Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Canadian courtroom opens to twitter and blackberry

This past two weeks or so, mainstream media in Canada has regaled us with graphic tweets and pictures of the murder case of a (former? ex?) Colonel of the Canadian military. To me, this has been an interesting study in just how much the mainstream media is willing to share. For the first time, reporters have been using electronic devices in a Canadian courtroom. It is not, of course, the first time that media has reported every last gasp of unfolding tragedies. New York 9/11, anyone? Remember 7/7 in London?

There have been other sensationalised murder cases in Canadian courts, which supplied ample gory details. Paul Bernardo was tried and convicted of murdering two young Ontario women, and Robert Picton, a pig farmer convicted of murdering six women in BC. Both those cases were reported (ad nauseum) but there was no electronic connection with inside the court. In this Williams case, media corporations applied to the judge to be allowed to live blog, tweet, etc minute by minute testimonies.

From the National Post:

Judge rules in media application over trial of Col. Williams

Colonel Russell Williams makes a court appearance In Belleville, Ont., on Oct. 7, 2010.

Kagan McLeod/National Post

Colonel Russell Williams makes a court appearance In Belleville, Ont., on Oct. 7, 2010.

Adrian Humphreys, National Post · Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010

BELLEVILLE, Ont. — A judge ruled Thursday that accredited journalists covering the Col. Russell Williams case will be allowed to use electronic devices to file updates from the courtroom.

Williams, the former commander of Canada’s largest military airbase, says he will plead guilty to killing two women, sexually assaulting two others and committing a long list of fetish burglaries. He will appear in court in Belleville, in eastern Ontario, on Monday to enter his plea.

Thursday’s hearing was hastily arranged last week after reporters arriving to cover Williams’ trial were told they could not use electronic devices in the courtroom. A reporter with Postmedia News requested permission from Justice Robert Scott to send live electronic updates through Twitter from the courtroom during the proceedings using a BlackBerry. Other reporters had asked to use laptop computers to take notes on the high-profile case.

The judge heard legal arguments from media lawyers Thursday.

Williams will appear next week under high security. His lawyer, Michael Edelson, told court his client will plead guilty to all counts.

Two indictments filed in court charge him with: two counts of first-degree murder; two counts of sexual assault; two counts of forcible confinement; and 86 counts of break-and-enter and theft in deviant fetish raids of women’s underwear and other items.

The case has made headlines around the world because of the double life it’s alleged Williams led as a respected and decorated military official...

Read more here.

Long time readers of mine know I am a keen follower of the mainstream media. I am a news junkie. I also have been known in the past to 'gently' chide practitioners of the craft of journalism who I perceive as crossing my long-held line of decency and ethics. Some of my previous columns: I wrote on (and to) Nick Meo here; I have taken Michael Yon to task (maybe not so gently) here. I have written about the BBC here, and wrote on AP publishing pictures of a dying Marine - with up close and very personal pictures. This despite Robert Gates, and the Marines family, expressly asking AP not to print those private last moments of their son's life. I also looked briefly at the history of war reporting here.

My own views on what the public has the 'right to know,' and what the msm should be sharing with the consumer public, are well-documented. In this Williams case, there has been renewed debate on this right to know. Some have said that the public needs to know the depth of depravity of this convicted murderer's actions. This case tested both journalists and editors as to the limits of what they would share in order to feed what the public 'needed' to know of the facts of this case. Quite apart from the fact that I am technically challenged, so would have been totally inept in my coverage, I am so glad I was not a journalist in that courtroom, with the expectation that I would divulge every sordid detail of what happened to Williams' numerous victims.

I have not been the only observer of how the media handled the freedom of the press as ruled on in this case by the Judge presiding over this specific trial.

From Canada.com:

International media drawn to depraved Williams case

Postmedia News October 21, 2010

The eyes of the world have turned to unassuming Belleville, Ont., as the shocking details of Col. Russell Williams' sexual assaults, murders, and perversions generate headlines and discussion far beyond Canada's borders.

International media, from the New York Times to the Sunday Times of South Africa, from Der Spiegel to La Figaro, have published articles on the lurid testimony and evidence offered this week.

By one count, Williams has appeared in leading national newspapers or news websites in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Russia, Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, India, Mexico, and more.

