Representations of Canada’s Poorest Postal Code
Media are key sites where social meanings are established and employed. For this reason, media authors have access to considerable concentrations of symbolic power. Representations are formed within a decisively ideological sphere and thus employed with varying degrees of accuracy. The dominant themes emerging through media coverage of missing and murdered women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside fail to offer any efficient examination of the root causes of the crisis. Influential representations of the women and their perpetrators, as this paper will demonstrate, are ideological and incomplete. The paper will pick apart the content of a news article titled “Serial Killers: Robert Pickton” in order to reveal the stereotypical nature of news media. The paper will examine power relations and criminal regulation, narrative tools used by media and the importance of spatial location.
As acknowledged in an article titled, Fallen Women and Rescued Girls: Social Stigma and Media Narratives of the Sex Industry in Victoria, a cultural studies approach to media recognizes power as a player in the transmission of social knowledge and in the reception of values and meanings (Hallgrimsottir, et al. 2006). Social locations where meanings are formed correspond directly with positions of moral, economic, and political power (Hallgrimsottir, et al. 2006). Analyses of media representations must therefore include an interrogation of the structural relations in which media practices are embedded (Hallgrimsottir, et al. 2006). Media coverage follows a relatively rigid and standardized script concerning the crisis of missing and murdered women. Cultural scripts camouflage the community in Downtown Eastside, representing the women as morally lost and legally corrupt sex workers (Hallgrimsdottir, et all. 2006). David Hugill argues in Mediated Complicity that coverage of missing and murdered women reduce the crisis to a series of contingencies, while camouflaging the functioning of cultural and structural systems of domination (Hugill 2009). Although media authors have attempted to offer meanings that hold particular practices including prostitution accountable for missing and murdered women, most media narratives shelter the broader socio-structural circumstances that render these practices possible in the first place (Hugill 2009).
An article released by Canada Alive on 18 Oct. 2013 titled, “Serial Killers: Robert Pickton” reads, “Police and society at large failed to realize that a growing number of women, most of them prostitutes from East Hastings, were disappearing” (Serial Killers…” 2013). The allegation made here is inaccurate. As Hugill demonstrates, for decades, local police and politicians demonstrated a distinct lack of concern as dozens of women disappeared from Downtown Eastside (Hugill 2009). As early as 1978, women began to vanish with a marked frequency. Years later, as an official list was being compiled, authorities paid scarce attention as the tally of missing women grew. At best, and as many choose to believe, authorities failed to notice a genuine crisis was unfolding. At worst, and as an examination of the root causes of the crisis exemplify, authorities only failed to care (Hugill 2009). The latter is more likely, as according to local news reports, a single detective had been assigned to handle all cases of missing women as late as 1998, despite an increase in disappearances (Hugill 2009). Mayor Philip Owens’ argued weeks before the official list was released that it would be inappropriate to use public funds to provide a “location service” for prostitutes (Jiwana and Young 2006). Despite the fact reporters unveiled the incompetence of authorities including Owens’, considerations of irresponsible policing do not sufficiently illustrate the state’s involvement in the crisis (Hugill 2009).
While interpreting the incompetence of authorities, it is critical to inspect the relationship between the ongoing effects of colonial violence and the criminal regulation of prostitution in Canada (Hugill 2009). State complicity has been effectively minimized through, “the erasure of connections between state violence and the dramatic overrepresentation of Aboriginal Peoples in the grim roster of missing and murdered women (Hugill 2009). As Hugill confirms, the historical record of state participation in specific dislocations of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada is undeniable” (Hugill 2009).
Media narratives downplay the reasons for and effects of the criminal law on the working conditions of prostitutes (Hugill 2009). While prostitution per se is not illegal in Canada, a series of Criminal Code provisions target it indirectly, rendering it impossible to sell sex without transgressing the law (Hugill 2009). The regulations effectively criminalize women working on the streets, and conclusively contribute to their being labeled as degenerates. The Criminal Code provisions are dangerous, as they create situations where sex workers are forced to operate at the margins of urban spaces in order to avoid transgressing the law (Hugill 2009).
The vulnerable workforce has limited opportunity to challenge media representations, “largely because of the criminalized nature of their work activities” (Hallgrimsdottir, et al. 2006). As stated in The Elements of Journalism, edited by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, one of the basic principles of journalism is to serve as an independent monitor of power, and to “offer a voice to the voiceless” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2014). In this particular case, most journalists have complied with the power of the state, and ignored the monitoring principle entirely. With sex workers unable to speak for themselves, media coverage of the crisis is often one-dimensional, as is the case with the Robert Pickton article. This paper will now turn to explore the narrative tools used to represent missing women and their perpetrators, specifically Robert Pickton.
