Let’s face it: There is no easy way to report on a trial in which the details of the rape and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford are given. Belinda Alzner looks at the history of the case, the dichotomy between the public's reaction to the coverage and news organizations' understanding of their duty to report it and explains how and why some organizations have decided to take different approaches to their coverage. 

Let’s face it: There is no easy way to report on a trial in which the details of the rape and murder of eight-year-old Tori Stafford are given. Belinda Alzner looks at the history of the case, the dichotomy between the public's reaction to the coverage and news organizations' understanding of their duty to report it and explains how and why some organizations have decided to take different approaches to their coverage. 

 

By now, Tori Stafford’s story is well-known. Her smiling face lit up television newscasts for weeks as thousands who had never met the girl held out hope that she would safely return home to her family. But that would not be the case. Now, family, friends, the public, journalists and those implicated have recently been re-living that final day of her life nearly three years ago from the seats of a London court house, its overflow room, and through the media.

And it is at this point that we say, as the other media outlets have in their reporting of this trial:  This story may contain details some readers find offensive.

On April 8, 2009, eight-year-old Tori Stafford was set to walk home from school by herself for the first time ever when she was approached by Terri-Lynne McClintic in her now-infamous white jacket. Tempting the little girl with the allure of a puppy, McClintic took Tori by the hand and led her toward a car. Except, what was inside the car was not a puppy – it was Michael Rafferty. Surveillance video of McClintic holding hands with Tori was the last time the little girl was ever seen until her body was discovered near Mount Forest, Ont. three months later.

Rafferty now stands trial accused of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and kidnapping of Tori Stafford. He has pleaded not guilty.

McClintic was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree murder of Tori in April 2010. McClintic’s trial was put under a far-reaching publication ban that received much criticism from the media and politicians alike. Limited details surrounding her case – including the fact that she pleaded guilty – only came to be known nearly seven months later, when a Supreme Court decision allowed the publication of some details from McClintic’s trial.

According to an article in The Globe and Mail published immediately after the partial raising of the publication ban, Judge McDermid’s ruling that put the ban into place was made in order to ensure a fair trial for Rafferty.

That trial has now begun. As a result, McClintic’s graphic testimony that began last week contained details previously unknown to the public, and the discussion about whether or not the media should be reporting them is already in full swing.

In earlier parts of this series looking at the media coverage of Rafferty’s trial, James Armstrong of Global News wrote an account for J-Source of what it has been like live-tweeting the trial and the decisions that are made on the fly. And of course, not everybody likes to know some of the gruesome details. J-Source outlined some of the arguments for and against publishing details in the trial in an article earlier this week.

Emotionally-charged murder trials will undeniably lead to criticism of the media’s coverage. A case in point is not too far back in the collective Canadian memory: That of convicted rapist and murderer Col. Russell Williams. In Williams’ case, reporters could tweet right from the courtroom, which was unprecedented at the time for such a sensitive case. In Rafferty’s trial, reporters can’t tweet from the courtroom itself, but they can do so from an overflow room set up for media and the public. In both cases, the constant flow of real-time testimony raised the question: “How much is too much?

Since Williams’ case, news organizations have had time to reflect. But still, a more fundamental question of whether or not details in the case should even be leaving the courtroom has been raised.

But there seems to be some dichotomy between the public’s reaction to the information emerging from Rafferty’s trial and journalists’ and news organizations’ understanding of their duty to report it. Among pleas from readers, listeners and viewers to not show or tell them any more about Tori Stafford’s brutal murder, it should not be forgotten that journalists are people too; they are mothers and fathers, and covering this story is surely akin to watching their worst nightmare play out for another family. A trial such as this can take a toll on a journalist as well — just ask David Seglins, who filed for CBC Radio on the Russell Williams trial.

News organizations have grappled with the decision about how to handle their coverage of the trial, how much is too much and have taken different approaches accordingly. But many also make an effort to explain why this reporting matters, why people should pay attention to it and why it is not only a right, but possibly even a responsibility to embrace the concept of open court – even when the details that emerge from it might make some people uncomfortable.

Here are four examples of differing coverage from local, regional and national publications and their justifications for it.

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London Free Press

A statement of warning, either printed or spoken, has more often than not accompanied outlets' coverage of Rafferty’s trial.

But as one J-Source reader pointed out, such warnings of graphic content in radio broadcasts only serves its purpose if a listener has been tuned in since the beginning of the show – if they turn it on halfway through, they may inadvertently hear details they did not wish to know.

