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.

the first draft of history

When people ask what I like about being a journalist, I can boil it down to one word: access. Journalists go places and meet people and do things that are out of reach for most civilians — it’s an incredible privilege, and we pay that honour forward by doing our best to accurately and fairly report on what we’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled.

They say journalists write the first draft of history. Sometimes, that history isn’t pretty. I recently read a statistic that around one in 10 Americans suffer from PTSD, which seems high… but if it’s true, journalists are certainly no exception. Newsrooms increasingly offer counselling and support to reporters covering difficult topics, but journalists rarely discuss trauma as openly and honestly as CBC Radio’s Dave Seglins in this piece, on the sentencing of Col. Russell Williams. I recommend you give it a read, no matter your profession. [Via -30-]

Not only reporters, but everyone, can take a lesson from this unashamed account of psychological trauma. Unwillingness to discuss mental illness (whether temporary or chronic) only makes it that much harder for sufferers to cope. If you sprain your ankle or struggle with lifelong back pain, there’s no shame in casually disclosing it — but mental weakness is a spectre few are willing to candidly raise. Well done, Mr. Seglins.

Of course, not every journalist is working in psychologically taxing conditions (although it’s a good excuse for the hard drinking and cynicism). Sometimes being a journalist means bearing witness to moments of peace and harambee (“pulling together”), such as my chance to attend the celebration of the life of Dr. Wangari Maathai today. When I arrived, the crowds were already thick in Uhuru Park. But a flash of the press pass, and I was above the fray on the media riser — with an unobstructed view of the casket, the ceremony, and all the dignitaries, there to wish a truly remarkable (and tough as nails) woman well on her next great adventure.

a bamboo, water hyacinth and papyrus casket -- Dr. Maathai's final chariot before cremation.

Paige and I went to the funeral together. She provides her account here.