Crime reporting is one of the oldest forms of journalism. It tells us who should be feared and who should be punished for tearing the social fabric. But its often sensational approach has consequences
This article, the third instalment of investigative series Black in the Jury Box, was originally published by the West End Phoenix with the support of the Joe Burke Journalism Fund. It appears here with permission.
During my first few days sitting in the jury box at 361 University Ave., where I was called to duty in 2018, I spent a lot of time anticipating the eventual emotional labour of having to quash racial stereotypes about Black men throughout our deliberations. I worried that decisions and assumptions would be made based on the defendant’s appearance, his past criminal record and the things he did to survive. I wondered how many times I would have to interject with “Just because he did something bad in the past” or “You wouldn’t say that if he were white.” Even though our group was thoughtful and equity-focused, as the only Black juror, and the only other Black person in the room aside from the defendant, I felt an exhausting responsibility to be the myth debunker.
Stereotypes about Black criminality and culpability continue to play a major role in the disenfranchisement of Black people. But none are as pervasive and infectious as those in news coverage, particularly when it comes to crime. Those stereotypes contribute to biases that, in the hands and minds of jurors, have a real effect on trial outcomes.
Crime reporting is one of the oldest forms of journalism. It tells us who should be feared, who destroys our social fabric, and who should be punished for doing so. But its often sensational approach has consequences: It demonizes Black people with exaggerated portrayals of their criminality, and invites the rest of society to do the same.
Extensive research shows that crime coverage disproportionately depicts Black people, even though it is out of proportion with the Black arrest rate. Through language, images and sounds, crime coverage also portrays Black people as more menacing and criminal than other groups. Research also shows that non-Black consumers of crime coverage are more likely to be racially prejudiced against Black people and support harsher punishments for them.
As a Black woman, I experience the real-life consequences of fear-mongering that suffuses reporting about Black crime. As a Black journalist, I’m often one of the only people in the newsroom who can explain why certain editorial choices could cause more harm than good.
According to a 2007 study from the European Commission, the media is the third most influential force in society, surpassed only by parents and schools. It shapes our values, beliefs and perceptions of others, for better or worse.
Vividata, a consumer research company, found that seven in 10 Canadians have a strong interest in news, and nearly half of them consume online news several times a day. This makes the exposure to biased crime coverage more frequent and far-reaching, which inevitably means that some jurors’ views will be shaped by crime coverage.
Part one of this series explored the deep systemic barriers in Ontario’s criminal justice system that make it nearly impossible for Black people to be jurors, leaving us with a system where affluent white people are serving as jurors and where Black people are overrepresented as defendants.
A serious problem within this dynamic, as part two found, is the implicit racial biases among jurors.
The courts have yet to recognize it, despite research confirming that subconscious bias can alter how jurors, especially white ones, view a Black defendant and their culpability.
There is little research on how the media affects jurors. What is known is that it plays a significant role in shaping our idea of who commits crime, and that doesn’t disappear when jurors enter a courtroom.
Spurred by legacy newspapers, the Canadian news industry has a long history of perpetuating stereotypes, especially in Toronto.
The 1994 Just Desserts case crystalized the way Toronto media outlets approach crime reporting involving Black people: Georgina (Vivi) Leimonis, a white woman, was accidentally killed during a robbery by two Black men of Jamaican heritage at a Toronto Just Desserts café. At the time, tensions in the city were already high due to media coverage on the growing number of Black people immigrating into the city. Columnists at legacy papers spoke about the supposed culture of violence among Black men, specifically Jamaicans. In the Globe, Michael Valpy not only alleged that Jamaican-Canadian youth were inherently violent, but also that they were corrupting other – read, white – youth, writing, “If there is a culture of violence among Jamaican-Canadian youth, why is it so? Why… are their dress, patois and behaviour being imitated by other young Canadians?” Writing for the Toronto Sun, Raynier Maharaj said, “Unfortunately, these days most of the murderers seem to be Black … Are we a society of racists? Certainly not. It’s just that white Canadians are understandably fed up with people they see as outsiders coming into their country and beating and killing them.” The Toronto Star ran a headline calling the case “Urban terrorism.” And it wasn’t just a few isolated incidents; late-’90s studies of local newspapers following the shooting found that Black people were overrepresented in crime stories and negative articles. As a result of this coverage, Black communities said they were harassed and discriminated against.
