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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 MIRIAM VALDES-CARLETTI
Staff reporter

Newsroom collaborations can give students valuable training and provide a service by filling gaps in local news coverage, says a media labour expert.

Errol Salamon, the work and labour editor at J-Source, says that established media publishers and editors have also helped students by giving them the temporary power to run mainstream media companies.

In 1933, the Vancouver Sun gave students at the University of British Columbia an opportunity to take over the newsroom for the day. This was over a decade before formal journalism programs were introduced in Canada.

“Widely distributed content by student journalists could help circulate higher quality news and address the problems of local news deserts,” said Salamon.

He went on to quote Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, saying, “Like teaching hospitals, journalism schools can provide essential services to their communities while they’re educating their students.”

Salamon, who co-wrote Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada, was joined on a panel about students solutions to issues in journalism models by Archie McLean and Janice Paskey – journalism professors from Mount Royal University – at a recent conference on the future of local news at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

There are lessons to be learned from the history of journalistic collaborations between news organizations and college campuses that can be traced back to the early 20th century, he said.

In 1920, the three daily newspapers in Winnipeg stopped publishing for six days due to a print shortage. During this time, The Manitoban – the University of Manitoba’s weekly campus newspaper – shifted to daily production for four of the six days. The editor of the student paper at the time, Graham Spry, went on to champion the cause for public broadcasting in Canada.

Paskey says that faculty editors at student publications would like to collaborate more with local news organizations but don’t get taken up on offers or are still trying to make it happen.

She conducted a study alongside McLean to discover if Canadian journalism programs were trying to fill the gap in local news in their communities. Of the five colleges and fives universities that participated, she discovered that some publications covered campus news, some covered external, and some a mix of both.

Publications that covered news stories that resonate with the wider community got the most traffic, they found.

When the University of Regina’s paper, The Carillon, reported on the Saskatchewan provincial budget, their work garnered 52,000 pageviews– evidence to Paskey that their coverage helped fill a local news gap. Another example cited was the University of King’s College paper, The Signal, which reported the story of a family experiencing homelessness that found housing after asking for help on Kijiji. Paskey says it was a story of the times that resonated with the community by demonstrating a social need for affordable housing.

Pageviews for Canadian campus publications in the study ranged from 6,800 to 18,000 a month – a level of engagement Paskey calls significant.

McLean, who examined social media during the study, found that the usage of Facebook and Twitter was high, but underutilized still.

“If [campus] journalism news sites are serious about filling the news gap then they need to be better on social media and do it differently.” said McLean.

Since audiences are mobile and social, journalistic outlets need to cater their stories to each platform, McLean suggests. While it’s easy enough to share the same article across all platforms without changing things around, it’s not the best strategy to maximize engagement. Campus publications need to better optimize their stories for each social media platform, he says

When using Facebook – what McLean describes as the “900-pound. gorilla of social media”– student outlets had the highest engagement leading to their website. Twitter landed second because driving traffic to the website wasn’t its strength.

“The story sits at the heart of what you do,” he said, “then you take pieces of the story and optimize them for the various platforms. This can be a 30-second Facebook video and some text used for a newsletter.”

It’s important that students learn new strategies going forward since they’re living in a digital era, said McLean.