Eastside tries to fend off world media

Prostitutes get PR coaching on eve of Pickton trial; advocates worry area's sex-trade workers will be exploited by the media

Randy Shore
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Vancouver Sun continues its leading role in coverage of the Robert Pickton trial with a special team of reporters, photographers and editors dedicated to the case. Starting Monday, we will have extensive coverage inside and outside of the courthouse, with instant news updates throughout the day on In addition, Sun legal affairs columnist Ian Mulgrew will bring his analysis to the opening days of the trial.

Prostitution advocacy groups will team up with the Vancouver Police Department Monday for a special press briefing aimed at deterring the world's media from swarming the Downtown Eastside and exploiting sex trade workers while here to cover the trial of Robert (Willie) Pickton.

Photo timeline of the Pickton case
Gallery: Mothers, daughters, sisters
Special: Robert Pickton on Trial

The VPD will dedicate its regular Monday press briefing to supplying local, national and international media with an information kit, including stock video footage of sex trade workers in the Downtown Eastside, videotaped interviews with prostitutes, and contact information for agencies that speak for women in the sex trade.

Pickton's first trial on six counts of murder starts Monday in New Westminster. He is charged with 26 counts of murder in what has been called the Missing Women Case, because the victims were all prostitutes who disappeared from the Downtown Eastside between 1978 and 2001.

Organizations that work with prostitutes have printed and distributed posters and pocket-sized cards containing a list of media-related guidelines for sex trade workers, and advice on how to respond to unwanted filming, requests for personal information, and managing interviews. An information session held earlier this week by the WISH Drop-in Centre Society drew more than 100 women.

"Women who came to the meeting were given extra copies that they could share with their friends," said Kate Gibson, a spokeswoman for WISH. "We also gave them a list of frequently asked questions, things that are not that pleasant to deal with, like being asked to share your own stories of violence."

"Women in the trade are already going to be under stress when the details of the case start to come out and [media attention] is just one more thing they are going to have to deal with," said Gibson. "I think it's going to be really difficult."

Camera crews have already turned up to film the open market for heroin and crack cocaine at the corner of Main and Hastings streets, according to dealers who work there. And advocates for the area's prostitutes are concerned that the women, many of whom are drug-addicted and emotionally fragile, will be exploited by news gatherers trolling for sensational stories about the rough neighbourhood allegedly frequented by Pickton.

"We want the women to avoid getting their pictures in the newspaper or on television and to be aware of what the impact of that could be," Gibson said. "I don't really know what the media will decide to do when they are here."

The information sheet advises women to ask to see reporters' identification and to see interview questions in advance. The sheet says that they can be filmed if they are standing on the street, but that they can ask for their identity to be concealed if they are interviewed.

The training blitz is the result of more than a year of planning by three organizations -- WISH (Women's Information Safe Haven), PEERS (Prostitutes Empowerment Education Resource Society) and PACE (Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education Society) -- in consultation with the Vancouver Police Department's civilian sex trade liaison official, Dave Dickson.

Women are also being supplied with a list of safe havens in the neighbourhood, places they can go to avoid unwanted attention from reporters and camera crews.

"These are women who are highly stigmatized and any images that appear of them in the press can be really damaging to them, especially in the future if they decide to change their lives," said Kyla Kaun, a spokeswoman for PEERS. "It's too easy for the media to take advantage of a person who is living in a state of constant crisis, who [is] working for their survival."

Interviewers who ask local prostitutes to talk about friends who have disappeared or relate their own stories of brutality may dredge up feelings that the women are ill-equipped to deal with, leaving them at risk of trauma, depression or reckless drug abuse.

"Without the proper support these women are just left alone to deal with feelings and memories that are overwhelming," Kaun said.

"It's important for the media to understand that these women shouldn't be re-exploited."

More than 300 journalists have been accredited to cover the trial and women's organizations are planning to do whatever they can to insert themselves between the media and their clients.

