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.
House of Ill Fame - The Trews