“Okay,” the reader wrote to me. “Now I am mad.”
What raised his ire was what he saw as a disproportionate amount of coverage of charges and accusations of wrongdoing, followed by no trial coverage and then a short report on an acquittal “at the bottom of page 5 with a headline in 12-point type.”
This story began in 2014 when the University of Ottawa suspended its men’s hockey team over an alleged sexual assault. Initially, there were a number of stories about “rape culture” on campuses and what the universities were doing or not to deal with allegations of sexual abuse. Weeks later, two hockey players were charged. A month ago, they were acquitted.
The reader asked if The Globe’s coverage of the acquittal was brief because “it ran counter to [The Globe’s] preferred narrative.” He also asked “has The Globe become so enraptured with the #MeToo movement that it has lost its objectivity?”
The reader argued that The Globe published at least 20 articles about the charges against the hockey players; no trial coverage, unlike other media; and then one short report on the acquittal.
Trials take place in many locales across Canada. This one was in Thunder Bay, Ont. It can be difficult to commit reporting resources to cover lengthy trials where there is no staff.
A search of The Globe and Mail’s database showed that, although there were at least 20 articles on the U of O issue, almost all were about how universities deal with sexual assault allegations, and just three, including the coverage of the acquittal, mentioned the men by name. Two ran on all platforms: the initial story of the charges and the story of the acquittal. A third short article ran online only about a month after the initial charges and was about the university scrapping its hockey program for the season; it included, at the bottom, the names of the two charged.
The stories on the charges and subsequent acquittal ran on pages A5 and A6 in the paper. The reader said the acquittal was “buried” in the print version but, while it was a shorter article than the initial one and had a smaller type headline, it did include such detail as the judge observing that there were inconsistencies in the complainant’s testimony.
Perhaps the story might have included a few more details on the reason for acquittal, but given that four years have passed since the charges, and in the intervening years, we didn’t provide reporting from the trial, it seems unnecessary. It is, however, important to include an outcome, whether conviction or acquittal, when charges have been reported.
The much more important and interesting story was how universities deal with sexual assault allegations. That deserved extensive coverage.
The news media cannot do enough on the subject of sexual assault. Readers have seen the impact from this newspaper’s coverage of Unfounded, a series in which reporter Robyn Doolittle’s research showed that women’s sexual assault allegations were dismissed at a far higher rate than those of other types of assault. As a result of her work, police reopened closed cases and the federal government earmarked $100-million for a strategy on gender-based violence.
Work by New York Times and New Yorker journalists broke open the Harvey Weinstein story, which saw the start of #MeToo, as women across every sector, not just the entertainment industry, weighed in with stories of their own experiences of sexual assault.
Newspaper and media coverage are often at the forefront of changes to our culture. Both amplify the voices of those who first raise issues of injustice. This has been the tradition for many years. Some people are uncomfortable with the changes and with voices they have not heard or listened to in the past. I have also heard from a few readers about the allegations against winery owner Norman Hardie. They didn’t understand why this was news, saying that he isn’t the only man who is a jerk. But isn’t that the point of writing about #MeToo, that it is more common than we think?
Whenever possible, the media has a responsibility to cover the outcome of trials – whether acquittals or convictions – not just in the well-known cases like Alek Minassian, charged in the recent Toronto van attack, or the University of Ottawa case. But the larger issue must remain the focus on social issues. Without commitment to that, we would not be in a position to report on things like Tuesday’s review of Statistics Canada data, which showed police dismissed fewer sexual assault allegations as “unfounded” last year, following The Globe and Mail’s investigation and reporting.