By Eternity Martis
On August 4, 2016, two innocent people—Ariela Navarro-Fenoy, 26, and Duvel Hibbert, 23— lost their lives at Muzik nightclub in Toronto when gunfire erupted. Instantly, people speculated that it had something to go with Caribbean Carnival weekend or Drake’s annual OVO Fest; online comment sections blamed black people, Hip-Hop and Jamaican culture for the tragedy. More importantly, journalists drove home that Navarro-Fenoy was an “innocent”, “beautiful” and “smiling” bystander, while Hibbert had a criminal record.
As a journalist of colour, I noticed this kind of dialogue before when it came to gun crime in Toronto. I wanted to know how bad it really was.
In September, I came across dozens of articles that portray black shooters as violent and cold-blooded. These stories blamed absent fathers, gangsta rap, immigration, and Jamaican culture for the crime. The headlines were sensational and dramatic. Meanwhile, the crimes of non-black people weren’t covered to the same extent, and gave a human face to the accused.
What was missing from these stories was knowledge about the serious underlying issues that cause black communities to be so involved in gun crime, a group facing substantial systemic racism and poverty.
It seemed there was a deep-rooted issue in the way that Canadian news portrays black people when it comes to gun crime in the Toronto. If journalists have the power to influence the public, it was fair to say the language they used could disastrously affect how people view black communities, perpetuating the stereotype that all black people are inherently violent and criminal.
I wondered—does Canadian media have a race problem when it comes to reporting on gun crime? And if so, how are journalists overcoming the challenges of writing about gun crime when race plays such a huge factor?
It wasn’t easy. Some journalists said they didn’t know enough about racial politics to comment. Others said race has nothing to do with the way they reported on gun crime. A few refused to go on record. By mid-October, I had scholars, sociologists and criminologists—but no journalists willing to be interviewed.
The silence and denial spoke volumes about the issue. I refused to let it go.
Eventually, the story came together with journalists like Jim Rankin, Royson James, Peter Cheney and Peter Kuitenbrouwer speaking candidly and openly about their own challenges and shortcomings when reporting on gun violence in Toronto, and what the industry can do to better to report on the underlying issues that cause black people to commit crimes.
My feature isn’t about disputing facts on gun crime and black communities. It’s about understanding that exceptions in a community do not represent its entire people. Journalists should carefully choose their words and acknowledge any racial bias that can seep into their coverage, or they risk further marginalizing black communities.