Multiple professional cameras on tripods aiming in the same direction

What are the responsibilities of reporters, producers, and editors when juggling the sometimes conflicting principles of “innocent until proven guilty” and “the public’s right to know”?

Judge Jury Journalist

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]O[/su_dropcap]n December 3, 2019, former Vice Canada music editor Yaroslav Pastukhov, known online as Slava P., stood outside a Toronto courthouse. Later that morning, he would learn the judge’s decision regarding his fate. Pastukhov, 29, had been found guilty of conspiracy to import $20 million worth of cocaine into Australia. Using the contacts and stature afforded to him by his job, Pastukhov recruited two models, a Toronto DJ, an events management worker, and a former Vice intern to carry luggage full of cocaine across the world. The mules were arrested in Sydney and sent to jail. Pastukhov knew his day would end in prison, so he dressed for the occasion. Instead of formal court attire, he wore a casual hoodie, a winter toque, and a thick, dark beard. He told a National Post reporter on the steps of the courthouse that he’d chosen a “comfy” option. Intentionally or not, his outfit made a statement—one that suggested Pastukhov had adopted an unserious mentality toward his consequences. Relaxed ensembles had become a trend throughout his court hearings. In October, he wore a white hoodie underneath a denim jacket, with jeans and running shoes.

After Justice Heather Pringle sentenced Pastukhov to nine years in prison, a Toronto Police special constable handed him a tissue for his tears. He hugged his mother. A pair of handcuffs were fastened around his wrists, and he was escorted out of the courtroom.

Unlike some criminals, Pastukhov admitted guilt and acknowledged his wrongdoing. “I got swept up in something I didn’t fully grasp at the time, but I do now,” he said at a court date in October. “I ruined my chance to turn into the man I’d like to have become, and I’ll always be remorseful for this.”

Having worked for a publication so indulgent of immersive journalism, a style of reporting in which the narrative focuses on the experience of the writer, Pastukhov should have understood how influential the media can be when it comes to shaping public opinion. Inside the courtroom, he was introspective and professional. Outside, in his hoodie, he seemed cavalier. It is possible that Pastukhov knew the media’s coverage of his clothing would make him seem cool and unbothered. It was his last chance, for a long time, to control his own image.

While reputations can be destroyed through media coverage, the media can also be used—perhaps unwittingly—to rebuild an obliterated personal brand. Savvy and experienced sources know that the media will be their microphone. In this era of “cancel culture,” where redemption narratives abound, the media is frequently treated as a conduit for public relations. How can journalists report what they see without playing into someone else’s master plan?

The idea of a “trial by media” tends to ignore that societal understanding, pre-existing knowledge, historical context, and other lenses of thinking will factor into one’s beliefs. Contextual evidence, though inadmissible in court, also plays a role. Still, the public arena is a powerful place. Those with something to gain seem to know this.

In a December 2019 story published by The Ringer, Pastukhov—described as wearing sweatpants and sneakers—told journalist Kate Knibbs that, “It’s better to live infamously than not.” He also admitted rather openly to his crime. “He was never really trying to convince anyone that he wasn’t guilty,” says Knibbs a few months later. “I think he did want to convince people that he wasn’t as culpable as he had been made out to be.” He used the story to try and reclaim agency over his reputation, entering new evidence into the narrative.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”5″]A[/su_dropcap]ccording to Statistics Canada, the majority of Canadians consume news on a daily basis, largely through the Internet. How can journalists be accurate and fair when reporting on savvy sources who have a narrative to push? And what about sources for whom media attention will significantly alter their life?

In Canada, defamation law preventatively limits the media’s potential for damage by restricting what is publishable. Defamation, according to Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, is defined as “harming another person’s reputation by making a false written or oral statement about that person to a third party.” In circumstances where defamation does occur, a defamer may be ordered to pay compensation. But little can be done to change the minds of those who heard the story and made their decisions on the spot.

