Marching to the police beat

The media coverage of the Toronto Police during the G20 may have tarnished their image. Last week, they may have gained it back after the funeral for an officer. But some call the funeral coverage excessive, befitting royalty or heads of state, and wonder if there was a link between the two. Story and photos by Dana Lacey.
Journos wander Sgt. Russell's funeral. Photo by Dana Lacey.
Journos wander Sgt. Russell’s funeral. Photo by Dana Lacey.

Something’s afoot in the city of Toronto. In just a matter of days, there’s been a sudden and major shift in how Hogtown’s media frames the police. And viewers, listeners and readers are finding it hard to keep up.

For two days in June, Toronto’s downtown core swarmed with police officers for the G20 summit. Journalists complained of assault, broken gear and illegal arrests.

Six months later, the Toronto Star reported on the first police officer to be charged with G20-related assault. The charge was the direct result of a Star story, published just a week earlier that revealed new-found footage of a police pile-on.

Just two weeks later, the Star reported a similar story that suggested newly-revealed photos could identify officers in a separate alleged police assault for which the investigation had already been closed.

Both stories were widely retold by other media.

Only four days later the media’s mood swung the other way. On January 18, between 13,000-14,500 police officers descended on downtown Toronto for the public funeral of an officer killed on duty the week before. Sgt. Ryan Russell’s January 12 death was allegedly caused by the driver of a stolen snowplow. The commemoration of his life by thousands of police officers attending the funeral in one of the world’s largest arenas, seemed like a maudlin, made-for-tv (and other media) story.
A cameraman waits for something to happen. By Dana Lacey.
A broadcast journalist waits for something to happen. Photo by Dana Lacey.

The coverage

Journalists began camping out at the Metro Convention Centre at 8 am on the day of the funeral — enough time for at least one reporter to count every stuffed animal and flowered wreath on display.

The advancer stories in the newspapers signaled this was going to be big, an event that Toronto newspaper's Russell coveragewould tie up traffic in downtown Toronto. All of Toronto’s national broadcasters pre-empted their soaps and all-news programming to coverage of the funeral. CTV Toronto, CP24 and CTV News Channel all ran live coverage (nationally, in CTV News’ case), as did CBC. Global Toronto, for instance, put two anchors and four reporters on the story, who were joined by an army of print, broadcast and online journalists from other outlets who provided live blogs, tweets, ample pro photography, interviews with police officers and mourners. Russell was declared a hero and Toronto, a city in mourning.

Toronto Star and National Post the day after Russell's funeral. The coverage spilled over to the next day’s papers: all of Toronto’s dailies dedicated their front pages to Russell’s funeral. The Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post and Metro all ran photos of Russell’s two-year-old son Nolan, by Canadian Press photographer Nathan Denette. The Toronto Sun ran a close-up of the police ranks over the headline “Farewell to a hero.” Inside, both the Star and Sun devoted seven pages to Russell stories and photos. The Post ran three, the Globe two, Metro one.

In a time when most newsrooms are pinching their budgets, a lot of journalistic resources were spent on this story. Why this story? What factors made news producers think, we have to play this BIG? Why did editors decide, “We have to play this live”?
Sgt. Russell's funeral procession. By Dana Lacey
Cops await their cue at the intersection of Queen and University Sts. Photo by Dana Lacey.

How to become news

Because of the subjective nature of news, there aren’t any checklists to consult when determining what makes an event newsworthy. It’s not a perfect science, and many journalists will tell you they simply rely on gut instinct.

Plenty of academics have tried to pinpoint the formula. Scandinavian Researcher Ida Schultz tackled the “it’s instinct” assumption in her 2007 paper “The Journalistic Gut Feeling,” which nailed down five criteria that attract editors to a story: timeliness, conflict, relevance (how many people does it affect, and does the audience want to know?), identification (how close, geographically, culturally or socially, an audience is to an event), and sensation (the sell factor: think man bites dog). And it’s probably safe to add audience demand to the list.

CBC spokesman Jeff Keay explained the public broadcaster’s criteria for deciding when to play a story big (CBC carried it nationally, for at least 4 hours, on the all news networks).

“This was a story in which new elements were surfacing daily, even hourly. We brought that story to our audiences as quickly and professionally as we could, as any good news organization would. To a lesser degree, the prominence of this story is also influenced by what else is happening that particular day, i.e., if it’s a relatively slow news day, we would tend to focus more closely on the big stories.”

So: Sgt Russell’s funeral became a sensation; the vilified bad guy versus the duty cop signaled conflict; a graceful widow and a cherub-cheeked, fatherless toddler, along with other family, friends, and co-workers allowed others an identification While the ceremony was  moving there was little unexpected (a 30-officer logistics team worked six 14-hour days to plan the event). However, it was the funeral of a hero, and therefore, the city’s media ran it big. Princess Di big.
Sgt. Russell's funeral procession. Photo by Dana Lacey
Four horsemen led Sgt. Russell’s hearse to the ceremony. Photo by Dana Lacey.

“Once the first news org jumped on board, it became more difficult for
the others not to follow,” says April Lindgren, an assistant professor
at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. “You don’t want to be the
managing editor responsible for explaining why you only ran one or two
stories.” Reluctance was interpreted as disrespect, she says, which is
the last thing the media wants to portray since they rely on police for
day-to-day reporting and investigative journalism alike.

