From the Editor: Tone deaf coverage of the DTES does nothing to help the community

(Nicola Kwit)

The impoverishment that has come to define the Downtown Eastside is ever-prevalent in local news, but often this coverage does little more than exploit those who live there to capture public attention.

Anyone with access to the internet can read about the misfortune that’s rampant in the area which surrounds Main and Hastings, and they can read about it in any format they choose. Sometimes this is done by scanning a crime report. Other times it comes as an update on the opioid overdose toll, a blurb on the failures of the housing market, or an obituary of a well-known community member who once resided there.

Still, many of the journalists who choose to write about the DTES take a needlessly romantic approach to their work, crafting a rose-coloured peephole into the lives of the people who spend every day there. Check out the well-intentioned but off-putting coverage in The Vancouver Sun about single room occupancy housing from a year ago, or the piece published about cheque day in the DTES by The Globe and Mail two years ago.

These writers often employ the more emotional writing style of narrative nonfiction to draw empathy from their readers, leaning on florid descriptions of ratty wallpaper and used syringes in their introductions. In these pieces, you’re likely to have a series of characters presented to you—the delirious streetwalker, the defeated addict, the tainted young woman—and surrounding them will be all sorts of tragic imagery to pull at your heartstrings and keep you scrolling.

Somewhere in these stories, there’s usually a nugget of wisdom: Support social housing, rally the government, or donate to your local shelter, for instance. But by the time the article draws to a close, you’ll likely be left with little more than a heavy heart and an empty sense of achievement for hitting the “share” button.

This is why these articles benefit the media, if no one else. They rack up online hits, and just as it feels good to make a status condemning tragic events in world politics that don’t directly affect you, people feel good about themselves for reading about the Downtown Eastside even if they would never consider volunteering there or getting involved in local advocacy.

Writers get to feel good about themselves for spreading the word too. Many of us are guilty of doing this without stopping to question why sharing this perspective is crucial in a time when the DTES is already acknowledged worldwide as a hub for poverty and addiction by both residents and policymakers.

We all know that the state of the Downtown Eastside is unacceptable, and that the quality of life for the lowest classes in Vancouver is horrific. By now, it should be clear that the substance use, illegal activity, discrimination, and mental and physical illness there is largely the result of governmental and societal failings. Many of us know the largest contributors to the problem and, hypothetically, we know much of what could be done to help fix it.

With all of this information already available to the public, publishing purple prose about how sad the homeless people downtown are seems particularly unnecessary and sensational.

In theory, sharing these experiences through journalism is a noble cause, at least, when done right. These feats of ethical journalism take an enormous amount of care, education, and tact to create, and they have the power to genuinely sway the public and incite them to action. Keep your eyes peeled for them. Then, when you next read an exploitive tearjerker about homelessness, consider the intentions behind the piece and what could be done to alleviate the issue rather than ogle at it.

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