Is the media fair to York University?

Analyzing the many reports of sexual assaults on campus

by Josh Dehaas

A rally to discuss safety at York University in November, 2012 (Melissa Sundardas)

I’ve covered student news for two years now. Time and again, I’ve seen headlines that looked like this one from yesterday’s Toronto Star: Police investigate alleged sex assault at York University.

It’s less common to see headlines referring to sexual assaults at other schools, so it’s easy to assume York has a worse sexual assault problem.

But this conclusion is probably wrong.

What tipped me off was a piece that Leslie Armstrong, editor of The Excalibur student newspaper, wrote earlier this year about violent crimes and York University. Here’s a sample:

When a murder happens at St. George and Bloor [two downtown streets]… Imagine how the Toronto Star would cover such a story. Most Torontonians know that intersection and don’t need any landmarks for reference. They don’t need to be told that it’s just north of the Rotman School of Management or Robarts Library [at the University of Toronto]. The article would simply mention the intersection of the crime scene. Yet when the Star reports that a 22-year old man is stabbed to death outside Randy’s Sports Bar and Restaurant on Keele just south of Steeles, it can’t be without mention of York University, even though the bar is a good 20-minute walk from the outskirts of the Keele campus.”

She goes on to conclude:

Ryerson and the University of Toronto’s St. George campus could be just as unsafe, if not less safe, than York’s Keele campus, and we wouldn’t know, but all we’ve ever heard about the Keele campus is bad news.

Recently, I came across information that backs up Armstrong’s suspicion. Using Toronto Police data, CBC News mapped the crime hotspots of the city. ‘York University Heights’ ranked 19th out of 140 Toronto neighbourhoods for the most reports of sexual assaults: 17.7 per 10,000 residents. ‘University,’ the downtown neighbourhood that encompasses the University of Toronto was second worst out of 140 neighbourhoods: 27.1 incidents per 10,000 people. The ‘Church-Yonge Corridor,’ where Ryerson University is located, was 11th with 21.2 occurrences per 10,000 people.

It looked like Armstrong was on to something, so I checked her assertion that York’s name ends up in more crime reports. I searched for the words “York University” and “sexual assault” in the ledes and headlines of all stories published in the past two years on Infomart, an archive that includes most of Canada’s major newspaper stories. There were 39 results. The same search for Ryerson yielded two;  the University of Toronto yielded seven. So yes, the media have published many more stories about sexual assaults at York, despite it being in an statistically safer neighbourhood.

A closer look at the 39 search results reveals another reason, on top of Armstrong’s theory, that I believe may explain why York shows up in more news reports. Of the 39, several from 2011 were about SlutWalks, the movement that followed an infamous comment a police officer made about sexual assault while speaking at York. Several more referenced Qian Liu, the Chinese student murdered near York during a webcam conversation. Both incidents shone international spotlights on sexual assault at York. Everyone heard about it. How does that explain the dozens of articles referencing York since? I suspect confirmation bias. After the two high-profile incidents, reporters may be more likely to see sexual assaults at York as news.

The real problem may not be how much we hear about sexual assaults at York, but in fact how little we hear about them elsewhere. When I searched for sexual assaults and other big city schools, I found the University of Ottawa associated with one and the University of Alberta with two. The University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba and Dalhousie University all turned up nothing. Clearly there were more than zero sexual assaults on or near those campuses. At UBC, for example, Campus Security reported eight sexual assaults on campus between 2009 and 2011.

What does this mean for students and parents? I think it means they should be no more worried about sexual assaults at York than at U of T, Ryerson or anywhere else. In fact, they might feel more comfortable choosing York knowing that, at the very least, people there are talking about it.




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Is the media fair to York University?

  1. You’re assuming way too much rationality. Most people will use a media heuristic. They’ll believe the reality media has created for them is reality. York really needs to make a concerted effort to fight the narrative that has been created about them.

    • York making a concerted effort about anything, except increasing parking fees/parking enforcement, is about as likely as North Korea putting a man on Mars.

  2. great article.

  3. Thats interesting, never thought of it that way. With that being said, the media is being a little harsh with York.

    I have always wondered why the downtown universities never get any notice when it comes to incidences like this. They happen almost every week. Much dangerous in downtown in my opinion. Great stuff.

