Has coverage of Col. Williams gone too far? Or not far enough?

ShareThisCanada hasn’t seen a case like Col. Russell Williams since serial rapist and killer Paul Bernardo commanded headlines in the early 90s. In the days since the judge lifted a ban on Blackberrys and laptops, coverage of Williams' hearing has exploded online and in Toronto's dailies, leaving some people to ask: how much does the public need to know?
Toronto's dailies covers Oct 19
The Toronto Sun published a photo of Williams wearing a small black bra with three words in red: “Pervert. Rapist. Killer.” The Globe and Mail used a grainy closeup of Williams’ face, with a small cutline calling him “The Face of Deviance,” with a Christie Blatchford column that says “Others have killed more, raped more, victimized more. But in Canadian criminal history, probably no one ever before has done the devil’s work with such single-minded purpose and documented his exploits with such devotion.” The National Post ran a courtroom sketch by one of their top artists under the headline “Shocking Perversion”. The Toronto Star headline “A depraved double life” is paired with two photos: one, Williams wearing only a young girl’s bathing suit. The other, Williams in full military regalia.

Inside, the Post ran two small thumbnail photos of Williams in women's underwear, the Sun ran larger photos of the same. The Globe didn't run any photos of Williams in underwear, although all four publications opted to publish large, full-colour photos of the accused's collection of stolen women's underwear.
Toronto's dailies inside Oct 19
While not the first time a court case has been reported live from the court room, Canadian journalists are for the first time dealing with on-the-fly decision making over what should – and shouldn’t – be shared with the public. It’s the kind of thing usually left to publishers and editors to argue over.

Toronto Star
publisher John Cruickshank, speaking with Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway, admits that the decision to put a photo of Williams posing in stolen lingerie on the front page “left the newsroom divided.”

“I think it’s that pair of photos -- not the single photo -- that tell an extraordinary disturbing story,” Cruickshank said. “I think there probably is harm, but there is a greater good that arises as we get past that harm. This is a day you hate as a publisher. I would much rather have a victorious Leafs cover celebrating their victory,” which would certainly sell more papers and would make advertisers happy, he says. “We feel like we have to face up to the truth of our day, this is not the truth of every morning, but certainly is an extraordinary story about authority in Canada, It’s a story we shouldn't turn our heads from, it’s the reason we made the decision we did.”

Galloway compares the Star with the other Toronto dailies’ front page coverage. He asked Cruickshank why the Star ran the “most explicit” cover of the bunch. “To use the word "explicit" is to bring in a whole standard of judgment that gets away from reality,” Cruickshank said. “This is the most honest portrayal. This is a photograph of a character that is both enormously frightening and tremendously pathetic.” The Globe might as well have run “a picture of Hannibal Lecter. [Williams] got brought back into the world of fiction. What [the Star has] done is kept it very real.”

Update: The Globe and Mail's Sylvia Stead wrote an article called "Why today's front page does not include a photo of Russell Williams in women's lingerie". She writes: "Although the articles explain the evidence of all the crimes committed in great detail, we chose not to run the photographs of Williams in women's lingerie in part because the readers have no choice in what photographs they see on the front page. They can choose to read the articles and to stop when it might become difficult, but not so with photographs." The article also links to the Globe's online gallery of Russell Williams photos.

Star columnist Heather Mallick writes:

“[Williams] liked looking at himself in the mirror, but he never smiled to show pleasure, maintaining a rigid military decorum even while looking the perfect prat, a great big man in the pink sun dress of a little girl. Seriously. You should see the photos he took of himself in his own kitchen, like a huge dog in a frock. A leaf print. Strapless.

“Here’s proof of how gentle and good most people are. Nobody laughed out loud. It would have humiliated Williams beyond belief. But it would have hurt the families and so no one did it.

“There was a sense of unreality in the courtroom because acts of genuine confrontation and violence were only beginning to be described by the end of the day. You could hear the soft tapping of reporters’ laptops, allowed to report digitally, which is rare.

“Everyone’s face was blank. But the sheer disbelief was palpable.”

