Reporters are trying to balance the cultural shift that challenges traditional justice system narratives against rules of procedure around court cases.
The crackle of the newsroom scanner that Sunday afternoon carried sombre voices from the shore of Winnipeg’s Red River.
A small body had been pulled from the murky water tied in a bag.
The discovery was conveyed in brusque tones via fire-paramedic dispatches on Aug. 17, 2014. As I listened, my stomach dropped.
In death, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine became a symbol of how society too often treats its most vulnerable, and media coverage of her case has raised questions about journalism’s responsibility to victims and to the public as it shines a spotlight on those tragedies.
Now, amid a cultural shift that challenges traditional justice-system narratives and demands accountability for headlines and news stories that may dredge up damaging stereotypes, how can coverage of stories like Tina’s evolve to meet public pleas for trauma-informed reporting, even within the confines of a courtroom?
Nearly four years after her body was discovered, in the courtroom where Tina Fontaine’s accused killer was being tried for second-degree murder, that question lingered. And my gut-wrenching feeling returned.
Small, sharp gasps punctuated a toxicologist’s testimony about drug tests conducted on the teenager’s decomposing body as Tina’s family in the front row reacted to details that became national news in real time.
It was Day 2 of a jury trial I would cover daily for the Winnipeg Free Press over the next three weeks, through to the not-guilty verdict for 56-year-old Raymond Cormier.
Those of us watching the trial unfold wouldn’t find out until the next day’s testimony that an autopsy couldn’t answer the question of how Tina died. Her cause of death was still unknown, meaning prosecutors making a case for murder first had to rule out anything else that could have been fatal to the 15-year-old. But some of that context was still a 24-hour news cycle away by the time the first headlines appeared online. The public backlash was swift. Indigenous chiefs, advocacy groups, a Member of Parliament and other journalists criticized victim-blaming news coverage that focused on Tina instead of her accused killer.
Lisa Taylor, a former lawyer and current professor of journalism law and ethics at Ryerson University, said court reporting often conflicts with the best practices for trauma-informed reporting, a concept that aims to give victims some element of control in how they share their stories. In a criminal case, that power is stripped away.
“The court doesn’t adhere to the norms of trauma-informed reporting in any regard,” Taylor said.
That can be tempered, she said, by injecting “a strong dose of humanity” into headline-writing, but it can’t be solved by subtraction when it comes to court coverage.
“We can still tell stories of conflict and of injustice, but we will tell the stories in which the individual Indigenous people in those stories are people who are fighting back, rising up and challenging historical wrongs, not poor helpless victims who find themselves somehow at the mercy of a colonial system. You know, we will tell stories of the people who are strong, who are agents of change, and who are not happy with the status quo,” Taylor said. “We can change our journalism overall. We can’t change the stories we tell from court unless or until the court system itself changes.”
Journalists do the public no favours by pulling punches about the ugliness of the court process, Taylor said.
“If the court system is going to rely on troubling narratives, if it is going to decide that evidence about what a child may or may not have had in her body – if that becomes relevant in court, then I say we don’t get to look away.”
Context is key to explaining what happens in court, but confusion around jury-trial publication restrictions may have further complicated the reporting on Cormier’s court case. Ryder Gilliland, a Toronto-based media lawyer and president of the Canadian Media Lawyers’ Association, says he was contacted by journalists seeking clarity on what they could report during Cormier’s trial, and they may not have been as limited as they thought they were. A Criminal Code provision prohibits publication of anything the jury didn’t hear in court, but it’s meant to cover certain evidence that comes out during the court case, not explanatory background details that could illuminate the backdrop against which the trial is happening.
“The courts treat juries as sophisticated on the one hand, and capable of following instructions (including instructions not to follow news reports on the trial), but then on the other hand, there’s this concern – maybe a legacy concern but nevertheless a concern still – about tainting juries and about telling jurors things they shouldn’t (hear),” Gilliland said.
Publication ban laws have traditionally evolved with a bit of envelope-pushing from journalists, and “historically, newspapers have led the charge in these fights,” he said.
But getting legal advice on deadline can be expensive. Shrinking newsroom budgets may mean news organizations are less willing to incur legal expenses now than they were even 15 years ago, when Gilliland started practising media law.
“The question of whether you fight a publication ban or not, it’s optional. So when the industry is in dire straits and people’s balance books are actually in the red, of course they’re going to be much less likely to fight publication bans, you know, to engage in that discretionary spending,” he said.
Journalists reporting from within the courtroom may have been concerned with the legal implications of their coverage, but what about the implications on the public?
The effects of the news on the people who consume it and on the people it portrays is still an “under-researched” aspect of journalism, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the U.S.-based Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Research that specifically focuses on court coverage is scarcer still. But in the Center’s 20 years of existence as a project of Columbia University, Shapiro has seen a generational shift.
“Younger reporters are much more open to considering the impact of their reporting on story subjects, and the impact of covering violent or tragic events on us as news professionals,” he wrote in an email.
One of the best ways for journalists to minimize harm in their reporting, Shapiro said, is to seek out different voices and develop sources – including clinicians and victim advocates – who can talk about trauma in a way that informs the public.
It’s clear journalists need to examine the way they report on issues affecting Indigenous people, particularly when that reporting intersects with intergenerational trauma, said Cliff Lonsdale, president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.
“There’s a generation of journalists growing up who will see this differently and be much more aware of the traumatic background against which today’s story is playing. And I think we’ve got to find ways to convey that to the public, because – it’s a fine line here. Is it the journalist’s job to educate the public? To some extent, yes it is. If part of our job is to shine light in dark corners, here’s a dark corner that people have turned away from,” Lonsdale said.