  4. Ryerson University is not in the “University” neighbourhood in the CBC map. It’s in the “Church-Yonge Corridor”. The point holds, though, since the sexual assault rate in the CYC (21.2) is still higher than that at York University at 17.7.

    It’s probably also worth noting that the map data is from 2004-2011. If the popular narrative is that sexual assault at York has been getting worse over the last few years, there’s nothing to rebut that in the map.

    • Thanks for pointing out this error. The post has been updated to reflect that fact.

      Josh Dehaas, Campus Editor

  5. FINALLY! An article that addresses the real problem!

  6. I disagree with this article, sure york gets a bad rap, but as a student there, and with the consistant per week basis i get an email, about a security alert about a Robbery, Sexual Assault etc… the area is sketchy, the school has not successfully done anything to correct it, i have no hope for that campus.

    • I think you’re missing the point here – which is that this stuff is happening at campuses across Canada and is happening more frequently at and around the other 2 universities in Toronto. The reason you hear about it ‘on a consistent per week basis’ at York is that the university reports it and it’s all out in the open. I’d be more concerned at one of the other schools where apparently they are fine with sweeping it under the rug.

      • Duke, no where does the article suggest that anything is being swept under the rug, only that York as a result of a number of factors may (the evidence presented suggests) be unfairly targeted by the media.

    • I have lived at Carlton-Yonge (several blocks north of Ryerson), and I have also lived just off of Harbord and Bathurst (several block west of UofT), and if anyone thinks that York is situated in a more dangerous area then they’ve bought into the media bias. I work at York, and get into my car and drive to one of the plazas at Jane-Finch to get lunch when I’m tired of the on-campus offerings – I’ve never had a problem, nor ever felt remotely threatened, while in this area, and I can’t say the same about my time spent living next to Ryerson and UofT. I can assure you that 10 years ago (when I lived in those downtown areas) there were constant robberies and sexual assaults within or on the borders of these campuses, on public city streets, it just never made the news as being affiliated with these universities – which is exactly the point of the article.

  7. YES! it has nothing to do with actual safety… all about public image… XD isn’t image everything? XD

  8. @Jacob, do you really think that York is taking a passive approach to this? I guarantee that they’ve tried to counter the (mis)belief that York isn’t safe, but changing opinions can be difficult to achieve when major media outlets like the Toronto Star will only publish negative stories about the school.

  9. I think Josh has a good point about too many readers and news and media consumers buying into the illusion and conception of reality around the York U campus presented. Relatively speaking, the crimes rates around the York U campus are statistically low, particularly in comparison to other parts of the city, never mind other parts of the country, which would partly put the campus in an even more positive light, but much more excitement and indeed alarm and moral panic is aroused by them. Sensitivities among academics and students located in what is physically a somewhat isolated part of the city seems to be higher and the media is attuned to a very politically conscious campus and broadcast these vibes.

  10. It’s ironic that you suspect confirmation bias as the reason for this problem, and then go on in your next paragraph to use confirmation bias to prove the null-hypothesis.

    a little more web sleuthing (or a little better) and you could have found way more instances of sexual assault on non-York campuses.

    top of my head, Minto Centre assault at Carleton University c. 2008-2009.

    the reality is, instances at other schools may be to closer to something like isolated events..

    can we really say the same about York?

  11. The big difference here is what goes on behind the scenes. Both Ryerson and U of T, actually care about the safety of their respective students…the management of York does not. For years, York Security’s mission statement was posted on their website as “…..that is perceived as safe.” They only changed their mission statement and the security structure when the school’s enrollment dropped due to the negative publicity. And there is a lot more to the this story.

  12. York IS a dangerous school. the reason it gets so much press is because it really has all the violence described. The fact that the information is scarce for other universities doesn’t credit York at all as you are saying.

    And you’re definition of “dangerous” is proportional to the amount of sexual assaults? What about the student that died when a construction crane fell on him last year? What about the time when the palestinian solidarity club violently barricaded Jewish students in their office? What about the sports coach who molested athletes(not university students)who were minors on campus?

    York University has the reputation it deserves. And the reason it has MOST these incidents of robbery and rape is because the school is situated next to Jane and Finch, but nobody can mention this fact because it would be racist.