On January 18, 2019, Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann, from Kentucky, was in Washington for the March for Life rally, a gathering of anti-abortion protestors. Sandmann and many of his classmates wore red hats bearing the words “Make America Great Again,” the slogan of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, associated with racism and hostility toward immigrants. On the day of the March for Life rally, the Indigenous Peoples March was occurring at the same location. A video, showing a confrontation between Sandmann and Omaha tribe elder Nathan Phillips, went viral. In the video, Phillips appears to be surrounded by Sandmann and his classmates. A CNN report claimed Sandmann was seen “mocking” Phillips. Days later, another video surfaced, showing Phillips beating a hand drum and singing what The New York Times described as a “well-known spiritual song associated with the American Indian Movement of the 1960s, and used for prayer and resistance,” close to Sandmann’s face. Sandmann stared at Phillips. The CNN article has since been updated to include a change in title, emphasizing that Sandmann’s demeanour was an attempt to “defuse the situation.”

[su_quote]While reputations can be destroyed through media coverage, the media can also be used—perhaps unwittingly—to rebuild an obliterated personal brand [/su_quote]

In an effort to change the public’s prevailing opinion about him, Sandmann’s family, like Pastukhov, turned to the media. In a televised segment, L. Lin Wood, one of Sandmann’s attorneys, told Fox News: “The CNN folks were online on Twitter at 7 a.m. retweeting the little one-minute propaganda piece that had been put out,” he said. “They’re out there right away going after this young boy. And they maintain it for at least two days. Why didn’t they stop and just take an hour and look through the Internet and find the truth and then report it?”

Later, a statement published on CNN on behalf of Sandmann said, “I never interacted with [Nathan Phillips]. I did not speak to him. I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves…. I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation.” Just over a year after the March for Life rally, CNN announced that it had settled a lawsuit brought by Sandmann’s family that sought $275 million (U.S.) in damages. (The actual amount paid was not made public). While wearing a MAGA hat at an anti-abortion rally may suggest Sandmann’s politics, everyone deserves to be reported on fairly and accurately.

While the law, in essence, attempts to achieve justice, those who have access to costly legal defence typically receive a higher quality of representation, especially when taking on a large media company like CNN.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]O[/su_dropcap]ften when charges against an accused person are dropped, or the allegations are proven to be untrue, the updates surrounding them do not receive the same depth in follow-up coverage, if there is any further coverage at all. In March 2015, CBC published an article stating that Wolfgang Goffing, a German tourist, was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a woman on the SkyTrain in Vancouver, B.C. In April 2016, CBC published another article about a warrant issued for Goffing’s arrest. Since then, no updates have been published by CBC regarding Goffing’s case. The outcome of the case is unknown to the public because it has not been reported. This may reflect a scarcity of resources and the difficulty newsrooms face in following ongoing proceedings through the court. But, as a result, the most recent search result for his name is about the charges. These stories impact people’s reputations, their ability to find work, housing, and building new interpersonal relationships. With the continual advancement of digital media, and the Internet’s function as a limitless archive, stories containing inaccurate or incomplete information become immortalized. In response, some newspapers, such as theWinnipeg Free Press and The Globe and Mail, and magazines, such as The Walrus, have adopted the practice of annotating stories if the information therein has aged. In the digital era, a journalist’s words are more powerful than ever.

Molly Hayes, a crime reporter for the Globe, thinks about her role as a preservationist. “Thirty years ago, this didn’t matter, because if you wrote something in a newspaper, it was a blip,” she says. “After that, to even find reference to it, you’d have to do it through the archives. We didn’t have the same permanence that we do with the Internet….[W]e put these things up without a second thought, and if it’s not a story that you have an interest in following through, then maybe it’s not newsworthy enough to go up in the first place.”

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]J[/su_dropcap]ournalists are of course unable to predict the outcome of a case or a story. But what if a person was wrongfully accused?

Between June 1980 and March 1981, 36 babies died in the cardiac ward of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The police launched an investigation and found a link between four of those babies and Susan Nelles, a nurse at the hospital who had graduated three years prior from Queen’s University. Nelles was charged with four counts of first degree murder. In the media, she became known as “The Baby Killer.” Because Nelles, who came from a family of doctors and had access to legal advice from a roommate, had asked for a lawyer during questioning, the police and the media assumed she must be guilty, and did not pursue other suspects. Photographs of Nelles alongside images of the babies who died ran next to shocking headlines in major newspapers: “Nurse charged with murdering babies” in the Globe, and “The Baby Murders,” in Maclean’s, with a close-up photo of Nelles’ face. But readers urged reporters to “restrict reports to barest facts” and argued that the “trial by media is too prevalent,” as noted by the Toronto Star. The media frenzy, which emboldened public outrage, led to Nelles’ case being held in a special court for security reasons.

