The Star’s watchdog mandate

“Stop trying to make the police look bad. Whose side are you on? I think you are taking the wrong side here.”

The angry caller was responding to the Star’s investigative series “Above the Law” that found convincing evidence that Ontario’s criminal justice system heavily favours police and gives officers breaks at every turn.

The powerful series, the result of a lengthy Star investigation into two decades of cases probed by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which looks into cases of citizens injured or killed by police, reported that police officers across the province are treated far differently than civilians when accused of shooting, beating and running over and killing people.

“Are you intentionally turning the public against the police,” said an Oakville reader in an email titled, PLEASE STOP SLAMMING THE POLICE!!!!!! “Who do you people call when you have suffered an assault, your home is robbed, your child is raped?”

Like many journalists who have had opportunity to interact up-close with police in the line of our professional duties, I have much respect for the work police do and the reality that they put themselves in harm’s way in doing their jobs. Certainly I appreciate that we have so many “good cops” who serve and protect and help keep our communities safe.

Saying that, I find it difficult to understand the view expressed this week by some readers that the media should not question police and the immense power they hold in our communities just because their jobs hold the possibility of danger.

One reader wrote that he was surprised the Star has taken “such an anti-police stance” given the number of police officers who have been killed in Ontario “while trying to protect the public.”

Is the Toronto Star “anti-police”? Is this hard-hitting investigative series “a cop-bashing vendetta” and “junk journalism” as the Toronto Police Association charged in a press release responding to the Star’s investigation?

As I told readers this week, the Star has long been “pro-justice,” not “anti-police.” In reporting such strong evidence of a lack of results and little accountability from the SIU, the Star’s series exposes and holds to further account some officers who were investigated by the SIU. It is not an indictment of all police.

The series also gives voice to those relatively powerless individuals who have been harmed by police. I’m haunted by the stories of those individuals who recounted their encounters with police power — the accountant whose arm was broken during a traffic stop altercation with York Region Police, the teens who were lying in a public park when a police cruiser drove over them.

How can this happen? These are questions for which we must demand answers.

From a journalistic standpoint, I see this Star series by investigative reporters David Bruser and Michele Henry as an outstanding example of “watchdog journalism” that holds the powerful to account to the citizens of our community.

Watchdog journalism is the core of a quality news organization’s commitment to public service and central to the media’s role in a democracy. The goal of watchdog journalism is to serve as “a surrogate for the public” and see to it that people in power are held accountable to the public they serve. It should aim to give voice to the voiceless.

That’s what journalists who attended the first Nieman Watchdog Journalism Conference at Harvard University in 1998 were told. In the decade since, far too many news organizations have pulled back from this critical task of watchdog reporting, quite likely because such reporting is most often time-consuming and expensive. Many lament that media watchdogs have become lapdogs to power.

As the “paper for the people,” the Star has long committed to doing journalism that makes an impact and holds the powerful to account. Indeed, in the past couple of years, it has stepped up this commitment to investigative reporting.

As one of the most powerful institutions in our midst, police should face scrutiny by the media acting as surrogates for citizens. Probing the SIU, which was created in 1990 after a series of police shootings of black civilians, is well in line with the media’s watchdog mandate.

“A review after 20 years of an organization like the SIU is completely appropriate and exactly the sort of thing newspapers need to do, should do and in the case of the Star, do all the time,” Kevin Donovan the Star’s Investigations editor said. “Sadly, many police have taken the position that we do not have the right to review their actions or the actions of the SIU.

“We are not trying to make police look bad. We are trying to make the system that probes police conduct work better.”

That’s a vital undertaking for a news organization committed to serving the public in a watchdog role. Because, in our Canadian democracy, no one should be above the law.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star of November 05, 2010.

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