    • The guy who died at the construction site was a construction worker working on the site, not a student. He died on the job. He wasn’t a random bystander. That had nothing to do with York and everything to do with the construction company. If any other party should take the rap for that one it’s the TTC.

  13. Great article.

  14. Well Jacob that can be one solution to the biased “narrative” of York or people can start thinking how come there are not more “assaults” at other Universities including Downtown Toronto? Is it highly unreasonable to suggest there are most “assaults” that happen at York University than Downtown? Or any other University?

    Seems to me more of a “people” problem than a media problem I suggest with your solution that people should also be considerate about information that they take in which indeed it might be true but not the whole truth to the story.

    I sure everyone has heard this many times. But anyway York is a great school like any other University.

  15. There’s a longer history to this that should not be ignored in this article:

    http://www.thestar.com/news/2007/09/09/dorm_rapes_stun_york_u.html

    http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/toronto/story.html?id=4f156a59-01c0-407a-b870-d14b479bf42c

    And there are the statements of the York Federation of Students:
    http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/04/19/another-rape-near-york-campus/

    “This year alone, we have seen York students raped, sexually assaulted and even killed on or around our campus,” the release quotes Vanessa Hunt, President-elect of the York Federation of Students, as saying. “Students feel as though the York Administration is dragging its feet implementing significant changes to ensure safety at York University, which is both frustrating and upsetting.”

  16. I feel this article brings up some pertinent information. I’m a student at the Keele campus of York University, as are my two closest friends and my girlfriend. And it would be tough to say that these sorts of incidents do not occur because the fact is they do, a lot. It is no secret our campus is very close to one of the roughest parts of town. It’s true that in many ways the school has done a poor job of trying to make the campus safer for students but if there is anything they do right it is that they do not keep information about these incidents hidden from us. The moment they happen we are informed and cautioned to take extra care to avoid harm. It is a very big campus in a rough area of town security guards can only do so much and the police around here are already spread far too thin to really be able to help.

    Other campuses are not rape/murder/assault free just because there is less press about it. In the case of sexual assault that is a problem on almost any campus sadly enough. Regardless of where you go to school you still face similar dangers. The school itself is the most major landmark in this area and is a major transit hub. The city should be providing more security and police to us, especially considering the fact that we will soon have a subway station as well.

    I’m not attempting to wash the school’s hands clean for them but simply stating that as a student here at York it is pretty plain to see public opinion is a little skewed against us. There are problems on this campus that need to be resolved but the fact that the media focus is on us does not absolve other schools of any duty to make sure the same is not happening on their campuses.

  17. York spends too much money on things that don’t help safety, vague police bulletins, restructuring the campus so we don’t jay-walk. Things York should do is spend more money on lighting up the campus. Simple things like light can be a better deterrent than the redvests.

    Maybe you wouldn’t feel so scared to walk across campus if you could see.

    • they actually have installed more lighting and more emergency phones/ buttons over the last two years

  18. It was only in 2011 that York security became “hands on”. I lived my whole life at Jane and finch and never had an issue myself. Yes, incidents do occur however; one has to have at least some street smarts when it comes to personal safety. If you know whats going on, on campus then why do students keep up with pure stupidity. Fir example you go to the washroom or you leave your seat fir a minute, take your damn laptop, ipod, cfone excetera with you. Rapes can happen anywhere at anytime, for Christ sakes they are happening right now in the “safety” of victim’s homes, school, church…… When left open and vulnerable, u can be inviting these circumstances onto yourself.

  19. Josh Dehaas raises some important biases on media coverage in our city that I have long questioned whenever I hear about locations of incidents that occur. I operate under my own assumption that UofT (in nice part of town) must be approximately as unsafe as York, but in fact it is more so according to the article. However JD too falls prey to his own biases when he states that Qian Liu was a York U student who was murdered during a web-cam chat in 2011. Although an arrest was made in the case, at the time, the autopsy could not draw any conclusion as to what had caused the young woman’s unfortunate death. Is it fair to use the word murder under such circumstances, especially when the case has not yet reached the Courts?

