National media strikes a balance

There is no doubt hundreds, if not thousands of Red Deerians were equally horrified by the descriptions and pictures that emerged from the sentencing hearing of Russell Williams into the murders and sexual perversities involving so many women in Ontario.

Williams was the former commander of CFB Trenton, the largest and busiest military airbase in Canada.

His story is one of ultimate horror and sadism, one that can even blunt, at least for some, the depravity of the gruesome Paul Bernardo murders of the 90’s.

For much of last week during the sentencing hearing from a Belleville, Ont. courtroom Canadians from coast to coast were told of the most shocking and gruesome details imaginable. At the conclusion Williams was sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole for 25 years. It is highly doubtful that Williams will ever see the light of day again, which is good news for every single Canadian.

Much has been written and discussed about the national media’s coverage of this appalling and awful story. Daily newspapers carried the most lurid details. The broadcast media did the same within its own capabilities. And national media web sites were filled with graphic descriptions of the crimes along with Williams’ own depraved photographs he took during the commission of the heinous acts.

But throughout the coverage there was considerable discussion on what would cross the line between what was in the public’s interest and within acceptable community standards, and what could be rightly be deemed outright shock value to garner greater readership and viewership numbers.

There was extraordinary media built-up for the sentencing hearing, and even though many of the details were already known to the public, the appetite for more was insatiable.

But to the credit of the court and media the public received coverage that was complete, balanced and for the most part delivered responsibly and with sensitivity, particularly bearing in mind that the coverage was easily accessed by anyone under the age of 18.

The court refused to play video tapes taken by Williams himself of the crimes. The national media issued warnings and disclaimers with almost every report. As well, many media outlets, particularly on the internet, offered viewers the options to obtain further more explicit details.

Last week, a day after Williams’ four-day hearing, hundreds of citizens in Belleville gathered for a community healing event one block from the courthouse where the killer was sentenced. This was the central community in the region that was the most traumatized by the appalling crimes.

“We expect this will be the start of the healing process,” said Rick McKee, who co-organized the event. “We hope it will embrace everyone who’s been affected by Russ Williams. It’s the opposite of a funeral; it’s a celebration of life and the future.”

It is rewarding to know that the healing has begun so soon after what can only be described as one of the worst years and weeks in that community’s history. They are able to begin this, to look beyond the horrific details of the crimes, because, in part, a national media chose collective restraint, sensitivity and responsibility. That is worth celebrating too.