Who speaks for missing women?

The Toronto Star
Saturday Aug 11, 2007

Byline: Mary Lynn Young

Prosecutors in Canada's largest serial murder trial are winding down their case, eight months and 97 witnesses after it started. That's six years since Robert William Pickton, 57, was first charged, and 30 years since the first of 65 women went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The case, in which Pickton is being tried for an initial six of 26 murder charges, is taking longer to resolve than it took to investigate the Air India bombing and public inquiry. Pickton has pleaded not guilty, although he admits that the remains of six women were located on his Vancouver-area farm.

Major crimes and violence have always been a fact of life. But, some violent crimes garner more or less public and media attention because of how they tap into deep-seated divisions in a community. The fact that such crimes happen should no longer surprise. It is how we make sense of them and respond to the underlying social problems that matters.

For example, the media coverage of the infamous 1994 Just Desserts shooting of Georgina (Vivi) Leimonis, a white woman gunned down by a black man, drew attention to emerging racial tensions in Toronto that have continued - and many would argue have grown - to this day.

News coverage of the missing women's case tells a different story about social tensions in Vancouver.

Two decades went by before the murders of a large number of women, most of whom earned a living on the street via the sex trade, even made the media agenda. The near silence in mainstream media was eventually broken because of lobbying by a few committed family members and some intrepid journalists, as the numbers became too large to ignore.

The fact that there has been limited media attention to the almost 100 women who have gone missing from Edmonton to northern British Columbia and Vancouver over the past 30 years - many of them from small, poor First Nations communities - tells us something about deep-seated racial tensions in the West. These women were seen as disposable and have been without a voice in the media.

Now that the Pickton trial is underway, media worldwide are covering it. But, the public is increasingly less interested in the details of the case, according to a June poll by the Feminist Media Project at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism and the Mustel Group.

The poll found that almost one in two B.C. residents are not interested in the trial.

This fact conflicts with the media's perception that sensational crime stories, such as serial murder and sexual homicides drive audience interest. These types of crimes tend to gain large amounts of media coverage in North America, with crime and violent content often filling between 20 and 25 per cent of the news section in newspapers and on television.

It's not surprising that people aren't interested in reading daily - often graphic - summaries of crime scene details. These details tend to dehumanize victims and focus on the criminal act, not the underlying causes or ways to improve social conditions in the future.

Rather than reporting on the grisly details of crime, the media could choose to shed more light on the social and economic context of crime in our communities.

What matters about the media's coverage of the Pickton case is that people know and believe that these horrific, violent events happened - and continue to happen to vulnerable women in Canada. And, more importantly, why that is so.

So far, despite the millions of words devoted to the trial and charges against Pickton and the almost 30 years that it has taken to get some of the cases surrounding the missing women to trial, Vancouver is still without an official inquiry or task force and the media has shown little outrage about this.

If not the media, who has the power and reach to speak for the many women who disappeared and died?

Mary Lynn Young is an associate professor and acting director of University of British Columbia's School of Journalism.

2007 Torstar Corporation




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Updated: August 21, 2016