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Here’s the bad news… 

Editorial by Bruce Wark

In the fall of 2001, just after 9/11, the Daily News ran ads promoting Halifax police and the RCMP. The ads, co-sponsored by a big coffee chain, peddled trading cards with photos of police officers on them. Kids who collected all 24 cards could win “cool prizes.” Under the headline “To serve, protect and collect,” the ads urged parents to start their youngsters collecting “so they can get to know the good guys.” The ads were a clear sign that the paper was abandoning its role as a public watchdog and jumping into bed with police. News coverage at the Daily News was becoming fluffy and superficial, circulation was slipping and morale was sinking. Many of the paper’s best journalists ended up leaving. Now, thank god, the paper is quickly regaining its old reputation for lively, hard-hitting journalism. No wonder that the police chief is now unhappy with the coverage he gets—not just from the Daily News but “all the media.” Frank Beazley complained to city council last week that the media exaggerate violent crime, making Halifax seem unsafe. “I think that we all know that the media is in the business of selling papers and getting people to watch TV,” he said. “Trying to get the good news stories out is somewhat more difficult than some of the bad news stories,” he lamented.

Beazley seemed especially vexed that the media cite a Statistics Canada study called “Criminal Victimization in Canada, 2004.” StatsCan surveyed people in 17 cities and found that Haligonians reported the highest rate of violent incidents. The study found that young people, including students, are particularly vulnerable to violent crime. Last April, as I worked on a Coast crime feature, I asked Beazley for his reaction to the survey. “Obviously, I was very disappointed when I read it,” he said, adding that Halifax has historically been among the top five or six most violent cities. “But no one wants to be number one, especially for things like this.” He acknowledged that violent crime rates had increased over the last couple of years. “The StatsCan report, though disappointing, did not surprise me.”

Since then, the steady barrage of news stories about violent crime has forced politicians at all three levels of government to do something. Regional council has given chief Beazley money to hire more officers and to renew his department’s commitment to community policing, including putting more cops on bicycle and foot patrols. Mayor Kelly is planning a three-day public forum this spring to discuss how to make the city safer. It will likely hear that crime puts down its deepest roots where there is poverty, racism, drug abuse, lack of education and poor recreation.

Thanks to sustained media coverage, provincial politicians are also paying attention. A measure called the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act took effect this month. Under the new law, citizen complaints can lead to court orders closing places where there’s prostitution, gambling, the sale of illegal drugs or bootleg liquor. Punitive laws like that won’t likely help much, but the province has also set up a 25-member task force to examine the root causes of crime and what to do about them. Meanwhile, the federal government is giving Saint Mary’s University nearly $343,000 to work with children from poor neighbourhoods as one way of preventing crime.

With the politicians finally doing something, it’s too bad chief Beazley feels journalists are exploiting crime to sell papers or boost ratings. The media exist not to parrot the chief’s “good news stories” but to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire by telling people what’s really going on. As far as violent crime is concerned, that’s what the Halifax media have been doing and the Daily News coverage has been among the best. Considering what the paper has been through over the last few years, I’d say that’s really good news.

Impressed—or distressed—by violent crime coverage? Email: brucew@thecoast.ca

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Vol 25, No 17
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