Members of Toronto’s Somali community were understandably distresses by “Somali” drug dealers

Members of Toronto’s Somali community were understandably distressed by the many mentions of “Somali” drug dealers in the Star’s first report of Rob Ford crack video allegations.

 Public Editor,
Saturday, May 25, 2013

As a member of a Toronto District School Board task force aimed at curbing the dropout rate for Somali students, Abdi Aidid well understands the sting of negative perceptions and the role the media can play in creating those perceptions. 

Aidid, 21, who begins studies at Yale University law schoolthis fall, aims to make a difference in his community. Last week he sent a thoughtful email to the Star to express his concerns about our explosive May 17 Page 1 story about a cellphone video that appears to show Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine that is being shopped around Toronto “by a group of Somali men involved in the drug trade.”

Aidid and numerous others in his community were distressed greatly by the many references to “Somali” drug dealers in the Star’s first report of the Ford crack video. They believe reporting that fact contributes to negative stereotypes and “criminalizes” the entire community.

“At every stop, they point out that the individuals involved are Somali. ‘Somali’ appears 11 times in the article, exactly as many times as the word ‘crack,’ ” Aidid said. “I am deeply hurt by this.

“Is it so salient a fact that it warrants mention as often as the drug in question?”

That is a fair question. While there was no intent to hurt the Somali community overall, the Star’s journalists do understand the concerns that have been raised by the community this week. Certainly, further explanation from the Star is called for.

As I told Aidid in a subsequent telephone call, three points are important: 1) The newsroom believes (and I agree) the fact that the men described themselves as part of the Somali community is relevant to the responsible reporting of this story; 2) the reporters and editors involved acknowledge the Star included too many references to that fact in its initial report written on deadline; and 3) most critical, in subsequent stories and columns, the Star rightly pulled back significantly from reporting the drug dealers’ background.

Let’s look first at why the Star considers the Somali references fair to report here, in line with its “fair play” policy that “No reference, direct or indirect, should be made to a person’s colour, race, country of origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation or religion unless it is pertinent to the story.”

The requirements of responsible journalism call for reporting as fully as possible on the sources. Given that these men are unidentified sources making serious allegations and peddling strong visual evidence of Ford apparently smoking crack, it was important that the Star give readers as much information as it can at this point about who these people are and what their motivation might be.

A story with such far-reaching implications about the city’s mayor demands providing the facts that show readers that the Star has done its due diligence. As the story states, reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle had several meetings with these anonymous sources who frequently referred to themselves as Somalis. One of the men described himself repeatedly as an organizer in the Somali community. In discussions about making the video public, the men expressed fears about deportation.

These are the facts. But I think in its zeal to make clear to readers that the story has been reported responsibly and give you as much information as possible, the Star went overboard with the many “Somali” references in its first story.

I understand why Aidid and others in the Somali community were upset by that. As Aidid pointed out to me after I explained to him why the Star reported the details the drug dealers told reporters, there is journalistic responsibility on one hand and social responsibility on the other.

“It is important that the Star not fall into the trap of criminalizing any certain community,” he told me. “Yes, we struggle as a community, but our lives are made harder by this sort of callousness and insensitivity.”

We all agree greater sensitivity was called for. While the newsroom stands by its judgment of the relevance of the “Somali”references, numerous reports this week have made little mention of the sources’ background. That first troubling story, which was written in great haste on deadline, was revised shortly after publication with half of the “Somali” references edited out.

“We realize the first version of the story used ‘Somali’ too heavily,” Managing Editor Jane Davenport told me.

“We understand why the community is upset and we apologize.”