CASE STUDY: writing about publication bans

As part of a media and ethics law course, I had to write a case study. This case study would reflect a controversial decision made by a media outlet in Canada and would eventually be published by Ryerson University and Jsource.ca.

It’s a daunting task, to become an expert in an area of media ethics and law. You have to read and understand complicated legislation, do dozens of interviews with lawyers and experts, and be prepared to be told that your perspective is completely wrong. It becomes even more challenging when you choose an issue that is topical and that is still being deliberated.

Our team—we were put into groups of three—decided to write about publication bans, specifically the ban of Rehtaeh Parsons’ name during the reporting of her accusers’ trials.

I thought this was the perfect case study. The issue of bullying and cyberbullying has always been of interest to me. The previous year, I wrote a feature on the affects of Canada’s so-called cyberbullying bill (Bill C-13) and how the government was capitalizing on these tragedies to put forward a piece of legislation that wouldn’t help the victims of these crimes. Even before that, I wrote a blog post about the government’s “Stop Hating Online” campaign. The cases of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd inspired me to look more deeply into what is being done to protect young people (and even adults) from these bullies.

Suffice to say, this case study held a special place in my heart and I really didn’t want to blow it.

After many lengthy emails and Facebook conversations with my team members (yes, we used Facebook), we were able to find our decision-maker: The Herald Chronicle in Halifax. They had been following Parsons’ case and had been working with legal experts to have the ban overturned. Things were going well, until half way through the semester when we started to write the study itself.

What my team and I didn’t realize was that we would be writing about a publication ban that was still active: technically, we couldn’t use Parsons’ name either.

Damn.

We were now facing the same problem as all of the journalists we had interviewed. Not only could we not write her name, but we also had to be aware of the audio components that accompanied our case study. We had to manually cut out all of the identifying references to Parsons in our recorded interviews before publishing them.

We wrote our professors outlining the problem—they hadn’t foreseen this complication when we pitched the idea. We essentially had two options: we could adhere to the ban, or break it forthright, without explanation or regret.

Our group debated this for weeks. We are freelance journalists after all, which means we would have no legal support if anyone decided to sue us. We were all poor students, and did not have the money to go through that type of legal battle. At the same time, writing it without using Parsons’ name seemed ridiculous. It just wasn’t possible.

To hell with it! We decided to break the ban, hoping that people would take pity on us as the student journalists we were. We still cut the audio of our interviews so that the burden of this decision weighed solely on our shoulders. We felt like it was worth the risk.

Luckily for us (and spoiler alert!!), the Nova Scotia Attorney General Lena Metlege Diab issued a directive two weeks before our case study was due saying that no one would be prosecuted for using Rehtaeh Parsons name.

Phew, crisis averted. Although, I was looking forward to being a bit of a journalism rebel.

Below is the introduction of our case study, which I wrote with the talented and awesome Michelle LePage and Taylor Poelman.

Introduction:

In November 2011, 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons attended a small, alcohol-filled house party in Nova Scotia. That night, a 17-year-old boy photographed another boy, 16, having sex with Rehtaeh as she vomited out a window. In the photograph, the 16-year-old gives the thumbs up sign with one hand while holding her hip with the other. He smiles at the camera. [1]

The photograph was sent to two young women, and was eventually shared on social media where many of Rehtaeh’s classmates would see the photo. [2] Her mother, Leah Parsons, told the CBC that sharing the photo “was like a wrecking ball [that] hit her [daughter] emotionally and she was left in pieces.” [3] Her daughter was repeatedly bullied at school and harassed by boys she did not know. She changed schools but continued to struggle with depression. Police did not lay any charges, citing the difficulty of proving sexual assault in court. [4]

On April 4, 2013, Rehtaeh attempted to kill herself. She died three days later when she was taken off life support. [5] Her death garnered international attention and outrage, and inspired the creation of a Nova Scotia cyberbullying law allowing victims to sue or seek a protection order from the courts. [6] She became, as one reporter called her, Canada’s “most famous victim.” [7]

On Aug. 8, 2013, almost two years after the incident, police charged the two boys with child pornography offences. [8] Once charges were laid, two publication bans came into effect. Because they were under 18 at the time of the offence and they were tried in youth court, the names and identities of the boys cannot be published in accordance with the Youth Criminal Justice Act. [9] As a victim of child pornography, Rehtaeh’s identity is protected under the Criminal Code. [10]

At the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, staff began to censor their reporting, unsure of what they were allowed to publish under the bans. The resulting coverage lacked background and context; because of the anonymity surrounding the situation, it was referred to as the “high profile Halifax child pornography case.” Without the ability to publish Rehtaeh’s name in relation to the trials, the story that received international attention and inspired legislation was at risk of quietly fading away.

Interested in reading the rest of the case study? Click here.

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