Making judgment calls in newsrooms was a simpler endeavour before the 24-hour news cycle took effect. Now that readers are able to access multiple different news sources with the click of a mouse, the pressure of competition can factor into a newsroom’s decision-making about what kind of content should be included their reporting.
Local papers like the Lethbridge Herald were extremely graphic in their coverage of the Saretzky trial. In most cases they relayed the trial verbatim to their readership regardless of the explicit nature of the testimony or evidence presented.
“I cut her. I drank her blood. Most of it. I put it in a bottle,” Saretzky said in the re-enactment video shown in court, according to a June article in the Herald. 1 Kuhl, Nick. “Reenactment, confession videos played in triple murder trial.”Lethbridge Herald. June 16, 2017. That testimony is refers to how he had killed two-year-old Hailey and what he did with her body afterwards.
It got much worse.
Saretzky then told the police that he “cut her to pieces,” including decapitating the young girl, and went on to detail how he ate a portion of her heart. “I thought it would be really healthy for me,” he said, according to the same June article.
“We just decided that we needed to have the graphic information in there just because of the rarity, the unusual nature and overall the big scope of this,” said Herald city editor Nick Kuhl, who added that the “information was public at that point—once it’s read out in the courtroom it’s public information.” 2 Nick Kuhl. Interview done by Devika Desai. November 28, 2017.
Grant and Henderson said that CBC had internal discussions about whether to quote the cannibalism testimony. While it would be convenient for Henderson to say there is always an obvious line in the sand, or that CBC could simply fall back on its standards and practices, the digital age has made these choices more complex.
“It was probably a little easier to go your own way in the old days where you were waiting for the next newscast,” said Henderson. “Especially now with live tweeting and stories going up on the internet so quickly.”
Still, Henderson said those realities still aren’t an excuse to go against the core principles of your news organization. “We notice what competitors are doing, but I can honestly say, it never makes me think ‘Oh my God, a competitor published incredibly graphic details, I wonder if they’re going to get more web hits.’”
Being overly evocative is clearly not in CBC’s mandate but, given the extreme circumstances of the crime, was it possible to cover the case in any other way? Deciding what to communicate to its audience was anything but simple. It required nuanced debate and conversation behind closed doors amongst the corporation’s reporters, editors and senior management.