Readers have responded to the coverage with a mix of intrigue and disgust. A tweet by Toronto Star public editor Kathy English says: "Fielding reader complaints about Star's Page 1 pic of Williams in woman's underwear- a depraved pic, but did publishing it cross a line?" The sexualized coverage has upset a lot of people, especially when the media calls Williams a "sexual festishist", which is not the same as being a sexual predator. Blogger Sabrina Becker writes "...I get so angry when I see the media falling into the trap of fixating on Williams's alleged sexual fetishes, instead of understanding that he is a predator, one who sexualizes power-over. The media's job is to clear up our confusion, and instead, they are adding to it. And in so doing, they hang women and children--the persons most likely to become a predator's victims--out to dry."

The hashtag #ColRW was trending as the third most popular topic on Twitter today.

CBC’s live blog of the event, using the content management system Cover It Live, prefaced the more graphic entries with “WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT.” Some excerpts:

12:13 CBC:
WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT: Amber Hildebrandt reports: "Folders that Williams created of the assault and murder include 33 screenshots of various websites reporting on the death and Facebook tribute pages set up by friends and family. The folder also contains an image of a letter, dated Dec. 1, 2009, to Comeau's father. It was prepared by her commanding officer and signed by Williams in his capacity as base commander of CFB Trenton offering condolences to her family."

12:00 CBC:
WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT: Amber Hildebrandt reports: "Not long after, he removes items of lingerie from a drawer and places them on top of her," says Crown Thompson. He took more photographs. Despite being bound with rope, she is able to struggle and fight him off at points. Williams placed a pillow over Comeau's face when she screamed. He eventually allows her to get off the bed. "You're going to kill me, aren't you?" she asks. He places duct tape over her nose. She appears to suffocate. The video ends at 3:30 a.m."

The CBC live blog includes instant updates, quotes from experts, photos that have come up as evidence in court (including some of Williams posing in women’s underwear), explanation of what’s happening in the court room (especially the reactions of family members of victims). It also linked to a video love letter from a former boyfriend of one of the murder victims and a gallery to photos from her life. Other publications also have reporters doing live tweets, columnists weighing in and sidebars about everything from psychiatric evaluations to how the military is dealing with the bad press.

In an explanatory note, CBC explains its coverage:

"We knew the hearing would be disturbing, and we knew we would have access to more material than usual in these kinds of proceedings. It is rare we get permission to report live from inside a courtroom. How would we cover it?

"But really, the first question is "Why do we cover it?"

"We cover it because we can be your eyes and ears in a courtroom, and we are committed to as open a justice system as possible.

"We cover it because there is a strong public interest (and yes, maybe some of it is prurient) as well as a real need to understand how someone in a position of such authority, a senior member of the Canadian armed forces, could also commit these crimes. And no one seemed to suspect a double life.

"The reality turned out to be more shocking than any of us knew."

Today's hearing is expected to be even more disturbing: I wonder what tomorrow's front pages will look like?

