Star series highlights advances in CAR

What a difference eight years make.

When the Toronto Star published its first “Race and Crime” series in 2002, the reaction from the police was instant, and unpleasant. Lead reporter Jim Rankin was accused of using “junk science” in his monumental expose on racial profiling by Toronto police officers. The paper faced an ultimately unsuccessful $2.7 billion dollar lawsuit by the police association.

Based on analysis of an enormous arrest database, the series showed that police were far more likely to hold blacks overnight in jail and stop them for “out-of-sight” motor vehicle offences, than they were to do the same to whites.

The series won every major journalism award in Canada and has gone down as one of the best examples of what high-end computer-assisted reporting can achieve.

Now Rankin is back with a follow-up series called “Race Matters,” published earlier this month.

Soon after the first series was printed, Rankin filed a new freedom of information request with the  Toronto Police Service for an update of the same data, plus another huge database that tracks occasions when police stop and question people. They didn’t make it easy to get. It took seven years of appeals and court judgements to get the data, and the Star had to pay $12,000 in programming fees, a bill it has appealed to the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

Once Rankin had the disk, the analysis showed that police were three times more likely to stop and question blacks than they were to do the same to whites.

This time, there was no police outrage or lawsuit. Instead, chief Bill Blair did two interviews with the Star before the new series was printed. “It has been completely opposite to what it was with the original series,” Rankin told J-Source. “Attitudes have changed within the police service and in police services across the country in acknowledging bias can be a factor in police decisions.”

Rankin and database specialist Andrew Bailey found that blacks were most likely to be stopped and questioned in areas where they would tend to stand out because there were few blacks. The same went for whites in non-white areas.  

Besides its findings the new series also shows how far computer-assisted reporting has come in eight years.

“We produced maps based on that data to show anywhere in the city blacks are overrepresented in the carding in terms of black representativeness in each of the zones.” Police fill out cards when they have contacts (mostly non-criminal) with the public, and the information from the cards goes into a database.

The Flash-based maps created by Star staffer Patty Winsa and Hidy Ng show how database journalism has evolved. Charts and maps have long been a part of the presentation side of CAR, but in the not-too-distant past these were largely static. Now, news organizations are leveraging all of that data and data analysis to produce interactive maps and web pages that allow readers to build their own custom stories. For the news organizations it’s a tremendous opportunity to put all of the time and effort that goes into CAR to longer-term use—the interactive features often remain posted indefinitely. Readers win too because they can drill down to see the story on their own blocks if they choose.

Along with the maps and stories, the Star has made some of the data available for download.

It’s also creating a new breed of programmer-journalists that uses advanced skills to create whole new forms of reporting. Patrick Cain’s Google-based maps in the Star are another excellent example while the Pulitzer Prize winning may be the best known.

But back to Rankin. He has shown again why this unassuming reporter is one of the country’s finest journalists.

You can see his latest work at “Race Matters”.