The end of silly season

While most of us lament the end of summer, writes Lisa Taylor, there is one thing to cheer: the end of silly season in news. An examination of how endless sunny days + slow news + journalist = lapse in critical thinking.

While most of us lament the end of summer, writes Lisa Taylor, there is one thing to cheer: the end of silly season in news. An examination of how endless sunny days + slow news + journalist = lapse in critical thinking.

“It's Friday, it's August and it's sunny,” my friend, CBC Halifax producer Christina Harnett lamented on Facebook recently. “Guess how many people are calling me back on stories?”  

Hang on a bit longer if you can, Christina.  Soon, legislatures will resume sitting, voting-seeking politicians will ramp up their door-to-door campaigns, and PR people will once again answer their mobile phones–even on Fridays.

Yes, silly season is drawing to a close.  

Are the virtually news-free months from June ‘til August still known as silly season in today’s newsrooms?  Whether or not the label is still in vogue, the challenge of the slow news season has been clearly apparent in Toronto’s daily journalism.  Now, I’m not suggesting that the story options are necessarily better anywhere else in Canada during the summer; rather, it’s just that the Toronto market is the one I’m most familiar with.

The main problem with silly season is, first and foremost, a dearth of stories.  But the paucity of news is only part of the problem–it’s what happens when reporters latch onto a story and try to flog it for a second or (God forbid) even a third day.  

For starters, consider the type of story that often garners the full silly season extended dance mix treatment: it’s often, but not always, a random act of violence or recklessness.  It’s a story that leaves people shaking their heads and muttering about how there “oughtta be a law,” or how we have a problem in need of a “crackdown.”  And THAT’S the cue for the official opportunists to weigh in.  

That’s what happened when a man who cleans windshields and panhandles in downtown Toronto was charged with assault earlier this summer after he allegedly bashed a driver in the head with his squeegee. Police promptly arrested the “sqeegee kid” (who is, in fact, 23 years old) and charged him with assault with a weapon.

It was an ugly incident, one of those crimes that was widely denounced (duh), and it got a lot of traction as Toronto’s “the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket” example du jour.

So it’s no surprise a municipal politician opted to tap into the disapproval of the masses.  An accommodating media was quick to breathlessly report that Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said it was “unacceptable” that a commuter ended up beaten and bloodied on an otherwise fine Toronto day.  “We’re in discussions with the mayor’s office on how we’re going to proceed with this,” Holyday told the media.  

Oh, how I love that ol’ political chestnut.  It’s the little black dress of politi-speak, perfect for every occasion, particularly when that occasion is a scrum.  It says everything, yet nothing at all.
But Holyday didn’t stop there–he had more meaningless political rhetoric at the ready.  “We’re going to have to set a strategy in place to get the province to give us some support and help and stop this from happening here in Toronto.”

Roughly translated, “We’re going to have to get a strategy in place” means “we need a plan.”  And, of course, the deputy mayor doesn’t elaborate on the type of “support” the city needs from the province,

Holyday didn’t offer any specifics, because that would be, well…substance.  And once there’s some hint of a plan, a timeline, etc., there’s then a chance (however slim) the deputy mayor might be held accountable in some minor way.  Some intrepid journo might actually diarize the deputy mayor’s comments and follow up with him.  And we might ultimately learn whether Holyday was a politician able to give effect to his “there oughta be a law” rhetoric, or whether the the media coverage of that rhetoric was in fact the end result.

I’m not suggesting the deputy mayor’s bluster should be ignored.  It just needs to be carefully interrogated with questions such as:  What kind of strategy? How might your strategy differ from the Safe Streets Act?  What leads you to conclude that the Criminal Code provisions regarding assault are insufficient in this case? When will you ask the province for “support and help”?  How will you define success or failure in relation to this problem?  When can I follow up with you to check on the progress of this issue that is clearly of great concern to you?