Although a judge dismissed charges against Nelles at a preliminary hearing on account of insufficient evidence, her reputation was tainted, and publications continued to run with the narrative, seemingly unable to resist the phrase’s dramatic effect. A 1985 Globe article still associated “Baby killer” with Nelles in the headline. In 2012, Maclean’s published a story that revealed new evidence in the case, naming the article, “Baby killer turns out to be rubber.”

Nelles’ lawyer, John Sopinka, wrote in the 1995 edition of The Canadian Bar Review, “a person wrongfully accused or convicted may have suffered the same social stigma, loss of liberty, loss of earnings, costs of defence, and possibly loss of family life that is suffered by the rightfully convicted accused who is responsible for his or her crime.”

Nelles proceeded with legal action that resulted in a monetary settlement. “She made [it] very clear that she wasn’t in it for the cash. She was in it for reputational rehabilitation because most of the cash that she got went to sources other than her,” says Lisa Taylor, undergraduate program director at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, and an expert in law and justice reporting. Nelles used the money she received to establish a Queen’s University nursing scholarship in her name, and donated to her family’s fund at Belleville General Hospital. She returned to her hometown of Belleville to work nearby in Kingston as a nurse. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in law from the university. “If you can afford to have high-price legal help, turn over enough stones, so to speak, to look at every possible connection or intersection that could even be peripherally related to your case and to the people who are investigating you and prosecuting you, you can [often] find something that will help exonerate you,” says Taylor. “Not [necessarily] because it proves you didn’t do it, but just because it gets in the way of meeting that very high threshold that is beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But who is most susceptible to being a victim of the justice system? “If you are racialized or if you’re mentally ill, or you live in poverty or live in the margins in any way…there always seems to be a rush to judgment and an assumption that you did do the things you’re accused of,” says Taylor. “And when people from these vulnerable groups are accused people, they often don’t have the money to go hire their own Marie Henein to turn over every stone.” (Henein was the lawyer whom former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi hired in 2016 when he was accused of seven counts of sexual assault. He was acquitted. According to a Toronto Life profile, Henein was paid $800 –$1,000 an hour.)

Those who come forward to take their alleged assaulters to court are also vulnerable. Lucy DeCoutere, a complainant in the Ghomeshi trial who waived her right to a publication ban, says the coverage of her, too, was flawed.

DeCoutere was concerned with how her own voice felt taken from her. Since she was one of the only publicly identified complainants associated with the case, she became the spokesperson of the Ghomeshi trial. She says that when she stepped forward, the story was no longer her own. “As soon as I told the story to Jesse Brown, I knew it wasn’t mine anymore. It was gone,” she says, careful to not suggest Brown mishandled her narrative, noting only that she sacrificed agency in her own voice for the sake of having the story known. In The Walrus, author Stacey May Fowles wrote about how she, too, had a traumatic experience feeling “exploited by a writer.” Fowles understood the responsibility journalists hold, writing that “wariness of someone else telling an abuse victim’s story is always appropriate. Telling is a gift, and despite all hammered-home journalistic rules, it should be valued and treated as such.”

While DeCoutere accepts that when a journalist retells someone else’s narrative, it is bound to change in some form or another, she strongly believes her “voice is really missing from the conversation” surrounding Ghomeshi.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]I[/su_dropcap]n 2016, Gerald Stanley, a 56-year-old white man from Biggar, Saskatchewan, was accused of killing 22-year-old Colten Boushie, of the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation. In 2018, the jury found Stanley not guilty. This ruling sparked controversy among Indigenous communities and across the country. Many news organizations reported on important concerns about the judicial process, an example of the crucial role media organizations play in reporting on legal cases and providing the public with important contextual details, regardless of the verdict. As APTN National News reported, “Critics say the defense team used its set of peremptory challenges to strike out Indigenous people from the jury pool.” (Peremptory challenges refer to the right of the Crown or defence attorney to object to a member of a jury without needing an explanation. This led to accusations that the jury was engineered to be all white.) In the Canadian Legal Information Institute’s LawNow Magazine, Charles Davison wrote, “Many who feel [Colten] Boushie’s killer was wrongfully allowed to go free see the defence challenges as being one of the causes of a serious miscarriage of justice.” In September 2019, peremptory challenges were eliminated from the Canadian legal process in an attempt to protect the right to a fair trial.