In 2005, the death of Jane Creba during a Boxing Day shooting near the Toronto Eaton Centre once again inspired racist coverage framed around another innocent, young white person caught in the crossfires of Jamaican rival gangs and random Black crime in the city. Margaret Wente at the Globe called Black men “thugs” and blamed their upbringing: “The single most significant root cause is not guns or crummy housing or racism or inadequate policing or lenient sentencing or lack of jobs or insufficient social programs. It is family and community breakdown. Most especially, it’s absent fathers.” (Extensive research has shown that despite media representations of Black men as absent fathers, they are more likely than other racial groups to feed, eat with, bathe, diaper, dress, play with and read to their children, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services.) Following this case, John Martin at The Province incorrectly claimed that “80 per cent of Toronto’s gun killings can be attributed to Jamaicans.” The ensuring media frenzy – which included dubbing 2005 “The Year of the Gun” – led to political and police responses, including the implementation of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), which led to increased surveillance of Black people. (Around the same time, a 19-year-old Black girl named Chantel Dunn was also gunned down by members of a street gang, but the city’s journalists did not cover the story as extensively as they did Creba’s, a common occurrence when it comes to Black victims of crime.) Subsequent coverage of a shooting on Danzig Street in Scarborough in 2012 was similarly sensational and fear-mongering. The National Post drew a link between gun violence and Blackness with an article on the Hennessy cognac that was bought for the party, saying “the drink has a reputation as the go-to drink in hip-hop circles.” And the Star stoked fear with a headline stating, “Danzig St.: A new generation being mentored by old in bloody gang war.”
Bruce Campion-Smith, the Toronto Star’s public editor, is aware of the paper’s role in negative crime reporting and is trying to change it. “We’ve been very mindful that we didn’t want our journalism to reinforce stereotypes,” he says. “And we knew that there were subconscious ways that we were contributing to stereotypes, whether that was falling into the police narratives of events, writing off police press releases or the use of mug shots.” (More newsrooms are opting against using mug shots to illustrate crime stories because they are more often used when a suspect is Black or racialized, which leads to a lasting negative impact on their reputation and lives.)
Christine Brousseau, the national editor at the Globe and Mail, acknowledges the paper has not covered crime equitably in the past. Today, she says that while the Globe doesn’t extensively cover crime, its crime and justice team aims to focus on broader systemic issues and policies in the courts, police and corrections departments. “We’ve had ongoing discussions, especially within the last year, about how crime reporting has been and continues to be damaging to racialized communities, particularly Black communities,” she says, adding that this includes discussions about whether there’s a need for more stories on police and defunding. At the National Post, editor-in-chief Rob Roberts says the paper focuses largely on politics and comment, not crime. “But we are very aware of trying not to perpetuate stereotypes when the issues do come up,” he says, adding that they’re focusing on diversifying the Financial Post and adding a more diverse group of columnists.
Professor Yasmin Jiwani, the Concordia University research chair on intersectionality, violence and resistance, has written extensively about media criminalization of racialized people. In her book chapter “Mediations of Race and Crime,” she studied 282 headlines from the Globe and Mail from 2008 to 2009 and found coverage of Black people was generally relegated to stories about gangs, murder and drugs.
Jiwani says the media has “synoptic power”: it selectively puts together images of a select few issues, then blows them out of proportion, overexposing the news audience to that bias.
“If you’re constantly exposed to media messages that associate criminality to racialized groups, then you come to expect that,” Jiwani says. “And this is magnified if you haven’t had interactions with these groups. So you walk around with those media images because the idea of Black criminality has become so ingrained, because it’s in multiple media formats.”
Jiwani gives the example of areas such as Jane and Finch, which have become synonymous with Black gun and gang violence, largely due to news coverage.
“So imagine then carrying that kind of cognitive framework into the courtroom,” she says.
Media coverage of crime has been one of the factors blamed for the explosive growth of the U.S. prison population, a system where Black people are significantly overrepresented. Prison reform advocates have called for journalists to be mindful of the language they use in order to avoid further fear mongering about racialized people.
Coverage also contributes to misplaced empathy. A quick search of high-profile shooters in North America will yield polarizing headlines between white and Black perpetrators: A 2018 Ohio State University study found that white shooters receive sympathetic treatment in the media and are often described as “quiet,” “smart” and from a good family, their crimes characterized as out of character or attributed to some sort of victimhood. Ninety-five per cent of white shooters’ crimes were also attributed to mental illness (the study only found one story that described a Black shooter as mentally ill). Meanwhile, Black shooters were labelled thugs and terrorists, “deserving” of the harshest punishment for their crimes, and an indication of a problem with the whole race.
The media’s portrayal of dangerous Black people could have alarming consequences for those inside the court as well. There are limited studies on the racial perceptions of jurors; however, a 1985 article by Sheri Lynn Johnson found that white jurors tend to convict Black defendants for crimes that white defendants are acquitted for, and that unconscious stereotypes about Black criminality may cause Black defendants to appear more guilty to white jurors. Mock trials have also found strong links between white juror perception of Black criminality and higher conviction rates.
“Every juror brings their biases into the courtroom, because you can’t walk away from what you are,” Jiwani says. “This is one of the reasons why having Black jurors – at least 50 per cent – is so important, because you have to counterbalance the ways in which the biases are structured into the system.”
