Code Red is journalism at its best


It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon in October, just a few weeks ago.

I was strolling through the campus at Ryerson University in Toronto, en route to address a conference of health care professionals about The Spectator’s Code Red series.

The sun on my back, the warm breeze, the turning leaves overhead and the realization I was the final speaker of the day combined to plant a thought in my mind: Who would stick around in a stuffy conference hall on this glorious afternoon to listen to me?

I prepared for the worst, anticipating a ragtag group of conference stragglers. But the room was packed, the speech was well-received, and the question-and-answer session afterward was lively and engaging.

They wanted to hear all about The Spectator’s groundbreaking Code Red project, the fourth instalment of which is in today’s editions.

The conference, after all, was about the social determinants of health, which is exactly what Code Red is all about: where you live determines not just how you live, but how you may die — and when.

In today’s 12-page special section, The Spectator’s award-winning investigative journalist Steve Buist introduces the latest in the series — Cancer: A Code Red Project, which runs all week and will culminate next weekend with another special section.

It is an excellent example of what we call data journalism — telling stories through numbers, using public data to learn more about ourselves, how we live, and how we can improve.

Buist dissects cancer rates in Hamilton down to the neighbourhood level, and while the results are not necessarily surprising, they are alarming: people living in the poorer parts of Hamilton are dying of cancer at significantly higher rates than those living in richer areas.

“This disparity, it disgusts me,” says Neil Johnston, an epidemiologist and faculty member in McMaster University’s department of medicine. He collaborated on The Spectator’s original Code Red series, as well as this one. “What this should do, and will do, is engage the community in debate, and the debate is about social justice and what we will tolerate in our community.”

The stories today of life and death and inequity are not told merely in words and evocative photographs by Gary Yokoyama and John Rennison. There is also a strong graphic element.

You can see cancer rates in your particular neighbourhood. Cancer rates are measured against geographic and economic data.

You can go to our new Code Red website, unveiled this week, via, which collects all the Code Red series of the past three years, and compare those rates against many different factors through clickable, interactive graphics and maps produced by The Spectator’s Pete Smaluck.

The picture — many different pictures, in fact — that emerges is remarkable.

It is The Spectator’s most ambitious project yet, journalistically and technically.

It has been a monumental co-operative effort by Buist, Johnston and many others at The Spectator and McMaster University.

Many readers and Hamilton residents will know Code Red has helped foster debate in Hamilton. Some may not know how much it has become part of the daily conversation among so many diverse communities across the city and indeed the province: health, education, business, sports …

Buist has been asked to speak about Code Red around 100 times.

People are interested.

While much of Code Red is disturbing, that fact alone is encouraging.

Paul Berton is editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator and You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or[email protected] .

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