Sometimes it’s the smallest stories that generate the most controversy.
Two weeks ago, The CJN ran a story a few hundred words long about two men who tried to enter a yeshivah, claiming they worked for Rogers Communications.
They didn’t have identification and when Rogers could not confirm that there was work scheduled in the area, the yeshivah turned them away.
A letter from the school, outlining the incident, was posted on Facebook, and a photo of the two men, captured by a security camera, was attached.
Looking at the incident through a post-Pittsburgh lens, the facts were alarming. It wasn’t too much of a leap to wonder if the men were checking out the yeshivah’s security. How many times have we heard stories about terrorists visiting a site before an attack?
The two men in the photo are not white and the yeshivah’s letter had, quite frankly, racist language that we did not print. But our reporter confirmed the facts of the incident.
That story hit a chord.
After the story ran, we had an informal discussion around the editorial department. Would the story have been so alarming if the men were white? Would we have run the photo if they were white?
Absolutely, was my thought. After the deadly attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and California, it seemed irresponsible not to run the story. The incident was verified by a reporter, who contacted the school and the police, and it was something people were talking about. Our duty as a newspaper is to report the news.
That story hit a chord. It racked up over 20,000 views online, making it one of the most viewed stories on our website. Clearly, it spoke to the tensions that run just below the surface in the community – gnawing worries about our security, fears for the safety of our children and our institutions. It also raised uneasy feelings about race and xenophobia – and what, if any, role that played in the way the incident was handled.
As it turned out, it was a false alarm: the men were indeed subcontractors for Rogers. As soon as we learned of the mistake, The CJN did the responsible thing and updated the story on our website, and ran a new story in our next print edition.
I thought that was the end of it, until I received phone calls from Rogers and the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
The two men are members of the Muslim community and the advocacy group had received a few complaints about the story and the accompanying photo. The council’s executive director wanted to understand how it had come to appear in the paper.
Our conversation was thoughtful, frank and amicable. The men’s race played no part in our coverage and we had no knowledge of their religion, I explained.
It is clear that the men did not intend to become part of a story.
But, while the two men may have appeared suspicious, they did nothing wrong, certainly nothing illegal, and didn’t deserve to have their photo in the paper, the executive director argued. He believed we should issue an apology.
A spokesman from Rogers also called with a similar argument and requested that we blur the faces in the photo. The CJN has asked, and we are still waiting to hear back from Rogers, as to why their subcontractors did not have identification and why the company told the yeshivah that there was no work being done in the area that day.
In the end, The CJN decided to take the men’s photo off our website. While we are quick to correct mistakes online, it’s rare that we substantially alter or remove stories we have published. In this case, however, it is clear that the men did not intend to become part of a story. They raised alarms in a fearful community and they did not help their own case by not carrying identification, but they certainly do not deserve to be labelled as suspicious, or even to have their faces viewed at all.
Lila Sarick is The CJN’s news editor.