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This is one of a series of features, news articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By SIERRA BEIN
Staff reporter

Journalists interview police at a crime scene in Québec. (Photo courtesy GRC – RCMP – DIVISION C – QUÉBEC, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The first time Kim Bolan received a death threat was in 1997, but over the years she has received many. A single gunshot through her home’s window on an early December morning was a reminder that any job as a crime journalist is a 24-hour commitment. The bullet, intended as a message to Bolan to stop sticking her nose in Vancouver’s organized crime scene, was the first threat she received during her career. In 2009 she received a dead rat in the mail with a note attached saying she would be killed if she did not stop reporting on gangs in the region.

In May, Bolan wrote a story about a court trial she attended, where she was the subject in the hearing. A member of British Columbia’s United Nations gang  – now a Crown witness – testified that gang members had been plotting to kill Bolan because of her reporting on their organization. Their name has been withheld under a publication ban.

“Obviously it’s a bit disturbing to be sitting there in court and hearing these details,” Bolan said. The gang members, who had allegedly discussed killing Bolan back in 2011, had her address and had been scouting her property. She was the only reporter in the courtroom covering the story, knowing police would not release the details of the charge and that the courts would only mention the attempt on her life in their final ruling.

For crime journalists, dealing with police is a daily part of the job. But recently, reporters like Bolan have been increasingly pushing back against police in Canada, who they say are withholding more and more information about crime cases. In some instances, reporters are putting their lives on the line to get stories out to the public.

“Half the time they don’t have a specific [law] that’s really about withholding – it’s just a broad interpretation that I would argue isn’t the appropriate interpretation,” Bolan said in an interview, adding that she’s noticed an increased tendency to withhold the names of murder victims.

As a result, she argues, community members aren’t aware of violent crimes in their neighbourhoods.

“I believe there’s too much secrecy with police in B.C. –– that’s certainly been my experience,” says Bolan. “They always withhold as much as they can it seems, and likewise we have a problem with secrecy in the court, and publication bans that are inhibiting our abilities to do our jobs properly and inform the public about what’s going in major cases.”

Reporters have responded by resorting to new tactics to get information about crimes that affect their communities and challenge police institutions across Canada.

Bolan, who has been a reporter at the Vancouver Sun for nearly 30 years, has started the blog REAL SCOOP News, a section of the Vancouver Sun dedicated to crime news. Bolan’s beat focused on organized and gang-related crime that has intensified since the early 2000s, with more drugs and more gun violence making their way onto the streets of British Columbia communities. Bolan says that she is one of the few reporters to consistently focus on the topic

“Oftentimes, people assume that those stories are perhaps small and insignificant,” she says. “But the reality is that oftentimes those stories have bigger connections to other communities in the region in Canada, or in some cases, other parts of the world.”

Lisa Taylor, a journalism professor at Ryerson University, has been studying issues related to police withholding of information. Her research has focused on police services that are not releasing the names of homicide victims. As of May, for example, Edmonton police had not named eight out of 17 victims in homicide cases. The RCMP Alberta Headquarters has withheld two out of 14.

“Our construction of crime is that crime is not just a wrong that one person commits against another: crime is a wrong that one person commits against society at large,” says Taylor, who presented her research at a recent conference on the future of local journalism. “So this whole idea of holding back names of victims and saying ‘it’s just private’ is the first problem.”

RCMP protocols state that names can only be released if the dead individuals give permission or if the disclosure helps with the investigation. More recently, a new framework introduced in Alberta is supporting this similar RCMP protocols and is being opposed by many in Canadian media. Going forward, a list of criteria will have to be filled before releasing the name of a victim to ensure what they consider to be a privacy violation is defensible.

Although the laws and legislation have not changed in more than a decade, in the past few years less information is being released by some police. This mainly has to do with how different divisions and levels of police interpret the laws.

“A piece of legislation is a complex thing,” says Taylor. “There is nothing that tells us that this information needs to be withheld. But, there’s nothing that explicitly says this information needs to be released.”

Releasing important information can be essential in a police investigation where a suspect is not named, Taylor said. For many journalists, being able to provide names also make their work more credible than a broad-brush approach. For families, being able to provide a name can also be a way to help put a face to a crime that might otherwise be swept under the rug in their community.

“We often assume that no victim’s family wants their loved ones mentioned, and I think that’s probably true nine times out of 10,” says Taylor. “But then there’s the tenth family who desperately wants you to know that their loved one wasn’t just some guy shot in a park. He was a dad and a member of a church and a great soccer player and a million other wonderful things.”

In addition to withholding key information, police across Canada have even been encrypting their scanners, making it more difficult for journalists to monitor what is going on.

The lack of transparency has consequences. In Thunder Bay, Ont., for instance, journalists and community members have been demanding more information from the police. James Murray, an editor at NetNewsLedger, says that the public, and Indigenous communities in particular, have major issues when it comes to trusting the Thunder Bay Police Service.

