The harm that the media can do

Maggie de Vries
Special to the Sun

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Last Thursday night, I addressed an audience about my sister Sarah, the missing women (of whom she is one) and my experiences with women who live and work on the Downtown Eastside.

In telling the gathering about the progress of the investigation over the years, I mentioned the thorough, powerful and important coverage that The Vancouver Sun gave to the missing women back in the fall of 2001.

In contrast, on Friday morning, I awoke to find an enormous photograph of Robert Pickton on the front page or The Sun, drawing public attention to what may (or may not) have happened to my sister's and other women's bodies after they were dead.

That is fear- and horror-mongering at its worst. The piece says that the public is not at risk of disease. I was not aware that the public was afraid it was at risk.

Response from stories on the subject that ran months ago had died down. If the paper simply wished to allay fears, it should have run the story on page 8 or 9 without the huge photo or without any photo at all.

The story mentions that many of the women who were murdered had diseases. It is bad enough that sex workers are often blamed for the spread of disease when they are alive. (Actually, I believe that more risks are taken during casual sex than during transactions between clients and sex workers unless clients refuse to use a condom.)

Now sex workers are to be blamed for spreading disease even after they are dead, which is preposterous. And such a notion reduces my sister and others to bits of disease-riddled flesh.

Each and every woman who has died was a human being with a story; each and every woman loved and was loved. And each and every woman lives on in those who love her.

We do not want the images of our loved ones to be tarnished in such a way.

Some time in the future, when the trial of Robert Pickton begins, media around the world are going to face a challenge. I hope that each newspaper and magazine, each television and radio station will take care in choosing what approach to take in terms of its potential impact on readers, viewers and listeners, both those connected and unconnected with the case.

If their only motive is to sell papers or draw viewers, they should rethink their approach. Media have the power to do much harm. They can also do some good.

I hope that they will do all they can to opt for the latter.

Maggie de Vries won this year's VanCity Book Prize and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. Publishing for her memoir Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister. The book was also nominated for a Governor-General's Award in 2003.

 The Vancouver Sun 2004

Maggie de Vries webpage



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