  20. Josh, something to highlight – if you go through the years, several, numerous students have been MURDERED on or adjacent to the McMaster campus in Hamilton over the years – there was one particularly gruesome killing in the 1970s or 80s in the secluded woods of the Princess Point forested area next to campus, and a much more recent one where an (ex-?)boyfriend stormed into a dorm room and shot a girl. A couple of months ago a student was stabbed at a house party a couple of blocks from the campus, and yet it didn’t make any news beyond the local paper – I’m pretty sure if this had happened at York it would have made Global, CP24, the whole lot of them.

  21. A better way to get a sound conclusion from the crime data is to know who the criminals and victims are. From campus safety perspective, the crime is higher in campuses where at least one of the victim or the criminal belongs to the campus population.
    In other words if there are 100 cases in UoT campus area but none of them involves a person that belongs to the campus population, it is relatively safer from an area that has 10 cases but in some of them one or more persons that belong to the campus population are involved.

    • This is an absolutely ridiculous comment. Do you have any idea how many news stories that have been reported as ‘at York’ have had nothing to do with a York community member and have been off-campus? Just last summer a robbery was reported as being next to York when it was a 20-30-minute walk away in a private home and no one had anything to do with York! Do you have any idea how many times we are notified about nearby crimes in the interest in keeping us safe and aware? Do you think criminals committing crimes near U of T are really going to stop to check to make sure they’re not students before they rob/ assault/ rape them? LOL please. If there’s crime there’s crime and it impacts everyone in the area, including students and including ‘campus safety’.

  22. Part of this article is incorrect.
    Randy’s Sports Bar and Restaurant on Keele just south of Steeles, it can’t be without mention of York University, even though the bar is a good 20-minute walk from the outskirts of the Keele campus.”

    There are several buildings on chimney stack road. There is one building which is actually at Chimeny Stack Road and Keele Street . Randy’s Bar is right across the street (east side of Keele). Randy’s Bar is not 20 minutes from campus but right across the street. York is a very dangerous campus and there’s no end. We’ve had several recent occurences at Assiniboine Street yet, York did list it as York even though York owns and maintains the apartments on Assiniboine. York needs to put more resources into safety and less in Managerial positions of which only other managers not students or staff get an benefit from.

  23. Listen I lived at York for two years. Within the first two weeks of moving into residence there was not only a rape, but my room mate and a friend that were visiting got held at Knifepoint and robbed while campus security sat and watched them all fighting. I one walked into an apartment to visit one of my friends and there was blood all over the lobby as well as police tape after a york girl was violently raped outside her aprament building just meters from. This is ridiculous if you have actually been an active social student at York you would understand the dangers associated with the school. I have seen my fair share of fights with people from Jane and Finch and participated in several myself to stop people from coming into our parties or trying to rob my friends at night.

    • Nice made up story.

    • No York student has ever been raped /outside/ of her apartment building. The rapes that occurred on campus were inside a res building in September of 2007. That part of your story is fabricated. Unless you mean the apartment was, idk, OFF CAMPUS, in which case it’s not relevant to York, York Security, or campus safety. It boggles my mind that people seem to think that York University is responsible for crime that takes place in the City of Toronto on a grand scale, which is actually Toronto Police jurisdiction. The B&E + assault that occurred last summer on Broadoaks Dr., for example… reported as having taken place “at York” when it is NOT at York and is at least a 30-minute walk away, and was thus TPS’ case to handle.

      I’m not sure why you think your peers aren’t aware of crime that actually occurs on our campus and aren’t reading your drivel, but I assure you that we are.

  24. Randy’s Sport’s Bar is actually right accross the street from one of the main entrances of York U’s campus. It’s only a 2 minute walk… not 20.

    • The idea is that the bar isnt even part of York and yet the media puts their name under the headlines

    • There was a huge shooting in the Eaton’s Centre food court. Part of Ryerson is actually in the Eaton’s Centre, not far from the food court. Preeeetty sure they didn’t start commenting on Ryerson’s campus safety. And let’s not forget about the abduction of a woman from near Ryerson that led to her being gang-raped… details of which were NOT provided to Ryerson students in an organized or timely manner.

      If the media wants to blame York for things that happen off-campus in close proximity, they ought to be consistent and do the same thing to other universities. But they don’t. You guys are so oblivious to this media bias that you’ll say anything to try to pretend it doesn’t exist. No one’s denying crime happens at and near York, but crime happens everywhere. The point is that it is misreported here very often, and underreported/ misreported at other universities in this city.

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