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Pickton: Reader Beware?

Vancouver's paper of record sends mixed signals.

David Beers 25 Jan 2007TheTyee.ca

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

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Page one of the Jan. 22 edition of the Vancouver Sun bore the huge black announcement: DAY ONE: PICKTON ON TRIAL. On page A3 appeared the smiling face of editor-in-chief Patricia Graham under the headline: "The Challenge of Reporting Horror." Graham made some promises. The Sun would cover the trial closely while "trying to honour the memory of the victims and respecting their dignity, as well as that of their families." And she understood that many readers would prefer not to absorb details "gruesome beyond most of our imaginations." As a result, her paper would publish a "sanitized" version of trial news on page A2 every day, and carefully code other articles, labelling "any story that might require reader discretion."

Assured Graham: "You will be able to keep the stories out of the hands of your children should you choose to do so."

The next day anyone glimpsing the Sun in a vending box or finding it on their front step would have no choice but to absorb the Sun's outsized, banner headline: "He murdered them, butchered them and disposed of their remains."

The day after, this top headline: "My stomach turned just to hear his voice." "Sister sickened by police interview."

Today's? This was written before the paper arrived. Perhaps it will be less sensationalistic, a sober prelude to carefully labelled stories inside the paper, giving readers the control promised them by the Sun's editor. But so far, it is difficult to detect consistency at Vancouver's paper of record when it comes to managing "The Challenge of Covering Horror."

An expert on journalistic ethics offers this guideline for Pickton trial coverage: "Sensational yes; sensationalism, no." Professor Stephen Ward, who heads the UBC School of Journalism, writes on his website:

"Much of the testimony at this trial will be sensational by definition -- it draws the attention of the senses. There is no escaping this fact. But that doesn't mean that the coverage should be guilty of sensationalism. 'Sensationalism' refers to how journalists present and frame events. Sensationalism refers to an over-emphasis on emotional and dramatic elements of testimony while ignoring more sober and analytical issues."

Ward also urges coverage that "goes beyond news updates and delves into the deeper social and human aspects of this trial." That has and will continue to serve as the guideline for us at The Tyee. The tragedy of the missing women of the Downtown Eastside throws into sharp relief issues of poverty, racial and gender discrimination, addiction and mental health, urban planning, law enforcement and others that have been, and will continue to be, commonly explored by our reports and commentaries.

For sensationalism, you can look elsewhere. These days, almost everywhere.

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