The selected jury returned with a not guilty verdict for Stanley. Taylor says this case received pushback both in the media and in public forums, in part, because of society’s need for answers. “As a public, we always have trouble with cases where someone is perceived as quote-unquote, ‘getting away with it’ because of what could be a mistake.” Stanley’s defence team needed to prove that a “hang fire” (a bullet’s delay after being fired from a gun) could have been an explanation for shooting Boushie, not that it was the only possibility. Media publications took a range of different angles in trying to deconstruct what had happened in court.

Hayes understands that journalists choose to focus their narratives on how different events play out in courtrooms. “Anytime I cover a court case, I do find it interesting to go back and read the 10 different news stories that were filed that day and see what people chose to include,” says Hayes.

Speaking about the challenges court reporters face more generally, Hayes says, “Sometimes it’s just a matter of space and it’s subconscious but certainly there’s a risk of something being framed intentionally to fit an agenda.” However, she added that she and her colleagues are careful to ensure this doesn’t happen. Hayes acknowledges the greater implications of her work, but knows she cannot control a story’s impact.

Kathy English, former public editor at the Star, agrees. “It’s not up to us to decide what stays and what goes, we’re just reporting what the police have done,” says English. Still, she says the office does receive at least two requests each week from lawyers and individuals hoping to have articles taken down, many of which include criminal charges that were dropped or withdrawn. Around 2008, English was part of a committee that developed the Star’s strict unpublishing policy. The policy states, “Except in rare, often legal, circumstances—which must be agreed upon by senior editors—we do not remove content from our websites or archives. Fairness to those named in the news means there may be rare cases in which senior editors agree to remove content because it is judged to be the humane thing to do in the circumstances. Any decision to remove published content should be weighed against the public’s right to know and the historical record.”

People are unable to go into library archives and cut out any article in need of an update, explains English. The paper’s online archives should not be treated any differently, which means that when necessary, addenda are added to pre-existing stories to reflect new information. “As long as we have those prominent update notes, then that is in line with our journalistic responsibility. Where this becomes an issue for me, is that it sometimes feels like a clash between journalistic obligation and the human, and humane, elements of it.”

[su_quote]While we live in a society that says we believe in innocence until proven guilty, that’s not the way people’s attitudes tend to work [/su_quote]

The newsroom is limited in its human capacity to go through every case to ensure equal and constant coverage, adds English. The Star no longer has a dedicated clerk at the courthouse who helps journalists keep track of cases and ensure proper follow-up. While the Ontario Court of Justice clerk’s office or the Ministry of the Attorney General can provide updates, there is no central registry for journalists to follow the outcome of cases.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]I[/su_dropcap]n the United States, Court TV, a digital broadcast network which airs high-profile and sensational trials, combines drama and the realism of reality television. Steven Brill, one of the founders of the network, says, “It certainly helps people make more educated decisions, because if they’re watching the entire trial, then they’re doing exactly what the jury is doing….There are a bunch of cases in Court TV where people were found not guilty. And the pre-trial publicity against them was terrible. But because we televise the trial, by and large, most people who watch the trial agree with the jury.” Alyshah Hasham, a court reporter for the Star, says she doesn’t know if the public would reach a different opinion if trials were broadcast. On the Jian Ghomeshi case she says: “I’m not sure if…it would be better or worse, in terms of getting a clear picture of what’s going on,” citing the time-consuming nature of trials as a potential reason for why the public would not dedicate sufficient time to watching them and forming their own opinions. Hasham uses her Twitter feed as an equivalent of live broadcasting. “If I’m doing it well, pretty much everything that happens in court ends up on my Twitter feed,” she says. Similar to Court TV’s ideology, Hasham says that live tweeting offers her followers a detailed account of the trial, instead of a condensed version of facts.

