The crime beat has been a staple in Canadian journalism for decades. While many newsrooms have made public statements recognizing the problems of systemic racism in the wake of 2020, practical changes in how we actually report on crime have thus far been disappointing.
In May, Resolve editor Matthew DiMera hosted a panel with journalist and activist Desmond Cole entitled “Do No Harm: Crime Reporting in Canadian Newsrooms and What Needs To Change.” The session was part of RISE, an online journalism conference in Canada focused on celebrating journalists of colour and reimagining an equitable future for the media industry, co-hosted by the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Canadian Journalists of Colour.
Some of the questions considered: What are some of the ongoing challenges and issues in Canadian crime journalism that continue to harm communities of colour? What are some common mistakes, and how can we counter them? How can we move past the stage of merely acknowledging the problem, and start creating real change in our work and in our newsrooms?
Below is part one of an edited excerpt.
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Crime reporting has been a central focus of Canadian journalism for a very long time. Over the last decade we’ve seen lots of conversations around why it’s been problematic, and why it needs to change.
Particularly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we saw all of these promises come out of newsrooms — commitments to doing better, specifically around racism and other issues.
I’m disappointed having seen what’s happened since. There hasn’t been a whole lot of change in terms of the reporting that we’ve seen, how it’s done, and how journalism is operating when it comes to covering crime. Desmond, how do you feel things have progressed in the last few years?
George Floyd’s murder is a very interesting frame to look at these issues. A lot of people talk about the post-George Floyd era and we all understand why.
But there’s a false promise embedded in looking at things from a kind of pre- and post- George Floyd, especially in the media. Why did the Canadian media decide it needed to change after a Black man was murdered on camera in the United States?
What was it about that particular incident — which we’ve seen countless times before 2020 — that suddenly made the media in this country be like “we need more Black journalists.” What’s really going on?
I wrote about this in the intro to the paperback version of my book. Quite simply, It’s white guilt. Much like when Dylann Roof murdered people in a church in South Carolina, and suddenly white legislators started taking down Confederate flags. No one had asked them to take down Confederate flags, and that had nothing to do with the murder of nine people in a church.
But white guilt was like, “you know, we’ve gotta give these Black folks something. There’s a public outcry. They’re mobilizing. They’re organizing. We don’t wanna seem insensitive. We want to capture the moment.” And the Canadian media did that too.
Did the Canadian media critique the ways in which George Floyd’s murder was covered? No. Did the Canadian media talk about the fact that it didn’t have enough journalists who understand these kinds of issues or have the analysis to cover them properly? And that’s why we need to hire more? No, it was just pure representational politics. They felt exposed, they felt guilty, they needed to cover for that, but that’s not going to lead to effective journalism outcomes.
That’s been a big problem. It’s really good that we’re talking about this subject today in the framework of crime, because I don’t consider myself a crime reporter unless we think of the crimes of the police.
I know that’s not what people are talking about when they say crime reporting. But that’s actually an interesting problem in and of itself. What do we think of as crime anyway? When someone says they’re a crime journalist, does everybody have a universal understanding of what that means?
Specifically, can the police engage in crime? Is that rare? Is that strange? Or is that a function of the job? And how we think about those things really reflects how we will cover them — if we’re allowed to do so by the institutions that we work for.
I agree with you. The framing of George Floyd, falls into a media habit that we do often, which is to repeat things that have already been said. We often hear that framing of a racial reckoning. To be clear, there was a sort of racial reckoning and some subsequent after effects, but the conversations that I’ve been listening to around crime reporting were happening long before this.
I’ve heard lots of really interesting conversations about some of the ways crime reporting is challenging and difficult. What shifted in that moment was there was a little bit more of a consensus.
Previously when we were talking about why certain language is problematic or why framings were an issue, there was a lot more pushback internally from newsrooms.
We don’t have complete consensus, but people are more in agreement that there is a problem and that things have not been done properly. I’m really interested to have this conversation because it’s important that we can move past this part, and actually start to talk about what can come next.
Let’s talk about some of the problems because it’s important to understand the effects and the damage that’s been done by crime journalism.
I also want to talk about some of the conditions and some of the systemic issues as to why change hasn’t happened — even on small things, like choice of language.