We saw a similar bit of grandstanding (and a corresponding lack of insightful questioning from the pack) after a woman was critically injured while legally crossing a Toronto street (in a crosswalk, after waiting for the “walk” light).  She was slammed by a cyclist who ran a red light while going the wrong way on a one-way street.

In a city where pedestrians, drivers and cyclists are natural enemies, this was reported as big news.  And that’s when things got, well, if not downright stupid, at least silly.
First, there were the calls for tougher rules from the predictable law-and-order types, all of whom ought to know that getting press by calling for tougher laws is low-hanging fruit, to be certain.  (But who can blame them?  It apparently works like a charm.)

Next the Toronto Police Service, also anxious to capitalize on the media buzz, dispatched officers to busy intersections to “crack down” on unlawful cyclists. Evening newscasts featured visuals of police ticketing wayward cyclists.  When policing is not only done but also seen to be done–well, that’s a law enforcement PR coup.

What was missing in the photo op coverage, however, was accountability from the police department.  “After yesterday’s collision, the head of the police traffic section dispatched officers to busy downtown intersections, looking for cyclists making illegal moves,” one CBC reporter explained in voice-over.  This information was immediately followed by a clip from a Toronto Police staff sergeant, who stated that “There’s going to be more education and more enforcement relating to these issues in the coming days.”
The fact that education and enforcement follows a single collision (a dire one, to be certain, but one incident nonetheless) left me with some nagging questions–questions that weren’t answered in any of the coverage that I consumed.

Let me explain by setting out two possible scenarios:

(1) the police had information prior to the collision that led them to believe that this type of reckless cycling was common enough to present a significant public safety issue, yet inexplicably waited until after someone was seriously hurt to institute a “crackdown”; or

(2) the police didn’t have information to support the contention that this is a widespread problem, yet still chose to devote limited policing resources to a problem that may have been a one-off.

One of these scenarios is likely true, yet none of the coverage I consumed included an interrogation of whether the police response was too late, or too great.

I’d also suggest the police fudged a little when they claimed there was nothing more they could do other than to issue the cyclist a $400 ticket.  There were other charge options available in the Criminal Code, e.g. criminal negligence, assault causing bodily harm; however, I expect police concluded they wouldn't ultimately be successful in court.  That’s because, in order to successfully prosecute such a charge, the Crown would have to prove that the cyclist rode in a manner that constituted a significant departure from reasonable behaviour.  
A reasonably well-informed journalist should have been able to ask the police "Why not charge the cyclist with criminal negligence, or causing bodily harm?"  Then the police would be put in a position of explaining why the facts of the incident wouldn't support such a charge.  But it seems like all media just took the police at their word.  And neither police nor reporters bothered to inform the public of the fact that, in court, the seriousness of the woman’s injuries wouldn't be relevant–an act is either negligent or it isn't, and the effect of the alleged negligence does not have any impact on that finding.
At the risk of sounding harsh, I’d like to apply the same rationale to the police effort that followed the collision: the extent of the woman’s injuries shouldn’t be relevant when determining the appropriate police response.  I’m also going to suggest that, if I’d called the police the day before the woman was struck and told them I was almost run down by a reckless cyclist, or even that I was struck but suffered nothing more than a scratch, my anecdotal information wouldn’t lead to such a public show of force by police.

Individual stories of accident and injury should rarely be sufficient to justify a change in how a community is policed on a given day, regardless of the extent to which a random tragedy engages audiences.  Such decisions need to be made in a principled fashion and, whenever possible, based on data, rather than catering to the water cooler outrage of the day.  And, when one compelling example does change the way laws are enforced, journalists need to ask tough questions about the merits of such decisions.

There’s so much to miss once summer draws to a close–sandals, shorts and icy cold beer on a patio, just to name a few.  But I won’t lament the close of silly season, nor the apparent lapses in journalists’ critical thinking that is part of it.

Lisa Taylor is journalism instructor at Ryerson University. You can read more from her and about her on her blog, Are you Listening?