News feeds pigeonhole Black life

By Pat Watson Wednesday March 13 2013 in Opinion
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The day before Family Day 2013 was 15-year-old Jarvis Montaque’s last. The reports are that Jarvis had 10 sisters, so with such a large family, Family Day would have had some meaning for him. For them, Family Day will never be the same.


As is the case when there are terrible fatal occurrences, news media repeated at regular intervals, all day long on Family Day, reports of this Black youth’s death by gunshot in Rexdale at the hand of an as yet unknown person.


But there is something else: The way the death of Jarvis Montaque was contextualized in the news. If you were watching CP24 News on Family Day, you might have noticed it. Every time the report of Montaque’s death ran, it was immediately followed by one showing happy, squealing White children frolicking on snow-covered hills and enjoying time with their families. Good, clean fun.


How many of us pay attention to this kind of implicit and particularly grating contrast in Black and White? The narrative that the juxtaposition of these kinds of reports implies is the way of life of one kind of people in Canadian society and, with the repetition of one narrow storyline, the way of life of another kind of people.


If you are a Black child paying attention to the news, who would you rather see yourself as? And whom would you reject?


There is no let-up in the news media’s narrow portrayal of the lives of Black people. News media are prone to telling stories of death first, and reflexively tell stories about Black people who are murdered, because it already fits a narrative that is entrenched. News mobiles are far more likely to roam around Regent Park listening to a police scanner, for example, than to ride around Rosedale.


There is a strategy in storytelling of this kind, which is to find an incident to fit the narrative that is already set, then fill in the blanks. So it looks like this: Another Black youth killed by gunfire, assailant unknown. Or this: Happy family activities on Family Day.


But what if, instead of the ski hills of Earl Bales Park, reporters had been assigned to a local Black church to report on how members were spending Family Day? And what if the go-to crime story for the day was about the early Saturday morning shooting that same weekend on the Gardiner Expressway, between Spadina Avenue and Dan Leckie Way that hit homes in the vicinity?


There have been suggestions about how to address the issue of the fixed Black negative nurtured by the mainstream media. There is the idea that more persons of colour should get into journalism, in that way our stories can be told from our point of view. But how many Black assignment editors and producers are there in the newsrooms of the mainstream media establishments? And having been trained to go after the most sensational stuff first in order to sell papers or to bring more eyes to the television screen, what will be any such assignment editors’ choices – if they even exist in Toronto?


And when persons of colour get jobs in front of the camera, what say do they have in the way a story is covered? For, the observed evidence is that they are complicit in repeating the narrative of Black violence.


What stories are they even telling themselves about Black people?


Some people of colour, once they find their way into the mainstream feel they have to go along to get along, caught in a coercive imperative to keep pushing the narrative because of the power position of White-centric newsroom decision-makers.


While we wait for a critical mass of Black journalists in the mainstream dedicated to fighting for the inclusion of the range of stories authentically reflective of the various Black communities, the rest of us must stay alert to the skewed perspective of the stories other people tell about us in print and tele-media and make it a mission to respond to these reports until the decision-makers re-adjust their lens.


A note on sense out if nonsense…


Leaving aside the she-said-he-said piece of lowbrow drama involving the serious allegation by former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson that Rob Ford – Mayor of Toronto – groped her backside, the real nugget from this distasteful episode is that members of the Jewish community hold an annual meet and greet between local politicians and young up-and-comers in their community. Black communities need to adopt that strategy.


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