There is a distinction between destructive and necessary media coverage. Nancy Rubin, a partner at Stewart McKelvey, a law firm in Halifax, and former president of the Canadian Media Lawyers Association, emphasizes that journalism does have a function within the legal system. “I think the media has a definite role to play in reporting on what goes on in the trial and events leading up to it. And fair and accurate reporting is not trial by media. Does it automatically bias a trial? No, it doesn’t. It depends on the nature and the quality of reporting.”

The concept of “fair and accurate” depends upon the kind of story and its subject. Former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives Patrick Brown filed an $8-million lawsuit against CTV, saying the network offered him only a few hours to respond to sexual misconduct allegations before running a story about him during the 2018 provincial election. Brown, then considered to be the election’s frontrunner, resigned from his position. (He is now the Mayor of Brampton.) In response, CTV filed its statement of defence, which in addition to details about the CTV investigation, made the point about the importance of telling the story in the public’s interest given Brown’s political candidacy. (Brown later came out with the “tell-all” book Takedown: the Attempted Political Assassination of Patrick Brown, attempting to take control of his narrative.)

The National Post engaged in responsible journalism when breaking its story about Pastukhov in 2017 before his arrest. On an episode of the podcast Canadaland, reporter Adrian Humphreys (who broke the story with Sean Craig) told host Jesse Brown that the pair gave Pastukhov numerous chances to respond. As Brown noted, it is rare for an article to be published about alleged crimes that have not resulted in an arrest. “To actually name someone as an alleged criminal who has not been charged by the cops, you have got to be very careful and you want to give them every opportunity to tell their side of it,” said Brown. Craig and Humphreys understood the severity of the allegations against Pastukhov, and aligned their efforts to reach him accordingly. “We’ve given him ample opportunity to defend himself in the press. We spoke to him in person, we approached him in person, we’ve emailed him several times. He’s declined to comment. He’s declined to discuss this and he’s declined to rebut any of the allegations that we told him in great, excruciating detail,” said Humphreys.

While Pastukhov admitted his guilt, a confession is not necessary in order to reach a guilty verdict.

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]I[/su_dropcap]n 1971, Donald Marshall Jr., an Indigenous 17-year-old, was convicted of murdering Sandy Seale, a 17-year-old Black teenager. On the night in question, the two teenagers, after running into each other at a park in Sydney, Nova Scotia, met Roy Ebsary and Jimmy MacNeil. Seale was stabbed, and Marshall suffered a slash to his arm. Everyone but Seale fled the scene. Shortly after, Marshall returned to call an ambulance for Seale, who died the next day in hospital.

The Sydney Police Department botched the homicide investigation. No autopsy was done on Seale’s body. No photographs were taken of the scene. The area was not secured for investigation.

The police questioned Marshall two days later but did not search for Ebsary or MacNeil. After minimal investigative work, the police arrested Marshall and charged him with murder. They quickly jumped to conclusions that fit the narrative of their preconceived notions, allowing conscious—and unconscious—racial and cultural biases to fill in the blanks of how the crime unfolded. (It is important to note that Indigenous people are greatly overrepresented in Canadian prisons. In January 2020, Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator released a report stating that while Indigenous populations make up just 5 percent of the general Canadian population, the Indigenous custody rate has now surpassed 30 percent of all incarcerated people in the country. The report referred to this as the “Indigenization” of Canada’s correctional system.)

“It’s so easy for police to get tunnel vision, and for the media to assume every step of the way that how it’s being framed is the only way that it could possibly be framed,” says Taylor.

Marshall was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Eleven years later, he was released on parole. The following year, he was acquitted. But it took until 1990, following Canada’s first inquiry into a wrongful conviction case, for Marshall to be fully exonerated of Seale’s murder. The inquiry stated that his arrest was not based on any evidence and the Sergeant of Detectives in charge of the investigation “discounted Marshall’s version of events partly because he considered Marshall a troublemaker and partly because, in our view, he shared what we believe was a general sense in Sydney’s white community at the time that Indians were not ‘worth’ as much as Whites.”

