Manufacturing Concern

For a century The Toronto Star's social policy reporting has had the same formula: two parts human drama to one part institutional failure. The result is the "sob story," and the fact that Canada's largest newspaper can't—or won't—dig deeper is a crying shame

Trista Vincent
March , 1999 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

The story was vintage Toronto Star. Under the October 1, 1998 headline "Computer glitch keeps cash from needy" ran a story detailing a techno debacle that had left a single mother unable to cash her social assistance cheque. Accompanying the 13-column-inch piece was a photo captioned "Scary situation" showing the 43-year-old woman, illuminated by a halo of afternoon sunlight, pushing her cherub-faced, autistic five-year-old on a swing. The story closed with the woman saying "It's frightening how much we rely on technology...People on social assistance have no margins. (We) live from cheque to cheque."

Holy Joe would have approved.


Joseph E. Atkinson-Holy Joe-was a man who never forgot his humble beginnings. Born in 1865 on the outskirts of the Ontario village of Newcastle, Atkinson was the youngest in a brood of eight. His mother, Hannah, widowed in Joseph's infancy, ran a boarding house for metal workers and raised her children as devout Christians. From his mother Joe learned about gospel; from her boarders he learned of the class struggle. These first lessons would forge his character as well as the character of the newspaper he would later run.

In 1899, Joseph Atkinson took the helm of Toronto's smallest and poorest daily, The Evening Star. founded seven years earlier as a strikesheet by 21 typographers from the Toronto News, the paper had grown into a serious competitor in Toronto's six-paper market. The captaincy was conditional on the Star continuing to support the federal Liberals and then Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, but Holy Joe didn't object: he saw his position as manager and editor as a means of promoting his own social liberalism.

Almost immediately Atkinson revived the Fresh Air Fund, a charity that had once been supported by all of the Toronto newspapers, to provide picnics and excursions for needy youth and their mothers. Five years after the resurrection of the Fresh Air Fund, Atkinson founded the Star's Santa Claus Fund. Recalling the lean Christmases of his youth, it was Atkinson's wish that no child would celebrate the birth of Christ with a heavy heart and empty hands. And so, in 1906 the Santa Fund began dispensing gift boxes containing clothing and treats to destitute children.

Atkinson's Star became a "paper for the people," advocating the chlorination and filtration of the local water supply, exposing corruption in local contracting circles and supporting labour unions. At a time when women couldn't vote and had limited legal rights, columnist Madge Merton-Atkinson's wife-regularly promoted the suffragette movement.

In the 1930s, though Atkinson was not a supporter of communism, he and his paper-he had become the majority shareholder in 1913- were ardent defenders of civil liberties and human rights. In his 1963 book J.E. Atkinson of the Star, former Star war correspondent Ross Harkness described how the "King Street Pravda," championed workers' rights. As Harkness notes, Atkinson believed "the way to defeat communism.was to free the workers from the fears on which communism thrives." His paper called for "unemployment insurance, health insurance, minimum wages and maximum hours of work for men, old age pensions at sixty-five, a national works program and a federally administered relief system."

During the '40s "The Red Star" defended the rights of Japanese Canadians subjected to internment because of the war-hardly a popular stand-and continued to advocate workers' rights and social welfare initiatives not only editorially, but through news coverage. When Atkinson died in 1948, his son-in-law, Harry Hindmarsh, took over as publisher. The era he presided over was one less of social crusades than of Fleet-Street-style sensationalism, as they tried to out-gross each other with front-page pictures of twisted train wrecks and lascivious-looking mug shots of sex offenders. Kidnapping subjects wasn't uncommon. On one occasion, the Star snatched a woman from Tely reporters and flew her to the Arctic to see her ill husband. After the Star's purchase of the Telegram in 1971, things seemed to pick up where they had left off. The paper stood in firm favour of labour unions, housing for the homeless and advocated womens' rights during the second wave of feminism.

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, as the Toronto Sun solidified its niche in the tabloid market and the Globe and Mailpursued its national strategy, the Star continued to reflect Holy Joe's principles. It produced award-winning series on child and spousal abuse and forewarned of the crises that would come with trading social spending for tax breaks. So, in the late nineties, when the social safety net became more like an electric fence, it was natural that the Star would again ride into battle.

Globalisation and free-trade had resulted in massive job losses. Social housing was a responsibility no government wanted, and the city's vacancy rate had plummeted. Then, in 1995 the province elected Mike Harris and the Conservatives. Soon after he took office, Harris cut welfare by more than 20 per cent. The effects were quickly apparent. Homelessness swelled: reports estimated 5,000-including many children-were using the shelter system nightly and more were sleeping on the streets. Kids wielding squeegees sprung up like mushrooms at intersections. And as the evidence that something was wrong increased, so did the Star's coverage. In September of '98, it carried 23 stories on poverty. In October, there were 87, including 16 on the homeless and potential housing solutions. In November, 57 pieces appeared. By contrast, in October the Sun and the Globe combined carried just 40 poverty stories.

