Faced with the gruesome challenge of covering the Robert Pickton trial, editors poured their uneasy hearts out. But what do audiences want, exactly, and should they always get it?
There was considerable discussion…Guidelines were circulated…We have tried to achieve…The rationale is…We’re on new ground here…We probably have already crossed some lines…Our goal is…We chose…We have tried, though not always successfully…We have to follow our own moral compass here…Those were things I would never have imagined saying on air before…We won’t report…We will report…
Hear the troubled murmurs of angst-ridden media. Robert Pickton is on trial in British Columbia for the deaths of six Vancouver women. He has been charged with the murders of another 20 and is suspected in as many as 49 deaths, comprising — if all are proven the work of one person — Canada’s worst ever killing spree. Inevitably, the coverage that followed the trial’s opening last month was tagged a “media circus,” but it also included an unprecedented outpouring of editorial unease.
Pickton’s pre-trial proceedings began in January 2003 but publication bans kept the details out of the news. Reporters had seen enough, however, to know that evidence would include such atrocities as human heads split vertically with a power saw and body parts found in pails. Jury selection was completed on December 12, 2006 and three days later Judge James Williams lifted the publication ban. Patricia Graham, editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun, says the feeling in the newsroom was: “We’re finally going to get to tell the story.”
But telling such a story in a paper that’s read over breakfast requires tact, to say the least. Editors varied widely in their strategies. The Sun — the local paper that first brought the sordid stories of the missing women into homes years before the trial — had little choice but near-saturation coverage and was left searching for the line between responsible reporting and voyeuristic excess. Silence was not an option for national outlets either. In an age of two-way communication between media and their audiences, it was perhaps inevitable that editorial and placement choices about Pickton would be made under the public gaze. News outlets responded to reader feedback, but some questioned the value of their outreach.
When the trial opened, Graham wrote to her readers under the headline, “Graham: The challenge of reporting on horror.” National Post editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly also penned a note about the Pickton coverage and ran it on the front-page. CBC editor-in-chief Tony Burman responded to viewers’ vehemence about the story’s coverage by dedicating two of his CBC.ca media columns to the matter. The Globe and Mail devoted one online forum to questions about what makes for relevant coverage and another where the Globe’s national editor, David Walmsley, answered readers’ questions about the story’s placement.
The eagerness to explain might be seen as a self-serving way to enjoy the appearance of moral responsibility while taking advantage of circulation-grabbing horror stories. But open discussion of newsroom dilemmas is a sign of the times — a response not just to a more critical, distrustful audience but also to the more interactive, democratic mood of media. By agonizing alongside readers and viewers about news treatment, editors are pulling the blinds up on their newsroom windows, looking their audiences in the eye, and explaining their choices. The Pickton trial is a yardstick measuring the emphasis that news outlets place on communication with their audiences — and the relative potency of their efforts.
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The New York Times laid a notable plank on the ever-expanding bridge between journalists and readers on September 21, 1970, the day it introduced what is widely considered the world’s first op-ed page. The new “intellectual forum” was announced on page 42 along with even more space devoted to reader interaction by “approximately doubling the weekday space devoted to letters from our readers.” Letters were the height of media-to-audience interaction until access exploded with the advent of the Internet. Reporters are now easily accessible via email. Readers can attach their comments to stories. And editors and audiences can interact in real time in online discussions. Jim Sheppard, executive editor of globeandmail.com, says online discussions with editors sit among news items in the top ten most viewed pages nearly every weekday.Similarly, in his inaugural online column in January 2006, Burman explained that the network-wide re-launch the CBC had just undergone came in the wake of a study that showed Canadians wanted the network to be more open to their interests and less “absorbed” with its own.
University of British Columbia journalism ethics professor Stephen J.A. Ward remembers a time when journalists were free to make unilateral decisions about the news. “Newsrooms are no longer black boxes where no one knows what’s going on in there,” he says. “The public do not see us as trusted professionals and won’t just let us do our job. There is so much cynicism and mistrust in media that we have to talk about what we do.” Nick Russell, author of Morals and the Media and publisher of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Media magazine, agrees: “Hard-nosed old editors of the past didn’t think they needed to explain themselves. Today, I think they do.”
Seldom has the impulse to explain been stronger than with the Pickton trial. A week into the proceedings, the Canadian Press commissioned a Decima Research poll in which 54 per cent of Canadians said the media’s job was to tell this story, but the “most shocking details” should be left out. Likewise, a poll commissioned by the UBC School of Journalism’s Feminist Media Project found more than half of respondents were interested in the coverage but 56 per cent thought “violent and sexually explicit” details should not be reported. This may be a slim majority for restraint, but it certainly leaves a large audience attentive to the details — however gruesome.
