The role of responsibility and restraint in crime reporting
What journalists can learn from a staff lawyer at Innocence Canada
When I started writing up this interview I did with Rebecca Dillon, a young staff lawyer at Innocence Canada, I immediately caught myself thinking in cliches. The first thing I wrote down was ‘30-year-old Rebecca is exactly who you might expect to be working at Innocence: young, hungry, idealistic.’
Not only is this line corny, but it also hints at some of the more serious problems journalists face when covering crime and criminal trials. Too often, we rely on dramatic archetypes and preconceptions in order to sensationalize. (In this case, I couldn’t help but picture Cousin Vinny fighting seasoned prosecutors for the rights of two wrongfully accused teens.)
Although Dillon isn’t an auto mechanic from Queens, and probably doesn’t rock a leather jacket when she’s working, she is a rebel: she has ignored the wiles of private practice to dedicate her burgeoning career entirely to the public interest through Innocence.
According to Dillon, her atypical career trajectory in law stems from her background as an academic researcher. Dillon has a masters in bioarcheology, and her research looked at archeology through the lens of social justice. Although she believes research is crucial, she decided to leave academia in order to work with people directly to try to make a more tangible impact on society:
“I saw a law degree as more of a tool to achieve that… I didn’t go in to be a lawyer, necessarily. I went in to achieve my goals in social justice work,” explains Dillon.
While at law school, Dillon “hunted down” a summer position at a non-profit, and landed at Innocence, where she “got hooked on criminal law” and the work Innocence does.
Working as a lawyer at Innocence Canada is an appellant practice. In other words, Dillon’s work overwhelmingly deals with the post-appeal phase of a trial. This means drafting applications – many of which exceed the 200-page mark – and submitting them to the Criminal Convictions Review Group. This is gruelling behind the scenes work, happening outside of courtrooms and far from the prying cameras and microphones of the media.
Dillon’s work is impactful but untheatrical. And this is where we journalists can take a page from her book. Dillon acknowledges the media’s crucial role in holding police and prosecutors publicly accountable. But she adds that journalists must wield their power responsibly and avoid playing into the sensationalizing of crime.
First, says Dillon, the media needs to get its facts straight – don’t simply rely on other outlets for information, check your facts yourself! Next, only reveal the necessary information relating to an ongoing case. Although it fills a base human instinct, exposing all the gruesome details of a crime is never helpful:
“The public doesn’t really need to know. And that can also be pretty traumatic for the public, I think because not everyone needs to know all the gory details. Like I don’t see how that’s essential.”
Not only does revealing these particulars prove unessential to the public’s understanding of the case, but it can also seriously jeopardize a defendant’s right to receive a fair trial. Most damaging, according to Dillon, is the public circulation of a suspect’s mugshot prior to trial. Mugshots or photos of the accused can – and often have – tainted the memory of eyewitnesses. Furthermore, they can form prejudice against the defendant in the minds of jurors. Always confirm which details of the case to share with the lead investigator, Dillon advises, not some junior officer who might not understand the implications of passing along certain tidbits.
Dillon would also like to see journalists reminding readers that we are all innocent until proven guilty. This may seem basic in theory, but in practice, journalists too often present cases in an imbalanced manner by prioritizing comments from the prosecution:
“I think when the public often hears news coming from the police or the Crown, they take that as truth because they are, you know, representatives of the public… but it often ignores the role of defense counsel and the fact that our courts are based on presenting both sides, both accounts.”
Crime reporting moves fast, and the words journalists decide to print can be life-altering. Ultimately, Dillon encourages cultivating self-awareness:
“Having a moment of self-reflection before you hit the send button… and asking, ‘what is the purpose of this?’ I think that will help guide a lot of work and will help avoid some of the pitfalls that can occur in reporting.”
For me, this means fighting the urge to draw loose comparisons to Law and Order, The Rainmaker, or even My Cousin Vinny whenever I am writing about what’s going down in the courtroom.
Feb 15, 2021
LGBTQ Tik-Tok star entertains to educate
For Valentine’s day this year, Tik-Tok celebrity Christian Suen posted a video about his love-hate relationship with February 14th. The video starts with him posing as himself last year, furiously renouncing the type of relationship that V-day promotes. Then, we flash forward to the present to see him being lovingly embraced by his current partner.