Narrative tools used within the article produce and reproduce stereotypes of sex workers. A missing women’s task force poster featuring mug shots of the women caps the first page of the article, illustrating the women as degenerates before the content of the article is even glanced upon. This representation of the missing and murdered women reinforces their association with criminality, and highlights the Aboriginal heritage of many of the women (Jiwana and Young 2006). The image is a generalization that defines the missing women as specific social types. As Jiwana and Young validate, the status allotted to prostitutes further entrenches a view of them as, “peripatetic wanderers forever in search of the latest fix and with no sense of responsibility” (Jiwana and Young 2006).
Florence Lands was one of the women depicted in the task force poster and was therefore described by media as a ‘specific type’ of woman. Reporters inaccurately portrayed her as “a Vancouver hooker who abandoned her children” (Haight 2006). Lands was shocked to learn she was among 48 women presumed missing from Downtown Eastside, and to be photographed on the missing women’s task force poster (Haight 2006). Lands’ corrected the media in 2006, justifying that her life had taken a significantly different turn than that presumed by police and portrayed by media authors. “I was a chronic alcoholic, I wasn’t hooking. I never sold my body to get a drink. I did hang around skid row, but I was helping women,” she explained, adding that she volunteered with several organizations while holding down jobs to support her family of three children (Haight 2006). After having a stroke and being hospitalized for 18 months in 1987, she arranged for a cousin to legally adopt her children (Haight 2006). Unknown to Lands, the cousin changed her mind and the children were put into foster care (Haight 2006). Lands was added to the list of missing women and portrayed in the task force poster after her daughter’s social worker reported her missing in 2004. Media represented Lands, along with most missing women, as a damaged and vulnerable prostitute. “It’s just beyond me that I would be painted so ugly,” said Lands (Haight 2006).
Lands’ story exposes the tendency of the state to generalize ‘missing’ women, and to classify them as degenerates. Media narratives in turn do not represent women from Downtown Eastside as having the multiplicity of experiences and identities that they do. To media authors and audiences, they are one and the same.
Dara Culhane argues narrative tools used by media authors conceal particular women, primarily aboriginal women, behind a pattern of knowledge which, “selectively marginalizes categories of people through strategies of representation that include silences and displacements” (Hugill 2009). Jennifer England takes Culhane’s theory a step further, arguing that representations of Aboriginal women in Downtown Eastside fluctuate between invisibility and hyper-visibility (Jiwana and Young 2006). England argues missing and murdered women are rendered invisible as victims of violence, while also rendered hyper-visible as deviant bodies (Jiwana and Young 2006). She suggests they are at once strategically, “inside and outside the gaze of the state” (Hugill 2009). Their visibility, as England proposes, stems from their race, class and gender, which become signifiers of their deviance (Jiwana and Young 2006). Their invisibility is most apparent in the erasure of their histories as colonized others, the lack of attention paid by authorities to their concern and their representation through media (Jiwana and Young 2006). The degree to which stereotypical characterizations have been sustained and reproduced through media narratives offer a compelling illustration of the capacity of media to participate in the constitution of values and meanings within society (Hugill 2009).
The Robert Pickton article mentions an incident that happened in 1997, when a woman reported missing was admitted to the hospital with multiple stab wounds. The article reads,
She was high on crack at the time and bleeding profusely. She claimed she had been taken to a farm and stabbed by a client and identified him as “Rob.” Police found the man; a 48-year old pig farmer named Robert Pickton, from just outside the city, and charged him with attempted murder. However, the prostitute went back onto the streets and back to her drug addiction, and as Crown prosecutors tried to build their case against Pickton, the prostitute became too unreliable in her testimony. The Crown was forced to drop the charges and Pickton returned to his pig farm (“Serial Killers…” 2013).
The woman is identified as a degenerate from the third word of the paragraph on. “She was high on crack at the time…” not only that, she isn’t referred to as a woman at all. Rather, she is referred to as “the prostitute”. It is evident she is thought by authorities to be irresponsible and unreliable; the very reason the Crown couldn’t prosecute Pickton. Media narratives have represented sex industry workers as lacking responsibility and capability since the early 1990s (Hallgrimsdottir, et al. 2006). The segment taken from the Pickton article demonstrates the extension of this stereotypical representation in 2013.
