Eleanor Wallace
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Climate of Fear

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How a sensational and sexist press hyped hysteria in the summer of '82

On May 28, 1982, Jenny Isford, 19, was discovered on a lawn five doors from her home in North York. She had been raped and strangled. Less than a month later, the body of Welsh nanny Christine Prince, 25, was found floating in the West Rouge River near the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. On July 12, bride-to-be Claudia Gebert, 21, was found molested and stabbed to death in her home. The body of Judy Ann Delisle, 38, mother of four, was found in a laneway in Toronto’s east end on July 19. Lee Marie Di Palma, a 31-year-old nurse, vanished September 21 after dropping her son off at a Barrie nursery school. Five days later, Delia Adriano, 25, an Oakville secretary, also disappeared. The severely beaten body of Kathy Alma Brosseau, 17, was discovered October 10 in the Don Valley, just south of the Bloor Viaduct.

The Toronto papers had a field day. As each attack occurred, their frenzied response mounted. By the end of October, the seven tragedies had resulted in close to 400 stories in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The Toronto Sun. Of the three, the Globe, characteristically, was the most circumspect: its 50 pieces were generally confined to reporting details of the attacks and the subsequent investigations. The Sun and the Star exercised no such restraint, the former logging 177 items, barely beating out the Star’s 164. In a year when the number of rapes reported to the Metro police was actually slightly lower than the previous year’s total-167, down from 174the impression created by the papers, particularly the Sun and Star, was that Metro was being swept by a sudden surge of violence against women. The nature and volume of their stories reveal much about the ingrained sexism that continues to color news reporting of violence against women.

Analysis of the coverage generated by the seven incidents indicates that the papers were culpable on several counts. They could not, of course, have chosen to ignore the incidents. But while standard newspaper practice dictates that graphic details of a murder and the circumstances in which it occurred be placed high up in a story, and that details of earlier murders be repeated in accounts of subsequent killings of a similar nature, this convention was inappropriate in the case of 1982’s attacks. By adhering to this approach, the papers essentially blamed the vic~ tims by implying that had they behaved differently-not used public transit alone, for instance, or not been out late at night-they would not have been murdered.

In many cases, the authorities quoted in stories about the attacks rein~ forced this view. Sophia Voumvakis, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology, conducted a study of the three Toronto papers’ reporting of the 1982 attacks on women. She found that more than 7S percent of police and justice officials interviewed about the incidents implied that the victims were responsible because of their dress or behavior at the time of the attacks.

Secondary coverage was equally message-laden. Each attack prompted a new round of sidebar stories that tended to focus on, and fuel, women’s fears for their own safety. Such cover~ age, too, is standard fare whose function is to answer questions raised by initial news reports. In the summer of ’82, one of the most pertinent questions was, “How can these attacks be prevented?” Not surprisingly, the police were approached for answers. (As Voumvakis pointed out in her report: “It is as ‘obvious’ for them [police] to tell women to take precautions. ..as it is for them to tell break and enter victims to buy more and better locks.”)

But in this case such stories simply served to promote the idea that women must accept limits on their freedom if they want to be safe. A case in point was the June 24 edition of the Star, which contained an entire page of stories about frightened women taking precautions to avoid attacks. “Fear Stalks Women on the TTC: Female Riders Terrified at Night Following Brutal Murders of Cheerleader and Nanny” screamed one headline. It echoed a piece run a day earlier in the Sun that had been slugged “Women in the Grip of Fear, Many Shun Transit since Slayings.” Typical of the quotes in these pieces was one from a woman who said, “l never take the subway or streetcar in the evening. It’s really, really scary.”

What is most remarkable about this period of media hysteria is that the papers’ reports contained virtually no statements from women who suggested they were not taking precautions. Of2S women interviewed by the Star for a June 3 article headlined “Fear Stalks Metro Women after Cheerleader’s Slaying,” only three said Isford’s death, six days earlier, had little impact on them. (All three explained they avoided reading the papers and listening to the radio so as not to learn some~ thing that might frighten them.) One Sun reporter recalls, “There I was being told to go up and down the streets of a neighborhood and ask, ‘Are you afraid?’ If an editor wants a particular angle, you keep asking until you get someone to say it.”

While the Globe did not fan women’s fears to nearly the same degree as the Star and the Sun, neither did it provide much coverage giving a different perspective on the issue of violence against women. Murray Campbell, at the time the paper’s day city editor, says now that he was aware women were scared. But, he admits, he was perplexed about how to cover the murders in an intelligent way. “We tried to show, by example, that the Globe wasn’t going to do fear and loathing stories. But we were hamstrung by our inability to come up with alternatives. In the end we did nothing in place of fear stories. We just didn’t do any stories at all.”