At the end of the clip, Suen sheepishly admits to the camera: “yeah, we have a boyfriend now”. The other man in the video is Suen’s real-life partner. And as Suen’s use of ‘we’ suggests, his personal life is as public as it gets. With over 300-thousand Tik-Tok followers, his page has become an international platform for LGBTQ advocacy.
Explaining his rise to Tik-Tok fame, Suen, who is originally from Hong Kong, says his content strikes a balance between entertainment and education. “Cutesy couple-y Tik Tok things” and practical jokes are a lighthearted way for Suen to reduce stigma around LGBTQ+ lifestyles.
Tik-Tok has allowed him to reach an unprecedented amount of people because the new platform works differently from other social media. A viral video can attract millions of views from outside a poster’s following. Consequently, Tik-Tok also leaves Suen more exposed to hostile audiences:
“It’s not all about the laughs, there are certain times where the pressure does mount up a bit… when you have a huge onslaught of homophobia… it does get quite disconcerting.”
Overall, Suen believes love outweighs hate. And for now, his notifications are turned off anyway – he’s too busy studying international relations at Cambridge to read them all.
February 18, 2021
The B.C. Women’s Health Foundation launching new interactive tool in fight against COVID-19
The tool, which will calculate a tailored risk score for users, is being commissioned by the Foundation in collaboration with the Vancouver School of Economics.
The new web platform has yet to be named, but the B.C. Women’s Hospital Foundation is hoping to roll it out in November. It will provide users with personalized COVID-19 “risk scores” – a unit expressed in the form of a fraction out of 100.
The risk score, which was developed by the Vancouver School of Economics, looks at the user’s profession as a baseline indicator, then analyzes their other relevant “life factors”.
This is where the Foundation is looking to make a big difference. By interpreting multiple factors at once, they hope to produce a much more accurate analysis of the virus’s potential individual impact. The end goal is to encourage employers and policy makers to tailor access to healthcare based on different groups’ associated risk. Those who are at higher risk of contracting COVID=19 can then access the special support they will need during the ongoing pandemic – from more paid sick days to more counselling options.
The foundation’s approach is new, but they have not had to collect new data.
“What we love about it, it’s not necessarily new data collection. It’s stuff we already knew about and that we’ve been collecting for years,” explains BCWHF communications manager Catherine Hodgson. “Stuff like ‘are they more likely to take transit, are they more likely to live in a multi-generational home, are they more likely to live with another healthcare professional’?”
The data is publicly accessible, but it is being organized in an informative way with regards to COVID-19 transmission.
One of the most impactful “life factors” that BC Women’s has included in its tool is gender. According to a recent study by Statistics Canada, 56% of working women have jobs in what is called the “5 Cs” – caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical functions – jobs that are often considered a part of essential services. Compare that to just 17% for working men.
Women are more likely to be doing frontline work. At the same time, women are also more likely to be performing unpaid caregiving jobs, such as childcare and elder care. Hodgson says gender is important for calculating risk of infection.
“So we know that inherently certain risk factors are associated with certain jobs…. But what this new tool will introduce is a gender lens to that. Looking at industries that are more male or female dominated and trying to start to look at ways that this will inform their unique likelihood of exposure and infection.”
One of the examples that most clearly illustrates the gendered impact of COVID-19, according to Hodgson, lies in the healthcare sector itself. Gender disparity within different healthcare professions is high. 80% of nurses in BC are women.
“Nurses have a higher risk of exposure than many of the other professions in healthcare that tend to have less direct contact with patients,” Hodgson explains.
For Becky Goodman, a registered nurse at Vancouver Children’s Hospital with two kids of her own at home, COVID-19 has been all-encompassing. Her husband has the option of working from home, which was helpful when she was required to isolate after a potential exposure at work.
“I’ve never thought about COVID in terms of gender,” says Goodman. “In terms of nurses and respiratory therapists and doctors, there definitely are more women, but I’ve never thought about it that way.”
Gender is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.