The funeral and the coverage is in sharp contrast to that, for instance, of the murder of four Albertan RCMP officers gunned down on duty six years ago in Mayerthorpe. In a press release, Cpl. Gord Bedingfield had called for privacy: “To protect the dignity of the occasion, I request that members of the media refrain from interviewing police personnel, other than myself, during this difficult time” The memorial service was private, followed by a national memorial which the CBC broadcast live for an hour and a half.

Or, go back nine years, to the last time a Toronto cop died on duty. Thirty-one-year-old Constable Laura Ellis had just returned from maternity leave when she was killed in a car crash. Between 3,000-5,000 people attended her funeral in a church in small town Pickering, Ontario. There was no live broadcast, and most of the newspaper reporters described the funeral in accounts of under 500 words.

The coverage of Sgt Russell’s funeral struck one former television producer as “more than a little excessive.” Howard Bernstein, a former CBC, CTV and Global producer, wrote on his blog that he’s only seen a death get this level of media treatment twice before: President Kennedy’s assassination and Princess Diana’s car crash. He argues that even Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s funeral got less coverage, as do the soliders who die in Afghanistan.

Globe columnist Marcus Gee wrote that, initially, he approached the story of the funeral with skepticism. But, he soon reconsidered his doubts about the event. “In the end,” he wrote, “we witnessed a remarkable and important moment in the life of the city – a rare chance to reflect on the meaning of public service and to repair the tattered bond between the public and those who ‘serve and protect.’”

The ceremony also swept the Star‘s Rosie DiManno away.  “As the hearse approached its destination, the canine unit’s German Shepherds began to whimper, even softly howling, as if sensing the anguish of a city that rarely pauses to reflect,” she wrote.
Sgt. Russell's funeral. photo by Dana Lacey
This guy’s job was to discourage people from crossing the street. Photo by Dana Lacey.

Readers respond

While sometimes-cynical reporters were awash in emotion, some of their readers and audience outside were struggling and even confused by the media coverage. The CBC’s live blog rapidly received over 300 comments. While some posted respectful notes, “RIP Sgt. Russell,” others questioned the coverage with comments such as “The media is making too big a deal out of this,” and “Enough already!” and “I resent the media feasting on this man’s death.” Someone argued that the “CBC should have their budget reviewed.” Several people pointed out that other occupations, such as garbage collecting and construction, were more dangerous than police work, and that plenty of people die without a similar public farewell.

“I have family that have died serving this country,” a commenter named Jester wrote. “Did they get their funerals on the news live on CBC and CTV? No they did not!!!”

A commenter named Agent13 summed up the general sentiment of audience disconnect: “It’s a tragedy, but come on, CTV was even running promotional teasers for the funeral coverage last night — it was sickening, and only exploiting the senseless death of a police officer.” 

Young bystanders record the funeral on their cellphones. Photo by Dana Lacey
Two kids get a better view atop mail boxes. Photo by Dana Lacey.

For Howard Bernstein, the volume of coverage signaled more than an opportunity for ordinary people to share their grieving, as well as demonstrate respect for Sgt Russell. He wrote that it seemed like a change in the narrative for those guardians of public safety.

“For at least a week and who knows how long into the future, the story of the Toronto Police has changed. It’s no longer about police brutality and excessiveness, forgotten are the cops who removed their name tags and stormed innocent protesters. Now the story is about the brave men and women who put their life on the line for us, the citizens, every day.”

The notion that the funeral as spectacle was a “a political smokescreen to offset negative attention from the G20 policing debacle” or as a way for the media to make amends after the coverage, caused one Toronto Sun editor to howl. The Sun received much negative reader feedback about so many police officers showing up, the expense, and for the officer receiving hero treatment for a job he is paid to do.

For the “blanket coverage”, editorial page editor Rob Granatstein explained, “yes…(a) phenomenal amount. Live on TV and the web, pages of newspaper content, blogs, tweets, photo galleries. That’s because it was an enormous news story. No one was forced to watch. If the coverage offended you, well, the Cartoon Network is always there to enrich your brain.”
Photographer joins the parade. Photo by Dana Lacey
A photographer walks along with the prosession. Photo by Dana Lacey.

One freelance journalist says while he found the images of Sgt Russell’s son arresting, he tried to avoid reading most of the coverage, “not out of callousness, but respect,” Mike Smith wrote for OpenFile. “A family’s private, unknowable pain over a heart-rending loss is about a man’s death,” Smith wrote. “The gluttonous reportage was about something else.”

“This was a news story shaped by police, who made it possible to cover from end to end,” April Lindgren says. “And police are extremely unforgiving of journalists they take offense to.” As result, journalists found themselves backed into a corner.

If Torontonians are confused about how to react to a story that was covered with the same manic obsessiveness as the Tucson shooting in the U.S., if they’re unnerved by the return of a giant police presence, perhaps journalists should be addressing those issues.

The Toronto police have long been masters at controlling the message, Lindgren says. During the G20, they lost control of it. Now they have at it back. “The police were immensely successful at changing the story for the past few days.” But already another G20 assault story has popped up.

So maybe this version of the story is only temporary.