Media on trial

VERDICT ON THE MEDIA: Robert “Willie” Pickton

The charges:

Sensationalism, squeamishness, or both. Journalism professor (and J-Source ethics editor) Stephen J. Ward laid out the ethical challenges of reporting gruesome information. He clarified terminology such as “responsible journalism,” “minimizing harm,” and “sensationalism,” and suggested practical measures for reporters and editors who would have to grapple with tough decisions. News outlets across Canada promised that they would do their best to report fully on the trial without being gratuitously shocking, but some observers felt they had strayed from their goal.

The pleas:
National Post editor Douglas Kelly addressed the plight in a letter from the editor published weeks before the trial started:

“Over the course of the trial, the National Post will endeavour to provide coverage that fulfills our journalistic commitments in a way that is respectful of the sensitivities of our readers, mindful of the victims’ families, and without falling into sensationalism.”

In Vancouver Sun editor Patricia Graham’s public statement, she noted that her publication has always tried to focus on the women, not their alleged killer, and had run an 11-part series on the disappearing women in 2001 that prompted police to step up their investigation. She vowed this wouldn’t change through coverage of the trial:  

“We will report fully what we consider necessary in the public interest and to provide an accurate record of the evidence led in court. We will not be salacious or gratuitously sensational.”

CBC editor Tony Burman said in a letter from the editor that guidelines had been circulated to journalists before the trial began cautioning them to be judicious:

“The question for journalists covering this will be how far should they go. How graphic should the description be? We can begin to answer that by making the decision in the best interests of our audience. How much detail does anyone want or need to understand the story….”

These and other editors’ similar responses were documented in an RRJ feature by Regan Ray, as well as a piece for from UBC’s Catherine Rolfsen.

The prosecution:
Vancouver online journalism site The Tyee criticized the Vancouver Sun for immediately resorting to “gratuitously sensational” coverage that broke editor Graham’s rules:

“The next day anyone glimpsing the Sun in a vending box or finding it on their front step would have no choice but to absorb the Sun‘s outsized, banner headline: ‘He murdered them, butchered them and disposed of their remains.’ The day after, this top headline: ‘My stomach turned just to hear his voice.’ ‘Sister sickened by police interview.'”

Criticizing the media’s glorification of the accused, the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (P.A.C.E) said the media should refer to the trial as “the trial in the case against the missing women from the Downtown Eastside” and not “the Pickton trial,” as reported in this Sun Media story.

CBC created an audience feedback section devoted to comments on coverage, which was closed after receiving 91 comments in about 36 hours. Of the 91 comments, 55 deemed the coverage gratuitously sensational and/or excessive, some requesting outright that the gory details not be published at all.

The following week, a Decima poll commissioned by CP revealed that the majority of Canadians (54 percent) agreed, and felt the media “has an obligation to tell people what kind of evidence is being presented but should avoid sharing the most shocking or upsetting details.”

The defence:
Ian Hunter, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario, said in a Globe and Mail commentary that whether any evidence was potentially offensive should not be the deciding factor in publication:

“Except for publication restrictions ordered by the trial judge, I would want everything published that is related, even tangentially, to a single question: Is the accused receiving a fair trial?”

Stephen J. Ward also cautioned media against making editorial decisions based on anticipated audience response for the sake of what he called “call-in ethics:”

“The goal of coverage of the Pickton trial should be sober, accurate, non-harassing coverage of that goes beyond news updates and delves into the deeper social and human aspects of this trial. If that sort of coverage is deemed offensive, so be it.”

In order to give the victims a stronger voice, Vancouver-based journalism site hired two former sex-trade workers, Trisha Baptie and Pauline VanKoll, to cover the trial.

And some members of the public, even in the final days of the trial, were asking for more. A December 3 comment from Carol Fontaine on Tony Burman’s original letter from the editor on the subject of public backlash reinforces the above arguments:

“Personally I will read anything I can get on this and certainly not because I enjoy the gory details but they unfortunately are part of it…. We should never forget that this happened to so many simply because it offends some people.”

The verdicts:
Despite the arguments for the defence, most media went to considerable lengths to appease their audiences. The CBC vowed to taper off their coverage, due in large part to the audience response; the Vancouver Sun printed sanitized summaries of the court proceedings on a separate page from their more graphic coverage; Guelph Mercury managing editor Phil Andrews, a self-admitted “queasy person,” noted his publication warned readers of “jarring content” in bolded notes above the stories.

From a legal perspective, media lawyer Dan Burnett discussed the legal challenges of covering the trial before it began, and then evaluated the media’s performance afterwards. He thought that the media did “a superb job, given the circumstances.”

Verdict on the media: Conrad Black continued on next page.


The charges:

Many critics accused journalists — especially Canadians — of biased reporting. For some, the alleged problem was a loyalty to Black stemming from obvious friendship and admiration. For others, it was the reverse — an antagonism based on unhappy prior employment in Black’s media empire.   

The pleas:
Not guilty, on all counts. When Maclean’s editor Kenneth Whyte was subpoenaed to testify in Black’s defence, the magazine printed this note from the editors:

“Last week, Maclean’s editor-in-chief and publisher Kenneth Whyte was issued a subpoena to appear as a witness in the fraud trial of Conrad Black in Chicago. Whyte is expected to testify on his experiences as an employee in the Black empire. His appearance will have no bearing on the magazine’s coverage of the case.”