The same can be said of Twitter. Many reporters tweeting from this trial are using their personal accounts and they tweet warnings to followers about graphic content throughout the day. But if a Twitter user who follows these reporters logs in during the middle of a harrowing testimony, they may accidentally stumble upon things they wish they could un-read.

For this reason, The London Free Press has set up an entirely separate Twitter account for the Rafferty trial, clearly named @RaffertyLFP, its bio containing a warning about the content the profile contains.

Mike Knoll, digital/visual news editor at the Free Press, told Sarah Millar for a story for OpenFile that "We really, really thought that we'd give our readers the option of whether they want to hear these gruesome details, of whether they want to be exposed to this story because we're going all-in in our coverage and it's definitely not to everybody's taste."

The tweets from the @RaffertyLFP account are pulled into a CoverItLive blog throughout the day, which Knoll moderates and responds to reader comments. According to the OpenFile story, on Mar. 13, the first day of McClintic’s testimony, the live blog received 18,000 visitors throughout the day and has been replayed more than 25,000 times since. As well, the Twitter account currently has over 1,600 followers.

The Free Press has also set up a separate landing page on its website for all things related to the Rafferty trial. This was one of the most common suggestions given when J-Source solicited feedback on media coverage thus far.

But to return to the question as to why they’re reporting the details in the first place, Larry Cornies, a journalism professor at Conestoga College in Kitchener as well as a journalism ethics teacher at Western University, wrote a column for the Free Press last week that further explains journalists’ duty, even if the details might offend.”We need to look and learn. Neither is easy,” he says.

From there, Cornies continues, explaining that the courts represent the social contracts we each are expected to uphold as citizens, and that within these courts, “we broker what we as a society will and will not tolerate among us, as we seek to live peaceably with one another. Here, the abstract aspirations and limits we set for our lives together become real. The acts of Parliament and statutes of our legislatures are translated from dusty shelves to real life.”

He says that citizens have a responsibility to support the judge, jury and other civil servants who are tasked with hearing details that they won’t ever be able to forget:

When it comes to what happens in our courts, citizens have the right to avert their eyes. But there also comes a time to stare evidence in the face, in all its ugliness, and stand with those who must wrestle with it on our behalf.

Besides, we can’t change what we don’t understand.

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Toronto Star

Despite having the capability to do so at times, the Toronto Star has decided not to live tweet their coverage, instead making frequent updates to its web stories throughout the day. The Star has two reporters at the London courthouse – Rosie DiManno, (“who has reported on more heinous crimes in her 30-plus years at the Star than anyone else,” says public editor Kathy English in a column), and Raveena Aulakh.

The publication ban on McClintic’s trial was part of the reason that the Star decided not to tweet, says city editor Graham Parley. “We decided not to live tweet in this trial because of the unusual publication bans in effect going into the trial and the graphic testimony expected,” Parley said in an email to J-Source.

“There was testimony heard at the Woodstock trial that was under a ban and we did not want to risk a tweet mistakenly giving information under that ban,” he continued. “Add in the taste test on the testimony and those two factors were enough to reach a decision.” 

English addresses the Star's decision to not live-tweet in her Mar. 23 column*, where she agrees with Parley. 

And I think Parley is right that reporters and readers are well-served when important news reports are edited before publication. I’ve long believed that every writer, no matter how talented, benefits from the smart second look good editors provide — and no more so than in stories where legal, taste and ethical questions matter. 

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She notes that while the Star live-tweeted from the Russell Williams case, the implications were different than that of Rafferty's trial because Williams had pleaded guilty, thus there was no determining his guilt or innocence. There is simply more at stake in Rafferty's trial and the Star doesn't want to mess it up with an errant tweet. 

She does say that she wouldn't be surprised if the Star reporters tweeted Rafferty's verdict, however. 

DiManno has been writing about the case since Stafford’s disappearance in 2009. She was the Star columnist who harshly criticized the decision to place McClintic’s trial under publication ban in April 2010, and the one who reported on McClintic’s sentencing when that ban was partially lifted in December of that year.

Now, she is back in London, filing from Rafferty’s trial. Reflecting the tone of the testimony given, her columns are harrowing pieces such as this one, which outlined the gut-wrenching details of Tori’s death and was published after McClintic's first day on the stand.

The paper’s coverage was addressed in English’s Mar. 16 column, in part to readers who wrote to her about it. “Please don’t print any more,” one wrote — a sentiment that generally summed up the reader response, English said.

