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Gang coverage under the microscope

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I blogged earlier this week on the West End violence, and the importance of looking at last week’s fatal shooting of 16-year-old Kyle Earl in a wider social context.

I’m not the only one, apparently.

Below is an open letter to the media from some of the city’s most well-known community workers on what they’d like to see in coverage of gangs. Hint: what they’re seeking isn’t salacious. I think it’s an interesting read that tackles issues of sensationalism and the aftermath of media reportage in a head-on way.

It’s from a listserv of about 300 people dedicated to West End and core area issues.

I’m not going to go into every point on the very detailed letter, but I will make a couple notes after reading it:

An open letter to the Winnipeg media community covering issues of violence and poverty in Spence neighbourhood

Our neighbourhood depends on the local media for fair and accurate reporting of local events and developments. From my perspective, the health of the whole city is only as strong as the core area; and our challenges are everyone’s responsibility. In an ideal world, your work helps the rest of the city share equally in our celebrations, and our tragedies. You help us connect, help to increase understanding, and hopefully support across the city towards stability, health, and an end to violence.

Unfortunately, some media actions we witnessed this week increased vulnerability of local children and families. Below, I have itemized the actions, and why this is a concern.

1. Filming and/or questioning neighbourhood children without prior permission. This happened at least three times at the Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre.

The fact is that many children in the neighbourhood do not have safe places to stay at night makes the neighbourhood a preying ground for would be abusers. Showing pictures of unattended children in the media reminds abusers that children here are vulnerable.
In addition, while it may be considered an unnecessary courtesy to ask permission to film children from afar, in this situation, more sensitivity is called for. Please consider the balance between your need for footage, and respect for local parents and families who are concerned about their children being exploited.

2. Glorification of gang participation including naming youth accused of crimes, and printing pictures of victims wearing gang colors.
Many children in the neighbourhood come from families with intergenerational participation in gangs. We, and other neighbourhood partners (organizations, schools and more) are working against this trend, providing positive choices and opportunities for youth. Unfortunately, getting arrested, being involved in violent acts, and carrying weapons, are all appealing to some young people in our community because they are measures of participation in gangs. Seeing a fellow member in the newspaper or on TV who has been involved in violence affirms the idea that violence and gangs are cool. Because this messaging is so powerful in increasing the lure of participation in gangs and violence, it is a disservice to the community at large to publish pictures of people involved in gang violence (as victims, or as attackers), and to publish their names, especially when there is no pressing need to do so, (for example, if the police had identified them as a suspect on the run, or if they had disappeared.

3. Showing pictures of and naming survivors.  We are worried about [the 13-year-old injured on Toronto Street]. If he is wanted dead, publishing his name as a survivor has helped his attackers plan their next move. It is critical that media be sensitive to these dynamics in their reporting of events.

Finally, I’m concerned about the lack of respect for grieving community members displayed in the media this past week. Focusing in on unidentified women gathered at the site crying, cops with guns drawn, showing close ups of faces of the victims, focusing on children being treated by medical professionals all sensationalize violence, contribute to stereotypes of aboriginal people being gang members, and depict our community as being a very dangerous place to live. I’d like to thank the media outlets that tried to show some depth by looking more closely at the complexity of poverty and violence in the inner city, the steps the community has taken to provide supports for youth, and take care of one another, why this has been a struggle. Doing this shows that you are interested in more than simply selling stories.

I’d like to encourage all media to get to know the inner city, and people here better. I’m convinced it will lead to more nuanced, useful coverage of what is going on, and help us make change for the better. A great opportunity is coming up- the Ellice Street Festival is a popular, annual community event happening on June 5th. You’re all very welcome to come and enjoy the day with us.

Thanks so much for your work, and your consideration of these important issues. I’m very happy to respond to any questions.

Kate Sjoberg
Executive Director
Spence Neighbourhood Association
[contact info removed]

In support: Kelly Holmes, Resource Assistance for Youth, Steve Wilson, Graffitti Gallery, Cam Forbes, Art City, Patrick LeBlanc, Teen Stop Jeunnesse, Noelle DePape, IRCOM, Tammy Christensen, Ndinawe, Devi Sharma, Maples Youth Activity Centre, Mike Owen, Boys and Girls Clubs of Winnipeg

Gabrielle's response:

1) Something I try and drum home in every conversation I have: ‘the media’ is not a monolith. Talking about the media as a singular, impenetrable mass of people who work together to form one way of covering the news is just plain old inaccurate. It’s definitely a widely held public perception, though, which I try to fight.

Separate news outlets and individual reporters will have very different ways of dealing with people.  Everyone in your family isn’t identical, right? Or your workplace?

If you want an example, check out the different takes on the justice system’s treatment of Shirley Guimond, who was convicted of assaulting two-year-old Gage Guimond before he fell down the stairs in July 2007 and suffered fatal injuries. Here’s the Winnipeg Sun’s take today. Here’s Lindor Reynold’s.

I’ll cite the famous quote from playwright Arthur Miller in 1961: "A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself."  It’s true. Except in this case, I might replace ‘nation’ with province.

2) Reporters will write/show the world as it is, not as it should be. When we interview/photograph/chat with sources, community members, etc. we have to cover what we see in front of us. I don’t play God with the material that presents itself, though I and my editors have discussions about ethical approaches to thorny issues.

Lastly, one thing I think to drive home is this: each member of the media should be held accountable, even and especially when the subject matter is meaty, difficult, or just plain old messy. If the power is in the pen or the camera (or the Twitter account or the iPad) then a creator should be ready for scrutiny and feedback. It’s only fair, and part of the deal.

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About Gabrielle Giroday

Gabrielle has handled the police and crime beat for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2009, meaning she’s seen the best and worst humanity has to offer.

Covering the crime beat in a city known for its homicide rate and violent crime can be challenging, but Gabrielle tries to look at the more complex factors that drive violent events. She began the beat after originally joining the Free Press in June 2005.

Her previous experience contributing to the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine, the National Post, Maisonneuve magazine and NOW Magazine. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Queen’s University Feminist Review, and completed a degree there in politics and English. Some of the Toronto native’s favourite adventures include hitchhiking in the Cuban countryside during a stint studying in Havana, and hanging off the back of a jeep climbing the Kanchenjunga mountain in Nepal.

Gabrielle also felt privileged to write about the first-time elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the summer of 2006, and received a grant from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian International Development Agency to write about sexual violence there.

She recently went to Cameroon in fall 2010 as part of an expert election monitoring team, on behalf of the Commonwealth.

When she’s not chasing a story, Gabrielle can be found jogging every morning by the Legislature and down Portage Avenue.

She’s always enthusiastic about stories that involve investigating the road less travelled or the opinion less broadcast.

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