In both the New York Times and the London Daily Mirror, a full 1,100 words were devoted to the killer colonel's confession, while Italy's La Repubblica published a photo gallery of the pictures Williams took of himself wearing women's underwear and lingerie.

Meanwhile, the graphic images and testimony have sparked discussion over how many of the case's details need sharing.

Across the Pacific Ocean, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran an editorial on the case questioning whether "it's time to assert the public's right not to know," and if the "only interest being served is prurience, some sort of slack-jawed, morbidly-fascinated curiosity."

On Thursday, at a conference in Florida, The Associated Press Photo Managers discussed the ethical dilemmas newspapers face when printing such photos. Contributors at the conference credited Canadian newspapers for printing notices warning of disturbing content in the Williams case but wondered what value there was in exposing readers to every minute and depraved tidbit of information.

Compiled by Mike Barber, Postmedia News (source)

I found a video from City.tv in Toronto, which I am choosing not to share, here, that was a discussion on the ethical dilemma facing newsrooms across Canada as they grappled with how much is too much information. On that video, which yes, showed some of the more graphic pictures of the convicted, one of the editors asserts that they 'have a duty' to share all the information with the public.

I heard soundbites of John Cruickshank of the Toronto Star, justifying their rationale for sharing it all. One of his comments was that "...this is the truth of our day..."

Not everyone is buying into this compulsion to share the tawdry minutiae of these crimes:

Should graphic Russell Williams photos go on the front page?

Torontonians picking up their morning papers today didn’t really have much of a choice: the nastiness of the Russell Williams trial in Belleville has made it to the front pages of all of the major dailies. But Toronto’s newsies did choose different pictures to go on their front pages. (Editor’s note: The following links are to images of the papers’ front pages, and some are upsetting. For readers who want to see the covers, we’ve added them to a slide show at the bottom of the post.)

The Toronto Star and Toronto Sun both ran photos of Williams wearing the underwear of his victims on the front page, while the Globe and Mail and National Post did not. The Star is getting a large share of criticism because the photo it ran is so large and prominent on the page; the Sun’s seems less prominent.

The debate is pretty one-sided on Twitter: Globe-ster Brodie Fenlon writes, “We, as media, fight every day for access to court exhibits. Star undermines our cause by not being responsible with them,” and he’s pretty representative. Responding to claims that the Star is simply serving the public interest, Maclean’s Scott Feschuk writes, “It’s never pretty when the media gets to cloak their lurid instincts in the guise of doing a duty.”

Responding to the criticism, John Cruickshank told CBC’s Metro Morning that the Star decided to run the photos because “that pair of photos…tell an extraordinarily disturbing story.”

“I think there probably is harm, but there’s also a greater good,” said Cruickshank. Defending the Star against the inevitable charge that its goal was simply to sell papers, Cruickshank says that if anything, this will probably hurt the Star’s circulation and certainly enrage advertisers.

The “public interest” defence seems like a red herring; the Globe and the Post both managed to avoid the front-page shocker, and it’s hard to argue they’ve failed to inform the public. What’s upsetting a lot of people, it seems, is that basically the front pages of Toronto’s dailies are impossible to miss: the morning commute takes us past them all the time. Putting Williams in lingerie on the front page takes the choice away from a paper’s readers...(here)

I'm really not convinced that the 'greater good,' as Cruickshank calls it, IS being served by this past week's coverage.

I am not alone. From another blog comes this:

Media Savvy
The Russell Williams trial reporting problem

Warning: This post contains some of the graphic tweets I’ve been condemning to make a number of points. Be warned: they are terrible. Links may also be disturbing and/or not safe for work/school.

This past week has been a horrible one for Canadian media. And when I say media, I mean all of it.

The trial of serial rapist/murderer Russell Williams has finally come to a close. According to The Globe and Mail:

Judge Scott sentenced Col. Williams to two concurrent life sentences for the first-degree murders of Cpl. Comeau and Jessica Lloyd. In addition, he received two 10-year terms for his two sexual assaults and one year apiece for the 82 break-ins, all to be served concurrently.


