The phenomenon is well known and well documented: when a number of police are murdered in the line of duty, the murders inevitably result in yet another campaign for the return of capital punishment. Although often guilty of a certain sensationalism, most media vehicles try to maintain at least a semblance of objectivity in the way they cover police killings. Not The Toronto Sun.
For one month-from August 19 to September 20, 1984, a period during which three Metro area policemen were murdered-the Sun conducted a campaign to convince its readers of the need for a free parliamentary vote on capital punishment. In that time, the paper ran 41 capital punishment-related items: 24 stories on the police murders (14 were featured on the first five pages, six had front-page color photos); three editorials advocating capital punishment; six stories on the noose with such unequivocal headlines as “Call for the Return of the Hangman”; and several letters to the editor, all urging the reinstatement of the death penalty. No letters opposing capital punishment were published. (“We received letters opposing the death penalty that we were going to publish. I just don’t know what happened,” says Marilynn Figueroa, assistant to the executive editor.)
On September 19, this concerted drive culminated in a front-page ballot that asked readers if they favored the return of capital punishment. Of the roughly 15 percent of the paper’s readers who responded, 97.3 percent said they favored the return of the noose. The results were hardly surprising, for three reasons: such biased surveys tend to attract the extremists, the letter-writers, the very vocal; the Sun‘s regular readers presumably agree with the paper’s reactionary line; and the sensationalistic methods of persuasion employed by the paper virtually guaranteed such a response.
It is the right of any paper to cater to what it perceives as the needs of its particular readership. But it is another thing to evade the general editorial responsibility that is a part and parcel of the ownership of a newspaper. In the words of the 1981 Kent commission’s report on newspapers, papers have a responsibility to “ensure their readers are fully and fairly informed about the conditions of the society in which they live.” In carrying out its one-sided campaign, the Sun failed miserably in its social responsibility.
Persuasion is without doubt an important function of any newspaper, but the Sun strays far beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Although most newspapers confine their lobbying to the editorial page, the Sun persists in using the entire paper as a forum for the propagation of its views on everything from capital punishment to communism.
In a front-page editorial that ran on September 19, former editor Barbara Amiel positively roared for the return of capital punishment. “We want it because it’s vengeance-by which we mean that society shows that it will not take the slaughter of its citizens lying down. We want it because it’s necessary and right.” Immediately beside the editorial was a photo of Gary White, who had shot a policeman the previous day; the bold headline read: “Quiet Kid Cop Killer.”
Directly below was the ballot that asked simply, “Do you favor capital punishment?” Amiel’s editorial echoes the views she had aired in a September, 1975, article far Saturday Night entitled “In Defence of Vengeance”: “Two hundred years ago Johnny would have hack his hand cut off for stealing a loaf of bread. Whatever that lacked in justice and appropriateness, it did make subsequent thefts difficult.” Amiel has a right to her strongly held beliefs. But the question remains: Should an editorial opinion be expressed throughout a newspaper?
“So long as an item is marked editorial, it doesn’t matter where it appears,” says Peter Worthington, the Sun‘s cofounder and former columnist. “But if you’re disguising it as a news story and presenting a slanted story, that’s wrong. I don’t think we did that.” Media critic Barrie Zwicker disagrees. He feels that’s exactly how the Sun handled the capital punishment controversy. “The Sun places the capital punishment issue both in its columns and editorials, using its persuasive power anywhere it can.”
“That’s the way the Sun does business. It’s not the way we’ve done business, ” says Norman Webster, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. But Webster is quick to add in the Sun‘s defence: “The editorial directors of the Sun feel it’s an important issue. Though it is a newspaper’s responsibility to present both sides of an issue before taking a position, the Sun may well feel that the other side has been well reported over the years and there’s no need to repeat it now.”
The Sun‘s particular brand of one-sided and simplistic coverage of important issues is a symptom of a serious deficiency in the media, according to Zwicker. “The Sun legitimizes, reflects and perpetuates that ignorant stand by only presenting one side.”
