According to Dean Jobb, author of Media Law for Canadian Journalists, “The court of public opinion should operate with a full understanding of the facts and the law … an understanding that can only come through fair and accurate news coverage.”
The Saretzky trial certainly wasn’t the first time CBC covered a case that contained disturbing graphic details. In 2007, Robert Pickton was charged with 26 counts of first-degree murder after human remains were found on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. In testimony heard during the trial, Andrew Bellwood, a former friend of the accused, described Pickton’s personal re-telling of the murders he committed.
CBC didn’t water down the details in its coverage.
Bellwood testified that Pickton told him he would handcuff his victims and use various restraints to strangle them. He would then take the bodies to the slaughterhouse and “bleed them and gut them.”1“Pickton described how he killed women, former friend says,” CBC Calgary. July 16, 2007
“He commented on how much they bled,” said Bellwood. “He kept telling me, ‘Oh you know how much they bleed, you wouldn’t believe how much blood comes out of a person.’” CBC did not hold back in laying out the grisly details of the case, but it did not publish any graphic visuals in its digital coverage of the trial.
However, there are other cases in which CBC has published graphic visuals, such as the video it published in the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack in June 2017.
When it comes to publishing graphic visuals on cases of this nature, Jobb notes that it is important to ask, “Do the pictures inform or merely shock? … Do they help tell the story, or do they deflect attention from the point that the journalist is trying to make?”2Jobb, 417.
During his time as managing editor of CBC Radio, Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough, had to ask himself these questions when faced with the graphic evidence presented during the trial of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The judge, he said, had banned journalists from accessing graphic video evidence stating that it was “not in the public interest to share this level of detail.” Dvorkin’s colleagues at CBC TV News disagreed, arguing that “because [the videos] were admitted into evidence, the public had a right to know what was in it and to see it.”3Jeffrey Dvorkin. Interview done by Devika Desai. December 14, 2017.
However, Dvorkin said he and his superiors at CBC Radio decided against appealing to a higher court to access the evidence. “Maybe this is my own squeamishness but also as a journalist, I felt that the public needed to know what happened in this instance but they did not not need to know in any detail,” he said.
In journalism, he said, there’s a need to draw a line between ascertaining a need for the public to know versus indulging in what he calls “news pornography.”
Regardless of the fact that CBC had previously disseminated graphic evidence in past cases, Grant and her team still wrestled with whether to do the same with some of the evidence presented at the Saretzky trial.