Newspaper front pages: Afflicting the comfortable

A newspaper front page can do and say so much. It can capture a key moment in history (man on the moon, the Sept. 11 terror attacks, tragic death tolls). It can celebrate big moments (sporting victories, like Italy’s big Euro 2021 win, or Argentina’s historic Copa America title — a victory for the country and short people everywhere — Google: Lionel Messi height, as it’s the thing most googlers care about after age and money). And it can hold people to account. One of the primary functions of newspapers is to hold people to account. Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. These are terms heard in the journalism sphere all the time. And sometimes power doesn’t mean the 1 per cent. Sometimes a city, a country, the world, needs to be reminded. They need to be held to account. Sometimes I need to be held to account. Not just the powerful, but the privileged.

I want to look at two issues from the past few months over two posts. I am looking back because part of the problem can be after a cover comes out, calling out the privileged to act, or at least think, the issue gets a ton of attention and then fades away. Other issues arise. News is happening everywhere, all day, every day. But I want to key in on the design, and how it helped raise awareness.

I am looking at the coverage around unmarked graves of Indigenous children being found at residential schools. Another discovery was made in Saskatchewan (after a previous discovery in B.C.) on June 23. On June 24, most Canadian newspapers dropped the ball (I will celebrate, and not critique design here, but I will critique editorial decisions). Postmedia, which has a local paper in Regina, had the story first. An example of why local news matters. Postmedia’s coverage on the first day was strong. The rest were lacking. But the next day, the Star attempted to make amends. The previous day highlights the challenges to newspapers. The story was somewhat late breaking. There wasn’t a ton of information. But, and it’s a big but, the story required more attention than it got. It was the tear-the-front-page-apart kind of story: 751 UNMARKED graves of Indigenous children were found at a former residential school in Saskatchewan. I won’t say hundreds, as every one is important. I highlight unmarked to emphasize the contempt, the lack of humanity, toward the children, the families. Here is what the Star produced the following day, Friday, June 25.

Toronto Star, front page, Friday, June 25. How many more?

This page is powerful for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, the picture of the small shoes. Clearly for a child’s feet. The wording written on them is powerful as well. WE WILL STOP THIS. WE GRIEVE WITH YOU. WE MUST ADDRESS THIS ONGOING GENOCIDE. And the reverse white text on black. The big, all caps headline, with a powerful question: HOW MANY MORE? The start of a story by David Robertson, an Indigenous graphic novelist and writer, and Michelle Good, the author of “Five Little Indians.”

We know there are more. Many, many more. Unmarked graves of Indigenous children who were taken off to residential schools. As a parent I can’t imagine. When my daughter goes to school, she’s safe. That’s just a basic requirement. Safety. I assume she’s learning important lessons. (In Grade 1 and 2 she did learn about residential schools, and I’m grateful for that, as I never did as a child. We’ve been able to talk about it.) But she’s safe. I can’t imagine the trauma, the fear, Indigenous parents must have felt. But I should. I should know. This isn’t ancient history, and even if it was, I need to know. The privileged, who have never worried about these things, need to know. I know this front page is only a piece of paper. But it helped. It brought it to the forefront. And it needs to stay there. Which is why I was glad the Star followed up a little later with this cover, questioning whether Canada’s history is something to celebrate.

Toronto Star, front page, July 1, 2021.

This page was 100 per cent driven by the beautiful and powerful illustration by Chloe Cushman. An amazing, talented illustrator with a knack for evoking emotion with her work.

And credit where credit is due. This was one of the Postmedia pages (the Calgary Sun) the day after the graves were discovered. They had more time, as they knew earlier. But it doesn’t matter. Newspapers need to react. Most didn’t. The ad aside, which unfortunately didn’t reflect the seriousness of the issue, but pays the bills to allow front pages to keep happening, this page was one of the best in Canada the day after. It has a strong image, a big and powerful headline (one-word headlines aren’t uncommon but the right word has an impact).

There are going to be more. Probably a lot more. And despite knowing this, each discovery should feel just as shocking and unsettling as the last. One unmarked grave should elicit intense anger, and spark a call to action. I ask all the white and/or privileged parents in Toronto or Calgary or New York or London: when your kid goes to school, do you expect to see them again? Just think about it. Imagine. #everychildmatters

An observation perhaps not worth noting is that every one of these front pages has a tiny throw to a sports story that might have otherwise been given much bigger play.

My next post will be about pages on the the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.

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