Editor's note: how Cabin Radio approaches crime reporting
Reporting on crime, the police, and the court system in small communities is an extremely sensitive job, and a responsibility we take seriously.
Even Yellowknife, at 20,000 people, is a small enough place for everyone to feel like they know everyone.
Residents who love our Facebook page can wake up one morning to find a report about a loved one's court case, or maybe worse. The words they read can hurt. We know our journalism has the potential to have a very real impact on people reading it – people we often already know personally as fellow residents of the NWT.
We are sometimes asked why we choose to report on crime and on court proceedings, how we decide what to cover, and how we decide on the tone and wording to use.
Firstly, court reporting is a specialist occupation. There are a number of nuances to court reporting that are not immediately obvious, and rules which can land a news organization in real trouble if they are not carefully followed.
At the time of writing, we are fortunate to have the services of an experienced court reporter volunteering their time as a contributor, unpaid.
Without that help, we would be unable to report from court as the time commitment required to do a thorough job is significant. We believe there is no point in half-hearted, half-baked reporting from the courtroom. That does a disservice to everyone involved, and to our readers.
However, with one volunteer reporter, there are still many cases we cannot report – either because of conflicting commitments or simply because a reporter cannot be in two courtrooms at once.
We attempt to prioritize the cases we believe hold a clear public interest: in other words, the cases residents are most likely to want to hear about, or which carry the most significant consequences.
Given the ongoing nature of the battle against the drug trade in the NWT, court cases involving hard drugs with the potential to kill – such as crack cocaine and fentanyl – and the pursuit of drug networks in the territory are considered a priority. We believe it is important for the public to be aware of how the police, and courts, are dealing with this issue.
Court cases involving murder or manslaughter are a priority as they often affect a large number of people: family and friends of both the victim(s) and the accused, and the wider community as a whole.
These are sensitive topics and, when we report on them, we try to be fair and choose our words carefully.
That does not mean we seek to portray offenders, once convicted, in a better light than they deserve, or cherry-pick facts so as not to upset people.
It means we report the facts, we clearly attribute things (such as what a prosecutor says versus what the defence says, making clear which facts are agreed upon and which are in dispute), and we do not sensationalize.
Equally, we try wherever possible not to intrude upon grief more than we have to in the process of reporting what took place.
We understand that courtrooms are horrible places for families whose loved ones have died or been affected by tragic events, and we know being approached by journalists or reading about it online can be a painful experience.
It is our job to report news where it affects a significant number of people, but we try to do so in a human and compassionate way. We live here, too, and we make every attempt to treat people involved in court cases the way we would hope to be treated if the roles were reversed.
When we report on the actions of police officers, we understand we are reporting on an organization about which residents hold a wide range of views.
Where the reasons police chose to act in a certain way are unclear, or their conduct raises questions, we will report that and raise those questions accordingly, as we have done in the past.
Where police are doing their jobs and enforcing the law, we will report what happened and the outcome to the best of our ability – though, often, we are reliant upon RCMP news releases to provide the initial facts when a crime is alleged to have been committed. (When we quote from an RCMP news release, we always make clear that we are repeating information provided by police unless we are able to independently verify what happened.)
It is not our job, as a news organization, to have an opinion or take sides. It is our job to establish the truth to the best of our ability, which varies greatly from incident to incident according to the information available.
If you ever have concerns about our reporting, I ask that you write to me about it. Feedback from our readers is valuable and I am committed to answering questions residents raise about why we report on things the way we do. We know we will not always get it right.
We are not a faceless news organization. We are part-time or volunteer reporters, we live here and have friends and family here, and we know you are holding us accountable for the words we choose. We want to do our best to provide a service of which you can be proud, and on which you can rely.
Lastly, I know people can easily feel burned out if we publish a steady stream of articles reporting the often distressing details of crime and court proceedings.
There are some days where several important developments will dictate we publish a series of articles, but we also know people come to Cabin Radio to be uplifted, to love where they live – and, frankly, to see puppies and funny videos and have a good time.
This is a delicate balance for us to strike. It is our duty to report things that can be hard to read, but we are also committed to reminding our audience, regularly, of the wonderful place we live and the fantastic communities at the heart of what we do.
If you ever feel we are getting that balance wrong, let me know. Thanks for reading.