According to Taylor, “The inquiry into it just found evidence at every turn that should have pointed the police, prosecutors, and by extension, the media, in another direction, but it didn’t, because it’s just a really simple and convenient narrative that was taken as gospel truth at the time.”

In the 1990s, Marshall tried to right his reputation, and became the face of the trailblazing Supreme Court of Canada case for hunting and fishing practices of the Indigenous community. Even then, the media did not give him the opportunity to have his voice heard.

In their book, The Last Word: Media Coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada, David Schneiderman, David Taras, and Florian Sauvageau analyze media coverage of Supreme Court of Canada cases, including Marshall’s. They found that most newspapers, including those in Sydney, did not include coverage of the court’s decision on the front page. Those that did include it did so below the fold. They concluded that Marshall or his lawyer were quoted in less than 10 percent of newspaper and television stories about the case. Further, out of 220 stories analyzed, Marshall was only the focus of three headlines.

“I think Marshall really wanted his legacy to be something bigger than the grand chief [Mi’kmaq Nation’s] son who was convicted of murder,” says Taylor. While Marshall’s 2009 obituary in The New York Times acknowledges his Supreme Court of Canada case, his identity remains connected to his wrongful conviction.

[su_quote]It’s so easy for police to get tunnel vision, and for the media to assume every step of the way that how it’s being framed is the only way that it could possibly be framed [/su_quote]
[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]I[/su_dropcap]n 1959, 14-year-old Steven Truscott was found guilty of murdering his 12-year-old classmate, Lynne Harper. In 1966, Canadian journalist Isabel LeBourdais published a book, The Trial of Steven Truscott, in which she insisted there had been a miscarriage of justice. This prompted the federal government to refer the case to the Supreme Court of Canada to consider Trustcott. The court decided, eight-to-one, against Truscott. Three years later, in 1969, Truscott was released on parole and began living under a pseudonym.

In 2000, Truscott broke his silence for the first time in a Fifth Estate segment. He vowed to do everything he could to become innocent in the eyes of the public. A year later, as a result of public protest, the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted filed an appeal to have Truscott’s case re-assessed. In 2007, 48 years after he was charged with Harper’s murder, and after spending ten years in jail, Truscott was exonerated.

Although Truscott was granted $6.5 million in compensation from the Ontario government, Steven and his wife Marlene Truscott issued a statement saying “…no amount of money could ever truly compensate Steven for the terror of being sentenced to hang at the age of 14, the loss of his youth or the stigma of living for almost 50 years as a convicted murderer.”

Bill Swan, one of the Canadian authors of the Real Justice series, which includes a book about Truscott, says, “The fact that [Truscott] lived under his mother’s maiden name meant that obviously he felt that he couldn’t receive normal treatment under his own name. He was internationally known by that time.”

Julian Sher, author and the former senior producer at The Fifth Estate, has done extensive research on the Truscott case. Sher says the media is used as a backup plan when the legal system fails. “What happens if somebody feels they’re wrongly convicted during the trial or when they’re in jail? They call us. They get their lawyers to speak to the media, they write letters, they do everything,” says Sher.

Sher adds that journalists today routinely fight publication bans, and still attend court even if bans are in place, so that feature-length coverage can be produced after the trial. Both the public and the media no longer accept the court’s decision as readily as they once did. When a trial’s verdict differs from how the public thinks it should have gone, people are quick to push back. “Today, if you picked up a copy of the Toronto Star or The Globe and Mail, and it said, ‘expert challenges court ruling’ or ‘credibility of witness challenged,’ no one would bat an eye. I can’t count the number of stories I’ve done that re-look at trials and say either something went wrong, a guilty person got away, or an innocent person was charged,” says Sher. “None of this took place in ‘59 and Steven wouldn’t have expected it. It’s not like he was saying, ‘Hey, where’s the media to defend me?’ It just was not in the political landscape. It just shows how much things have changed.”

