What the Ghomeshi trial reveals about journalism and media consumers: U of T expert explains
Digital culture allows people to immerse themselves in minutiae, says Jeffrey Dvorkin: “It’s almost like news pornography”
The intense media interest in high-profile trials, including the Jian Ghomeshi trial that started Feb 1, could have a major impact on the judicial system itself, U of T’s Jeffrey Dvorkin says.
Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, says the media interest surrounding the Ghomeshi trial – with newspapers and television networks around the world covering it – “is only intensified by the digital culture, what I call digital deviance, where people immerse themselves in the minutiae of the story. It’s almost like news pornography.”
The media frenzy sparked by the sex assault trial of Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio star, is similar to the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, more than 20 years ago. That was the first time CNN broadcasted a trial directly from the courtroom. Today, there are no cameras in the Ghomeshi courtroom but the trial is live-tweeted by reporters in real time as witnesses testify and are grilled by the defence attorney.
Read PhD student Nathan Gorham's Globe and Mail article on Twitter versus cameras at the trial
Dvorkin points out that Ghomeshi is being tried by judge alone.
“My impression is that there are fewer and fewer jury trials in part because defence lawyers claim their clients can’t get a fair trial – because no one is coming into the courtroom with a completely neutral state. It is hard to find a jury these days that hasn’t been influenced by the media in some ways.”
Dvorkin, a former managing editor and chief journalist at CBC Radio, says the trial poses a challenge for CBC given that “people at the CBC are being forced to relive this.” The broadcaster is covering the trial but has also brought in counsellors to help employees deal with the trial, he said.
The Ghomeshi trial in Toronto was not the only high-profile trial in Ontario this week. But the “prurient interest” in the Ghomeshi case meant that after the first day, it led the news on both the local and national CBC and CTV networks. Meanwhile, the trial in Hamilton of two men charged with the kidnapping, murder and cremation of Tim Bosma, shot while showing his truck to two men, was relegated to the second story.
Coincidentally, these two headline-grabbing trials began during the same week that the FX network launched a heavily promoted, 10-part drama series on the Simpson trial. The former football star was acquitted of the murder of his wife and male friend in 1995, with his lawyer, Johnny Cochran, using the now infamous “if the glove don’t fit you must acquit” defence.
Dvorkin said the O.J. case really changed the “journalistic landscape” for television, both in the U.S. and in Canada. It allowed news organizations to cut costs by simply putting a camera in the courtroom (or share a feed) without having to rely on reporters.
“It was a real downside to the O.J. Simpson trial. It cheapened the value of journalistic efforts, something that media organizations really haven’t recovered from.”
The first complainant in the Ghomeshi trial was the first witness on Feb. 1, and was subjected to an intense drilling from the defence lawyer who said the woman had lied and that her memory was faulty.
That type of cross-examination is indicative of what thousands of complainants go through in sexual assault cases, according to a study done for the U of T Law Journal.
The study, done by Dalhousie University professor Elaine Craig, says “a sexual assault complainant’s capacity to be believed in court, to share in the production of meaning about an incidence of what she alleges was unwanted sexual conduct, requires her to play a role in certain rituals of the trial.
“Many of these rituals are hierarchical, requiring complainants to perform subordinate roles that mirror the gender, race and socio-economic status based on societal hierarchies in which the problem of sexual violence is rooted.”
Craig examined many court transcripts and gave specific examples of women being “brutalized” by the process, including one woman who refused to return to the stand after being cross-examined and who only returned when she faced arrest.