Despite the paper’s effort to filter through information before publication — as seen in Parley’s decision not to tweet — readers were still upset. English spoke to DiManno to get her take on it

“My view has always been that, if the victim had to endure the horror, the least we can do is not look away,” DiManno said. “Newspapers shouldn’t act as a buffer between readers and reality.”

As for the argument that reporters should be respecting Tori’s family by withholding information? “Rodney Stafford holds daily scrums outside court. Tara McDonald hasn’t left the courtroom to avoid hearing gruesome details,” DiManno said in English’s column. “The public should not even try to appropriate the family’s feelings by professing to know best which details should be revealed and which concealed.”

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CBC

CBC News has reporters providing live coverage via a ScribbleLive blog on top of that from reporters such as Melanie Nagy and Steven D’Souza who are sending snippets of testimony updates on Twitter. From there, the coverage is compiled into a web file.

On the Mar. 14 edition of Metro Morning,Matt Galloway interviewed Tim Danson, the lawyer who represented the families of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, who were murdered by Karla Holmolka and Paul Bernardo in 1991 and 1992 respectively. They spoke about the amount of detail that should be given to the public and how that might affect the families of the victim.

Galloway can’t read the stories pertaining to the Stafford case: “I just can’t put myself through that.”

When Galloway asked Danson how hard this must be for the family to hear, Danson made it clear that it would be terribly excruciating. “However, family members are amazingly resilient,” he continued. “As difficult as it is, they feel they have to be in the courtroom in solidarity with their child,” adding that the family often feels guilt for not being there when their child needed them most and that being in the courtroom is the least they can do.

In terms of the value of the public knowing the horrific details of Tori’s final hours, Danson said that’s the wrong way to look at it, and that it comes down to a much more fundamental concept: That of the open court principle that ensures justice is carried out. “Once you start there you have to decide at what point do you roll back from that principle,” Danson says.

“If you start setting up a rule of sanitizing the facts so that the public doesn’t really know exactly what happened, then you’re not in a position to evaluate the administration of justice.”

Withholding information from the public “really has to be the exception, not the rule.” And these exceptions should be made on a case-by-case basis, the way it was in the Bernardo trial, when the decision was made not to show the videotapes to the media and the public.

Galloway noted that on the day following the beginning of McClintic’s testimony, two newspapers ran the story below the fold, and believes that the presentation of such news is key to the public’s reception of it. Danson agrees. “As long as the media is presenting it in not a sensational way, but in a factual way so that the general public can be evaluate the justice that is being carried out, then that is very, very important.”

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The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail public editor Sylvia Stead dedicated her Mar. 9 column to explaining the newspaper’s coverage of the trial.  In the column, national editor Sinclair Stewart explains that having two reporters in London – Adrian Morrow and Tim Appleby – allows the paper to have one reporter in the courtroom, and one in the overflow, where they are allowed to tweet. Appleby takes the former shift, while Morrow takes the latter.

“It was primarily to ensure that our staffing was commensurate with the significance of the story,” Sinclair said in Stead’s column. “The public's interest in this case, not surprisingly, has been extraordinary. 

“When you're dealing with allegations that are this brutal—and, to many, this incomprehensible—the public has more than a thirst for justice: It has a thirst for exposition, and for the media to help them make sense of what happened,” he continued. “Having Tim [Appleby] and Adrian [Morrow] at the courthouse has also given us more flexibility in terms of how we deliver the news to readers.”

Morrow’s tweets are pulled into a ScribbleLive blog and Appleby has been afforded the luxury of sitting at a large table near the front of the courtroom with other media and his laptop – “which for me is a first,” he says.

As for the differences between their coverage, Appleby explains that when it comes time to do the wrap for the next day’s paper, much detail that Morrow has been documenting on Twitter throughout the day “falls by the wayside” as he tries to create a big-picture overview of the day’s testimony. Here’s an example of the web version of Appleby and Morrow’s efforts.

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News outlets that provide television coverage as well as web updates such as Global NewsCityTV and CTV also have reporters tweeting. As well, it should be noted, there are no cameras allowed in the courtroom.

 

Related stories:

On Rafferty, McClintic and their role in Tori Stafford's final day: How much detail is too much?

As it happens: Tweeting from the Rafferty murder trial

 

*UPDATED: 2:00 p.m. Mar. 23 to include Toronto Star public editor Kathy English's address on why the newspaper is not live-tweeting Michael Rafferty's trial.