writing about trans people, believes that being careful with language “is blurring an important issue with silly semantics.” His message about the trans community is not intended to offend: in a September 2015 article, he wrote, “One by one, ‘minorities’ overcome fear and bias to become accepted (more or less) by the rest of us—and even trendy.” But in this same column, he used the word “transgenders,” making the adjective into a noun. He also referred to Jenner as “nee Bruce,” even though using someone’s past name is taboo unless necessary (in this case, most people know who Jenner is). This may seem like “silly semantics” to Strobel, but to many trans people, their birth gender is not who they are, or ever really were.

Another example of improper word usage can be seen in Pamela Roth’s 2012 article “Good News for Transgenders,” which used the word “transgendered,” something that goes against many style guides today (we don’t say a gay man is “gayed”). But, it did explore an important issue—people getting fired from jobs after coming out.

Articles that identify trans people accurately can have greater impact among readers. The good news is that observers such as Christin Milloy, a journalist and trans activist, see gradual improvements, even at the conservative Sun papers. A story by Jonathan Sher in the Toronto Sun, “Suicide rate much higher for transgender Canadians: Study,” written just three years after Roth’s article, followed the guidelines on trans people while covering a difficult topic. Sher’s message: it’s not being trans that creates high suicide rates; it’s the treatment trans people receive. Another challenge—one that represents a problem for journalism in general—is diversity. There are few stories about Black or homeless members of the trans community, says gender specialist Rupert Raj. Even O’Keefe, who wanted to show a range of diversity in his series, didn’t entirely succeed. He included both older people and some who struggled financially, but most of his subjects were white.

The similar content in most trans news stories, along with legal and political changes, inspired former Toronto Life associate editor Caroline Youdan in early 2015. She wanted people to see what life was really like for a trans person in Toronto. “My Trans Life” consists of five people telling their stories. Youdan’s timing worked out well: about a month after she started working on the story, Jenner came out as a trans woman, and the international media became obsessed with trans stories.

Despite Youdan’s quest for diversity, the subjects of “My Trans Life” weren’t new faces in Canadian journalism. Alex Abramovich was a subject in a CBC documentary called Transforming Gender; Sophia Banks was featured in a video on the Maclean’s website; Savannah Burton was in The Transgender Project; and Alec Butler was the subject of articles in Now and the Star. Like O’Keefe’s series, the Toronto Life stories had upbeat endings—not necessarily the norm in the trans community. Still, it was an effective feature and, as Youdan explains, “We did the best we could in the time that we had.”


What’s the next step for reporting on trans people in Canada, according to trans people?


Pina, a nursing student, Christin, a journalist, and Casey, a writer, share their thoughts.





The tight deadlines of daily news can make it harder to tell complex, nuanced stories about minority communities. Journalists working on long-form pieces have more time to think about how they approach their subjects. When O’Keefe arrives at the Newman home in Winnipeg, Pina is still eating breakfast. He knows better than to rush her along, as successful filming that day depends on the calmness of the household. While Pina finishes, O’Keefe sits with her father, Francis, to look at photos—the relationship-building part of the job. After the team films some B-roll of Pina walking up and down the street, Alyse appears with coffee from Tim Hortons for everyone.

O’Keefe’s first interview of the day is with Pina and her parents. The three of them take their seats, Pina on a chair and her parents on a couch. One section of the episode begins with Francis crying and saying, “I still grieve…” before choking up. Alyse, who had been watching from the staircase just outside the room, walks by and throws a Kleenex box on his lap.

Sitting silently next to her husband, Pina’s mother, Barbara, looks like she could have been crying moments ago. Still, she’s poised and serious.

Pina has her hand on her father’s knee, and he puts his hand on top of hers. Struggling to continue, he looks at his daughter and says, “…I still grieve the loss…the loss of my son,” before pinching the bridge of his nose and continuing to cry. He moves his hand abruptly from under Pina’s, but she doesn’t flinch.

“My father never shows emotion,” she explains in a later interview. But O’Keefe’s goal is to make his subjects feel so safe that they express their honest feelings. After a break, the camera starts recording just as Pina pulls away from hugging her father and returns to her seat. Francis is now able to get through the sentence: “It seemed an awful lot like the loss of my son.”

O’Keefe, who started working on The Transgender Project in the summer of 2014, says trust was by far his biggest challenge, which would ring true for any journalist covering an unfamiliar community. But O’Keefe knew that many trans people felt they had been “burned” by reporters in the past, so he had to tread especially carefully. He even made sure each member of the crew had sensitivity training.

O’Keefe let his subjects have a say in what they wanted to talk about. Pina thought it was important to discuss her surgery and show her face without hair extensions or makeup, while other people wanted to steer clear of discussing physical changes. But this approach, requiring lengthy negotiations beforehand, is only possible on projects with a longer time frame.

About a year after the filming in Winnipeg, Pina walks swiftly into a café on the Ryerson University campus. The nursing student looks around for me. It is easy to forget I don’t actually know her in person despite having seen her in the episode of Am I a Boy or Girl. After saying how great it was to work with O’Keefe and his team, she adds that this type of reporting isn’t enough. She says we need more on the “murders that go on in our community. The hard stuff, not just ‘here we are, advocating for all-gender washrooms.’”

And she’s right—we do.

Canadian news outlets have started telling the real life stories of trans people and the issues they face each day. Now, journalists just need to keep getting better at it.

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