After fatal Toronto shootings, is it time for journalists to rethink how they cover communities of colour?
'So much of the tension that I'm seeing ... has to do with some of the superficial reporting that is done'
Since last week, 11 people have been shot in Toronto.
Two men were shot dead near Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue last Saturday night. In that shooting, the victims were identified as Jahvante Smart, a 21-year-old local rapper also known by the name Smoke Dawg, and 28-year-old Ernest (Kosi) Modekwe, a Toronto brand manager known as Koba Prime.
Their deaths have prompted a lot of discussion about guns and violence in Toronto, but not everyone has been willing to speak.
After the shooting, journalists approached family, friends and acquaintances of the two men and were turned down almost immediately. Some even publicly rejected the journalists' requests and left them notes.
The notes explained why communities most affected by gun violence, in this instance the black community, don't trust the media.
They further questioned how journalists report on marginalized communities in times of crisis — and also when there is no crisis.
Nana aba Duncan: So Vicky, you saw those responses to journalists on Twitter. What went through your mind when you were reading them?
Vicky Mochama: I thought the refusal to engage was fair, because these requests were being made within hours of the shooting and within hours of people finding out that somebody they knew within the community had passed away. The grief of it is [where] I felt that refusal was coming from. But, also, from a longstanding place of feeling that the wider journalistic community has not responsibly engaged with issues around black death and with the black community altogether.
ND: And what about you, Wendy? You cover these kinds of stories and one of your jobs is to talk to people who knew the victims. How do you approach them?
Wendy Gillis: I feel very conflicted about this because on the one hand, I really do agree with Vicky on this. On the other hand, I do strongly feel as though it's important for us to reach out to the people who are directly impacted by traumatic events, like shootings, in the hours and days after the fact. You need to be able to quickly communicate what the actual impact is on these communities when there are these kinds of tragedies. Many times — not all times, but many times — people who have an injustice visited upon them want to yell it from the rooftops.
ND: Some of the people who refused to talk said that they don't trust the media because, like you said, of the way that journalists have reported on black communities in the past. Can you give a couple of examples of what journalists are doing that you think they shouldn't be?
VM: A very common one is things like sharing the mugshot of somebody who has not been convicted of a crime, but has been charged with one. What that does is regularly reinforce a narrative or a trope of black criminality, which you don't necessarily see when looking at, you know, white people who've been charged but not convicted of a crime.
That is the media taking the police at their word that this person is a criminal, even though they've not been tried before a court and found to be a criminal just yet, and so that happens very regularly. But, very often, it comes to the language that's used to dehumanize black people in the eyes of the public.
A story that came up in the last couple of years was a police officer who described, basically, a wall of young black men as parasites. That was the headline. That was the lead of the story, that he'd done this, spoken in this way, about people. That was, again, the press taking the police at their word and in doing so, using dehumanizing language.
ND: And there was no challenge to that use of language?
VM: Not in the article, but in the ensuing challenge of it people talked about, 'Why would you go with the lead as the way this police officer spoke?' That's inappropriate. That should've been the question of the story– why is a police officer who's in charge of investigating these crimes speaking of these people in a dehumanizing way? That didn't happen in the story.
ND: What about you, Wendy? Can you give an example of what you think journalists are doing wrong that you think they shouldn't be?
WG: So much of the tension that I'm seeing between the media and certain communities, including the black community, has to do with some of the superficial reporting that is done. That stems from the fact that we have fewer and fewer journalists who are able to invest in telling the kinds of nuanced stories that explain some of the systemic issues that are at play, that you don't see when you are just covering the homicides that are happening. This is the unfortunate new reality that we're facing when we have newsrooms that aren't being adequately funded, where we don't have enough reporters to actually go out and tell the stories of their communities in an intelligent, nuanced way.
ND: So now what about you, when you are personally working on a story, what do you do to earn the trust of communities that you're not part of?
WG: I am in a really lucky position where I have a beat. So, I cover crime and policing in Toronto. I have, now, somewhat of a specialty and I've built up sources. Included amongst my most trusted sources are people within the black community [and] First Nations communities who not only can provide me with information and potentially connect me with people who are impacted when these kinds of traumatic events come about, but who also give me criticism when it's warranted. People who I know will say, "You know Wendy, good job covering the story, but here are a couple of issues that I think arise out of your story in the way that you covered it."
ND: Can you give an example?
