Friday, April 07, 2006

Rude awakenings

One of the catches with journalism has always been "how much do you report?" Because there are stories where it's a legitimate question. Some stories are so graphic or terrible you genuinely don't want to give all the details. They're terrible and will only harm those who are going through the tragedy. Of, if you're a good enough writer, you can convey the scope of the horror, without getting into all the messy details.

The Bernardo/Homolka case is probably the one that sticks out the most in my mind, although there certainly have been cases since then. Probably because it became the first test case, at least in Canada, of people trying to get around rules set down by a judge about how much information can be out in the public domain by using the Internet.

Reporters weren't allowed to convey the depth of the horror unleashed on the two girls. Just that it was extensive, traumatic and nearly everyone who read or heard the details immediately wished they didn't know. But there were those who felt the court ban was wrong and put the information online.

I was one of those people who read that information. It might have been the early days of the Internet revolution (pre-websites. I found the info on a newsgroup), but if you knew where to dig, you could find it. I don't know why I went looking; probably something to do with journalistic righteousness. I had the belief that the court was wrong and the public had a right to know all the details of the case, no matter how terrible.

Mercifully, time has blunted most of the details. But I think there was a lesson learned there. And it was if you're an editor there are going to be times when you have to make the hard call – how much information are you going to report in public and what are the pros and cons in this decision.

The reason for this little ramble is that I happened upon one of those editorial dilemma stories today, quite by accident.

There was a murder a few weeks ago of a young girl in the community of Kugaaruk. That alone would be disturbing enough, but more details have been coming out. Her age, that it was first degree murder and that a man has been arrested for it.

More details came out today, from two sources: CBC and The Nunatsiaq News. The CBC played it vague. The horror was there, but played around the edges. Lots of legalize to mute the full scope of it. The Nunatsiaq News went straight to the heart of it.

I have a fairly strong disposition when it comes to reading terrible things. I think being a journalist you do build up a bit of a resistance. It's not often I physically repel myself away from a computer after reading a story. I did just that this morning.

For the record, I'm not linking to either story. If you want to read them, you can certainly find them with a minimum of effort. But I do urge caution, especially with the Nunatsiaq News story, and even moreso if you have young children.

Which story is better? I'm not 100 per cent sure. If I was the editor, I honestly think I would have played it vague on the details of the crime. I expect the paper is going to get some nasty letter in the next week. It was a shock when I read it, as I was expecting another bloodless crime story. By bloodless I mean crime reporting is often done poorly in journalism circles, with no power. For every Christie Blatchford there are hundreds not worthy of carrying her pens.

By the way, even calling the Nunatsiaq News piece a story is a tad generous. It was a brief – nine sentences. Even if there had been a warning or a separate link, it might not have been so shocking. But there it was sandwiched between two mining stories. I was expecting to read another news briefing on a crime and getting what is there…well, it threw me.

I know the argument goes that the story got me upset and it got me involved. I'll be keeping a cautious eye out for the story to make sure that if they have the right man, that he never gets out of jail again. And maybe that's a good thing about the story. It got me emotionally involved and outraged. And good journalism can do that.

But with the way this was reported and presented, I don't know. I question the judgment. And I imagine that the family of a dead little girl would prefer that some things remain hidden.

Currently Playing
House of Ill Fame - The Trews


Jason said...

Sigh yeah that was fairly graphic without their being a reason for it. Surprised CBC was so restrained. Two years back when I was teaching in Nain, there was a rape/attempted murder case, and CBC went to full blown coverage. They continued during the trial. Thing was it was hard as a teacher to deal with the shadow of case in school(it involved students) Then come home to sensational news reports on it.

I always understand the need for journalists to file and report stories but whatever happened to the phrase respondsible journalism, where the big picture is considered?

Mireille Sampson said...

I'm with you on this one Craig. There's a certain amount of respect you have to show the family; also, there's the issue of weighing up how much good it really will do to put all the gory details in (I'm sure there are people who stop reading news because this stuff can be so's stopped me for a while after reading about infant rapes). I didn't read the story, BTW.

I read a piece a while back discussing how kids were getting hurt because of their parents attempts to protect them. Odd, I know. It used as an example increased incidents of kids getting hit by cars around schools because the parents were all driving their kids to school - they were afraid to let the kids bus/walk it.

Seeing as how most children are abused and murdered by people they know, how much can the paranoia help? Streetproofing kids isn't as simple as "don't talk to strangers". That's why they do classes in school now talking about good-touching versus bad-toughing. Not that it would stop a random killing, I'm not sure what the answer is there...though I'm quite sure many of those bastards seek out "vulnerable" children, the way Pickton chose heroin-addicted prostitutes (often native) - you don't get much lower in society's rankings. I wish the Van police would get taken to task for ignoring the killings - they put a muzzle on a profiler who told them there was a serial-killer.