Graham calls the connection with readers a “balancing act” between the obligation to tell the story and giving readers what they want. Remembering her old boss, an editorial page editor at Vancouver’s TheProvince, who never took phone calls from readers, she says nowadays it’s a distinct part of her job to show readers that the paper is not “this big faceless monolith.” In her letter to Sun readers about the Pickton trial coverage, she warned that the paper would “be publishing some material that will be intrinsically sensational,” and promised a “short and sanitized” daily account of the court’s proceedings on A2.
Kelly’s letter in the Post explained that the paper would publish particularly graphic information online only, where readers must make a “conscious decision to read the story.” Kelly wrote to readers, “The media have a responsibility to report fully, fairly and accurately on a high-profile case such as this one…That responsibility includes publishing many of the graphic details of the testimony.” In an interview with CBC’s The Hour, he admitted anxiety about covering some issues when he said, “There are times when you have to ask yourself, ‘is this appropriate?’” Kelly encouraged readers to write letters, but aside from its blog, Full Comment, thePost’s website does not have comment capabilities or online discussions. Nor does the Sun’s.
Online discussions are frequent lines of communication between the Globe and its readers. At the end of the first week of testimony, former law professor Ian Hunter followed up his Comment piece in that day’s paper with an online discussion about what constitutes relevant coverage of a trial. Much later — three weeks into the trial — national editor David Walmsley took part in the Globe’s monthly “Ask the Editor” series, during which he took queries about Pickton coverage. He responded unequivocally to readers who questioned their prominent placement of Pickton the day of the trial: “The minute we stop placing grim events on our front page is when we are accepting the abnormal as normal.”
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The Sun ran an 11-part series in the lead-up to the trial called “Prelude to the Pickton Trial” that included a profile of the judge, an article on how to talk to children about the story and a piece cautioning that “Vulnerable women shouldn’t be exploited by media.” In the initial days of the trial, the Globe and Sun filled pages with courtroom schemas and maps of the Pickton property; television clips of the farm showed yellow tape and dug-up earth; the Globe printed a double-page spread titled “More than ‘drug addicted prostitutes’” with short profiles of the six murdered women. As the days wore on the inches of copy steadily waned, although the Sun‘s coverage continued to fill at least two pages a day. The Post‘s coverage was, as promised, generally unrestrained, saving only extremely graphic material for its website. Like its competitors, including CBC.ca, the Post packaged its additional coverage in a devoted web section. Viewers’ and readers’ reactions were mixed, but a look through the comment boards and letters to the editor — of which the Postran a full page one week into the trial — show audiences were united in one thing: they wanted editors to disclose their ways.
Viewers, listeners and readers are “insisting” the media explain its decisions, says the CBC’s Tony Burman. “Audiences are quite interested in knowing what criteria we are using in choosing stories, in framing stories.” Burman received 150 responses to his first column about Pickton, more than any other column he’s written. He says he welcomes the input and understands the audience’s frustrations. “I think that what’s behind it is a growing impatience on the part of people at being talked down to by news media, this notion that journalists possess unique information that they, on their own terms, can impart to the broader public at their whim.”
His second letter to readers, one week later, evoked the 1995 trial of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo: “For the CBC, and — I’m sure — for other news organizations, covering this type of trial has been fraught with challenges.” Rather than spouting lofty ideals, Burman explained real changes.“After some respondents questioned the highlighting of Pickton’s photograph on CBC.ca and in our television ‘banners,’ we chose alternative visuals.”
It’s not surprising that editors felt the need to explain their intentions with a story like Pickton: according to a 2003 study by the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC), 92 per cent of Canadians reported seeing sensationalism in the news. Of those, 63 per cent admitted this affected their trust in the media. According to Ward, who was a member of the CMRC research team, reader opinion is just one of the many factors to consider when making news decisions. “You can’t have journalism ethics by majority vote…. Sometimes journalists have to offend their readers,” he says.
Of course, there are commercial concerns behind the outreach as well. The Toronto Star’s media columnist Antonia Zerbisias considers editorial explanations of coverage “public relations exercises” and “pre-emptive strikes” to ward off criticism. “The only thing newsrooms are concerned about is avoiding offending readers/viewers. They just don’t want to deal with the hassle,” she says. Topics ranging from the Middle East to teen sexuality may offend some audiences, but they’re still news. “If reader opinions were to be considered on stories there would be nothing left in the paper except Soduku and cute animal features,” she says.
That said, dialogue between editors and readers about the stories journalists tell is not going to go away. This, according to UBC’s Ward, is a good thing, but just one step in the journey. “It helps, but you’d be naïve to think that simply by doing that the public is all of a sudden going to have trust in the media.”
If printed letters and online comments are any measure, audiences are still not happy with the balance of power; they will keep fighting: Please show restraint…I am simply not interested…I feel that it’s important…Enough already…My radio is off this week…What’s really behind…What’s your agenda…Is that a coincidence… What is the purpose…Can you explain why…Why not bring it back…How can you honestly claim…Was this an editorial decision…We need to know…We don’t need to know…
by Regan Ray
Regan Ray was the Editor for the Summer 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.