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]O[/su_dropcap]n March 24, 2016, after former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted in a judge-only trial, protestors gathered on the steps of Toronto’s Old City Hall courthouse, chanting, “We Believe Survivors!” and holding signs bearing phrases like “Ghomeshi is NOT an Isolated Incident” and “A Not Guilty Verdict ≠ Violence Didn’t Happen.” This high-profile criminal trial commenced based on allegations from three women. While Ghomeshi was found not guilty by the Canadian justice system, the common public view was that the traditional judicial system had failed. Ghomeshi’s attempts to rebuild his reputation have been unsuccessful.

While Ghomeshi was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking, an additional sexual assault charge against him played out differently. His final charge, from Kathryn Borel, was withdrawn, but he agreed to sign a peace bond and publicly apologize. “I want to apologize to Ms. Borel for my behaviour towards her in the workplace,” said Ghomeshi in a two-minute address in court. “I regret my behaviour at work with all of my heart and I hope that I can find forgiveness from those for whom my actions took such a toll.”

When Ian Buruma, then editor-in-chief of the New York Review of Books, published a personal essay by Ghomeshi, “Reflections from a Hashtag,” in its October 11, 2018 issue, the magazine faced significant backlash. As a result, Buruma resigned.

Contrary to Buruma’s suggestions that his resignation may have been a result of the aggressive pillorization on social media in a #MeToo climate, the magazine’s publisher, Rea Hederman, released a statement, saying the piece’s “failures began with the decision to not follow the Review’s usual editorial practices….This article was shown to only one male editor during the editing process….Most members of the editorial staff were excluded from the substantive editorial process.”

Although some believed Ghomeshi should not have been given the space for his voice to be heard, others highlighted a person’s right to free speech. “I believe in second chances, even third chances, probably because I’m so flawed,” wrote columnist Christie Blatchford (who died in February 2020) in the National Post. “In my private life, I have supported people who were charged, even convicted, of serious crimes. But Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of crimes. He is not guilty. How on earth can he not be allowed redemption, or even to have a voice? Good for The New York Review.”

[su_dropcap style=”simple” size=”10″]I[/su_dropcap]s it possible for people like Ghomeshi, Brown, and Sandmann to strategically rehabilitate their reputation? Companies like Navigator Ltd. attempt to help.

Navigator is a powerful crisis management firm that “[applies] proven campaign tactics to situations where success is critical and you can’t afford to lose.” The Toronto-based company works with people who have found “themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.” Some may argue that crisis management firms are manipulative, since they attempt to change public perception through spinning the narrative, but Jaime Watt, the company’s executive chairman, disagrees. “Navigator helps clients, of all different kinds, get their message across to audiences that matter to them,” says Watt. “There’s nothing manipulative or dishonest about putting forward a point of view and letting the public make their own decision—that’s a fundamental hallmark of a democracy, which we do every day.”

Navigator will not take on just any client who comes their way. “There’s lots of people that we wouldn’t represent. We don’t represent bad people who do bad things,” says Watt. While Navigator’s clients and tactics are confidential, the Globe confirmed that Ghomeshi hired the company in light of allegations against him in 2014. (Navigator announced shortly after that he had been dropped as a client.) Other past clients include former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, as reported by the Globe, and Michael Bryant, a former Ontario Attorney General. (In 2009, Bryant was involved in a car accident with a cyclist who later died, the Globe reported.)

The reality is that most people don’t have the luxury, or the means, of accessing professional damage control. For those people, the consequences of bad publicity and the omnipresence of the digital record can be life-shattering.

The court of public opinion can be damning. “While we live in a society that says we believe in innocence until proven guilty, that’s not the way people’s attitudes tend to work,” says English. Journalists need to be exceptionally careful when reporting on someone’s reputation, while balancing the public’s right to know. This puts immense pressure on journalists to ensure the soundness of their reporting. “The reality that news can be found at your fingertips very quickly [means] that we need to think seriously about what stories we publish in the first place,” says English. “I would really like to see more rigor and more thought by the industry overall.”

The reader’s interpretation is as sovereign as the gavel.


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Woman stands on a stage, holding a microphone, and performs to the audience.

Journalism Comes to Life on Stage

Live journalism is the process of taking works of journalism and bringing them to life through live performance.