Jen St. Denis shares how reporting exclusively on one Vancouver neighbourhood has changed her approach to journalism
A year ago, The Tyee hired me to report exclusively on the Downtown Eastside. The idea was to create a community news beat and shine a light on under-reported issues in the Vancouver neighbourhood, where many residents live on extremely low incomes and struggle with substance use, mental illness and intergenerational trauma.
The Downtown Eastside has been written about a lot over the past 30 years. Sometimes the stories have focused on the area as a nexus of crime and open drug use. Others have tracked the political struggle to open North America’s first safe drug consumption site in the early 2000s, and to provide lower-barrier safe consumption sites as overdose deaths rose in 2015 and 2016.
Stories tended to focus on the area as a problem to be fixed, with politicians weighing in. And there was an onslaught of media attention after revelations in the late 1990s that a serial killer had preyed on vulnerable women in the neighbourhood for years. To this day, people who live in the Downtown Eastside are wary of themselves or their neighbours being filmed or photographed without consent.
But while the Downtown Eastside has been reported on a lot over the years, this was the first time a news outlet had created a specific beat for the neighbourhood and assigned a reporter to cover stories big and small, happy and sad. In an interview with Tyee editor Olamide Olaniyan a year ago, I made some pretty high-flying promises about what we would be doing with the beat: I would be holding decision-makers to account, digging deep where necessary, but also providing daily community news. Phew!
So how did it go?
We know our reporting made a difference, but it was never about getting the biggest scoops or the most pageviews. We’ve tried to listen to people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside and write about the issues they wanted more attention put on. To me, this approach felt more like a collaboration with sources, with neighbourhood residents using me as a tool to access the power of news media.
When I started, I was building on a foundation of strong work The Tyee had already been doing as COVID-19 restrictions took hold and made life harder in the Downtown Eastside. Reporter Christopher Cheung had taken a deep look at how restrictions were affecting the neighbourhood. Jesse Winter, a freelance photojournalist and reporter, had documented the efforts of frontline harm reduction workers, who struggled to keep up with both rising drug overdoses and COVID-19 cases.
We got tips from the community as soon as we announced the beat: we learned that Thomus Donaghy, a peer worker at several overdose prevention sites, had been the victim of a stabbing on July 27, 2020, and that the attack had happened while he was at work. That tip led to two stories about dangerous working conditions and low pay for peer workers at overdose prevention sites.
Thanks to more tips from the community, The Tyee was the first to report an increase in COVID-19 cases in the neighbourhood in September 2020, after the area appeared to have initially been spared from the illness.
Jo McRobb, a tenant of Tellier Tower, wrote to let us know her building and many others on East Hastings Street hadn’t received mail from Canada Post for six months because of concerns about social distancing; after we wrote about the issue, McRobb and her neighbours started getting their mail again.
David Wesley, Sarah West, Jessica Klinger and Eugene Lincoln spoke to me about how the single-room occupancy hotels they live in are making them sick, showing why many people choose living on the street or in a park over living in an SRO.
Other stories came from community advocates: the SRO Collaborative reached out to tell me about an attempted eviction in Chinatown. After we observed and wrote about the situation, the landlord and tenant came to an agreement with the help of the SRO Collaborative and the eviction was stopped.
Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, and Trey Helten, manager of the OPS, were always ready to do an interview or connect me with people who had stories to share. A story about a man who had his tent taken by city workers during a rainstorm, and another about the death of artist Al Sayers from an overdose, came about through those connections.
Karen Ward, a longtime Downtown Eastside resident and drug policy advocate, shared her own research with us and did countless interviews. Her freedom of information request illuminated just how often the Vancouver police seize small amounts of drugs from people who use drugs. Samona Marsh, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, shared her story of serving jail time after police confiscated $100 worth of crack cocaine she was carrying for personal use.
In November 2020, Vancouver became the first jurisdiction in Canada to ask the federal government to decriminalize drug possession in the city.
Ward was also key in getting the word out about a serious dysentery outbreak that had sickened two dozen people and sent 16 to hospital, but that Vancouver Coastal Health had failed to warn the public about.
Once we started doing the reporting and showing how we intended to work, sources started coming to us with bigger tips. We broke the story that the City of Vancouver had bought the Regent and Balmoral hotels, two of the most notorious SROs in the city, and we also reported the purchase price, which the former owners had tried to keep hidden.
And this wouldn’t be a complete community news beat if we didn’t also report on the good things that are happening in the community, like a thriving arts scene, an album featuring Downtown Eastside musicians and the work of community volunteers to feed hungry people.
The last two years have been particularly hard for the Downtown Eastside: COVID-19 restrictions led to an increase in homelessness and a sharp uptick in overdose deaths. Many of the stories are about grief and loss, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to learn that a community member I had previously interviewed had died.
Sometimes while reporting a story, someone would tell me that their neighbour had also wanted to speak to me, but that person had died before I could interview them.
Journalists often have an idealistic view of their craft, believing that writing stories about people’s experiences and holding governments and corporations to account can create a more just society. But journalism can also be harmful, even with the best of intentions: sources can feel as though we’ve stripped their stories from them for our own gain, people can be bullied on social media after doing interviews, and journalists can contribute to harmful narratives when we rush in without taking the time to fully understand the issue we’re reporting on.
Running the Downtown Eastside beat has changed how I work and shifted how I think about journalism. I’m a competitive reporter, someone who always wants to get the story first.
But for my editors, being accountable to the community and publishing stories that made a difference were the number one priorities for the Downtown Eastside beat. We wanted to do the opposite of “parachute” journalism, where a reporter goes to a community for a short time, gathers interviews and leaves, often without ever checking in with their sources about whether the journalism that was published or broadcast affected them negatively or positively.
It was also important to us to practise trauma-informed journalism, which teaches reporters to be conscious of how the reporting process may trigger traumatic experiences, and to adapt for sensitivity.
Journalists take care to put the source in a position where they feel in control of their story, which may include going over the story together before publication, accepting the person’s decision not to proceed with the story even after interviews are completed, and checking in with the source after the story is published.
Beat reporting is an endangered species in journalism these days. Journalists are often pressured to write a lot of stories and to focus on stories that will go viral; pretty much every reporter I talk with these days (the ones who haven’t left journalism entirely) grumble that they don’t get enough time to dig deeper into stories.
But committing to a beat and giving reporters more time to work on stories doesn’t just produce better journalism — it deepens our connection to our communities. In an age where distrust of journalism is growing and the truth is becoming harder to find, we think that’s worth investing in.
Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.