Tue, 12/06/2016 - 05:16

Posted by H.G. Watson on February 11, 2016

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

Many people don’t understand what it’s like for sexual violence survivors to go through the criminal justice system.

“Often times, we think that it’s cut and dried,” said Farrah Khan, the sexual violence support and education counsellor at Ryerson University—the person reports what happens to the police and then never has to see her or his abuser again. That is not the reality.

The criminal trial of Jian Ghomeshi, in which arguments concluded on Feb. 11, has provided an opportunity for reporters to show exactly what it’s like to be in a courtroom in Toronto’s Old City Hall, testifying for Crown attorneys and then being cross-examined by defence counsel.

Readers have been able to follow every moment through the tweets and live-blogs of the phalanx of journalists who covered the case.

“We decided we wanted to live-tweet because it’s a high-profile trial,” said Sarah Boesveld, a senior writer at Chatelaine. Rogers Media, which owns Chatelaine, also started #Project97, a website dedicated to a conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Boesveld said they knew that the issues they’ve been exploring in that project would come up during the course of the trial. “It’s an important way to maintain that conversation.”

Boesveld said it’s also a way to bring readers into the courtroom. It can be difficult, she noted, to wrap your head around how much the people who come forward in these cases are challenged on the stand by defence attorneys. “I think it’s important for people to see that in play.” 

“For me, the big pro is that this trial has so many important little moments that might not make it into a larger news story,” said Alyshah Hasham, courts reporter at the Toronto Star. She said the case is being closely watched because it could affect everything from if women report sexual violence to how the public understands how the court system works. Because the Star has several reporters covering the case, she was able to focus on live-tweeting. 

Though some Canadian judges have allowed video cameras to record court proceedings, generally, most trials and court proceedings are not allowed to be televised or photographed. And even if that was allowed, it would have proven complicated in this case where publication bans on two of the complainants’ identities were in effect.

But Twitter and live-blogging platforms can take readers into the courtroom while still protecting complainants’ identities.

This is a fairly recent development. One of the first court proceedings ever to be live-tweeted en masse by media in Canada was the sentencing hearing of Russell Williams, who plead guilty to the first-degree murders of Cpl. Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd in 2010.

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Mary McGuire, an associate professor at the Carleton University school of journalism, studied the tweets generated from that hearing. “It was a fascinating way for particularly newspapers to cover something and compete with broadcasters,” she said. “Because without cameras in the courtroom in Canada, there's not an easy way for newspapers to provide breaking news coverage of what’s going on in the courtroom.”

“Twitter and live-blogging software kind of leveled that playing field so that everyone could report on what was going on as it was happening,” McGuire added.

Ghomeshi’s trial has certainly generated massive interest online. According to Cam Gordon, a spokesperson at Twitter Canada, there were over 120,000 mentions of Ghomeshi on Twitter from Feb. 1, the day the trial started, to Feb. 9. A tweet from Jesse Brown, who, along with Star reporter Kevin Donovan, first broke the story, had over 700 retweets—the most retweeted mention of Ghomeshi. 

Boesveld said her Twitter following doubled since she started covering the case. “I’m glad to see people engaged in this trial,” she said.

But however beneficial the live-blogging and tweeting is, it is still on journalists to report responsibly. That includes ensuring that names of those covered by publication bans are not published.

The language that journalists use matters just as much. “It’s not a ‘scandal,’” said Khan. “It’s sexual violence. It’s serious. It happens to so many people in our community and it’s so under reported.” She helped develop the Use the Right Words guide, which is meant to assist reporters working on stories about sexual violence.

Another consideration is that sexual violence survivors are amongst those reading the reports. “This is a sexual assault trial—if they are looking at tweets from a sexual assault trial, there is likely going to be some difficult stuff that comes up there,” said Boesveld.

“Hopefully people who follow me who don’t want to be bombarded with all this information will know that I’m live-tweeting,” Hasham said. Then, they can mute or unfollow her.

Hasham said she dislikes how difficult it can be to put things in context as you live-tweet. “Especially as you go along, sometimes you don’t know what the point is of all of the questions–you don’t know where things are going.”

Twitter’s immediacy can be challenging for reporters. “They don’t have the same editorial oversight,” said McGuire. “Unless it’s built in.”

But, as the volume of tweets about the case demonstrates, this coverage has continued a discussion Canadians are having more than ever.

“We are in a moment of a national conversation about sexual violence that I have not seen in my time in this work,” said Khan, adding that the reporting and live-tweeting has opened up a conversation about many of the victim-blaming myths that are perpetuated in society. 

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.