The numbers alone are a testament to Holy Joe's legacy at the Star. In the Toronto market, his former paper is the acknowledge leader in coverage of social justice stories. The problem is that stories haven't changed much since Atkinson's day, and the similarity among stories seems to work counter to the intended result. What would Holy Joe do?


They're known as sob-sister stories, after the sardonic nickname given to the early women reporters who were often relegated to writing tear-jerking stories about the impoverished, sick and crippled that helped sell papers: "Man and his wife living on sparrows." ; "27 bones broken at birth, Boy still lives, nearly 2...Counting on miracle, mother says."

It was during the depression that Holy Joe had an epiphany, realising the sob story's potential as a means of lobbying for social reform. Joe realised the effect that teary, charity promo and tragedy had on readers. After hearing of the following that American reporters like Winifred Black Bonfils, of the San Francisco Examiner, had attained-breaking out of the women's page ghettos and onto the front pages-with their melodramatic tales of human suffering, the Star followed suit. Sob sisters were a fixture at the Star until the '50s. Reporters like Alexandrine Gibb and Jessie McTaggart talked their way into the homes of the dispossessed to describe the hardships of fatherless children, poorly paid workers and families stricken by poverty or illness.

Reporters on social policy beats still use the same recipe: one part institutional failure to two parts human suffering. "Home is a cardboard box.And woman facing eviction" was on the front page last October 24. The Story told of a group of people living in lean-tos on the grounds of a downtown church who were due to be moved from the site. Focusing on the plight of one 30-year-old woman, the story told of how she became homeless after a fire destroyed her apartment. "[The shack] saves all of our clothes from going mouldy," she was quoted as saying. The picture accompanying the piece showed the woman, eyes to the heavens, peering out from her shack. The implicit message was that there was an extreme shortage of affordable housing, but this larger theme was not the focus of the story. And, had the names and particulars been changed, the story could have appeared in the paper on any day.

The similarity among stories isn't surprising given that the Star's reporters all face the same challenge: how to animate government statistics and the press releases of social agencies. The idea is to inject a this-could-happen-to-you-note. As Alan Christie, the paper's city editor and 22-year veteran of the Star, puts it in plain terms: "Dry stories can be made readable by playing it through the eyes of someone who has lived it." Theresa Boyle, who has covered health policy for the paper since the fall of '98 and worked at the Star since '95, agrees: "The human element is a necessary and effective hook."

The problem is that these types of stories can give readers a sense of déjà vu and lead to their tuning out. Pat Capponi is an example. The author of Upstairs in the Crazy House and Dispatches from the Poverty Line, Capponi has experienced life on social assistance and written about it extensively. Yet this activist for the poor and "crazy," says, "The Star has had extraordinary coverage around homelessness [but] even I am beginning to think, maybe this is overdone a bit.

Michael Valpy, who currently writes a thrice-weekly Toronto column at The Globe and Mail agrees. Valpy's lefty credentials are impeccable. He was a volunteer with the Company of Young Canadians, the country's answer to the Peace Corps, in the '60s. Valpy says his experience with the radical CYC was a political awakening for him, as was his time spent as the Globe's Africa correspondent in the mid-eighties. He returned from Zimbabwe, where he had been stationed for four years, disillusioned with the state of social affairs in Canada. As a columnist, Valpy challenges the assumptions of his middle-class readers, exploring social and political issues in a way that can leave readers checking the front page to verify that they are, in fact, reading the Globe.

Despite his long history as a journalist, Valpy fancies himself a "mythologiser," a term he encountered years ago when he attended a lecture given by P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. "She gave us a long lecture on how mythology still exists in society and I put up my hand and asked, 'By what means are myths still propagated in society?' and she said, 'Don't you ever read your newspaper?'" A flashbulb went off for Valpy. "I began to change my mind about what I did for a living and started to see myself more as a mythologiser and less as a conveyor and purveyor of information," he says, not oblivious to the quirkiness of his comments. "I started to see myself as someone who tested what society actually believed in, to see if the mythologies were accurate." The Star, he believes, is not doing the same questioning. "What you've got to do is provoke people, you've got to engage them. That is the true democratic function of the press-to make people think about what is happening in their society. Telling these sad stories in and of themselves is not enough to engage people."

While Valpy speaks from port, Mike Strobel, the managing editor of the Toronto Sun, does so from starboard. And their views on the Star's coverage are remarkably similar. Strobel explains his paper's comparative dearth of social policy stories with apolitical, good humour. "There is the feeling that great societal theses are kind of hackneyed. There's a real danger in suffocating readers, of overkill, of sounding too preachy," he says. He has a clear idea of what is news and what is not: "What makes something news is when it's extraordinary."

