“Call-in-Ethics”: Pickton Trial and Offended Audiences
By Stephen J. A. Ward
February 24, 2007

The start of the Pickton trial in New Westminster, B.C., in late January placed news organizations in a sticky position with audiences. Some demanded extensive coverage and others demanded limited or cautious coverage.

Vancouver newsrooms were flooded by angry e-mail and phone messages accusing the news media of sensationalism, over-the-top coverage and tragedy profiteering. Some callers even suggested that the new media shouldn’t cover the trial at all. Others threatened to cancel newspaper subscriptions.

Sketch of trial at the BC Supreme Court in New Westminster, BC. (CP Photo, Artist-Felicity Don)

Everyone demanded “responsible” coverage, but there were vastly differing views on what responsible coverage meant. It was the classic dilemma: Report and be damned; don’t report and be damned.

The Pickton trial raises a general problem for journalism ethics that is increasingly important in an age where news organizations seek to maintain audience share and bend over backwards to “interact” with readers and viewers. The problem can be formulated as a question: How should journalists make decisions on their coverage?

One possibility is that journalists should “serve the public” by adjusting their coverage to majority (or vocal minority) opinion. Perhaps accountability means adopting a “call-in ethics” – adjusting coverage according to the reaction from audiences. Thorny ethical issues could be settled by surveying what audiences want.

If journalism was only a matter of selling a consumer product then “call-in ethics” might be plausible. Why should a shoe store do anything to offend its customers? But journalism is also a democratic practice of informing citizens, investigating social issues and critiquing institutions. Journalists serve the public not simply by pleasing their customers but also by fulfilling a vital democratic role that may offend some people.

There are many situations where members of the public may want journalists to comprise their role as critical public informers. For example, in times of war, a majority of the public may want reportage to be uncritical and patriotic, bordering on misinformation. Journalists have a duty to continue to report in an independent and truthful manner and not act as government propaganda machines -- despite angering a substantial number of people.

The fact that someone (or some group) is “offended” by certain types of news coverage is not sufficient, by itself, to justify a change in coverage. Other factors must be taken into account. Journalists do some harm and cause some offence with almost every story. The question is not “Does this offend?” but rather, “Should this seriously offensive material enter the public domain?” What people find offensive must be treated with some scepticism given the subjectivity of such judgments. One person I know finds it offensive to see gays kissing in TV news reports and thinks such pictures should be censored by editors.

Sometimes journalists must offend audiences to make sure that an otherwise reluctant society faces up to a dark social problem. In the late 1980s, the Mount Cashel Orphanage inquiry delved into the physical and sexual abuse of young male orphans by Catholic Christian Brothers in St. John’s, Nfld. Throughout this sad event, those of us reporting on the case were accused of sensationalism, of exaggerating the problem, of undermining institutions. It was only the constant, day-to-day coverage of the sickening details of the abuse that finally prompted people to stop blaming reporters and admit that the case indicated a serious problem at the heart of Newfoundland society.

In the case of the Pickton trial, what struck me was how may critics focused on the negative duty of journalist not to report details. Few considered that journalists also may have a positive duty to report certain facts and testimony.

To argue that journalists have a “duty to offend” in certain circumstances does not justify the view that journalists shouldn’t try to avoid sensationalism and to minimize harm. Journalists should listen to their audiences, and journalism is not a license for arrogance. But reporters should remember that they have to balance such opinion against a broader social responsibility to challenge society where wrongdoing occurs.

The goal of coverage of the Pickton trial should be sober, accurate, non-harassing coverage of that goes beyond news updates and delves into the deeper social and human aspects of this trial. If that sort of coverage is deemed offensive, so be it.

Here are some ethical issues to keep in mind:

1. Proportionality: What amount of coverage is needed to serve the public? What is too much, or too little?

2. Framing of the facts and testimony: How does the news media portray the case, the victims and their families? Are the central figures portrayed as humans, with dignity, names and real lives?

3. Beyond emotionalism and sympathy: Although (2) requires sympathy, the coverage should not be overtaken by emotion. Journalists need to ask tough, disturbing questions about our social system and its institutions.

4. Graphicness: How graphic should the coverage be? If the testimony is that women’s body parts were cut up and placed in containers, that fact will be reported. But what level of description should be used? How many gory facts are required for the public to understand what happened?

5. Potential harassment: The news media should avoid harassing the families of victims, citizens of the Downtown Eastside or the relatives of Robert Pickton in search of pictures or interviews. Some of these people want to speak to the news media. Others will not wish to speak, and that wish should be respected. A respectful process for requesting interviews is essential.

6. What measures have been put in place to help journalists and others deal with trauma due to attendance at this trial?

Responsible Pickton coverage requires conscientious reporters and editors determined to make the most reasonable decisions possible and to make sure that editorial processes are in place to monitor, correct and balance their coverage as this long trial unwinds. It also requires reporters and editors willing to endure the wrath of upset audiences.

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