It’s really important to say that if things did change even in a slight way after 2020, it’s not really because of George Floyd, it tells us that people in newsrooms knew that there was a problem a long time before that, as you mentioned. And that something about their conscience collectively really pushed them after that incident to do something. Because again, George Floyd’s murder is not specifically an indictment against how the media does its job.
The corporate world did this too. Everybody put up their black Instagram square and every organization and soda company had a solidarity statement. We have to see it in the broader context of how everyone was acting.
I’ve been covering the misdeeds of the police for the majority of the last 10 years. So when we talk about crime and crime reporting, that’s what I’m thinking about.
We don’t have a good practice in Canada of holding the police to account. I will say outright that it’s not an easy thing to do as the media, but nevertheless, it is such an important thing for us to do because our ability to counterbalance the power that police have and to help expose what they’re doing to the public is so critical. It’s such a critical function of the media and it has to be there.
However, we live in a corporate media environment. Most of the media that all of us consume is created by a few very, very large corporations whose main job is not to inform you and help you come to the truth, but rather to sell a product.
And that doesn’t mean that there’s no good journalism being done in corporate media. There’s tons of it. The point is though, that the police are an essential part of the capitalist system that allows corporations to make all the money that they do.
So their critique of policing is always going to be limited. Their assumptions about policing as corporate-owned media are always going to be limited. They’re going to be more likely, for example, to want to hire former police officers to be their correspondents and to be their analysts rather than to be holding police up to power.
Anybody who’s ever worked in a newsroom — especially in a local newsroom — knows we’re constantly in contact with the police. We call the police multiple times a day to ask them about traffic, to ask them about a child that’s missing, to ask them about a homicide.
And we have to maintain good relations with local police in order to do that work because we see them as being the most authoritative source, and official source of information.
And if you alienate your most official source of information by critiquing what they do, by telling your audience that often the police lie and mislead the public, that’s gonna harm your nice cushy relationship the next time you want to pick up the phone and call them.
Those are the basic conditions that we always have to consider — that corporate media especially doesn’t want to have the kind of antagonistic relationship with police that is necessary to hold them to account. So that’s our first and most basic challenge.
There’s also just the issue of convenience. We know that everyone’s being asked to do more with less. Reporters are being asked to produce however many stories a day, and police press releases are a quick and easy non-ending source of information coming every day.
Also information is controlled differently in Canada. If police are not cooperative, it can make reporting certain stories very difficult. Police will pick and choose which stories to talk about to the media. It really puts a lot of power in the hands of the police in terms of controlling information and deciding who has access, and who doesn’t.
If you’re responsible for filling a certain amount of hours of air every day or column inches, and you antagonize the police and suddenly they don’t wanna cooperate with you and give you quotes anymore, you know, that’s a really hard position to be in if that’s your beat.
Another condition is who is in the position of covering crime? Very broadly speaking, there are two categories of crime reporters in Canada. There are the veterans — journalists who have covered the crime beat for decades.
Many of them have built their career on cultivating relationships with the police. This can be a challenge, especially if they’ve become embedded in the culture of policing.
On the other hand, the other kind of people of crime reporting is often dependent on interns or new hires who often covering breaking news.
In that case, you’re in a position where you’re new on the job and you’re being asked to cover crime, which is an incredibly difficult topic to cover. There’s a huge amount of knowledge that’s needed to do it properly. And you’re throwing in young journalists and expecting them to do it with few resources, with no time, and do it well.
Can I pick up on that? There’s expecting people to do their job well, and then there’s expecting people to do the job the way the job is usually done. Those are very different things. And so, asking people to basically go through police press releases and talk about a missing person, or talk about a homicide.
My question is often what is the bigger purpose of doing that? Because some things should be reported on. Anytime someone dies in a non-accidental way, that is an important public story. But the stories about for example, a man wandering the streets who people felt was suspicious and police are looking for a suspect. I often wonder, what is the greater purpose of this news story? Because it’ll be 10 sentences and done with. I know that the person who’s writing that story has probably not made the decision about how long it should be, why we’re writing it, and what the broader context is, but it’s always something worth thinking about. Even in those very short stories, which by the way include stories about police actually taking people’s lives.
You’ll often see a seven or eight sentence story about police killing somebody.
And no one in the report has asked the police any real questions about what has gone on, reported on, for example, the fact that police declined — or if we want to use a stronger word — refused to answer questions.
These kinds of things do matter, and I think are maybe more within the realm of what even a newer journalist can do.
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