Goodman agrees that more data is better:
“I think the more data we can collect about this whole situation, the better it will be for future outbreaks. I’m looking forward to seeing all of the stats that will come out of this in a couple of years.”
Indeed, the more life factors the Foundation’s new tool can consider, the more accurate the user’s risk score will be. The tool might consider other factors such as “earnings”, “use of public transit” and “multigenerational household”. It would also read these against different employment categories such as “remote” or “face to face”.
By looking for these diverse factors, the Foundation will be positioning itself as part of a growing contingency of groups advocating for an increased use of disaggregated data in public healthcare, particularly in response to COVID-19.
Minority groups and marginalized Canadians are overrepresented in confirmed cases of COVID-19. Hodgson says that this new tool could bring us one step closer to identifying those who need more support and care:
“It’s the ripple effect. CERB was great, but let’s look for people who are having these additional life factors that we aren’t considering. Let’s take lessons from this unique moment to improve access to quality healthcare for all Canadians by highlighting those that need it most.”
Hodgson is encouraging British Columbians to consider these ideas before the upcoming provincial election.
Oct 5, 2020
On starting J-School in these uncertain times
“Good for you, the world needs good journalism now more than ever.”
This was the most common sentiment I encountered upon telling friends and family about starting this program at BCIT. And I instantly knew what they meant. I didn’t have to ask them to elaborate in order to understand the implications. The so-called “post-truth era” was on a head-on collision course with a global pandemic, and Trump was in the driver’s seat – his little hands gripping the steering wheel and holding it steady to impress his frenzied base before the upcoming election.
Faced with the question of what kind of landscape the media has had to deal with during COVID-19, I think most of us here in Canada cannot help but picture some of the shocking images that have come out of the United States: the anti-mask demonstrations, Trump contradicting Dr. Fauci and suggesting shooting up on disinfectant, the storming of the Capitol… sadly, the list is seemingly endless.
Our neighbour to the south has become the epicenter of “alternative facts”, a victim of its own culture wars that have been raging there since the 1980s – and COVID (whether those affected believe in it or not!) might represent the final, tragic straw.[i]
By now, it is a well-documented fact that the general public in the United States has, to put it mildly, been steadily losing its trust in traditional media.[ii] How many Americans have died in vain from misinformation around COVID? We will probably never know for sure, but the casualties are real.
This is what my friends and my folks were implying when they said what they said. The stakes are high, and journalists across the world can make a real difference, every day.
“But what about Canada, eh?”
Some have argued that there is also evidence that the distrust of mainstream of traditional media has spilled over into Canada. Certainly, people like Doug Ford, Maxime Bernier, and Jordan Peterson are proof that the same populist impulses and (white) nationalistic anxieties that fuelled Trump’s presidency are present in healthy amounts here, too.
That being said, compared to the United States, data collected in Canada supports the fact that Canadians might actually be one of the most trusting people when it comes to its relationship with the media.[iii]
But for Canadians, this doesn’t change another difficult media reality exacerbated by COVID: at the local level, Canadian media is experiencing a “mass extinction” event.[iv] According to J-source, which has been diligently mapping out changes in the Canadian news industry during the pandemic, of the 50 outlets that have temporarily or permanently closed since last year, 48 are community newspapers.[v]
Municipal reporting is in danger of disappearing. We hosers might have faith in our media still, but with our local outlets dropping like flies, we are historically less informed about our municipal institutions than ever.[vi]
And I think this is where my own personal experience really comes into play. I don’t think it would be too hyperbolic for me to say that I find the death of local media, and the overall shift towards a globalized internet news landscape, to be a deeply depressing thing.
Maybe I’m an old soul. Before the pandemic, I read the Georgia Straight at work every day. I relied on it to give me my human-interest fix. Reading the Straight went hand in hand with engaging in local culture. It was a guide to living in Vancouver. It literally pointed me to concerts, gallery openings, and comedy shows. It taught me about sex and relationships.
OK OK, I know the Straight still exists. But the point is, we are losing outlets just like it every day. And they may never return.
As an aspiring journalist, this potential reality haunts me, because this is the kind of publication I would like to contribute to. This is going to sound impossibly corny, but it’s the truth: I really hope I still get the same opportunity to foster community in my back yard through my work as I would have before the pandemic hit. And I hope there are enough likeminded journalists, writers and artists out there to continue to make this possible.
