Chuckie smashes the metal pipe into the side of
Freshy's face. Freshy hits the cement with a thud. Before the
16-year-old knows what's happening, he's pummelled by half a
dozen guys wearing heavy winter jackets and thick-soled
basketball shoes. Curses fly through the night air near the
intersection of Jane
Avenue in northwest
Mark Simms keeps his eye to the viewfinder, shooting the scene
with a PD150 camcorder on loan from CBC's the fifth
When the beating is over,
Freshy gets up, wiping the blood from his eyes. His features are
mashed and beginning to swell. He looks around the apartment
complex and stumbles toward Simms.
right?" Simms asks.
"Yeah," he replies,
spitting blood onto the asphalt.
hadn't planned on bringing more bad press to his neighbourhood.
Quite the opposite. In 2004, the aspiring filmmaker helped his
friend Paul Nguyen, 26, build a website called
Jane-Finch.com. It was around the time
Nguyen's new girlfriend refused to visit their neighbourhood
because of its violent reputation. Nguyen and Simms wanted to
send out a positive message. They began shooting videos and
writing stories for the website about topics such as local
celebrations, new businesses and talented artists.
In 2005 their work caught the attention of producers
Tamar Weinstein and Jennifer Fowler at the fifth
estate. But not for the positive spin. The CBC
producers were planning a documentary about young men leaving
school and turning to crime, and wondered if Nguyen and Simms,
through their intimate local access to Jane-Finch residents,
might help. It has been difficult for journalists to gain an
low-income communities ever since the so-called "Year of the Gun"
in 2005. Residents saw stories of gangs and violence dominate
headlines. Crime reporters sometimes covered two or three
shooting deaths in a single weekend. The Toronto
Star's Betsy Powell was one reporter who was swept up
in the drama of it. She remembers a particularly hyperbolic
sentence being added to her story during the editing process:
"Elementary school grounds, shopping mall parking lots and
playgrounds have become nighttime killing fields."
"It's not true!" she later exclaimed to editors, and
says "nighttime killing fields" sounded ridiculous. Similar
clichés became commonplace when referring to certain
neighbourhoods, and residents largely stopped speaking to
journalists. People in
communities such as Jane-Finch,
and Scarborough often refused
to answer their doors if they saw television cameras or
As a result, reporters without the
trust of community members were soon forced to rely on sound
bites from the few who would talk. This led to stories lacking
context. Director and writer Sudz Sutherland, who grew up in
Scarborough, was so struck by
the hostility between the residents and the press that he added a
scene to his 2006 film Doomstown in which a
woman screams at a reporter to leave her neighbourhood. "We don't
need your image of us!" she shouts in the CTV drama.
In December 2005, then prime minister Paul Martin spoke
at a press conference in Jane-Finch, promising tougher laws on
handguns. Two weeks later, 15-year-old Jane Creba was shot and
killed while shopping with family near the Eaton Centre in
making guns an even hotter topic. By this time, Weinstein and
Fowler had already contacted Simms and Nguyen. After some
preliminary discussion, the fifth estate gave
the young men a virtually limitless supply of mini-DVDs and told
them to "go out and start shooting things." They spent nine
months practically living with three subjects - young men of
different ethnicities - watching them record music, look for
jobs, play with guns and sell drugs. In return, their footage
aired on national television, in a documentary called
Lost in the Struggle.
stares out the window of a Tim Hortons at the corner of Jane and
Finch. He sips his double-double coffee and watches the rain hit
the parking lot of a discount grocery store. "See that girl over
there?" Simms turns and asks. "You recognize her? She was in the
documentary." The girl, walking with a doughnut in her hand, had
bought drugs from one of the subjects in the film.
"Excellent documentary, man!" someone interrupts,
slapping Simms's back as he walks past him in the cramped coffee
shop. Simms turns and shakes the man's hand.