“About six, seven years ago Thunder Bay really was slow on releasing information on almost any crime that was going on,” he says. “Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Treaty 3 and Rainy River First Nations are now complaining that police are coming to judgment really quickly without doing any investigation.”

For Murray, crime reporting in Thunder Bay is still evolving. But the lack of transparency in crime, specifically the lack of information about homicides, is disturbing for many people. And that means journalists have an even bigger role when it comes to chasing down the truth and putting pressure on the police to release more information.

According to Murray, in some cases in Thunder Bay, police have been so slow to release details of victims, that the family and community has put up a full memorial page on Facebook before the police have even confirmed the death to the media. This, combined with serious questions about the quality of police investigations, mean reporters are digging deeper into these cases.

“Over and over and over again there’s been young people come down to Thunder Bay to go to school and end up in the river –– all (of them) Indigenous youth—Ojibwe kids from the north, Cree kids from the north. The usual explanation is that it’s not a crime. First Nation communities are going, ‘Our people are around water all the time, fishing and they’re hunting and in boats. How [do they] all of a sudden come to Thunder Bay and drown?’” said Murray.

Until police release more names of victims, or release more information related to serious crimes in general, journalists will increasingly continue to rely exclusively on sources outside of the police forces to write their stories.

Sarah Ladik is a reporter in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan but worked in the North-West Territories for five years.

“We’ve had cases where so much was held back that we couldn’t report,” she says. “If the family wants to talk to me and the family is cool with having their name out, then we’re out and that’s it. You don’t need the police to confirm with you.

“[Police are] not your only way of getting that information and yeah, it’s a bit tougher to track down families. It’s an emotional thing. It’s rough. It’s unpleasant. Generally they’re more difficult to find, but it’s still worthwhile, that’s the job.”

Journalists can mine information from social media, especially Facebook, to track down family and friends, they can cover court proceedings where names are made public, or they can work their sources in the community to get around police obstacles. Taylor noted, however, that these strategies can also complicate relations with police sources.

“If a journalist is told that the name is not being released by the police but then the journalist uses her own methods and gets that information and publishes it,” she says, “she may risk alienating the police and then find herself in a position of being further frozen out, and given even less information than she was getting before because that seems to be just how subjective these things are.” Taylor added, however, that it’s important that journalists not let one voice control the narrative, even if it’s the police.

Bolan continues to report on organized crime in Vancouver because she knows no one else has a beat as unique as hers. She’s still following the UN gang, even though publication bans stop her from publishing the name of the man who testified about plotting her murder.

In the meantime she keeps fighting for information on behalf of her readers: “Police and court officials sometimes forget that they’re paid by the public and therefore should be accountable to the public,” says Bolan. “We expect a certain level of transparency in all other government operations, but suddenly when it comes to police and courts, secrecy is okay. I don’t accept that as a journalist.”

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By SIERRA BEIN
Staff reporter

Journalists around the world make the mistake of assuming that their journalistic ethical approaches are the best – or only – standards. Especially with crime reporting, what might seem normal in North America is shocking to some cultures in Europe, say two researchers from Canada and the United States.

Naming victims and suspects in serious crimes is the default approach in North America, a practice meant to support the public’s right to know critical information about their community. But in some areas of Europe, not identifying people in news stories is meant to serve as a way to rehabilitate people and their reputations.

“I think the first thing we need to alert journalists everywhere to is that we need to stop assuming this culture of sameness,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, an assistant professor of Information and Media Studies at Western University.

“That’s just not respectful. It’s very colonial.”

Fullerton and her research partner Maggie Jones Patterson, a journalism professor from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, have been studying how culture and journalism ethics shape crime reporting since 2010. Fullerton presented some of their findings on a panel about police and local news at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism on June 3-4.

Naming someone in a serious crime story automatically involves family and friends’ reputations as well, which can be detrimental to criminals making efforts to rehabilitate, and can re-traumatize family members who have lost someone, says Fullerton

One of the biggest differences the researchers noticed is how identity is treated in North America compared to in certain countries in Europe, where different considerations are given to a person involved in crime—suspect or victim.

“There’s a real presumption of innocence until that person is convicted. They deserve every benefit of the doubt, and media coverage can be like punishment,” she said. “You’ve served your time, and paid your debt to society. You ought to be able to rejoin your community and have a life.”

“In the United States,” where there is more value placed on informing the public about everything, “that’s impossible,” said Fullerton.

“If you have a record, you’re not going to work. So it’s very difficult to rejoin [society] after you’ve been othered,” she said. “If you just say that person is a monster instead of a citizen, then you don’t need to take social responsibility for the fact that culture, economics, and education create criminals.”

In coverage of the Manchester bombings in the U.K., where 22 people were killed when a bomb went off at a music concert, for example, U.S. media published the name of one of the assailants while British media did not, instead providing in-depth descriptions and a nickname.