Anticipating the public’s skepticism of balanced coverage, Chicago Sun-Times publisher John Cruickshank vowed that the newspaper would not be influenced by the past:

“Despite feelings of resentment that are still quite inflamed in some quarters, our coverage of Mr. Black’s trial will be founded on the presumption that he and his colleagues are innocent until they are proven guilty.”

The prosecution:
Before the trial even began, the CBC’s Tony Burman, in a letter from the editor, remarked that Black’s Canadian allies were already showing their support:

“Although many in the U.K. media have remained overwhelmingly critical, even scornful, of Lord Black and his wife, the Canadian media have largely been more sympathetic. Many of Black’s former journalistic colleagues in Toronto have been very skeptical about the U.S. efforts to prosecute him.”

By the time the trial had reached the half-way point, more detractors had started voicing their opinions. Few denounced the coverage so boldly as Allan Fotheringham. In his syndicated column for Osprey community newspapers (note: subscriber content only) he alleges:

“The Canadian journalism treatment of this trial has been a disgrace. As Jeffrey Simpson – from afar – has written it cannot be regarded as ‘coverage.’ Peter Worthington of the Toronto Sun, Mark Steyn for Maclean’s, Christy (sic) Blatchford for the Globe and Mail – all of whom have worked for Black at one stage or are friends – have been so vicious of Radler and fawning of their hero as to be embarrassing to their trade.”

The Star’s Antonia Zerbisias also alleged journalists’ bias, and suggested that it was strong enough to warrant them being taken off the case:

“No, there’s no doubt this is a tough trial to cover. It is tough to explicate, tougher still to animate. But some writers on the case should recuse themselves, and have their opinions struck from the journalistic record.”

Perhaps the most vehement accusation came from Black’s wife, Maclean’s columnist Barbara Amiel, who called the journalists covering the trial “vermin” and one broadcaster a “slut,” reported here by the Star’s Jennifer Wells.

The defence:
Maclean’s writer and trial blogger Mark Steyn argued that his position arose not from any allegiance, but simply from a belief that his ex-boss was being unfairly prosecuted:

“My ‘loyalty’ to my old boss brings no financial rewards and cost me my gig at the Sun-Times…. But, sitting in court day after day, I found my objection to this trial hardening. It’s not merely the procedural advantages the prosecution enjoys… beyond that, I simply couldn’t see the crime.”

In a column titled “OK, Black-bashers, time to get a life,” Christie Blatchford noted that despite any previous relationship with Black, she wasn’t a fan when he sold off the National Post (“I was furious and felt betrayed, and still do”) and reacted to Jeffrey Simpson’s criticism by pointing out that it should go both ways:

“…There’s an equal number ‘covering’ the case who fairly could be described as Black antagonists, not the least of whom is Tom Bower, author of the most recent book about the Blacks and perhaps the most personally wounding.”

The verdicts:
Many news reporters covering the trial remained objective, some even focusing on the conflict of interest issue. Daniel M. Ryan, who blogged extensively on the trial in The Conrad Black Trial: Comeuppance or Vindication?, provides the most exhaustive resource of aggregated coverage. Among his most interesting observations is one regarding the American press. He remarks in this blog entry that coverage south of the border seemed unusually sympathetic regardless of affiliation:

“I can’t explain why; the normal pattern would be near-open castigation of Conrad Black from the Black-averse and quiet objectivity from Black sympathizers.”

As the trial was nearing an end, Peter Brieger categorized various associates as either “Black’s Friends” or “Black’s Enemies” in this National Post article, the former including Mark Steyn and Christie Blatchford and the latter including Star columnist Rosie DiManno and New York Post columnist Liz Smith. Brieger included quotes from each as evidence.

When the Black verdict was announced, Toronto Life blogger Douglas Bell offered a roundup of global coverage that day and noted that media outlets performed as expected:

“The term of imprisonment being less than what had been imagined brought a round of muted huzzahs from Conrad’s supporters…. At the other end of the spectrum was the Chicago Sun-Times, which ran a frankly shameful editorial that made the astonishing assertion ‘we don’t make a habit of kicking people when they’re down’ before proceeding, in almost pornographic and certainly idiotic detail, to do just that.”

Shortly after the trial ended, Time magazine’s Susan Catto examined how various Canadian media were responding to the objectivity issue. Her verdict was that for many media outlets, the quest for juicy, insider info had become the top priority:

“In a country that has produced few personalities of Conrad Black’s proportions, perhaps that kind of value is just worth too much to sacrifice for the hope of objectivity.”

As the public awaited sentencing, Andy Barrie on CBC’s Metro Morning interviewed Globe and Mail reporter Paul Waldie, who’d been covering the trial (objectively, by all accounts). In response to Barrie’s argument that reporters were injecting their own biases into their predictions, Waldie agreed:

“I think that’s a function of the media wanting a quick decision and wanting something explained and decided on, and fast, and that’s just the culture we live in, where people can’t really wait three months, can’t really sit through everything, don’t really want to hang around for all of the closings or hear absolutely every piece of evidence.”