How the Chronicle Herald’s ‘Nova Scotia Burning’ project showed impact of race-related crimes

A year ago, the horror of a cross-burning in Nova Scotia provided The Chronicle Herald with a tremendous opportunity.

Confronted by two enduring journalistic questions — what do I know and what do I need to know? — the newsroom set out to create a multimedia project that looked at how racial prejudice has played out in Canada throughout the years.

To find out what they learned and the challenges they faced, I talked with Web producer Jayson Taylor and writer Patricia Brooks Arenburg, two of the four journalists who worked on the project. You can read our edited e-mail exchange below.

Kenny Irby: Tell us about the video vignettes and how you reached the decision on a four-part narrative structure.

Jayson Taylor: We found that we needed four parts to explain all sides of the story. Each five-minute video walks the viewer through the cross-burning in Hants County, Nova Scotia. [The four parts highlight what happened, the motive for the crime, the people who committed the crime and the event's lasting effects.]

How did you approach the multimedia reporting? And why was the approach important?

Taylor: While we could have simply written traditional stories in the paper, we felt that a multimedia project would be longer lasting, existing permanently on our website for people to see and discuss with others. We also thought it would be useful as an educational tool for schools and the broader community.

A multimedia approach also allowed readers to access a significantly larger amount of material, such as pre-sentence reports and other court documents that didn’t suit the printed format.

It brings an added richness to the story to hear the victims and the perpetrators explain their sides of the event in their own words, instead of through a reporter’s voice. This extra layer of information will hopefully encourage greater understanding of the crime and its impact on the victims and the community.

Here are the court documents and a related time line of events.

How did you arrive at the title of the project? And was it accurate?

Taylor: The title, “Nova Scotia Burning,” was a group decision in the office, referencing the title of the film “Mississippi Burning” and its connection to the topic of racism.

While the situation here in Nova Scotia certainly wasn’t as extreme as the murders portrayed in the film, the crime was an embarrassment to the province, and the shame of the Rehberg brothers’ racist act affects us all.

The cross-burning left us and Nova Scotians with “burning questions” about what this means and what would come next if left unchecked.

Another Canadian newspaper labeled the province “the Mississippi of the North,” referencing racist acts performed in the southern United States in the 1960s.

Patricia Brooks Arenburg: The reaction to the title and the label “Mississippi of the North” seemed to be split along racial lines. Those we spoke to in the black community, even if they didn’t fear for their personal safety, told us that a burning cross brought to mind the murder and violence shown in the movie. Those in the white community felt it was too sensational. I have to say that while I don’t personally agree with the “Mississippi of the North” label, I think the title of the series was fair and reflects the broader realities of race here in Nova Scotia.

How did you gain access to, and build the trust of, the four primary individuals in the story?

Taylor: We showed up unannounced and were invited in. We explained that we weren’t interested in doing a quick, 60-second TV news hit, but instead wanted to talk to them as part of a long-term project that would generate debate around the issue of racism in Nova Scotia, and hopefully bring healing for themselves and their community. They knew that the story wouldn’t be published until after sentencing but were hoping that it would help in the long term. You can read about our methodology in more detail here.

How have you managed the tension inherent in covering racism, given that it is such a personal issue?

Taylor: We were really fortunate that the people on each side of this story were willing to talk to us. Without their openness and honesty, this story wouldn’t have unfolded this way.

We didn’t shy away from asking tough, uncomfortable questions. We put the camera on and let them explain their story in their own words. Our goal was to tell every side of the story, moving beyond the rumors and accusations that led to what happened.

You certainly gave voice to the voiceless on both sides of the conflict. Why was that important?

Taylor: There was a significant flurry of rumor and speculation about this case and we wanted to help separate fact from fiction.

Most crime stories merely relay the basic events of a crime, without analyzing its root cause. Understanding the motivations of the perpetrators and the effect of the crime on the victims is how to defuse racism that stems from ignorance and a lack of understanding of people who are different from us.

A story such as this one is a good start, and we will continue to explore the topic in greater detail in the months to come.

Arenburg: We needed to get behind the headlines and see what led people to do this and what we can learn from their experience, their reality. I believe, even more firmly now, that we can’t begin to change anything if we’re not willing to try to understand people and their perspectives.

How did you use social media to spread the word about this project and generate community interaction?

Taylor: To avoid tipping our hand to other media organizations in Halifax, as well as in the rest of the province, we started to put the word out about this story just 24 hours in advance of Part 1, using a video trailer on Facebook, Twitter and radio ads.

This marketing blitz was the first time that most Nova Scotians would have heard about this project, but we found that our readers responded well to us on Twitter and Facebook. At the end of the project, we had a successful live chat on our website about the series and about racism. Patricia and experts fielded questions from readers.

This story has drawn attention and interest beyond Nova Scotia and throughout North America. Why do you think this happened?

Taylor: The fact that a cross-burning happened in this province in 2010 is shocking and indicative of a deep problem that needs to be addressed.

Canada prides itself on being a diverse, multicultural country, and Nova Scotia is a province with a large black population. Some ancestors of African-Nova Scotians arrived in the province via the Underground Railroad, escaping slavery in the southern United States.

Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, director of the school of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, mentioned in the series that African-Nova Scotians are still subject to geographic segregation, still face barriers in finding jobs and still must deal with segments of society that are unwilling to address racial issues.

Things are slowly changing for the better, but society still has a long way to go.

I hope that the facts of this story raise awareness about similar issues in other communities and help people in other areas work toward greater understanding of all their citizens.

The cross-burning clearly affected your entire community, you and your staff. How are you, as an organization, coping with this dilemma?

Arenburg: From a writer’s perspective, it certainly helped to know that my bosses and even the publisher were all on board with this project. They handled numerous complaints from readers who questioned our news judgment and our reasons for looking into this issue. So, it was important for me to know that these people within the organization weren’t second-guessing the team, the work we had done or the decisions we made along the way.

Taylor: Nova Scotia has a long history of racism, and for us, this story was the catalyst to start shining a light on the issue and not sweep it under the rug, as has been done for a long time.

There were many comments on The Chronicle Herald’s website and calls to the newsroom expressing opinions such as, “Why are you telling this story? It’s over”; “They’re just kids being stupid”; and “Just stop talking about it already.” From these comments, we could clearly see that racism still is a problem in this province and ignoring it is not the answer.

[Disclosure: As part of his reporting, Jayson Taylor called me for advice on how to cover this story. I also participated in the Chronicle Herald's related live chat.]

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how long the Chronicle Herald worked on this project.

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