7. The Chronicle Herald Faces a New Choice

Back in the spring of 2013, reporter Selena Ross had written the Chronicle Herald’s first article about Rehtaeh. Ross’s coverage that year included several award-winning, in-depth analysis articles about mishandled police investigations and the actions of the school board in relation to the victim’s case. Ross continued to have a vested interest in the story, even when the Herald’s court reporter took over coverage.

When Campbell upheld the publication ban, Ross—who had expected the media organizations’ appeal to be successful—realized the paper’s future coverage of the trials “had to be written in coded language.” [1]

“For a long time we didn’t quite realize when we could use the victim’s name and when we couldn’t,” Ross said. “After the ban was upheld we swung too far the other way [in avoiding use of Rhetaeh’s name]. It was making it hard to get the story.”

Not only was it hard to write about the case, readers were having difficulties following the trials. According to Ross, two trial articles that received signifcant attention were “Child-porn charges laid in Rehtaeh Parsons case,” about charges being laid in August 2013, and “No jail time in high-profile child pornography case in Halifax,” about the sentencing for the first accused in November 2014. The sentencing article had about half as many readers as the charges article. [2] Ross credits the difference in readership with the ability to use the Rehtaeh’s name when reporting on the trials, which, as of April 2014, was illegal.

Since the decision to uphold the publication ban, reporters and editors had talked informally about the ban, but no one discussed intentionally breaking it. Ross, however, strongly believed that the girl’s name should be published. [3] On the morning of Nov. 24, Ross emailed the public prosecutor. About a week before, Halifax police had issued a press release stating they had investigated seven complaints of publication ban violations, but would not be prosecuting. [4] Ross wanted to know why. She promptly received a response and forwarded the email to her editor, putting in motion a newsroom discussion about intentionally breaking the ban.

Listen: Media lawyer Nancy Rubin on police investigations into the publication ban violations

That same day, the second accused pleaded guilty to one count of distributing child pornography. His sentencing was set for Jan. 15, 2015, after which the case and, potentially, Rehtaeh’s story would be filed away, far from the public’s mind.  At an 11:45 a.m. news meeting, editors at the Chronicle Herald had a decision to make. Should the paper sacrifice public knowledge and the parent’s wishes in order to adhere to the law? Or would the Chronicle Herald face down potential legal consequences and break the publication ban to provide more accurate reporting of the case?

Next: Epilogue

1, 2. Selena Ross, telephone interview with author, December 4, 2014
3. Ian Thompson, telephone interview with author, November 28, 2014
4. Nancy Rubin, telephone interview with author, November 25, 2014