"Thanks," he says, smiling.
says most people are happy with the documentary. "A few people
are not okay with it," he adds. "It showed the area in a negative
way. But it also showed reality." He says it took time for many
residents to accept the portrayal.
have tried for years to gain access to people in communities such
as Jane-Finch, with little or no success. Toronto Sun
crime reporter Rob Lamberti approached members of
gangs, including Bloods and Crips, but never got further than a
brief conversation. "It usually ends with a seven-letter word
with a hyphen in the middle of it," he says. "You've got to learn
how to take that. It's just the price of doing
Lamberti received his first death
threat about 20 years ago after covering a spree of gang violence
in the city. He gave the letter to police, who treated it
seriously but didn't find the source. "I'd still love to sit down
with these people, spend a day or two with them and just be the
observer," he says in a grizzled voice. But he understands that
acceptance isn't earned in a day. "People on the street think you
have no time for them, that you're going to write the story and
then disappear into the woodwork - which is a fair criticism
because, ultimately, that's what happens."
a warm autumn afternoon in
outside a small brick community centre, a group of young men sit
around a wading pool. There are rows of small houses behind them
and, in the distance, luxury downtown towers. I approach them,
holding a notepad in my hand.
walking," says a boy in a black hoodie and baggy jeans. I tell
him I'm writing a story and want to talk about the media. Someone
in a leather jacket asks if I have any smokes. Eventually they
start speaking to me.
"What do you think about
journalists?" I ask.
"I don't like them," the
boy in the hoodie says bluntly. "Both them and cops. They come
down here for one day and they think they know us. They think
everyone's a fucking gangster."
As I take
notes, a heavy young man walks behind me. He reads the scribbles
over my shoulder while talking to someone on a cellphone. When I
ask for their names, the looks on their faces tell me the answer.
"We're done here," says the young man in front of the
as in many of
marginalized communities, it's easy to notice the negatives. The
first thing I see as I head to an interview is a mother with long
hoop earrings pushing a stroller and swearing at her toddlers.
Farther away, there are men in ill-fitting denim lingering
outside a storefront and sucking on cigarette butts. What I don't
hip-see are the mothers who line up at 6 and 7 a.m. in front of
bus stops on their way to work; the community volunteers who take
kids on after-school trips and teach reading workshops; the
students who make their way to school each day, returning home a
few hours later to do their homework.
a broken cement sidewalk to
School, just east of
Inside, teacher Elizabeth Schaeffer passes out newspapers to
Grade 7 and 8 students. She asks them to cut out articles about
young people. Last time Schaeffer taught this lesson, she asked
students to bring their own newspapers. They brought in copies of
Metro and 24
Hours, free commuter dailies that
have little news copy. This time, she makes sure all the major
papers are available to snip. The clippings are sorted according
to sex, race and content and the results are glued to charts on
the walls of the classroom, giving students the opportunity to
visualize their findings. Schaeffer waits as confusion sets in on
the faces of the predominantly non-white students. One quickly
notices the differences among the clippings. On one side are
generally positive stories about white children and on the other,
stories of violence and criminality among black boys. Schaeffer
doesn't tell the students how to interpret their findings. "The
kids ask questions," she says. They come to their own conclusions
about the media. The exercise is designed to make students aware
of biases in news gathering and publishing. It's one of many
media literacy lessons that explore stereotypes, which are
becoming popular in
Mary Lynn Young, a journalism
professor at the
Columbia, stresses the
importance of context to her students. "How stories are told
matters," she writes in Media magazine. Young
says history, cause, consequence and scope are four of the most
important things journalists can bring to a story. Schaeffer
agrees. If more context were provided in the stories that the
students cut out, she says, readers would probably be less
inclined to condemn these kids.
and context are often overlooked by journalists.
Before he began covering Jane-Finch in 2006,
Globe and Mail reporter Joe Friesen knew about
the area mostly through the news coverage he had read growing up
"You hear rumours that it's an American-style ghetto, but then
you get there and you see it's nothing like that."
After the Second World War, Jane-Finch was still mainly
farmland owned by European settlers. Then, in the late 1960s,
apartment complexes and townhouses began appearing to meet the
needs of the many low-income families arriving in
But schools, transportation and other social services took
decades to catch up to the population boom. Today, concrete
high-rises and payday loan offices dominate the neighbourhood's
landscape and the nearest subway station is two bus rides away
from the corner of Jane and Finch.
quickly realized that there were many community stories not being
told. But convincing his editors to let him work the beat was
easier than getting people to open up. That would take extra time
and effort. He soon found himself in front of half a dozen
community leaders gathered in a committee room at 10 San
Romanoway, an apartment complex at the heart of Jane-Finch. The
group, composed of school board trustee Stephnie Payne and local
minister Barry Rieder, among others, wanted to know why Friesen
should be accepted into the neighbourhood. After explaining his
intentions, Friesen earned an honourary probation
Based out of a temporary office in San
Romanoway, Friesen wrote about successful school programs,
community initiatives and individuals. "'Jane-Finch' has become a
catchall phrase that suggests poverty, gangs and racial
division," the 29-year-old reporter wrote in the introduction to
his series, "but less is told about ordinary life here." One
resident, who had fled violence in
Leone, was teaching
a community program aimed at driving black youths away from gangs
and toward academic success. Another person was trying to break
the cycle of poverty by giving low-income women free daycare and
career planning so they could go back to school. Friesen even
wrote about the clothes young people wore - how dressing like
hip-hop stars didn't mean they were robbing anyone. "A lot of
people were surprised the paper would do this," says Friesen, now
"A national newspaper is unlikely to go around writing positive
news about any community."
