This week saw the opening of what could be a three-month-long trial into the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Stafford. The Globe and Mail had two reporters covering the trial this week: Timothy Appleby and Adrian Morrow, along with dozens of other journalists representing the major print, online and broadcast media.
Tim is a veteran police and crime reporter who has covered many trials. He is inside the courtroom in London, Ont. while Adrian—who normally covers Toronto issues—is working in the overflow room outside the main court where journalists can watch the proceedings and where they are allowed to file running copy and tweet the news.
Sinclair Stewart is the national editor directing the coverage. Here, they explain The Globe's approach to reporting on the trial.
Sinclair, why did you send two reporters to this trial?
Sinclair Stewart: It was primarily to ensure that our staffing was commensurate with the significance of the story. The public's interest in this case, not surprisingly, has been extraordinary. When you're dealing with allegations that are this brutal—and, to many, this incomprehensible—the public has more than a thirst for justice: It has a thirst for exposition, and for the media to help them make sense of what happened. Having Tim and Adrian at the courthouse has also given us more flexibility in terms of how we deliver the news to readers.
Because Adrian is in the media room, he can both tweet and provide live updates on a running web file. It enables us to have a two-pronged approach, getting into the more granular, incremental news throughout the day, and then sharpening the narrative for print.
For the paper you have time to edit and balance the horrific nature of the crime with the public’s right to know. How do you do that with tweets and online stories? What guidelines have you given the reporters?
Sinclair Stewart: Stories are stories: Regardless of whether they run online or in print, they're still subject to editing, and that editing has to ensure that the stories are fair and accurate and that the recounting of some of these horrific details are in service to the larger issue of the public interest.
And within these stories, it's possible to signal to readers that they may find some of the content disturbing. With tweets, there's no room for that kind of cue or context, so Adrian has typically used them as a vehicle for quick updates on witness testimony.
Rodney Stafford and Tara McDonald, Tori’s parents, have been at the courthouse reminding journalists and others that this is about the death of a little girl. How important is that element in the story?
Timothy Appleby: It is key. That's why Mr. Stafford, comfortable with the media, steps outside the courthouse most days to scrum. The family's concern is that this not be all about Michael Rafferty and Terri-Lynne McClintic.
How do you decide what to write for the paper as opposed to online?
Timothy Appleby: The way Adrian and I have divided up things, he does most of the live feeds during the day and he and I have then been wrapping that material into the last story of the day, which is the longest one.
The chief difference between the two narratives is that at day's end, one tries to do a big-picture overview of the testimony and its significance. A lot of detail recorded along the way as the day progresses falls by the wayside by the time we do that wrap. It's also possible to write in other bits that may be useful—background facts and earlier evidence, for example.
What also aids the writers inside the courtroom are the generous media arrangements. Usually one sits with all the other spectators in the body of the court with a notepad, often straining to hear.
But this is a huge courtroom, specially built for the big Bandidos trial in 2009, with six prisoners' boxes and large tables for all the lawyers who were involved. At this trial, the main media outlets are permitted a spot at one of those tables, meaning you can sit there with a laptop, which for me is a first. Audio tape recorders may also be used. Court exhibits are expedited by helpful courtroom staff, and in general it is a first-rate set-up.
Do you think it is a different audience or the same reader who are following all elements of coverage?
Timothy Appleby: It clearly differs, though the divide between the digital world and print shrinks all the time. For sure, some people still rely on the newspaper as their primary source of information, but most don't and there's obviously a major generational factor.
Very few young people in Canada are not plugged into the electronic world at some level. But Twitter, by definition, is limited to short, 140-character info bites, which only go so far in tackling a big, multi-layered court story.
Yet here's the other thing. Traditionally, television and radio have always had to struggle in trying to compress court coverage into short digestible chunks; print has always had the edge. Newspaper stories, however, are also getting shorter, but there is no limit to what we can post on our web sites, whose capacity is infinite. As a result, the web stories we write are the most thorough of all.
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