Has coverage of Col. Williams gone too far? Or not far enough?

Canada hasn’t seen a case like Col. Russell Williams since serial rapist and killer Paul Bernardo commanded headlines in the early 90s. In the days since the judge lifted a ban on Blackberrys and laptops, coverage of Williams’ hearing has exploded online and in Toronto’s dailies, leaving
some people to ask: how much does the public need to know?
Toronto's dailies covers Oct 19
The Toronto Sun published a photo of Williams wearing a small black bra with three words in red: “Pervert. Rapist. Killer.” The Globe and Mail used a grainy closeup of Williams’ face, with a small cutline calling him “The Face of Deviance,” with a Christie Blatchford column that says “Others have killed more, raped more, victimized more. But in Canadian criminal history, probably no one ever before has done the devil’s work with such single-minded purpose and documented his exploits with such devotion.” The National Post ran a courtroom sketch by one of their top artists under the headline “Shocking Perversion”. The Toronto Star headline “A depraved double life” is paired with two photos: one, Williams wearing only a young girl’s bathing suit. The other, Williams in full military regalia.

Inside, the Post ran two small thumbnail photos of Williams in women’s underwear, the Sun ran larger photos of the same. The Globe didn’t run any photos of Williams in underwear, although all four publications opted to publish large, full-colour photos of the accused’s collection of stolen women’s underwear.
Toronto's dailies inside Oct 19
While not the first time a court case has been reported live from the court room, Canadian journalists are for the first time dealing with on-the-fly decision making over what should – and shouldn’t – be shared with the public. It’s the kind of thing usually left to publishers and editors to argue over.

Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank, speaking with Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway, admits that the decision to put a photo of Williams posing in stolen lingerie on the front page “left the newsroom divided.”

“I think it’s that pair of photos — not the single photo — that tell an extraordinary disturbing story,” Cruickshank said. “I think there probably is harm, but there is a greater good that arises as we get past that harm. This is a day you hate as a publisher. I would much rather have a victorious Leafs cover celebrating their victory,” which would certainly sell more papers and would make advertisers happy, he says. “We feel like we have to face up to the truth of our day, this is not the truth of every morning, but certainly is an extraordinary story about authority in Canada, It’s a story we shouldn’t turn our heads from, it’s the reason we made the decision we did.”

Galloway compares the Star with the other Toronto dailies’ front page coverage. He asked Cruickshank why the Star ran the “most explicit” cover of the bunch. “To use the word “explicit” is to bring in a whole standard of judgment that gets away from reality,” Cruickshank said. “This is the most honest portrayal. This is a photograph of a character that is both enormously frightening and tremendously pathetic.” The Globe might as well have run “a picture of Hannibal Lecter. [Williams] got brought back into the world of fiction. What [the Star has] done is kept it very real.”

Update: The Globe and Mail‘s Sylvia Stead wrote an article called “Why today’s front page does not include a photo of Russell Williams in women’s lingerie“. She writes: “Although the articles explain the evidence of all the crimes committed in great detail, we chose not to run the photographs of Williams in women’s lingerie in part because the readers have no choice in what photographs they see on the front page. They can choose to read the articles and to stop when it might become difficult, but not so with photographs.” The article also links to the Globe’s online gallery of Russell Williams photos.

Star columnist Heather Mallick writes:

“[Williams] liked looking at himself in the mirror, but he never smiled to show pleasure, maintaining a rigid military decorum even while looking the perfect prat, a great big man in the pink sun dress of a little girl. Seriously. You should see the photos he took of himself in his own kitchen, like a huge dog in a frock. A leaf print. Strapless.

“Here’s proof of how gentle and good most people are. Nobody laughed out loud. It would have humiliated Williams beyond belief. But it would have hurt the families and so no one did it.

“There was a sense of unreality in the courtroom because acts of genuine confrontation and violence were only beginning to be described by the end of the day. You could hear the soft tapping of reporters’ laptops, allowed to report digitally, which is rare.

“Everyone’s face was blank. But the sheer disbelief was palpable.”

Readers have responded to the coverage with a mix of intrigue and disgust. A tweet by Toronto Star public editor Kathy English says: “Fielding reader complaints about Star’s Page 1 pic of Williams in woman’s underwear- a depraved pic, but did publishing it cross a line?” The sexualized coverage has upset a lot of people, especially when the media calls Williams a “sexual festishist”, which is not the same as being a sexual predator. Blogger Sabrina Becker writes “…I get so angry when I see the media falling into the trap of fixating on Williams’s alleged sexual fetishes, instead of understanding that he is a predator, one who sexualizes power-over. The media’s job is to clear up our confusion, and instead, they are adding to it. And in so doing, they hang women and children–the persons most likely to become a predator’s victims–out to dry.”

The hashtag #ColRW was trending as the third most popular topic on Twitter today.

CBC’s live blog of the event, using the content management system Cover It Live, prefaced the more graphic entries with “WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT.” Some excerpts:

12:13 CBC:
WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT: Amber Hildebrandt reports: “Folders that
Williams created of the assault and murder include 33 screenshots of
various websites reporting on the death and Facebook tribute pages set
up by friends and family. The folder also contains an image of a letter,
dated Dec. 1, 2009, to Comeau’s father. It was prepared by her
commanding officer and signed by Williams in his capacity as base
commander of CFB Trenton offering condolences to her family.”

12:00 CBC:
WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT: Amber Hildebrandt reports: “Not long after, he
removes items of lingerie from a drawer and places them on top of her,”
says Crown Thompson. He took more photographs. Despite being bound with
rope, she is able to struggle and fight him off at points. Williams
placed a pillow over Comeau’s face when she screamed. He eventually
allows her to get off the bed. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
she asks. He places duct tape over her nose. She appears to suffocate.
The video ends at 3:30 a.m.”

The CBC live blog includes instant updates, quotes from experts, photos that have come up as evidence in court (including some of Williams posing in women’s underwear), explanation of what’s happening in the court room (especially the reactions of family members of victims). It also linked to a video love letter from a former boyfriend of one of the murder victims and a gallery to photos from her life. Other publications also have reporters doing live tweets, columnists weighing in and sidebars about everything from psychiatric evaluations to how the military is dealing with the bad press.

In an explanatory note, CBC explains its coverage:

“We knew the hearing would be disturbing, and we knew we would have access to more material than usual in these kinds of proceedings. It is rare we get permission to report live from inside a courtroom. How would we cover it?

“But really, the first question is “Why do we cover it?”

“We cover it because we can be your eyes and ears in a courtroom, and we are committed to as open a justice system as possible.

“We cover it because there is a strong public interest (and yes, maybe some of it is prurient) as well as a real need to understand how someone in a position of such authority, a senior member of the Canadian armed forces, could also commit these crimes. And no one seemed to suspect a double life.

“The reality turned out to be more shocking than any of us knew.”

Today’s hearing is expected to be even more disturbing: I wonder what tomorrow’s front pages will look like?