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Crack in the media

Free Ottawa SunSunday morning, like most Sunday mornings, the Ottawa Sun was blowing all over the neighbourhood. They’ve been giving newspapers away on Sundays by tossing them onto everybody’s stoop, where the wind immediately separates them into individual sheets and blows them into gardens and gutters. I took a picture and emailed it to the Sun.

But that’s not what this post is about. (Fooled you, eh?) This post is about some of the headlines I saw as I was gathering the mess. It appears that the Sun is interested in keeping crack on the front burner.

The media, in my opinion, has been a bit weird about crack lately. It’s as if they’re trying to cover the problem, but they’re having trouble pinning it down. It’s all a bit contrived. It started with the Toronto Sun’s Christina Blizzard hallucinating countless crackheads and describing Ottawa as a city rotting at its core. Now the Ottawa Sun is sending reporters out with undercover officers who are conducting searches of people and not finding drugs. There was media coverage of a so-called “crack house raid” on King Edward Street a couple days ago which resulted in a number of people being evicted and searched, but none of them had any drugs on them. Even though no drugs were found, the media saw fit to call the place a crack house. (It sounded more like a flop house to me.)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m seeing the media doing all it can to shine the spotlight on a problem that may not be as big and widespread as the police say it is.

Here are two headlines from today’s Sun:

1. Vanier Starts Watch: Crack murder last straw for residents

Now if you saw “Crack murder last straw for residents” as a headline, wouldn’t you think this murder was committed recently, like yesterday or maybe last week? I would. I did. But, when I read the article online, it turns out the murder was committed last year.

Not only that, but when you read the article it becomes clear that some residents of Vanier – including the woman who started the neighbourhood watch program the article is about – blame the media for the bad reputation Vanier has acquired. Take this line: “The mother, who has lived in the area for three years, was particularly steamed that one news column “destroyed” the street and park.” The Sun, while quoting her, doesn’t seem to fully get that she’s blaming the media for the fact that her grown children are afraid to visit her because of what they’ve heard about Vanier. There’s a bit of a disconnect going on – is crack destroying the neighbourhood, or is crack-hype destroying the neighbourhood?

2. Time to address crack problem

This article opens with this line: “If you still aren’t convinced we have a crack cocaine problem here in Ottawa, just look at some of the news coverage from last week.”

There’s a circular argument for you. The Sun goes out of its way to pay special attention to crack all week and then uses the fact that it paid special attention to crack all week as proof that there’s a crack problem. This could work for anything, you know. The media jumps on a particular bandwagon (pit bulls, shark attacks, home invasions, school violence, crack) and reports every single instance it can find, giving the public the impression that it’s a terrible threat to our safety and well-being, and Something Must Be Done.

I’m not saying there’s no crack problem in Ottawa. There is a problem, and something should be done. We do need a treatment centre here. And not the one that Mayor O’Brien is proposing either, which would provide treatment only to addicted youth. We need one that provides treatment to any addict who wants it, regardless of age. And we need harm reduction programs to slow the spread of HIV and Hep C among addicts and the people they are involved with.

While I do acknowledge there’s a drug problem in Ottawa, I suspect the media – and the police – are amplifying it. The media has a role in defining and shaping social problems. Decisions are made about what is newsworthy and how news should be gathered. To go out in search of particular news (eg riding along in an unmarked car with undercover crack cops) indicates that the Sun has already decided crack is going to be in this week’s news, no matter what actually happens.

When the media starts hyping a problem, it builds anxiety and fear in the public, who in turn demands that “something be done.” That pressure gets transferred over to the politicans, and the mayor hires more cops, which is what he wanted all along. And seeing more cops out there tends to make the public feel a little safer.

But that perception is little more than an illusion, because hiring more cops does nothing to solve the drug problem. The crack cops seem to spend most of their time harassing addicts, which is ineffective. Addicts will do what they have to do to get what they need, just like everybody else. If we’re serious about solving the crack problem in this city, we’re going to have to be more open-minded and realistic about both the problem and its solutions.

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about while I gathered up the pages of the Sun from my yard Sunday morning.

8 comments to Crack in the media

  • This isn’t about this post…I just thought I’d let you know that yesterday I saw the homeless woman you’ve written about. She was in the parking lot of the LCBO store on Richmond Road in Westboro (right beside the SuperStore). She was indeed asking for money for a hotel. I didn’t speak to her because she was thoroughly engaged with a man who was desperately trying to get away from her. She kept talking and he kept edging further and further away, while answering her.
    While she seemed quite fit, at least physically, I wonder what she’ll do when it gets colder?

  • J

    One line that I do agree with from that article was: I’m ashamed to say that I live in Vanier.

  • Deb

    Global News is doing a huge thing on the Crack Problem in Ottawa tonight at 6pm

  • Harmony, that’s right near where I saw her too. I asked her what she’ll do when it gets colder, and she said she’s been doing the same thing year-round for five years now. She’ll just wear layers and live outside and try to get enough money for a motel room once in awhile. :(

    J – why are you ashamed to say you live in Vanier? I don’t live in the best neighbourhood either, but I don’t feel personally responsible for it. :)

    Deb, thanks for the heads up. I didn’t see your comment until after it was over but I did manage to find the segment online. I think it feeds right into the point I’m making about the media not just reporting the news, but to some extent creating it.

  • Anne Onimos

    I too have seen these free copies of the Sun, and here’s the connection between the two halves of this item: just like crack, the first one’s always free.

  • James

    I was mostly in agreement with this article when it was posted a few weeks ago, even with a known crackhouse next door, but I disagree now… the building next door has had 2 new tenants in the past 2 weeks, both of whom had their apartments broken into and subsequently moved out without their possessions… 2 people in 2 weeks, both gone.

    This could have easily been us. I don’t feel safe leaving our home unattended anymore. There’s a constant flow of unsavory characters coming and going at all hours of the day and night, typically only staying for few minutes apiece.

    The landlord/property manager next door is doing everything he can to boot them out, he stakes out the place himself to witness the madness firsthand, but it’s easier said than done to get them out. With that in mind, I’ve read in recent months (in the crack articles) that they’ve proposed a law which allows properties to be seized from landlords that allow crackhouses to operate on their properties. While it wouldn’t help in our particular situation, I’d support that law since it’s obviously difficult even with the support of a landlord. The cops are here quite frequently but the flow of crackheads doesn’t seem to dwindle as a result.

    It’s quite possible that the crack problem *is* being blown out of proportion by the media and that we’re just the exception to the rule, but tomorrow I’m investing in a monitored security system and a couple of baseball bats as a direct result of crackheads.

  • I’m sorry you’re going through that James.

    However, I don’t understand why you no longer agree with the premise of the original post. My point was twofold: one, that the media plays a role in defining social problems (and not always responsibly), and two, that the solution that the media and the public tend to demand (more cops) is not an effective one.

    Clearly there’s a problem, and you’re witnessing it first-hand in your neighbourhood. As you say, the cops are there quite frequently, but it’s not stemming the flow of crackheads in your neighbourhood.

    I would like to see Ottawa deal with the problem in real way. More cops (and more security systems and baseball bats) isn’t working.

    Be careful out there James.