[i] Michael Grunwald, “How Everything Became the Culture War,” Politico Magazine, November/December 2018, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/11/02/culture-war-liberals-conservatives-trump-2018-222095/.
[ii] Ivan Natividad, “COVID-19 and the media: The role of journalism in a global pandemic,” Berkeley News, May 6, 2020, https://news.berkeley.edu/2020/05/06/covid-19-and-the-media-the-role-of-journalism-in-a-global-pandemic/.
[iii] H.G. Watson, “Trust in the news is substantially up in Canada,” J-source, Jun 14, 2018, https://j-source.ca/article/trust-in-the-news-is-substantially-up-in-canada/.
[iv] . Steph Wechsler, “We mapped all the media impacts of COVID-19 in Canada,” J-source, April 29, 2020, https://j-source.ca/article/we-mapped-all-the-media-impacts-of-covid-19-in-canada/.
[vi] Collette Brin, “The Canadian government announced a major package of support for news organisations…,” Digital News Report, 2019, https://www.digitalnewsreport.org/survey/2019/canada-2019/.
Vanderhoof landowner denied injunction in case against Saulteau First Nation
74-year-old John Moore unsuccessfully sought an injunction against the neighbouring Saulteau First Nation Band for blocking an access road to his property that crosses Reserve land.
Moore argued that the access road is public, and therefore the Saulteau Nation have no right to block him from using it. The Saulteaux, on the other hand, defended their title to the road, pointing to its private nature.
Moore claimed his research revealed the road was built in 1897 as part of a public highway system, and thus remains public to this day. BC Supreme Court Justice Gary Weatherill disagreed:
“There is no persuasive evidence before me proving that Road 1 has been used by the public or that the provincial Crown reserved ownership in it.”
Moore’s case was further weakened by his unwillingness to reach a compromise with the Saulteaux.
Moore purchased the property in 2018. The previous owners had an agreement with the Band, whereby they paid $1200 per year for access to their property via another road. When Moore bought the land, the sellers disclosed the access issue to Moore. The Saulteaux also agreed to honour the existing arrangement with Moore.
Once Moore took ownership, he rejected the agreement, calling it a “buckshee agreement”. He re-opened the barricaded road without consulting the Band. Tensions between the parties ensued.
Justice Weatherill questioned Moore’s motives for seeking the injunction, remarking that Moore did not have a residence on the property. Justice Weatherill added:
“I infer (…) that [Moore’s] plan is not to build a home on the Property and farm it, rather, he intends on selling the property for a handsome profit and needs Road 1 access in place before he can get the price he seeks.”
Justice Weatherill dismissed the case and ordered Moore to pay the access fee to the Saulteaux.
Jan 30, 2021
What the New Climate Regime in the Arctic means for Vancouver Weather
Scientists have confirmed that this week’s glacier calving event, which saw a massive piece of Greenland’s ice cap break off in the northern Arctic, is proof of a new and threatening climate regime. As temperatures continue to rise, the region will experience increased rainfall and ice melt. And more water in the Arctic means sea level rise around the world — including here, in the Lower Mainland.
Areas of Vancouver will likely have to deal with worsening weather events due to this rise.
“When you add the pressure of climate change … the frequency of these extreme events like storm surge start to increase… the duration and the high-level water mark might get worse … and they’re already a problem here,” confirms Ben Moore-Maley, a PhD candidate in Oceanography at the University of British Columbia.
Certain neighbourhoods are more vulnerable than others: The Downtown Eastside, Richmond, and the Fraser delta area are all low-lying areas that could succumb to an estimated 10 metre increase by 2120.
“Very important populated areas are in the danger zone,” Moore-Maley warns.
The ocean ecosystem is also at risk. Sea level rise alters the position of our coastline, and this impacts the sensitive intertidal zone, where most of our marine biodiversity occurs.
Although Moore-Maley refuses to predict a negative impact on keystone species such as salmon, he does admit that sea level rise creates instability.
“In these types of situations, when you perturb the ecosystem, the results are very unpredictable.”
Sep 15, 2020