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Courtesy Tony Webster

Sensationalist crime coverage is harmful to society

By Jesse Stilwell, January 31 2017 —

While watching shows like Criminal Minds and CSI: Miami might be a delightful way to waste an afternoon, discussing and learning about morbid details of ongoing criminal trials is often the opposite.

A number of criminal trials will take place in Calgary this year and people deserve to know what’s happening. But over the past few weeks, media outlets have endlessly published and shared hour-by-hour descriptions of the triple homicide in the Douglas Garland murder trial — from photos of remains found in a burn barrel to descriptions of Garland’s meticulous planning. Openly discussing and sensationalizing terrifying crimes like this has a detrimental effect on our society.

Details of criminal trials should be left to the lawyers and forensic technicians to analyze and discuss in order to determine whether the accused is guilty. They should not be treated as a source of sensationalist entertainment for the general public.

University of Calgary associate sociology professor Dr. Michael Adorjan says there is a balance between staying aware and affirming our worst fears.

“Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have contributed to fear of crime becoming a massive industry,” he says. “They promote an image of ubiquitous violence that leads people to support politician’s expanding our security measures or even buying home security systems they might not actually need.”

The damage that discussing horrific crimes can have hits close to home at the U of C. Last May, former U of C student Matthew de Grood was found not criminally responsible for the murder of five people at a Brentwood house party. Those found not criminally responsible due to reasons of insanity are supposed to go through annual or three-year mental assessment reviews. If details of de Grood’s crimes are repeated on this frequent of a basis, there is the potential for painful memories and feelings of horror around campus to resurface each time.

We should carry this awareness into the criminal trials of 2017 — particularly with the Garland case, as the morbid details will continue to be publicly presented in court in the coming weeks. We should watch the lawyers and judges with scrutiny and debate whether their rhetoric is credible and truthful, instead of allowing our curiosities and fears to be exploited by sensationalist media coverage.

Of course, if you have a desire to indulge in morbid curiosity, then crime fiction is available and offers an interesting look in a way that isn’t so close to home.

If you or one of your friends do become enthralled by a particular criminal case in Calgary, try to avoid spreading the aspects of it that not everyone wants to hear. But do not shy away from holding our justice system to account. We need to ensure the truth is revealed in our courtrooms, but we shouldn’t allow sensationalist coverage of disturbing crime details to spread unnecessary fear through our society.

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