What’s more, no amount of critical thinking can counter these negative media images, Jiwani says, because they are deeply embedded in our society. “No matter how many times you see Black people in high-profile positions, it doesn’t do anything, because on a daily basis you are inundated with news stories that are telling you differently.”
We found the defendant not guilty, but no one was celebrating. The victim’s family had no closure, and the defendant would be tied to this crime for life.
After the case was over, I found numerous stories naming him as a suspect, with no editor’s notes to update that he had been cleared. How would he rebuild his life when an employer or landlord could Google his name and find this information? It was a reminder of the vicious cycle of poverty and crime that Black men who end up in the prison system endure.
Being found not guilty is still a life sentence, especially for racialized people, when crimes live on the internet forever. That’s why the Right to be Forgotten is becoming an urgent issue around the world. Since 2014, Europeans have been able to request that search engines remove links to pages containing sensitive information about them. But in Canada, there’s no decision on whether the Right to be Forgotten will become law.
Newsrooms have also been grappling with their own processes around removing reputation-damaging information. Unpublishing requests have traditionally been unsuccessful and involve a tedious and lengthy process that is at the discretion of the news outlet.
“It’s an issue that is constantly under discussion [at the National Post], because you have two strong competing principles: the importance of a public record and the importance of people [being able] to move on from certain things,” says Roberts. “It’s a conversation that’s ongoing and evolving.”
Following last year’s racial reckoning, journalists are trying to strike a balance between public interest and causing further harm to racialized communities.
The Associated Press no longer names suspects or publishes photos of them in minor crime stories due to the lasting damage it can cause people who are trying to move on with their lives. Earlier this year, the Boston Globe launched “Fresh Start,” an initiative that allows readers whose crimes were covered in the paper to request a removal of the article, because, according to its website’s FAQ section, “the value of giving someone a fresh start often outweighs the historic value of keeping a story widely accessible long after an incident occurred.”
“We’ve always been really cognizant that racialized communities were the disproportionate focus of police enforcement, especially after the death George Floyd,” Campion-Smith says. “But when we run stories about the charges that result from [police interaction], the Star perpetuates that injustice because we’ve now named someone who’s been charged and that story lives on the web.”
Earlier this year, the Star struck a committee of journalists and editors to revise its rigid unpublishing policy and is close to launching a formal process like the Boston Globe’s. Part of their research involved community consultation led by columnist Shree Paradkar; she noted that everyone agreed unpublishing would be significantly beneficial to reducing barriers and ending stigma for marginalized groups, especially for young people and young men.
For now, depending on the severity of the crime and the court outcome, personal information will either be removed or the story will be taken down. Still, Campion-Smith says that careful thought early on about what crime stories the paper runs would help mitigate the number of unpublishing requests it will find itself fielding. “If we’re taking these stories down at the back end, why are we writing them in the first place?” he says. “There are communities disproportionately impacted by the crime stories that we choose to cover. We’re trying to really be mindful that what we do is a public service, not contribute to stereotypes or stigmas.”
There are no plans to launch an unpublishing initiative at the National Post. Instead, Roberts says, editors remain more conservative in their approach. “We tend to be very careful in making any changes at all.”
Unlike the Star’s 130 unpublishing requests last year, Roberts says the paper does not receive many, and those they do receive are more often from affluent people whose lawyers file the request.
Sylvia Stead, the Globe’s public editor, says that a decade ago, the paper worked with the Maynard Institute for Journalism on ways to improve coverage of diverse groups and decided that one way would be not to cover minor crime. In general, the paper does not unpublish content or remove details such as names from its website or archives, unless there’s a significant factual error. However, Stead says that earlier this year, its unpublishing policy was reviewed and the paper decided it was flexible enough to allow individual rulings. “For several years, in the case of a dismissal or acquittal of a charge – when we know – that has been clearly marked at the top of a story,” she says. “The Globe feels strongly that [the Right to Be Forgotten] can affect news coverage and freedom of expression, but some of the old police blotter type stories where charges were laid and didn’t go to court have been removed based on an individual review.”
There’s a long way to go in terms of establishing who gets a fresh start. While newsrooms are starting to understand how they’ve perpetuated harm through the language they use, the sources they choose and the stories they cover, Jiwani notes that ongoing, extensive anti-racist training, which some newsrooms, including the Star, the Globe and the Post, have already incorporated, is necessary. So are the creation and increased visibility of alternative and Black media, which have historically been successful counteractions to legacy news’ perpetuation of stereotypes.
And more thought needs to be given by journalists about their relationship to the courts, she says. Both parties rely on each other to get their messages across and receive accurate information – but also hold negative stereotypes of Black people that may also affect potential jurors. “If you are a minority and the stereotypes abound about you, what are your chances of having a fair hearing from people in positions of power who are absorbing all of these stories all the time?”