Ugly trial is a wake-up call

Most readers of this magazine are also consumers of news. You read newspapers, listen to the radio and watch television. You may have discussed the coverage of the first-degree murder trial of Robert (Willie) Pickton. I have had a flood of phone calls on CKNW and emails at CTV that gave me a chance to hear the reaction of listeners and viewers to the horrific content of the evidence given so far, and we are only a couple of months into a trial that is expected to last at least a year. I thought I’d share a bit of what has been going on
behind the scenes in the newsroom.

I’ll start by pointing out that people just like you populate most newsrooms. Some are younger, some are older, some have families, some are single. The only difference is that they are experienced in making journalistic decisions. Many have kids, and in the case of the Pickton trial, everyone I’ve talked to is sensitive to the issues and concerned for the families of the victims.

As the trial approached and opening-day testimony was upon us, the organizations I work with looked at the Crown’s opening statement and reported what was said. Some of the calls and emails I received were from people who said they were very upset by the level of detail reported. What most newsrooms decided was that information presented in a public courtroom, which is open to the public, is information the public has a right to know. Now, you may feel you don’t need to know or you don’t want to know. That is your option. You can determine your own need to know, but there is a public right to know and that’s an important distinction.

I’ve heard news described as the community’s dysfunction on display every night, and there’s truth in that, but there’s also opportunity. There’s an opportunity to focus on safety or the lack of it in the Downtown Eastside. There’s an opportunity to demonstrate to your own children the potential dangers of life on the street, or life in the so-called sex trade.

Your first reaction to that suggestion may be, “My kids would never wind up there.” I’m sure most of the families of the missing women never thought their sisters or mothers would wind up there either. Addiction knows no neighbourhood boundaries. We can highlight the differences between the trial procedures in this country and those we so often see on television from the U.S. It may be that the adverse publicity this trial and the city of Vancouver receive in the international media will force politicians to reduce crime and drug abuse in the city. If we get more detox facilities and treatment centres as a result of the kind of horror this trial generates, at least some good could come from this awful tragedy.
Not all the coverage has been about the murders. A lot of what I’ve learned about the missing women has come from the profiles of the victims presented by many media outlets.

We heard from their mothers, brothers and friends. I learned that Serena Abbotsway was a poet who wrote about the missing women before becoming one of them. Most of the family members who attend the trial want these stories told. Those who are comfortable enough to do so speak to the media and I’ve not seen any instances of news organizations
being disrespectful of those families.

The coverage of the lives of desperate, drug-addicted, vulnerable people shocks most of us. It should! The role of news is not to moralize or judge; it is simply to report. But it can often instigate change by shining a light on a dark side of our society.

One of the tragedies in the story of missing women is that so many are still missing and unaccounted for. Conditions for most of the women on the street are just as appalling as they were in 1997, when the first victims in this trial went missing.

I remember when I reported some of the province’s first stories on incest. Some people were shocked and thought the topic shouldn’t be discussed on television. People once thought the same way about stories about domestic or child abuse. I’ve always believed we are better off knowing more – not less – and I’d rather decide what I need to know than have some news editor make that decision for me. We can only hope this horrible story will force politicians to make some decisions to improve the future for the women who remain left behind on the streets of our city.