Saturday, December 02, 2006

Journalism Ethics 101

Crown prosecutors fight to force author Derek Finkle to turn over the research behind his Arthur Ellis Award-Winning book, No Claim To Mercy. In it, Finkle details an extraordinary case. Elizabeth Bain disappeared and, although no body was ever found her boyfriend, Robert Baltovich, was convicted of her murder on circumstantial evidence. The conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal, after Baltovich had spent eight years in jail.

The Crown plans to retry Baltovich for Bain’s murder, and is trying to force Finkle to give up his research for his book.

This is a particularly fascinating subject for me, as a Canadian. I remember hearing about this guilty verdict, all those years ago, and wondering how they managed to get it without a body.

And now, it’s a bit of a subject of intrigue because of the question of privilege and whether or not journalists should be forced to give up their sources, because this is one of the things my first book deals with.

You see, when I studied journalism we were taught by people with years of experience from working at various publications, including The Globe and Mail. And I was taught to never take statements off the record if at all possible.

It’s a real risk taking statements off the record. A dangerous game to play.

Now, I’m not saying this to criticize Finkle. His situation is quite a bit different. This is a true crime book, and I don’t feel that it’s the responsibility of an author – or journalist – to collect information for prosecutors or defense attorneys.

That said, if a reporter had information that could change the outcome of a court case and failed to turn that over I’d wrestle with that ethically, especially if it helped a guilty man go free and (thanks to double jeopardy) never be brought to account for his crimes.

Of course, this could raise all sorts of issues, about public pressures to proceed to trial before you’re ready and how we ensure the right to a speedy trial…

But I’m not going to debate all of that. Really, it’s of interest to me because when I created Lara Kelly I tried to give her the discipline I was taught to employ – to not make promises you might not be able to keep. TV show after TV show we see reporters who eagerly jump to promise confidentiality to their sources and wrap themselves in the flag and a well-worn spiel about freedom of the press.

Imagine if not every reporter was so eager to argue principles and actually do their job in a way that meant exposing the truth.

This is probably the aspect of SC I’ve worried about more than anything. Lara is a bit of an anomaly. And I don’t want to say too much now, but I think that one of the things that’s going to bother Farraday is the worry that eventually she could be corrupted by the people she works with.

I know from my own experience that ethical issues were constantly debated. The photographers who’d snap shots of people drowning instead of tossing the camera aside and trying to save the person. Reporters who’d pressure sources to the point that they were threatened, beaten or worse.

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much more, because it’s a bit unfair to talk about a book that isn’t out yet, but this is an interesting issue. I am, as always, curious to know what you guys think. Is the self-righteous journalist who won’t help the police a tactic you’re tired of seeing? Do you think the courts should be allowed to force this author to turn over his data to Crown prosecutors? Where do you think the lines on freedom of the press should be drawn?

In case you missed it yesterday, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr guest blogged at First Offenders.

And today, within half an hour I read two reviews of my book – one that will be online, one that will be in print within the next two months. 36 days… Geez, maybe I should create the “Official Author Advent Calendar” or something.


anne frasier said...

i LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea of an author advent calendar.
wouldn't that be cool? i'm imagining something that looks like a candyland board, and avatar brat sandra would walk along encountering all sorts of swamp gas and alligators and bad asses until she reaches to the book release party.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, I should get right on that 'brat Sandra' avatar! I wonder what she'd do if someone gave her a bad review, though.

Anonymous said...

Please, you know exactly what she'd do. She'd throw herself on the ground and start wailing while punching her fists and kicking at the ground. Then she'd write a blog soundly cursing the nasty reviewer. That's the brat Sandra of course, not you, grown-up, mature Sandra. norby

John McFetridge said...

"... pressures to proceed to trial before you’re ready and how we ensure the right to a speedy trial…"

What's that saying about the law and sausages, you don't want to see how they're made? How we proceed to trial is a big question, and one that many people in Canada feel is being quietly changed behind the scenes. Guess who's getting more power? If you said lawyers...

I like the way a lot of current fiction addresses these issues and still manages to be a good read. Finding out "whodunnit" can really be just the beginning.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's right Norby. Grown up and mature Sandra is always a professional. ;)

John, yeah, how we proceed to trial is a big, pertinent question. You'll remember the killing of those four RCMP officers in Alberta, and the resulting outcry about changing the laws. I knew some of the guys who were the responders to the scene (because of book research) and you see that side and you have to wonder.

It's like what I posted on Crime Lab Project last month - when you lose hope in the system you take the law into your own hands.

I just feel like I can't debate it well, because it's so huge.

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