Before the winter of 2018, Karen Fraser’s dealings with the media were mostly when reporters would call her to draw on her expertise. Deemed a “futurist” by reporters — though she describes herself as a “nowist” — Fraser teaches innovative business courses to companies and individuals, looking at how organizations can find opportunity in sudden change.
She had no idea her own family was about to experience sudden change. On Jan. 18, 2018, the Toronto Police Service announced the arrest of Bruce McArthur, who was initially charged with two counts of first-degree murder of Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen, two men reported missing over six months earlier. McArthur has since been charged with a further four charges of first-degree murder, and local politicians are pressing for an independent review into the investigations of the missing men from Toronto’s LGBT community, which went without arrests for many years.
The story of a possible serial killer went international and became a source of tabloid fodder, especially when it was announced that remains had been discovered at the house where McArthur did landscaping — Fraser’s house. She and her partner Ron Smith were beset by media from across the world — at some points there were up to 15 news crews a day at the house, every day. It was during this time Fraser saw the best and worst of reporter behaviour.
The Toronto Sun published a photo of Fraser’s property on the front page with the headline “Hell House.” Fraser said some student reporters acted inappropriately on the property, and a pair of international reporters went onto another neighbour’s property after Fraser told them “no comment.” And she saw misinformation spread about herself and her home.
Now, Fraser is sharing some of what she’s learned dealing with the media over the last two-and-a-half months in the hopes that reporters can do a better job interviewing sources who have experienced trauma.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: When the police started investigating, how many media interactions were you having in a day?
Karen Fraser: I would say about eight hours a day, if they could find us, non-stop. We didn’t talk to anyone.
J-Source: Why was that?
Karen Fraser: We had been to the house a few times and said ‘no comment.’ Not that the police interfered — they said, ‘You can talk to anyone you like’ (but) they said (it) looking hopeful that we wouldn’t, of course, but that’s the balance in our institutions. But when the misinformation flowing…
J-Source: What misinformation was that?
KF: I went from being a happy entrepreneur in my house with my partner, plants, pets and projects to a slightly demented elderly person too stupid to keep a (suspected killer) out of her house — that we had him living here and using our house as a warehouse. I thought, “Oh, my god.” First of all, I didn’t say that. Obviously, secondly, it’s not true and the one that really hurt, that our house was a nondescript bungalow. I’m sorry, I took offense. Basically they made it up and then they started borrowing lies from each other and repeating them. I thought, ‘This is fascinating, but very wrong.’ They couldn’t get any information from the police. They couldn’t get any information from Ron and I.
I’m not new to dealing with media in my occupation. I dealt with them — still do regularly — but I had never seen anything like this.
J-Source: So that was the motivation to go on the record and do the interviews that you did.
K.F.: That’s right. They had to read it back to us before it was print.
J-Source: Did most of the reporters agree to that?
K.F.: Yes, they did. Even so, that didn’t work perfectly. But, okay, because we felt that this is too important.
We also felt that we were not the story — it’s about men who were murdered viciously and their families…It’s not about us. So we just kept quiet which of course really didn’t work because they were chasing us down everywhere. That’s why we were careful. I think most of them wanted to be kind and empathetic. We were fully aware that they were under tremendous pressure to get something.
J-Source: You said they were chasing you down. Can you tell me a little bit about what that was like?
K.F.: I got a call from a friend who’d thought we’d been in a car accident and we were near death, or something along that line because she received an email — the man did not identify himself as media — saying: “If you know Karen Fraser contact me immediately.” She panicked.
Now I give the reporter credit. He did his homework. He went through all the coverage of my work online — read all the articles, read all my columns and pulled out the name of anybody mentioned and tracked them down and sent them this email. That’s good detective work. But if he worded (the email) a little kinder, it might have worked. So I contacted him and said, “When this is all over, we have decided we are going to talk to a few people and people who pick on our friends and colleagues will not be included.” We just cut him right out. I thought that what he did was really out of line.
J-Source: Having gone through this experience is there anything that you wish reporters would have done differently?
K.F.: Number one, stick to the truth. We heard that Leaside was on total lockdown. Well my partner and I were still in Leaside, the restaurants seemed full, they seemed busy. Kids seemed to be in school.
I would maybe go right back to what is the purpose of the media, which I keep meaning to look up. Is it to inform the public? For what purpose? To solve problems? To improve our quality of life? Did those stories help?
Yes, a serial killer is an aberration. It’s extraordinary and it is fascinating. I know everyone is fascinated with this story. I don’t think you really needed to make anything up with this story. It stands very firmly on its own two feet.
Oh, and try and think of a better way to approach people. Everybody had the same question: “How do you feel?” How do I feel? I have no idea. I probably won’t know for some time. Don’t ask the same question. There were certain issues that were difficult for Ron and I to deal with. If anyone had asked about those without meaning to, I probably would have given an interview just because it opened the emotional floodgates. But nobody asked.
J-Source: Which questions were those?
K.F.: I think I’ll leave that, but they were obvious stories connected with this..
I guess do your homework. Maybe be kinder to the people that you are interviewing. Yes, they are a resource. Yes, you are going to move on. There was a worship song at the vigil that the chorus — I hope I have it close to being correct — (was) “in the end all that matters is how we treat each other.” Maybe keep that in mind when you are going after someone who is going through a difficult situation.
J-Source: On the flipside of this, for people that may find themselves in a situation where they are the source surrounding an event that is traumatic, what advice would you have for them in dealing with the media?
K.F.: If you have someone that you read, listen to, watch, that you think is trustworthy, I would call them myself and talk directly to them. For example, I was hoping that Mary Wiens (a reporter on CBC’s Metro Morning radio show in Toronto) would call. If I was going to do another interview, it would be with her and she did. Basically, I would go to people that I thought were trustworthy and talk to them and don’t talk to anyone else. You don’t have to talk to anybody. Now isn’t that sad for the media. You are trying to get the best possible coverage of something that has moved, startled, shocked. After this experience, I’d be very careful about interviews in the future on any topic.
That sounds pretty scathing doesn’t it? Because I know that a lot of (journalists) empathize with us.