Anonymous said...

Ian from Nunablog here. Forgive me the following rant. Your post reminds me of an issue that I've often wondered about: from where does this vaunted "public's right to know" come?

I am aware of no document that says 'the public' has a right to know anything. Where did the media get this sense of entitlement? Forgive my cynicism but...

I am perfectly happy to grant stronger protections to victims than 'the public'. Frankly I don't much like or respect 'the public' as an entity. Most people do not use or want these details as a call to action. They want the gossip, the shock, the luridness. And the media wants to sell papers and boost ratings.

I can only think that the media purports to be a watchdog on the government and justice system. That they want to keep everyone honest and report to the public that nobody's getting framed or denied their rights. I don't believe that they need to report the specific details of the hurt inflicted, especially in violent and/or sexual cases, to fulfill that role.

The media is not 'the public'. The public is represented by 12 people called the jury. Those 12 people have a right to know and a responsiblility to ensure that the process is just. I do not have a right to know about the personal details of a victim's trauma unless I'm on that jury.

Besides, all agencies involved (courts, judges, parole boards, etc.) are vehement in their disregard for public opinion. It doesn't matter what public outrage the media whips up as it is rightly ignored by those involved. The amerian south used to have a justice system based on public opinion. Do we want a return to lynchings?

I would be interested in your side of the issue Craig, coming from the journalism side of things.

Anonymous said...

I'll take a shot at responding to part of your comment, Ian of Nunablog. It's a legal answer, and one which recasts the 'public's right to know' to the 'media's freedom to report'.

The document is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2(b) of the Charter says everyone has the "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication."

I've added a link to the supurb CANLII website so that people can see what the Supreme Court of Canada has to say on the subject.

Provincial and federal Freedom of Information legislation might also be taken to express the view that the public has a right to know.

This legal stuff, of course, does not go any way to answering the important moral question of whether or not there is such a thing as a 'right to know'.

I think it is clear that in at least some circumstances, we do think individuals have a moral claim to knowledge of things - particularly when it involves themselves. (Health and financial information, for example.) So the question is really, what things do we have a right to know, and how are we to decide what these things are to be?

A harm principle seems attractive, but we have to be careful. Sometimes it might be so important for us to know things, to such a degree that it confers a right, even though it harms people. Think, for example, of how we want to have a right to know about corrupt politicians, or criminals (e.g. pedophiles) in our neighbourhood.

So I think your question shows two things:

<1> We want to qualify a right to knowledge by some sort of harm principle. We might want to know about the criminal, but not details about the crime or the victim which might cause further pain.

<2> We don't buy the media's high-minded argument, because we know that they are a low-minded business. They sell stories, to the public and to advertisers, and traffic in human misery. I wonder if this should make a difference though...

regards, cat`

towniebastard said...

I'm not sure if this answers some of the questions asked here, but I'll try.

Admittedly the papers I've worked with haven't been the Toronto Sun or the Globe and Mail and there are different work practices happening with those papers. But most editors I've worked with have, I wouldn't say not care, but certainly never obssessed over the circulation and sales side of the newspaper.

There are business managers, officie managers or circulation people that handle that sort of thing. The average editor is too busy worrying about:
1. Finding stories.
2. Getting the reporters to do the stories
3. Making sure the stories are well done.
4. Making sure there is enough copy to fill all the white spaces (depending on how well the sales staff have done their job).
5. Getting nice looking photos.
6. Producing an attractive and interesting paper people will want to read.

That will keep you busy enough on an average day to not be dwelling on sensationalism.

You just want to tell good stories, stories that impact people and try to make a difference. Or, worse comes to worst, will fill 20 inches of white space.

As for people wanting to know things and is it their business...humans are natually curious, journalists doubly so. And I don't think that's ever going to change. We want to know things. I want to know things. I might no longer write for a newspaper, but I'm still constantly curious about things that are happening around me.

Add into that the inherent distrust most people have about institutions. People trust government and the courts to an extent (or there would be anarchy), but there is always the worry and belief that they're keeping stuff from us and we have to question and find things out. When we stop is when bad things happen.

And in all of this, it's the job of the editor to weigh all the details and make a decision when reading the final story. To decide on the language, to decide if those facts need to be revealed, if it's being told properly.

A good editor is like a magician; you won't even know s/he's there. It's my understanding that Jim Bell, editor of the Nunatsiaq News, is pretty good. His paper has won plenty of journalism awards.

That doesn't mean he's incapable of making mistakes, and I think he made one in that story. It's was a brief. There was no context, no depth, no quotes. They should have either chose different language to tell the story, or held off on it so they could get more information.

As it is now, it's a brutal little shock in the middle of some mining stories.

Anyway, that's my two cents worth. I hope it makes some sense and answers some questions.