I’ve watched and read as this man was arrested, detained, and brought to trial. The coverage has disturbed me and completely taken over my life this week (to the point of tears). More and more grisly details have been revealed and in an incredibly salacious and inappropriate manner.

Sensationalism in news doesn’t shock me, but I think it’s important for people to challenge media in how information is conveyed and acknowledge that readers/viewers are significantly influenced and impacted by reporting methods. Making statements like “either follow the trial or not” or “papers will run uncomfortable photos, get over it,” is equivalent to saying “sit down and shut up, news will be delivered as it will and if you don’t like it, don’t read it.” [There were many people advising others to filter out the Williams trial tweets, as if that was a comprehensive solution.] But there are three particularly damaging aspects to this trial that absolutely need to be addressed:...

There is more here.

I have no idea who writes that blog, but I do agree with their views on how the media covered this. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has been interviewing observers on this topic of media coverage, and a number of educated (and some not so educated) views have been aired, and yes, they are many and varied. Much as I have tried to avoid this whole saga, I did hear one interview with a journalism instructor that resonated with me. Ross Howard spent many years as a professional journalist and now teaches aspiring journalists/reporters. He was on a local afternoon radio show this past week discussing the Williams trial coverage.

In Howard's professional opinion, the coverage was 'way over the top,' and he pointed out the thin line between 'truth' and 'exploitation.' The truth is, in this day of 24/7 news coverage, media corporations are in fierce battles with their competitors to maintain their advertising dollars by virtue of their readership stats.

I have the luxury of choosing what I write about - and how - without having to answer to anyone else's bottom line. Because I don't have any editor pushing me to fill x number of column inches - and assigning me stories - I can avoid what Howard called 'junk food journalism.' Unlike msm journalists covering trials such as Williams, whose livelihoods depend on their 'getting the goods,' my writing choices are not dependent on any managing editor's choices of what is 'newsworthy.' By the way, one of the courses Howard teaches in Ethics in Journalism. Yes, I know in the past I have made cracks about that, but after talking with Howard, I have to tell you there IS hope in the current journalism students. According to Howard, today's up and coming journalists are being rigorously trained in ethics as they learn their craft.

During the course of Howard's CBC interview, the host revealed that CBC sent out a memo about that corporation's modus operandi in covering Williams' trial. According to Quinn, the mother corp reporters were told to share 'only what is necessary to inform,' and to be guided by the premise of what 'serve[s] a journalistic purpose.' The whole interview with Howard, which lasted about 7 minutes, can be found here, and is well worth listening to.

In a brief interview outside the courtroom, one of the lawyers involved in the Williams case said that he felt it was important to have every terrible detail of Williams crimes on the record so that if in the future there was any parole hearings (Williams is ineligible to even apply for parole for at least 25 years,) that the parole board would know exactly the gravity of the crimes of which he was convicted. I agree that is absolutely necessary, but I also disagree vehemently with the rest of us - who were not in the courtroom - needing to know.

Someone else - I forget who now - also said describing every horrific detail was necessary for the public, so that we would recognise and know the evil that walks among us. Oh, really? As anyone who has read history knows, or even listens to today's news, gruesome details are NOT necessary for us to know the nature of evil.

It was the duty of the courts to go through all the evidence (including videos Williams took of himself as he raped and murdered,) and punish the depravity that was Williams. The courts act as the public's agent in meting out the punishment to fit the crime. I do not need to know about the last minutes of Marie-France or Jessica's lives as they came face to face with evil. It is enough - more than enough - for me to know that our judicial system did its job, and that Williams will never again be free to torment innocents.

As the blogger quoted above says, I am really glad that freak show is over. I would be really happy to never have to think about Russell Williams again. My hope is, however, that this whole episode will provide more training tools, encourage robust discussion, in newsrooms and journalism schools, around the country as to what 'duty to inform' really mean, and what do we, the public really need to know.

As Howard pointed out, and I agree, journalists today have many new tech toys with which to ply their profession. My hope is that this recent foray into minute by minute - every last gasp (literally) - reportage, will cause thoughtful deliberation as to how these new tools are to be prudently used.

In this case, for me the most important questions, that it is imperative for every journalist/editor to ask themselves are: "Who does it serve?" and "Just because we can, should we?" I am pretty sure my regular readers know my answer to that last question.

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