“The anger of the police and U.K government that they had lost control of intelligence material was accompanied by members of the public and other news organisations condemning the insensitive nature of the report,” reads a news story from The Guardian.

Fullerton described a culture clash that emerged when British-owned media began to take over certain news outlets in Ireland. As a result, British tabloid-style standards were imposed on Irish publications. Generally, the Irish did not identify individuals involved in crime to leave room for rehabilitation while the British were more focused on getting the entire story on front pages.

Members of the Irish press soon created a press council and a press ombudsperson to help regulate a Celtic ethic in their news. Now, Irish media have a formal way to enforce their ethical standard in their publications. Fullerton and Patterson say other countries could look to this case study, should they chose to evaluate their ethical standards.

Fullerton says that they may go on to study France and Quebec as well.

“I didn’t want to lump it in with English-speaking Canada, [with its] different laws, different cultural assumptions. I think it deserves it’s own space,” she said.

Fullerton says she and Patterson plan to continue their research and that they hope other researchers will also look beyond the scope of just Europe and North America.

By JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

Documentary filmmaker James Cullingham and exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera were featured speakers on March 9, 2017, at a Ryerson University panel about attacks on journalists in Mexico. (Jasmine Bala)

Mexico’s drug cartels are making full use of cyberspace to mount a campaign of intimidation targeting the country’s journalists and society, says exiled Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera.

Since he fled Mexico in 2008, the drug cartels’ presence on social media has expanded and they now broadcast torture, decapitations and killings on blogs like Blog Del Narco, Nájera said during a March 9 presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Nájera, who is now the PEN Canada George Brown Writer-in-Residence, said reporting on drug cartels and political corruption is now so dangerous for journalists that it is difficult for them to find safe havens inside the country: “Mexico City, before, was considered a safe place or safe city. But now, this is also a place of risk for journalists.”

In 2015, news magazine Proceso’s photojournalist Rubén Espinosa received threats in Veracruz and fled to Mexico City for safety, where he was subsequently assassinated. His colleague, Proceso crime reporter Regina Martinez Pérez, had been found dead in her Veracruz home in 2012.

No one knows who killed them, said James Cullingham, a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at Seneca College, who appeared on the panel with Nájera.

“It could have been cartels, it could have been the state government of Veracruz or a police force in Veracruz in collusion with the cartels,” said Cullingham, who teaches a course on Mexico’s relationship to Canada and the United States. “Most of these deaths are not solved and the investigations are either immediately discredited or are so suspect that nobody in Mexico believes them, and in both [of these cases]…no one knows. They were journalists who were investigators and they were killed.”

Former president Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s war on drug cartels in December 2006. Since then, at least 80,000 people have died in organized crime-related incidents according to estimates in a 2015 report released by the Congressional Research Service.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported last year that 107 journalists were murdered between 2000 and September 2015, making Mexico “one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.”

Just last week, Armando Arrieta Granados, the editorial director of the Veracruz newspaper La Opinión, was shot and remains in serious condition, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A few days earlier on March 23, Miroslava Breach Velducea, a correspondent for the national newspaper La Jornada, was killed as she was leaving her home in Chihuahua.

Nájera said that in his case he was working for Grupo Reforma back in February 2008 when he and a group of journalists wrote a story on a military operation targeting a Juárez Cartel safe house. The day after the story was published, the journalists received a threatening email saying: “You have to stop or we’re going to chop your heads, including you and including those police officers and soldiers who participated in this raid against us.”

Nájera wrote in a 2010 report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists that a reliable source informed him that his name was on an organized crime hit list because of his reporting on the Juárez drug wars.

“Having seen the pervasive climate of violent crime and impunity,” he wrote, “I could not trust the government and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight. In September 2008, I left Mexico with my family and went to Vancouver, Canada.”

Cullingham said many major media organizations in Mexico no longer use bylines in efforts to protect their journalists. Other news organizations have stopped covering crime altogether and “are saying ‘we’ve just walked away from the story. We can’t have our reporters killed regularly,’” he said.

While the situation in Mexico is dire, Cullingham said, reporters are still committed to documenting what is going on in the country: “It amazes me that [they] continue to produce journalism under these conditions…People are risking their lives to try and tell the story.”

The Mexican government, he noted, has taken some steps to protect journalists, including adopting the 2012 Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. It allows the state to offer various forms of protection to journalists at risk, including portable pocket-sized panic buttons, bodyguards and police patrols. A report published by the Washington Office on Latin America and Peace Brigades International, however, found that these measures are “often not adequately implemented.”

Journalists and investigators, Nájera said, are no longer the only ones being targeted by the cartels.

“Before they were [threatening] police officers, journalists, people who were working on these things,” he said. These were “threats to press freedom, but this is moving towards threats to freedom of expression, which includes civil society and that’s the bigger risk for Mexico.”

The presentation by Nájera and Cullingham was co-sponsored by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Watch the full panel below: