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Real City Matters

Join us Tuesday night for a discussion about municipal ethics in Toronto

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politics

Community Group Challenges Toronto’s Star‘s Reporting About “Somali Drug Dealers”

Canadian Somali Congress argues paper focused unduly on nationality in its reporting of Rob Ford's alleged crack smoking.

rob ford somali drug dealer

Members of the Canadian Somali Congress have condemned the Toronto Star for repeated references to “Somali drug dealers” in its initial story about mayor Rob Ford’s alleged drug use. The Star‘s first article on the subject originally used the description “Somali” 10 separate times to refer to the men who apparently were involved with Ford in this case [PDF]. There seems to have been second thoughts among Star editors about this: even before CSC president Ahmed Hussen contacted the publication they edited the article, which now contains five uses of the word [PDF].

Hussen says the repeated use of an ethnic identifier is both unnecessary and damaging to the Somali community.

“This description is not relevant to anything,” Hussen told us by telephone on Monday. He points to the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics guidelines, which states that members “avoid stereotypes of race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, or social status,” particularly regarding crime stories. “I think the Star made a huge mistake, and now our communities have to suffer the stigma,” Hussen said. “Ethnicity has nothing to do with individual acts.”

Hussen says that after the article appeared he mobilized his membership to file complaints with the Star, and eventually spoke with editor Michael Cooke. “We got a good response from Cooke,” Hussen said, and added that the editor assured him the term “Somali” would not be employed in similar fashion in future stories on the issue. We called Cooke to confirm this, but he did not respond to our request for comment.

Star reporter Robyn Doolittle, who co-authored the article with investigative journalist Kevin Donovan, stands by her descriptions. “I think it’s material to the story,” Doolittle told us during an interview at City Hall. “If you accuse the mayor of smoking crack, you have to provide as much detail as possible.” Doolittle declined to directly address the relevance or frequency of the “Somali” identifier, and referred us to the Star‘s public editor Kathy English. (We had received no reply from English at press time.)

Susan Eng, a former Toronto Police Services Board chair and longtime activist regarding media equity, says the references to ethnicity are irrelevant, because even the Star is protecting the identity of the men in question—in contrast to something like a police search, the goal isn’t to provide a physical description so the public can help locate the individuals. Star reporters “are not suggesting that anyone should go and find these people, and unless that’s your motivation as a reporter, you have no reason to use this language,” Eng told us by phone. She added that journalists often become defensive when they are told their descriptions might stereotype specific communities. “You don’t have to be a racist to make this kind of mistake,” she points out.

U.S. website Gawker, which broke the story about the allegations, made no references in its story to the ethnicity of the individuals who claim they dealt crack cocaine to Ford. Outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian have similarly reported on the issue without describing the ethnicity of the presumed dealers.

CSC communications director Ebyan Farah, who we also spoke with on Monday, emphasizes that Somalis in Toronto are Canadians first, and must not be held responsible for the drug dealers’ alleged conduct. “It’s the responsibility of the police to find them,” Farah said. “The job of the community is to educated our boys not to go down the wrong path—but a criminal is a criminal.”

UPDATE, 3:14 PM: A few hours after publication we received an e-mail from Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star. She wrote that in her view some reference to the men’s background was appropriate: “I think it was relevant to provide as much information as possible about who these people are.” However, English continued, she also understands the concerns that have been raised about how often the description was repeated. “I think the Star did overdo this in writing the deadline story (some of this was a result of team writing and editing).” She also added that reporters and editors have scaled back in this regard in subsequent stories on the subject.

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