Laurie Monsebraaten, who has been at the Star for 15 years and covered social policy for 10, realises the journalistic pitfalls of the sob story. "After a while readers get the impression that there are all these people out there with their hands out...it can actually act against a cause to write about one person getting screwed by the system every day." In fact, Stuart Laidlaw, the Star's beat's editor since March of '98, has been trying to get reporters to pull back from the sob-sister technique. He realises that used indescriminantly, this approach becomes clich?. "When I talk to reporters, I say, 'if you've got a perfect [human] example, then use it. If [not]...they'd be better off discussing the pros and cons of whatever policy," he says.

Beric German, an outreach worker at Street Health, a downtown drop-in clinic, believes the real-person element is integral to getting peoples' attention. "Part of [the media's] business is to sell papers and in order to sell, you have to tell a story and put a human face [on it]," says German, who is also a member of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which was responsible for getting homelessness in Toronto declared a national disaster in October of '98. And Gerard Vandezande, a volunteer at Citizens for Public Justice, thinks that although "the Star is a bit wishy-washy, [they] do a much, much better job than the Globe."

David Littman, on the other hand, favours the Globe. As the executive director for the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre, a drop-in centre serving a west-end neighbourhood, which is home to many rooming houses, social service agencies and psychiatric patients, Littman has dealt with reporters from the Toronto papers on many occasions. Of them all, his favourite was Globe and Mail social policy reporter Margaret Philp, of whom Littman says, "I feel more comfortable talking to Margaret then any other reporter." Given the Globe's slightly right of centre editorial position Littman's attitude seems surprising, especially considering the Star has so many reporters covering social policy issues. But Monsebraaten has an explanation: "Some feel that their message is better told in the right-wing media," she says. "Perhaps if they feel that the more conservative media is supporting them. [their cause is made valid]."

Philp has a different take. "The Star is more populist and it always has been. If you look at a lot of the stories in the Star-this is not Laurie, she's very good-they're not discriminating," she says. Philp says of the story on the 43-year-old mother who was unable to cash her welfare cheque. "I'm not going to write that story. Who cares? My time can be better spent writing about more meaningful issues, not about how somebody on welfare was inconvenienced by the bank one day." Even last fall, though, Philp was finding it increasingly difficult to cover her beat. As the Globe revamped its front section in anticipation of the launch of the National Post, stories got shorter. This directive, apparently paper-wide, cut Philp off at the knees. The new standard story length, reduced to 15 inches, in bygone days would have been short. Unable to explore issues like teen street pregnancies, or the squalid living conditions of rooming houses as she previously had, Philp realised that any institutional appetite for stories on the downtrodden had long been sated. So when longer pieces on politics, business and health continued to run, it was no surprise that Philp's January move to the education beat was couched as a promotion. "My bottom line here is that had there been the enthusiasm here for social policy, I would have kept covering it," she says audibly disturbed.

Philip is doubtful the social policy beat will be re-posted at the Globe, Philp is doubtful. She worries that covering poverty primarily as a news event will compromise the quality of coverage. "I think it for sure will affect the amount that we cover [these issues] and the thought that goes into it," she says. This is evident at The Toronto Star. While Laurie Monsebraaten and Patricia Orwen are the only two reporters assigned specifically to cover social policy, the Star has six others who write about issues pertaining to poverty.

Fred Kuntz, the Star's deputy managing editor says, "The best poverty stories are those containing a narrative and offering true, real-life, human drama, as well as the historical context of the issue, quantified facts about the scope of the problem and informed and dispassionate discussion about the causes and possible solutions." And at times, the Star does produce stories that fit Kuntz' ideal. One of Monsebraaten's pieces from 1994, for example. In it she told the stories of three individuals who had benefited from access to public housing, while simultaneously-and without bias-providing critical analysis of non-profit housing. Going beyond individual tragedies, the circumstances that had resulted in the province downloading the responsibility of social housing were brought to light. Monsebraaten examined the political philosophy behind building social housing, its history and its precarious future. And while the 2,199 word piece included the all-important "human face," it did not browbeat readers into pseudo-sympathy.

The Star's collective concern for the underclasses shouldn't be underestimated. Paper staff express genuine sympathy for those who suffer at the well-manicured hands of the establishment. Still, there is the argument that these stories sell papers at the expense of others' misery. Those at Canada's largest and most profitable broadsheet have an inherent understanding of what moves papers. The bottom line surely hasn't suffered from appealing to our voyeuristic nature, even when hardship stories potentially diminish the sufferings of their subjects. But, if the Star didn't acknowledge those living below the middle classes in a way that consistently reminds us of the threadbare state of society's fabric, who would? Toronto MP Jack Layton, who has been at the forefront of the city's homelessness problem, is grateful for the attention the Star has given to the poor. "There's no one who can create an issue and bring it right to the front of the public's face and cause the public's opinion to change, except for the Toronto Star," Layton says.

What would Joseph Atkinson do? Given the amount of lip service he still receives at the paper it seems to be a question-however rhetorical-on many minds. Some Star staffers think Holy Joe would want the paper to be doing more than updating its reporting style. John Miller, a former Star deputy managing editor recalls one staff member saying: "'If Joseph Atkinson were alive today, he would not rest until there was no more homelessness.'"

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