Comments

While the victims' families are always the ones bearing the greatest grief, we as a society must bear witness to the crimes committed by one of us. In doing so we serve two purposes: to share those families' grief, and to inform ourselves (again) about the killers in our midst. There is a reason why everyone falls upon this coverage: nobody can quite believe, in a rational moment, that such evil still exists. We like to pretend that depravities such as this belonged to another time and place. Then we come up against in - right here, in Toronto, in Ottawa - in St. Catharines yet! Tweed! Places that should not, by rights, contain so grotesque a mind. As journalists we have to ask whether this reportage is too much. Let me put it like this: if we apply the "too much" rule to reportage, we should not report on the crimes committed at concentration camps; we should not report on the crimes caused in the name of science (LSD, deliberate infection with syphilis, etc.); we should ensure that everything is sweet and pretty. Look in the mirror. The capacity to do harm is within us all. It's simply that most of us never find ourselves in a situation that impels us toward such brutality.
Please, spare us the self-serving cant about how these photographs provide a public service. They serve a commercial interest, and little else. The world is full of shocking and salacious "truths" that I don't need billboarded. If you want to engage in useful journalism, please don't tell me he did "the devil's work." That's quackery. There are no devils. There are people who go off the rails. Tell me how Williams was driven to this, why he indulged, how he concealed it, how he made an accommodation between this and his life as a military officer. He needs a Capote, not a media Greek Chorus screaming "monster!"
I'm (mostly) with Claude Adams. I think the Sun and Toronto Star went too far in their front page photo usage. Their editors seem to have forgotten that the front page would be visible on front porches and in distribution boxes where they could well attract the attention of young children --3,4-5,6 - who might well ask Daddy or Mommy why "that man is dressed so silly". I would be less concerned if those pics had been inside the paper -- but then they wouldn't serve the billboard sales function, would they?
While the victims' families are always the ones bearing the greatest grief, we as a society must bear witness to the crimes committed by one of us. In doing so we serve two purposes: to share those families' grief, and to inform ourselves (again) about the killers in our midst. There is a reason why everyone falls upon this coverage: nobody can quite believe, in a rational moment, that such evil still exists. We like to pretend that depravities such as this belonged to another time and place. Then we come up against in - right here, in Toronto, in Ottawa - in St. Catharines yet! Tweed! Places that should not, by rights, contain so grotesque a mind. As journalists we have to ask whether this reportage is too much. Let me put it like this: if we apply the "too much" rule to reportage, we should not report on the crimes committed at concentration camps; we should not report on the crimes caused in the name of science (LSD, deliberate infection with syphilis, etc.); we should ensure that everything is sweet and pretty. Look in the mirror. The capacity to do harm is within us all. It's simply that most of us never find ourselves in a situation that impels us toward such brutality.
The implication in mainstream media coverage that genderqueer identities are synonymous with depravity and, ultimately, a predilection for rape and murder is truly nauseating. Shame on The Star, the Globe, the Post, the Sun and every other outlet that has played on this homophobic and bigoted undertone. Sensationalist fearmongering has no place in journalism, and Williams' cross-dressing has no place in the discourse around his immoral and criminal actions.
The photo of Russell Williams on the front of the Star is raw, disturbing, and grotesque. But newspapers and websites publish photos far more graphic and violent every day without a second thought. This picture is different because it is so honest, We should not shield the public from the evil that is Russell Williams because it makes somebody uncomfortable.
I am in the camp of being appreciative of all the live coverage and of the pictures being published. I appreciate knowing the facts and judging for myself and learning/getting a better insight into the world of this predator. I still have more questions that I'll probably never get the answers to. I would love to hear from both RW and his wife. Regardless, knowledge is power, and to be aware of such people, to be able to use this case as a learning tool when I try to explain to my 15 yo daughter about some of the dangers of our world, all of this is valuable. The fact that he dressed in girls clothing is not the issue - I'm sure there are many, many good decent men who do this. The issue is actually what he did and how he did it pertaining to violating people's privacy and rights from harm and death. Yes, RW is sick, however, not because he wore women's clothing. The coverage has been extremely insightful, including how our courts work, and how our journalists work. To those who find this too much to handle, then I say stay off the sites on your pc which are covering this. That is a choice you have. In the past, I've never had that choice, and now that I do, I resent anyone trying to make a case against it.