WG: I can. I cover a lot of police-involved fatalities. And, the situation that we have in Toronto right now, and in Ontario, is that the civilian police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, they come in and investigate any police-involved death. Their policy, one that plays out across Canada as well, is that they don't release any information about the police officers that are involved. They also don't release information about the person who is a victim — so, the person who has been killed. But, typically, it's easier to find out who has been killed because their family, their friends, might be talking about it, for example, on social media. I have an easier time finding out who this person is. And, because it's my job as a journalist, I have to report what I know and often I know so much more about the victim than the officer.
This can lead to a discrepancy in terms of what we actually know because sometimes, in someone's past, they may have a conviction. They may have been charged with something. So, if that gets reported, it's kind of putting the person who has been killed on trial. Meanwhile, the officer who was involved has anonymity and we don't know much about them or their past. This can bring up a lot of problems in terms of how we report on those kinds of things.
ND: So it looks like you're focusing on that other person rather than the police officer and we get to know more about that other person and make judgments?
WG: Precisely. That isn't to say that someone's past is not germane to the story. It may be important, but I acknowledge that there can be a major problem with reporting only on the person who has died and not on the person who has killed someone.
ND: Vicky, what is the cost of all this? What is lost when communities don't talk to the media because of trust issues?
VM: Once information filters down that the media is not to be trusted, the most vulnerable people aren't stepping up to speak to the media. And so, what we lose is the ability of the media to back up the community in holding an institution accountable. Whether it's the police, whether it's a particular housing organization, whether it's the city; when vulnerable communities don't feel comfortable speaking to the media they are alone in a fight. I think, and I feel truly, that the job of journalism is to ensure that people aren't left alone in that fight. And also, that people have some method of accountability. If it's not that institution directly, it should at least to be the media backing them up on that.
ND: What do you think, Wendy?
WG: What is lost when we don't have those voices is that we have a report about two young men gunned down in downtown Toronto. That is affecting and that is troubling, but it has not progressed to the point where it might move someone to tears, or it might get someone out there and advocate for improvements from our politicians — from the people who make decisions for us, saying, "We need to make some changes; we need to make some systemic changes." And I do truly feel it's our job as journalists to tell stories in a way that will move people and make it not easy for them to forget that there were people who were killed and that these aren't just statistics.
ND: You mention systemic changes. Kardinal Offishall was on Twitter, and he's a rapper, and he was asked for comments on the shootings. And then when he declined, people pointed out that he didn't need the media because he's got so many followers on Twitter. Vicky, what do you think of that?
VM: I think that's a fairly reasonable thing to point out, which is that he can, if he wants to, bypass the media. But is he even necessarily the person best placed to speak about this? You know, these are young men in a particular space in the Toronto rap community that maybe Kardinal, for all his experience, is not deeply entrenched with these base places and these people. There are plenty of young culture writers who could have stepped up to the mic and spoken much more eloquently because they are engaged and entrenched in this thing. I think Kardinal can bypass the media, but I also think it entrenches that distrust if he does do that.
ND: Do you agree with that?
WG: What I know is that there are many people who follow Kardinal on Twitter, but there are many people who don't. And, so many of those people read the newspaper or watch the nightly newscast. I fear that we're progressively going into these silos of communication where we seek out the opinion of someone whose opinion aligns with our own.
VM: I would also add that, Kardinal, the request being made of him was about the connection between gun violence and rap music. And so, that was a journalist putting forward their own connection, their own bias, and their own assertion and asking him to refute it. Journalists come forward with their own bias but it's presented as neutral and then black people have to be the ones to do the work that journalist should have done themselves to refute it.
ND: So how do you think we can start to change things so that the gap in trust is bridged?
VM: I think journalists have to step forward and understand that the desire for objectivity does not necessarily mean that we are neutral or have neutrality in these matters. There has been anti-blackness in the media for as long as there has been a media and as long as there have been black people. Owning that and stepping forward to it is a first step to them undoing some of the worst of it.
WG: I think we need to be making tough choices within our newsrooms about what we want to value. Right now, gun violence in Toronto is so important and vital and we need to be looking at why it's happening and not just covering the homicides and moving onto the next shooting.
ND: Vicky, for one moment, you run your newsroom. What would you change?
VM: I would hire more black and racialized people and place them in more positions of power, knowing that they'd make more informed choices about their communities. Even when we were flushed with cash in the newspaper industry and in media generally, there were not black people in senior positions of power. I don't think it's a matter of resources. I think it's a matter of journalists doing their jobs basically for these communities that most need journalists to do their job.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To hear the full conversation with Vicky Mochama and Wendy Gillis, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.