Friesen says the
five months he spent as a journalist in Jane-Finch was an
investment that paid off for him as well as for the
neighbourhood. He captured the vibrancy of the community, but
also showed things as they were. "I wanted to be clear with
people that I was a journalist. I'm not on their side. I'm
independent." Once a few of his stories ran - some positive and
some negative - he says residents understood where he fit in.
Most felt he was fair, although one kid, says Friesen, referred
to him as "the cop."
The "cop" accusation
might seem unfair, but a lot of the time journalists do act like
police - they come only when there's trouble. Journalists usually
don't have time to do any community building, a constraint that
makes sociologist Rinaldo Walcott skeptical of all news media.
The author of Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada
points out that the people covering marginalized areas
usually have no connection to them. "Journalists are often
deployed into communities they don't live in, that they have no
relationship to," says the
professor, who argues that there should be more community
reporters. "We get stories of the rich, white and wealthy when
they're having their parties," Walcott says. "The same thing
needs to be extended to our working-class communities. If we can
find the energy and skill to write about how Conrad Black may or
may not be applying for Canadian citizenship, why can't we do the
same about the life of an 'ordinary' Canadian?"
Walcott argues that blood and guts remain the focus even
when the story is innocuous. "For instance," he says, "when they
do a story on the annual picnic, they say the people here need
the picnic because this is a crime-ridden neighbourhood, so crime
still dominates the story. I can understand why some people in
the communities respond the way they do - who wants to hear only
bad things about themselves all the time?"
Fred Kuntz, the Star's
editor-in-chief, says he understands Walcott's view but hesitates
to condemn his newspaper for covering major crime stories. "It's
easy to blame the messenger," he says. "That being said, I think
we can always do a better job. This is not utopian, it's not
perfection." In any case, having one community reporter in each
of the hundreds of neighbourhoods in
is not financially feasible. "I'm sympathetic to the underlying
sentiment," Kuntz says, "but I'd like to think that smart crime
reporters get to the root causes of crime too."
No one could accuse CityTV's Dwight Drummond of being
another judgmental outsider who parachutes into Jane-Finch when
crimes occur. He says he's happy to bring a local perspective to
the area he grew up in. He began working at chum Ltd. as a
security person while in university, coming in during
Electric Circus, a Friday night dance show.
"I've worked as a floor director, cameraman, assignment editor,
videographer… I can keep going," says the 39-year-old reporter
with his characteristic grin. One of the more infamous stories
he's covered was the trial of Craig Patrick for the murder of
three-year-old Brianna Davy in 1999. Drummond was scribbling in a
notepad inside the courtroom when Justice Eugene Ewaschuk read
out the address of the accused - 10Turf Grassway,
204, in Jane-Finch. "That was my apartment!"
thought Drummond, who had grown up in that very unit with his
"It's weird being that close to it,"
says the reporter. Drummond hears things in local shops and over
drinks with friends that most reporters don't. And while he
admits that crime reporting can be a pretty negative thing, he's
confident that other journalists in his newsroom balance the
coverage with more positive stories. "I'm speaking at a charity
organization next week," he says. "I'm sure someone from City
will cover it."
A Jamaican immigrant, Drummond
grew up in the Jane-Finch corridor. He remembers going to the
Ontario Science Centre as a student and realizing the effect news
had on people. When chaperones from other schools heard where
Drummond and his classmates had come from, they started "grabbing
kids and running like we had the cooties or something." That's
when he started thinking about covering news himself.
As for the next generation in Jane-Finch, Nguyen and
Simms look up to Drummond. They say he's not necessarily a better
reporter than the rest, but they trust that he won't
sensationalize the story. "He's around, sometimes with a camera
and sometimes just to hang out," Nguyen says. "Others just want
to do their story and get out of here."