Perpetrators of missing and murdered women are also represented stereotypically through media. Reporters bit the hook on the idea that Robert Pickton was being considered a suspect in the case. Anticipating the dramatic prosecution of a serial killer, news agencies put the story at the top of their agendas (Hugill 2009). Pickton is portrayed through media contradictorily as, “a cold predator, a raucous binger, and a cunning criminal, but also as daft and illiterate, folksy pig farmer noted for his poor hygiene, pinkish skin and greasy, straggly hair” (Hugill 2009). The Pickton article reads, “Investigators questioning him quickly realized that he had a mental disability. His speech was slow and he was unable to grasp complicated questions with advanced language” (“Serial Killers…” 2013). This representation of Pickton appears to mitigate his responsibility by focusing on aspects of his mental health. Similar crimes effectively get reduced to the actions of sick men. Media narratives have ignored the social, economic and political factors that lead to the crimes being committed in the first place (Jiwana and Young 2006). The entire Pickton article ignores these factors, and places the blame fully on psychotic men and the prostitutes they prey on. The fact that Pickton sexually exploited and assaulted women that society devalues, and further, the fact he felt he could commit violence without liability in areas including Downtown Eastside needs to be interrogated by media (Jiwana and Young 2006).
Despite ignoring specific factors, reporters have made an effort to offer answers as to how dozens of women have been made to disappear indifferently (Hugill 2009). Many have considered the location and reputation of Downtown Eastside to answer this question. In the fourth chapter of Hugill’s analysis, he argues the neighborhood itself is represented as a space of chaos and criminality. “Particular economic and political patterns have operated in order to isolate Downtown Eastside from other city spaces and to concentrate particular social phenomena there,” he confirms (Hugill 2009). Coverage operates in order to establish sex workers as morally and socially distinct from other women, as is justified throughout this paper, in part as a result of their presence in the ‘dangerous’ inner city, and the occupations associated with the location. By focusing on location, media authors are able to rationalize the violence committed there (Hugill 2009). As the Pickton article reads, “Vancouver’s lower-east side is considered one of the sleaziest neighborhoods in Canada. It is famous for poverty, drugs, prostitution and homelessness. Windows are boarded up and walls are covered in graffiti. The sound of police sirens is common in this area” (“Serial Killers…” 2013). In defining Downtown Eastside with delinquency, media authors effectively disconnect themselves and their audiences by reassuring the crisis has little relevance to their own lives (Hallgrimsdottir, et al. 2006). It is clear through an analysis that the dominant representation of Downtown Eastside is an incomplete one. Identifying the location with delinquency does not provide audiences with the analytical tools needed to understand why social suffering and violence are concentrated there (Hugill 2009).
Media narratives of missing and murdered women and their perpetrators only scratch the surface of the devastating realities disguised by an over emphasis on insignificant factors. Through an analysis of the Pickton article released in 2013, it is evident media representations lack any real substance, and in turn lead to an inaccurate convention surrounding culpability. One-dimensional representations give audiences a false conception of the crisis, leading to a lack of sympathy. By exposing the social, economic and political factors missing from narratives, yet necessary to identify the root causes of the crisis, the inaccuracy of media coverage is indisputable.
Haight, Lana. “Woman, children reunited: supposed Pickton victim unhappy with her portrayal in media.” Nanaimo Daily News 24 Jun. 2006: A5. Web.
Hallgrimsdottir, Helga Kristin, Rachel Phillips, and Cecilia Benoit. “Fallen women and rescued girls: social stigma and media narratives of the sex industry in Victoria, B.C., from 1980 to 2005.” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 43.3 (2006): 265+. Academic OneFile. Print.
Hugill, David. Mediated Complicity: Sex Work, the State and Missing Women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Diss. Trent University, 2009. Ann Arbor: US, 2009. MR 53203. Print.
Jiwana, Yasmin and Mary Lynn Young. “Missing and Murdered Women: Reproducing Marginality in News Discourse.” Canadian Journal of Communication 31(4) (2006): 895–917. Print.
Kovach, Bill, Tom Rosenstiel, ed. The Elements of Journalism: what newspeople should know and the public should expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2014. Print.
“Serial Killers: Robert Pickton.” CanadaAlive, 18 Oct. 2013. Web.