By contrast, senior staff at the other two papers don’t see anything wrong with their coverage. Sean McCann, the Sun’s assistant city editor in ’82, pro~ tests that his paper’s stories weren’t meant to scare women, but to educate them. Similarly, Mary Deanne Shears, then city editor of the Star and now assistant managing editor, says, “We were criticized a lot that summer, but people don’t realize how determined we were not to do just fear stories, not to jump on the scary bandwagon.”

Even more disturbing than this lack of self-examination are the startling biases revealed during a discussion of the papers’ roles after the murders. Shears, while claiming she believes Isford was an innocent victim, in the next breath says: ‘1sford was looking for trouble. These were innocent people, but at the same time, if you had your blouse half off and were walking down the street at two in the morning, you might be enticing. Wasn’t Isford wearing a gold lame pantsuit?” Jim Wilkes, a Star reporter who covered many of the murders, seems to share this interpretation: “Would you as a woman walk down a dark alley in the early morning wearing a bikini? I certainly wouldn’t invite robbery by walking through a dark alley with $50 bills hanging out of my pockets.”

Ian Harvey, a Sun staff reporter who wrote many of that paper’s initial reports, now believes that his paper didn’t act as responsibly as it should have: ‘1 had a bad feeling about the direction the coverage took. I think it was pushed in the direction of fear and loathing.” Globe reporter Kirk Makin, who covered the subsequent court cases, agrees that the press acted irresponsibly. He says it seemed to him that editors escalated the situation to fill pages that are traditionally skimpy in the summer.

Whatever the papers’ motivation, the result was that women were terrified. Susan Cole, cofounder of Broadside, a Toronto-based feminist review, recalls, “Women weren’t going for many walks alone,” and holds the media responsible for this. “Their use of the word fear exacerbated women’s feelings. Fear is a loaded word, and in that case, the wrong one, too. Fear wasn’t stalking women, men were.”

Debbie Parent, a volunteer with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre for the past five years, also charges that the newspapers distorted the situation. “‘Women are raped and assaulted all the time, but only when a woman is raped and murdered do the media jump on it,” she notes. “Never once did the papers reassure women by telling them that, in fact, only two percent of rapes end in murder. These reports told women that the world was set up in a way that makes them targets. If you believed this, how could you live your life without constantly looking over your shoulder?”

One direct consequence of the climate of terror created by the media’s coverage of events in 1982 was the formation of the Metropolitan Toronto Task Force on Public Violence against Women and Children in August of that year. Lawyer and police commissioner Jane Pepino, who headed the task force, says, “The media got the public hysterical and the public put the pressure on [Metro] to create the task force.” She believes the press should warn women if some loony is on the loose, but not to the point of scaring women into constraining their activities.

Cole agrees, and further argues that the precautions suggested by the papers, while apparently sensible, are both unproven and unacceptable. “Rape is one thing you can’t protect yourself from because there’s nothing an individual woman does that causes her to be raped,” she says angrily.

In her report, Voumvakis suggested that one reason the papers carried so many stories was that reporters took their cue from their colleagues at other papers. The Sun’s Harvey and the Globe’s Makin agree. “Every time a murder happened, we all rushed out there to cover it, not just the Sun,” Harvey recalls. Says Makin: “When you have one or two papers making a big thing of a particular theme, pretty soon you get all the papers and radio stations covering it.” Although Harvey says that what he calls the “frenzy feeding” approach used by the papers was wrong, he adds, “It’s the old chicken and egg thing. Does the public get whipped into a frenzy by the media, or does the media just pick up on the frenzy already out there? It may not be a good use of the press, but that’s the nature of the beast.”

The nature of the beast hasn’t changed much.

The people who determined how coverage would be handled during the media-inspired panic of 1982 are still there. Each subsequent attack results in sensationalized-and sexist-stories that keep many Metro women off the streets and behind locked doors.

Susan Cole, for one, feels that in every case the papers were unable to get beyond the sensational. Nowhere was there a systematic analysis of rape because that isn’t news or what sells papers. “You can’t ask the papers not to report the rape-murders, but you can blame them for perpetuating, with the aid of the police, terrorization of the whole female population.”

Nor is Cole optimistic that this will change. “Newspapers instinctively love a rape,” she says. “Everyone in marketing gets a rush because it sells papers.”

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