I think all that depravity has to come out for all to see and face the facts that some people need to be locked up forever. A rape victim once said that people --esp. the braindead judges in this country, the police and parole board --need to know the amount of excruciating pain rape victims suffer, so they won't let these guys out even on bail. This guy had to have come to the attention of the police at some earlier time in his life, and was overlooked. These perverts don't all of a sudden commit such crimes at 40--unless there's a tumour. More than likely, they'll have been committing similar crimes for many, many years. This psychopathic moron probably has more rapes and murders under his belt. Putting all this material on TV, or in the press, will eventually jog someone's memory about some related unsolved crimes. Also, young women and teenaged girls need to be less naive about who lives in our neighbourhoods. They need to know that they can't trust any man. There are quite a few men out there who are twisted to the bone. Also, the people who promote officers in the armed services and in our police force need to take more care whom they promote. We certainly need brighter and more chaste people at the top, instead of the most corrupt and vile.
no it hasen't went too far, if people are too sensitive to the subject dont read about it, dont wacth about it, people knoew that he did horrible thing so dont be all surprise and horrified when detail about the murder come to life. people are way too sensitive
The prisons are filled with men who commit these crimes against women, rape, murder, stalking, break and enters. Men commit these crimes but are not usually high profile as Williams or Bernardo and we dont hear about them. Its no surprise what Williams did or what Bernardo did....so why is everyone all concerned? Its terrible and horrendous but the jails are full of them. Many families suffer in silence and their stories are not told. Its about time we are treated as adults who have the option of reading and hearing or not.
As unpleasant and horrifying as it is, we must face the fact that these individuals exists. The information is necessary if we are to understand the circumstances that shape these individuals and to develop better tools to both identify and treat. It is interesting that as a society we tolerate violent pornography and degrading images while maintaining that we need to be schield from the images of Col. Williams crimes. What we lose in innocence we gain in knowledge to hopefully better protect.
First off, and most importantly, our thoughts and prayers go out to ALL the victims of these heinous crimes. May your lives one day hold some solitude and for the survivors, may you be able to once more have a normal, fulfilled life. While I agree that the photos being displayed are definitely troubling, I ask you also to think of this. In twenty five years from now, many to none of our officials now presiding will be making the decision on whether or not Williams (and I don't believe the the connotation of "Colonel" should be allowed in the same sentence)should be allowed to roam our streets a free man. Our Justice system now is undergoing many retirements and anyone left after 25 years will no longer be present in the system. The future parole board needs to be privy to this information in order to be able to form a "TRUE" opinion of just how disturbed this man really is. Reading articles is not the same as seeing the cold facts in video. It is a known fact that sexual predators are "NEVER CURED" but only learn how to control their urges. What happened to a man who has lived his entire life in the most controlled way possible, in a FULL MILITARY setting with the utmost of control invoked, that he could no longer discipline the urges that manifested themselves from perversion to murder??? People also question the military in this matter....they are INNOCENT. It is a known fact that sexual predators will invite themselves into positions of trust,power and control where they are less likely to be thought of as suspects. Teachers, boyscout leaders, police officers...nobody realizes that it is not the system that is failing as much as the fact that the screening process itself has become complacent due to lack of numbers to fill positions. Psychological screening needs to put in place in ALL positions of trust and authority to save our society from situations like this.
The details of this case can only be described as heinous and certainly more than anyone expected. The gravity of the event is magnified by the fact that Williams held the prestigious authority as a Military Wing Commander. The Military is not on trial here, but it is hard to detatch the events from the uniform because the uniform was the conduit that enabled him to abuse his authority and deceive our trust. We are all feeling profound anger and saddness. Having the option to know as much or as little that we choose to know of the details can help a reeling community come to terms with this and heal. I for one am pleased at the judge's decision to expose the events of this monumental case. Thankfully Williams was caught...literally, in his tracks.
I get a little uneasy when I see, on a journalism site, post from commentators who use the expression "known facts" about sexual predation, and who argue that some people "need to be locked up forever." I think it's safe to say that there is a great deal we DON'T known about sexual predation--Williams is a pretty good illustration of that fact--and journalists could do us all a great service by NOT dismissing such criminals as "monsters" beyond redemption who need to "rot in jail." Rather, they might try to explore why they do what they do. That's what I call socially-beneficial journalism. That would be a little more enterprising than the shock-and-awe strategy of showing us pictures of Williams in panties, which may sell papers but doesn't advance our understanding of perversion one iota. Oh, and one more "fact." Our prisons are not "filled with rapists, murders, stalkers. . . " They're filled mostly with people who have committed non-violent drug-related offenses.
Claude Adams was succinct in his position, particularly in his second paragraph. We have been inundadted with details should we chose to read them but still have no understanding of the mind or motivation of the individual who committed these horrific crimes.

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