Robert Burt, the Sun‘s former executive city editor, insists the campaign was not one-sided. “We just wanted to show Parliament what the people of the country think of capital punishment.” Editorial director Ed Monteith takes this ideal even further: “The paper is there for the people. The social responsibility is in giving them a chance to voice their opinion.”
Before one can voice an opinion on so controversial an issue as capital punishment, one needs to be exposed to a fair and balanced presentation. In the September 19 editorial, the Sun said it favored capital punishment because it is a deterrent. In so doing, it chose to ignore a 1976 federal report on capital punishment by the solicitor general’s department that said: “Most existing research has concluded either that the existence of capital punishment legislation does not deter homicides or that there is no direct relationship between such legislation and homicide rates.” In fact, the report found that the largest number of murders of policemen since 1961 were committed in 1962, when 11 policemen were killed. That year, capital punishment was still in effect and two men were executed, one of them for killing a policeman. Zwicker isn’t surprised the Sun ignored the report. “The Sun doesn’t deal with grey areas. It has a simplistic, black-and-white approach to issues like capital punishment. [It’s] irresponsible in that it fails to recognize some statistics that are of the utmost importance. There’s no subject that can be approached without a context.”
Worthington admits that the Sun‘s campaign was in part motivated by a desire to “stir things up,” but doesn’t see anything wrong with this. “Capital punishment is a big issue in this country. You try to create a bit of interest, as a public service. The ultimate aim is not to not sell papers. I think the ballot is a safety valve. It’s a legitimate way for people to let off steam,” he says. Worthington thinks it was far more dishonest of the Sun to run a front-page editorial on the famine in Ethiopia that announced the paper’s intention to join in fund raising efforts, as it did late in 1984. “That’s more a question of a circulation gimmick. That’s far more cynical.”
Of course, the Sun regularly milks famine, crime and murder stories for everything they’re worth. It often relies on emotional quotes from grief-stricken people, ignoring statistics and facts that might present a different view. For example, on September 19, following the murder of Metro Police Constable David Dunmore, the Sun quoted Dunmore’s neighbor: “I certainly hope justice can be done. I think they [the killers] should be hanged so others won’t do itAs citizens we wonder where it’s going to end.”
The Sun makes the most of sensational headlines and gory photos of murder victims. Like the penny dreadfuls of the Victorian era, it exploits the public’s appetite for horror stories. Such reporting can serve a positive purpose, according to Ottawa criminologist John Fleischman. “The reporting of crime is not an incorrect thing for newspapers to do. In reporting crime, newspapers delineate the boundaries of social acceptance, telling people what is allowed and what isn’t,” says Fleischman, who recently completed a revised report on capital punishment for the federal solicitor general’s department.
“But papers like the Sun take things out of context to sell newspapers,” continues Fleischman. “That’s the immorality of them. The irresponsibility is in the misrepresentation of the facts. The notion is that if capital punishment were reinstated, people would stop killing.”
In stripping the capital punishment issue down to its elemental, primeval features, the Sun effectively abdicated its claim to merely fulfilling its moral or social obligations. No amount of self-serving rhetoric about only acting as the voice of the people can disguise the fact that front-page ballots and screaming headlines give the newspaper’s circulation a nice little jolt. But, beyond that, the Sun knows its readership well. It’s a classic case of giving the people what they want. The Sun‘s readers read the paper to have their biases confirmed. The Sun obliges by presenting a narrow-minded, distorted world view: as upholders of the law, the police are the only thing standing between an orderly, safe and clean society and a degenerate, lawless, anarchistic environment. The Kent report noted: “Without social responsibilities, the press would be but a business like others and the market its only law.” But if Fleischman is correct in stating that papers such as the Sun manipulate the facts to enhance their profits, then perhaps the Kent commission’s view of what newspapers ought to be is merely a utopian vision.