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The Russell Williams trial reporting problem

October 21st, 2010     by Anastasia Szakowski     Comments

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.

This is a case I’ve been following closely since last year’s disappearance of Jessica Lloyd, who was connected to a woman I knew via V-Day Toronto. I’ve watched and read as this man was arrested, detained, and brought to trial. The coverage has 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:

1. The conflating of sexuality, cross-dressing and kink, with predatory behaviour

Numerous front pages printed photos of Williams in the lingerie of his victims with headlines like “PERVERT!” Obvious sensationalism and simplification, yes, but this kind of framing is incredibly dangerous. It takes attention away from the fact that Williams raped and murdered women. It demonizes transsexual individuals and cross-dressers. It conveys the message that if you are a man who likes wearing women’s clothing, you are a “pervert” and a “sexual deviant” and eventually, you will rape and murder people.

The Toronto Star chose a large photo of Williams to represent the trial’s coverage on its homepage, with a tiny graphic warning underneath (preserved here via screenshot, if you want to see it). This provoked outrage from people like me, leading CBC to interview publisher John Cruickshank about the decision to use the photo (you can listen to the interview here). Cruickshank defended the Star’s choice, stating that its was the “only honest portrayal” of Williams and that only those photos “tell the full story.” Predictably, Cruickshank went on to blame “sexualized culture” for tainting this “sicko,” as well as Williams’ lack of discipline. Clearly, this reasoning is not only factually incorrect, but reveals a dangerous interpretation of the case.

There’s an excellent blog post from News from the Restless that points out how reporters are confusing terms and clearly explains the difference between fetishists and predators.

It is also worth noting that the Star’s choice to feature a “graphic” image on its homepage did not give readers the option to search for these images. Users arriving to the page were forced to see it. I don’t buy Cruickshank’s reasoning; using that image was deliberate and framed RW’s crimes incorrectly. It’s also incredibly poor taste to not give readers a choice to view what they may consider upsetting content.

Some publications managed to show restraint, such as the Globe and Mail, who published a post explaining why the trial reporting was confined to a certain area and why certain photos were used.

2. The denial of rape culture

More troubling is the almost complete denial of rape culture in examining why these crimes were committed. While media blames “sexual perversion” for Williams’ escalated violence, very few people seem to be addressing why men like Williams come to be addicted to harming and violating women. Why while everyone is so keen to demonize Williams, there are teenage girls being asked to cheer for their rapists. There are fraternity pledges being marched through female dormitories shouting: “No means yes, yes means anal!” The idea that it is okay to harm women is implicit in our culture and doesn’t begin and end with one man.

3. Court reporters live-tweeting the trial has largely removed necessary context and reflection

I had seen many graphic tweets of the trial, but the worst came from court reporter Meghan Hurley. In an effort to give followers a full (and I mean very full) picture of the trial, she made updates like the following (both posted October 20th):

Jessica’s aunt just wiped tears from her eyes.
I was surprised that her skull gave way,” Williams said with no emotion. A woman is crying into a Kleenex.

Are details like this really necessary for the public that isn’t necessarily seeking it out? And are they really necessary in live updates? And does every single detail need to be shared? There is a morbid tone to Hurley’s incredibly graphic updates that I hope she isn’t creating intentionally - I think to her, she is sharing the facts of the trial.

The problem is that no context was provided. Her updates read bluntly. They read less like to-the-minute reporting and more like snuff, catering to people like Williams who get off on the pain and suffering of others. There is an effort to show what a monster Williams is (and I think we can all agree that he is a monster) and also, a fascination with pain. One stumbling upon her feed wouldn’t know that she was making insanely detailed updates until one read them, or scrolled pages and pages back to find her “these may be graphic” warning.

I’m not ignoring the fact that court reporting can be immensely difficult. What I’m addressing is the fact that reporters are not curbing the desire to share every single gory detail and that affects coverage of the entire trial. Earlier this week, I had several discussions with people via Twitter about this exactly: how the use of Twitter has changed journalism. Instead of waiting for a report to be written about any given occurrence, we can read about it as it happens. It’s live. Exciting. But is it really appropriate? Is there a place for appropriateness in journalism? The question that arises from the treatment of the Williams trial is: how far is too far? In what situations is it not okay to live-tweet a trial?

I’m saying that there is a line and it has been crossed, and not just by Hurley. I have a problem with live-tweeting rape and murder trials to this level of detail, because it is implicit that these crimes are traumatic and that the perpetrators are awful, monstrous, and deserving of our hate. The information being presented during the trial is for the court. Why do readers interested in how the trial is progressing have to be subjected to this (both posted October 19):

Jessica is whimpering and wincing as she is raped repeatedly.
Williams gave Jessica some fruit after he finished raping her. Duct tape is still on her eyes.

Why would anyone share this detail without the desire to provoke? To stir up disgust and hatred or worse, to draw in readers who simply can’t look away, or worse: appeal to people like Williams?

I don’t think this is very good reporting, if it can even be called reporting. Covering rape and murder trials requires context and reflection. It requires sensitive packaging and choosing which details illustrate the story best and are important to include. It isn’t a freak show of 140-character snippets of awfulness chronicling the last minutes of two women’s lives. Some other courtroom reporters:

Mark McAllister, who wrote: “Most troubling & graphic evidence in #colRW case WILL NOT be presented here.”

Joanna Smith, whose feed was still too detailed for me, but was delivered in mostly delicate manner, and who provided context. A few of the reports I thought were well-thought out:

The National Post’s trial transcripts: Though still too detailed for me, summarizes court presentations and discussions Heather Mallick’s Good guys nabbed Russell Williams Timothy Appleby and Jill Mahoney’s report on Williams’ sentencing & trial recap

All I can say now is that I’m relieved the case is over and Williams has been found guilty. But I hope we don’t forget how this was handled and continue to examine how such cases are presented in the future.

What do you think? Did reporters go too far? Should rape trials be treated differently than others?

Tags: media savvy

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