Along with the list of media dos and don'ts, sex trade workers are being supplied with a list of local organizations and phone numbers they can hand to reporters who approach them. Workers at the advocacy organizations are prepared to respond to media interview requests, Gibson said.

Prostitutes who agreed to talk to The Sun were mostly unaware that Pickton's trial is about to start and some expressed surprise it isn't already over.

"We are more concerned about surviving the day than about someone who is in jail," Jennifer Evens said in an interview. "You have to stay really aware to stay safe."

Evens says she doesn't follow the Pickton case but that publicity about the trial does keep her motivated to read the bad-date lists, which describe men who have assaulted prostitutes, their vehicles, and their tell-tale behaviours. Most of the local advocacy groups post a list regularly.


Mental Illness, Drugs, Mayhem a Toxic Mix

When the international media descend on the Downtown Eastside next week, they will shine a light on the nation's poorest neighbourhood and one with features not commonly found elsewhere.

The corner of Main and Hastings Streets is home to a drug market so brazen that dealers are able to sell crack cocaine, heroin, morphine, codeine and a variety of illegally obtained pharmaceuticals in plain view of the public and the police. Less than a block away is Insite, a supervised facility where injection drug users can use street drugs under medical supervision.

Permanent syringe disposal boxes are mounted on iron poles in alleys in this neighbourhood. Addicts huddle in alleys or right on the street to smoke crack.

Journalists are already starting to show up, many of them filming prostitutes and drug addicts from afar. Advocacy groups for prostitutes and drug users have been fielding dozens of calls from the United States and Britain, in addition to the already-intense local media coverage of the neighbourhood where the police say 65 women have gone missing since 1978.

City sanitation workers scour the neighbourhood, hauling away piles of refuse and picking up a relentless blizzard of litter, 15 hours a day -- a pace they set about two years ago. Many of the storm drains are plugged and rainwater is more than ankle deep in many places. People walk through the freezing water in sneakers or thongs.

The city has not added extra shifts in anticipation of the arrival of the world's media. But the cold weather has kept people indoors in recent weeks, reducing the litter on the street, say city workers.

More difficult for the city to control is the mayhem that flares up without warning. While the police give lengthy lectures to suspected drug dealers and ambulances pick up people collapsed in the alley behind the Carnegie Centre, security guards beat a man against the pavement after chasing him from the store. Bleeding from a cut on his head, he refuses medical help. He remains agitated and yells gibberish for hours afterward.

The combination of so many mentally ill people living in the area's cheap rooming houses and rampant drug addiction is a toxic mix and makes the violence feel random and threatening.

Street prostitutes who work in this low-rent neighbourhood are at constant risk of violence and they all have bad date stories. Advocates call it the survival sex trade, but survival is not guaranteed.

The Downtown Eastside is a rich source of potent images, images that the gathering media will transmit to the world.


Some of the advice issued to sex-trade workers:

- You have the right to refuse to be interviewed.

- You have the right not to answer questions you don't want to answer.

- You have the right not to be filmed or photographed in spaces that are not public -- your room, any service organizations, etc.

- You do not have to give media any personal information.

- If you choose to be filmed

without your face showing, you can demand that your face not be shown and your identity be disguised.

- You have a right to request a reporter's identification.

- Only talk about yourself and your experience.

- You don't have the right to demand money for your time.

- A reporter doesn't have to show you their tape.

- Remember that any information you share with the media will be in the newspaper, on the radio or on TV.

- If you are approached by media who are accompanied by the police, you do not have to speak to the media simply because the police are in attendance.

Ran with fact boxes "Trial Will Shine Global Spotlight on Eastside's Back Alleys" and "Public-Relations Lesson", which have been appended to the end of the story.

 The Vancouver Sun 2007

Judge noted for no-nonsense approach

Robert Pickton on Trial - The Vancouver Sun

How Lindsay Kines and Sun reporters broke missing women story-Nov 6, 2002



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016