purple ribbons in the breeze

The Tori Stafford trial in London, Ontario is entering another week. Michael Rafferty stands accused of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm (which, when you stop to think about that wording, is an absolutely sickening description of a crime), and abduction. Last week, Terri-Lynne McClintic, who has already pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in this case, took the stand. It was harrowing testimony. Like the Russell Williams and Robert Pickton cases in recent memory, this trial raises that age-old question about journalism ethics: What details are too graphic to report?

For a case to be argued in court, the details have to come out, no matter how horrifying. The accused can’t be convicted or acquitted on sanitized generalities. And, as the evidence is presented, journalists are there in the courtroom. It’s their job to report the story, but what level of filter should journalists apply to their reporting? Is it their public responsibility to provide a complete picture of what is alleged to have happened in Tori’s final hours? Or is it insensitive to her memory to share every sickening detail?

I’ve been following a few reporters (@raffertyLFP, @AdrianMorrow, @cityfrancis) who are in the courthouse, and it’s interesting to see the differences between what each of them is willing to tweet. Likewise, it’s illuminating to read the reports of veteran crime/court reporters, like Christie Blatchford.

J-source took a poll on Twitter about the case so far, and reported the results. My views are included in that round-up, which can basically be boiled down to this: if we’re going to allow graphic and disturbing movies like SAW into theatres, we can’t justify sanitizing horrifying real-life events. Tori lived through something that most of us can’t imagine — the least we can do is bear witness to what she endured. That said, what we can do is make sure that someone doesn’t unintentionally come across the most disturbing details. Put a “graphic content” warning on it, and maybe even relegate the most difficult descriptions to a medium where the audience has to make the conscious choice to seek out the information, like the web. My concern here is mostly for kids who might hear a radio report before dad can flip off the stereo, or pick up a newspaper before mum can hide the A section.

Kathy English, the public editor for The Toronto Star, wrote an editorial explaining her newspaper’s philsophy during this trial. (Some other media outlets’ strategies are here and here.) In it, English quoted The Star’s Rosie DiManno, who has been covering the trial and has decades of experience reporting on gruesome crimes: “My view has always been that, if the victim had to endure the horror, the least we can do is not look away… Newspapers shouldn’t act as a buffer between readers and reality.”

Tori Stafford's grave in a Woodstock area cemetary. Glenn Lowson/The Toronto Star

Friends — thoughts?

UPDATE: Jsource has a round-up on the coverage of the trial so far, here.

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