I was watching the CBC News with Wendy Mesley on Friday when she broke in to say there was a verdict in the Victoria (Tori) Stafford trial. It was around 9:15 p.m. ET.
It was major breaking news of great interest to the country. Many people had followed the 10-week trial and were gripped after reading about what the jury didn’t hear about Michael Rafferty, the man on trial charged with sexual assault and murder. A substantial amount of child porn, rape and torture material was found on his laptop but these finds could not be entered into evidence because police hadn’t obtained a separate search warrant for the laptop. Recent case law holds that a computer can contain so much personal information it should be regarded as a “place” like a house, not a “thing,” thus requiring an additional search warrant.
On Friday evening, the dozens of reporters covering the case had already been told to wait, that the jury had decided to keep deliberating beyond the scheduled 9 p.m. ET adjournment for the day. At that point, the reporters knew that a verdict – one way or the other – was likely to come soon.
It is interesting then to look at how newspapers and news websites prepare for such a key story in the tightest possible time window. Saturday papers are big and contain a larger than normal percentage of longer feature reads. Many pages are pre-designed and difficult to change. But you always have a plan for breaking news.
In this case, there was both advance planning and best guesses.
Early Friday morning, the initial plan for Page A3 (The Globe’s main news page on a Saturday) was to have a legal update on the computer-as-a-place ruling, a story about Canada’s ambassador to China being set to leave, and a story about the agents of Parliament on the bottom of the page. When the verdict was confirmed after 9 p.m. ET, China and the Parliament story were pushed back in the paper, replacing other stories, while the legal piece was held to Monday.
Then, not knowing what the verdict was, the three Stafford stories and photos were placed. The two feature stories were written based on at least a partial guilty verdict (he was charged with three offences) and had the verdict gone the other way, they would have been rewritten late in the evening. The news story across the top of A3 was written in half an hour to make the 10:15 p.m. ET deadline to get the pages to the printer. I know it will offend some readers that stories are written in advance based on our best understanding of the events, but it happens in every newsroom in the country to save time.
The front page took a strip of news showing the guilty verdict. The story made all editions.
On globeandmail.com and its mobile products, detailed planning had also taken place earlier in the day, including how to quickly and accurately publish the breaking news when it occurred, while preserving all the additional stories, photos, video, etc., from earlier in the trial. As soon as our reporters signalled the guilty verdict, our digital editors swung into action so fast and so fully that for the rest of Friday evening, anyone searching Google for “Rafferty and guilty” found our online stories – both post-verdict and pre-verdict – at the top of search returns. Our digital editors also crafted a separate plan for how to handle this important news on our home page, not just for the first few minutes, but for the rest of Friday and through early Saturday.
This was also an emotionally difficult legal case, especially for Victoria’s family who braved the horrors of the evidence and kept the focus on getting justice for Victoria.
Several of our readers were angry with the headline on the story about the mistakes Michael Rafferty made, which read: “Careless mistakes were Rafferty’s undoing.” One reader said this suggested he was “just ‘undone’ because he was ‘careless’... Our thoughts need to be of Tori, not a ‘careless’ killer.”
In my reading of this headline, I don’t think there was any intention to suggest he was simply “undone.” The story makes it clear that he showed arrogance, contempt and stupidity.
The second story had as its headline: “Evil that defies explanation: How could a grown man do that to a young girl?”
That headline and story made it clear that Michael Rafferty was the most evil of murderers in the eyes of our crime reporter Timothy Appleby.
For online, our home page was kept fresh with two Canadian Press videos from the courthouse showing the interrogation of Michael Rafferty, the Stafford family reacting to the verdict and photos from the case. On the weekend, digital coverage continued with a visit to Woodstock and it will continue this week with the sentencing and victim impact statements.
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