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Parachutes Not Recommended in Canada's Poorest Community

Six pointers for Olympics news media covering Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

By Garrett Zehr 18 May 2009 |

Garrett Zehr reports for The Tyee.

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Smudge ceremony in the Downtown Eastside, Coast Salish Territory. Photo by The Blackbird.

Next February, more than 10,000 journalists will converge on Vancouver to cover the 2010 Olympics -- and dissect the Olympic host city.

USA Today provided a sneak peak of what's to come with an article in mid-March describing Vancouver as a "supermodel" of North American cities.

"Canada's stunning glass city is ready for its close-up as host of the next Olympics," raved the newspaper.

At some point, however, many journalists will discover that only a dozen blocks from the Olympic Main Media Centre is the corner of Main and Hastings, the centre of what headlines often describe as "Canada's poorest postal code."

Both the Globe and Mail and The Province have recently run sizeable series devoted to the Downtown Eastside, which have garnered some praise from people of the neighbourhood, but also criticism for failing to portray their lives, and the local culture, in a complex and nuanced light.

At its worst, media coverage of poverty is exploitive, said Jean Swanson, anti-poverty activist and author of Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion. She calls it "poornography."

"[It's] when poor people are treated as objects to readers by the media," she told The Tyee. Such reporting further marginalizes and demeans the people and the issue being covered.

The Tyee spoke with a number of residents of the Downtown Eastside, journalists who have covered the neighbourhood, and academics who study power relationships between news media and those who fall under its scrutiny.

The result is this clip-and-save guide for members of news media local and global. Think of the six guidelines below as something to refer to now and then if you happen to be assigned to provide a "quick look" at "Canada's poorest postal code."

1. First, do no harm

One of the techniques most often drilled in journalism school is to find a human face to tell your story.

It's important that reporters talk to residents of the DTES and listen to what they have to say about their community. They are the first-hand experts of what is going on.

But there is always the risk of causing harm when telling other people's stories, especially when the sources are already marginalized and vulnerable.

"So many reporters don't really have that awareness of how they can affect people's lives," said Bob Sarti, a former 30-year veteran reporter with the Vancouver Sun who spent many years covering the DTES.

Journalists must be sensitive and ensure their sources understand the implications of sharing their stories, he said.

The nature of journalism requires that reporters be selective in what ends up in their final product. But people's lives are complex and journalists should avoid only representing the difficult times experienced by individuals and the larger community while choosing to ignore their broader story.

"It perpetuates a stereotype that makes it hard for people to get at the root of the problem," said Swanson.

2. Geography 101: Know thy boundaries

Much of the media coverage of the DTES is limited to the few city blocks where the concentrated effect of homelessness, addiction and mental illness is visible.

But the neighbourhood is much more than this -- both physically and in its demographics.

While the exact perimeter is debated, the approximate boundaries of the DTES as defined by the city of Vancouver and many community groups run from Clark Drive in the east to Cambie Street in the west -- from Prior Street in the south all the way to the waterfront in the north. (See this map.)

The diversity of residents living in this area is not reflected in the dominant coverage of homelessness, drugs and prostitution.

"The majority of people don't fit into that stereotype," said Wendy Pedersen, long-time DTES resident and community organizer with the neighbourhood's Carnegie Community Action Project.

Most of the residents living in the neighbourhood are low-income and face their own struggles, which rarely appear in the media, she said, adding "There are so many more positive things about the neighbourhood than negative."

She urges journalists to look within the community for many triumphs and successes.

3. It's the context, stupid

News coverage on social issues too often delivers answers to Who, What, Where and When but leaves out the Why.

"There is a lack of will to actually allow journalists to explore those questions beyond superficiality, in any form of complexity," said Carleton University journalism professor Lois Sweet, who teaches a course on social issues reporting.

Decisions in Ottawa, Victoria and Vancouver city hall have a real impact on the residents of the DTES.

Government policies on drug use, mental health, addiction, organized crime, and social housing are just some of the background that often gets ignored in coverage of the neighbourhood, said Sarti.

"There's no context, there's no history," he said.

This information is necessary if journalism it to serve its democratic function of providing people with the knowledge to be able to impact their communities.

Media consumers should be equipped to understand how the neighbourhood came to be what it is today and all the issues that must be examined to evaluate possibilities for change.

"A good journalist recognizes that these things are interconnected," said Sweet.

4. Poverty is more than a holiday story

As with most journalism, reporting on social issues often relies on news hooks to tell stories.

"It's an ebb and flow," according to Sweet. "They're cyclical in media coverage because they don't go away."

Recurring events such as Christmas holidays often bring stories about poverty and big events can sometimes attract the eye of the media.

"With the Olympics coming I think there is even more attention on this neighbourhood than ever before," said Sean Condon, editor of Megaphone magazine, a bi-weekly Vancouver newspaper that focuses on the DTES.

While this intermittent coverage by mainstream media is often welcome when it comes, the problem is it doesn't allow journalists the ability to get to know the neighbourhood, the people and the issues at play.

"It's the way daily journalism works," said Sarti. "Everybody is just parachuted in."

Megaphone, by contrast, is rooted in the community and so maintains and deepens its focus on the issues of the DTES. "It really does take a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent in the neighbourhood," said Condon.

Most media no longer provide the resources for journalists to develop these kinds of beats. But few deny that if publishers and editors allowed this to happen, it would only result in much better coverage of the neighbourhood.

"Spend some time getting to know the community," Swanson said. Her suggestions: Attend a resident's memorial service, spend time in the local Oppenheimer Park or go ballroom dancing at the DTES' Carnegie Community Centre.

5. Your reporting will have real-life implications

Reporters can't often control what happens with the information they provide but they should be aware of its effects. For example, only looking at the symptoms of issues and ignoring the causes can have detrimental results, leading to what Sweet calls "Band-Aid solutions."

One of the biggest debates about the DTES is the effects of introducing more market housing, especially condominiums.

"There is a push to gentrify," said Pedersen. Advocates of increased market housing say it could help solve many of the problems in the neighbourhood but Pedersen said there are not enough adequate safeguards in place to prevent the displacement of low-income residents.

How the news media covers this debate will influence decision-making by those in power. That's a responsibility a journalist must consider.

So how to be fair without being ignorant? What's a good guideline for developing a set of questions you seek to answer when reporting on the Downtown Eastside, or any other vulnerable community?

Sweet said the best way to approach many social issues is to start with the following basic question and then fill in the blanks to round out the answer: "What kind of country do you want to live in?"

6. Don't be pigeonholed

The DTES is an easy place to find in-your-face problems, but that doesn't mean it is an aberration. Mental illness, addictions and homelessness are prevalent elsewhere in Vancouver, across the province, and in rural and urban communities throughout Canada and the rest of the world.

Too much focus on the Downtown Eastside can mean similar issues elsewhere go uncovered. "Poverty in other neighbourhoods is invisible," said Condon, who this winter travelled to B.C.'s north to document homelessness there. "A lot of other marginalized people are being completely ignored by the media," said Condon.

The people interviewed for this story generally agree that there are journalists covering the Downtown Eastside who try to fairly tell its story, and some good coverage has resulted.

As the news media face cost crunches, however, it becomes more difficult for journalists to find the time and resources to do the kind of sensitive, in-depth reporting recommended here. Olympic reporters asked to "parachute in" on Canada’s poorest neighbourhood would be well advised to do a lot of research first, and push editors to allow more time and space to do the reporting.

"I think reporting on social issues, it really tests the mettle of a journalist," said Sweet.

"You really have to use everything you've been given -- all of your empathy and compassion and all your intelligence," she said. "But it's exciting journalism to do."

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