Trial by media: “how have we come to this sorry point?”

The recent case of Colonel Russell Williams in Trenton, Ont. is the latest example of “trial by media” and showed that “the more lurid the rumours the larger the headlines and crazed the speculation,” according to a recent Ottawa Citizen op-ed by media law professor Klaus Pohle.

Pohle, who teaches at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, wrote:

“Let’s be clear: presumption of innocence is one of the cornerstones of our justice system, indeed democracy itself. That’s one reason that it is a right guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it’s not just the legal system that must be vigilant in guarding civil liberties. So must the media as a self-proclaimed defender of justice and democracy.

“But all media have shown an unhealthy disregard for practising what they preach, especially with regard to pre-trial publicity. Suspects, and that’s all they are until a court says otherwise, are regularly demonized in media reports by dredging up an accused’s (perhaps sordid) past in screaming headlines. Relatives, friends, neighbours and other associates are interviewed to feed the media frenzy. Victims, victims’ families and whole communities breathe a collective sigh of relief that the accused is behind bars and the community is once again safe. Of course, that pre-supposes that the person in custody is guilty.

“But guilt is pronounced by judges or juries based on evidence presented in court, not the emotional speculation of the media, neighbours, community, social groups or even the police.”

Read the full column here.