Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
Why are we printing the gory details?
Neither the content nor the tone of the e-mail surprised me. And I expect to get several more like it in the coming days."What a desperate way to sell newspapers! You should be ashamed of yourself ...eventually if not sooner. The graphic details are glaringly disturbing ...and so are you! Martin"
Martin, of course, was referring to the ongoing coverage of one of the worst murders in Canadian history - the killing of 22-year-old Tim McLean on board a Greyhound Bus last week.He was taking me to task for Tuesday's online story, which discussed the Portage la Prairie court appearance of murder suspect Vincent Li.
The story - which you can read HERE
- dealt with a number of issues including Li's bizarre behaviour in court, his refusal to get a lawyer and the ordering of a psychiatric report.It also contained graphic details of the crime Li is accused of committing, as stated in painstaking detail by Crown attorney Joyce Dalmyn.There was no publication ban on the court proceedings, which were witnessed by a gallery packed largely with members of the media and members of the community who, I suspect, were simply acting on their morbid curiosity by coming down to get a glance at Li.Martin, like a lot of other readers I suspect, is wondering why we see fit to print every sordid element of the case.Even a fellow Winnipeg Free Press worker e-mailed me with her concerns about our handling of the story, suggesting it could inspire copycat incidents. There’s no doubt that this is an incredibly disturbing story. I don't feel that you need all of the gruesome details of the attack to be published. Out of consideration for the victim's family and friends, you may want to leave out some of the gory details. If there is a trial, the family will hear more than they want to there. Just knowing that they’ve lost a son is bad enough but to hear all of the details so soon after his death will be devastating.Sometimes we forget how many people our newspaper reaches and if you include too many gory details, there may be copy-cat murders of people who may not be mentally stable. For example, the beheading of the woman in Europe this past weekend. You may also traumatize some of your readers.
These are all valid points. And this is not a decision that has been made lightly.Deputy editor Julie Carl wrote me an e-mail Tuesday, posing the very same types of questions and concerns. She wondered if we might not want to omit some of the more disturbing details for the sake of our readers.We agreed to discuss the issue with several other editors before reaching a conclusion.Here's what I wrote in support of going ahead with the full story:I agree the facts are very disturbing. But I think that considering there is a very good chance this man is going to be found unfit for trial, or perhaps not criminally responsible, its important we show as much as possible about why that may be. The facts of the case will likely be the prime reason for this.I think, provided the appropriate content warnings are placed on the story, and provided it is written straightforward and not in an exploitative manner (including the headlines), then it’s vital to inform the public about what happened here.And that includes describing what this guy allegedly did, as brutal as it is.
I went on to suggest we place a paragraph or two in the story explaining our decision.After bouncing it around for a while, the team of editors came to the conclusion that it was indeed important to give the public all the information about this horrible case with the appropriate warnings and caveats in place.We also agreed that we wouldn't continue to rehash every single detail in future stories just for the sake of doing it.But considering the elements of the killing will likely play a pivotal role in deciding whether Vincent Li faces any kind of criminal sanctions - and that Canadians are likely to have a strong opinion on the outcome - we felt we'd be doing an injustice to readers by not giving them as much information as possible.In this case, it's the same information that was available to anyone who set foot in the courtroom Tuesday.We agreed to put the most disturbing information far down in the story, to keep out words such as "gruesome" and "horrific" and simply play it as straight as possible.Lest you think we don't use discretion at times, keep in mind the Free Press did not print transcripts or post audio of the recorded RCMP chatter that many other media outlets around the world picked up on over the weekend.I'll spare you the details for the sake of being a hypocrite, but suffice to say there were numerous revelations and comments on the tapes which would have been unsettling to many. We didn't feel they helped advance the story in any way and we didn't publish them.However, the allegations - as told by a Crown attorney in a public courtroom - are vital to the case at bar and will go a long way to determining the fate of the accused killer.I recognize that not everyone will see the reasoning behind this and will think we're just trying to be "sensational" for the sake of making a dime.I've learned a long time ago that no one story is worth damaging a reputation that is built on trust and honesty - from the people you interview to the people who read you.And that's why I felt obligated to try and explain a bit about the decision making process. I know many will still disagree, and that's their right. Hopefully others will see there is a method to the madness.Agree or disagree with Mike? Post your thoughts below.