For forty days last summer, Canada’s newspapers, radio stations and television networks were flooded with details of the sex lives of two women: Barbara Dodd, 22, of North York, Ontario, and Chantale Daigle, 21, of Chibougamau, Quebec. Unlike other recipients of unwanted publicity in recent years-Susan Nelles, the Reichmanns, or Ben Johnson-neither Dodd nor Daigle had been charged with a crime, was a public figure or had ever been a national hero. Instead, like thousands of other women in Canada last year, each had made a private decision to seek an abortion.

In both cases, ex-lovers obtained court injunctions to prevent the women from ending their pregnancies, In both cases, the women’s names were on the front pages of many newspapers before they had time to secure legal representation. In both cases, the women had no control over the tide of publicity that washed into their lives, stripped them of their privacy and finally, remorselessly, trickled away.

While Canadians were intrigued by these young people going to court over such a personal matter, they were also horrified at how easily and unwittingly a person could lose her right to privacy. The fascination over Dodd and Daigle had as much to do with the public knowledge of their private lives as with the important legal ramifications of the case. Many people, journalists included, felt a vague uneasiness as the coverage grew heavier and more details were published.

Lawyers blamed the media for the vulture-like zeal with which they devoured the Dodd and Daigle stories. Journalists blamed the boyfriends for dragging their ex-lovers into the public arena of the courts. Some activists blamed politicians for not setting out clear legislative guidelines on abortion after the old law was struck down in January 1988. And despite their legendary respect for freedom of the press, many Canadians blamed the media for preying on the private trauma of pregnant women in their pursuit of a “good story.”

The story began on July 4 when Gregory Murphy, 23, of Whitby, Ontario, was granted a temporary injunction to stop Barbara Dodd from obtaining an abortion. Three days later, Chantale Daigle learned that her ex-boyfriend, Jean-Guy Tremblay, 25, of Montreal, had been granted a similar injunction by a Quebec provincial court judge.

Dodd won her case at the Supreme Court of Ontario and had her abortion just seven days after her public ordeal began. Daigle’s appeal was rejected by Quebec’s Superior Court July 17, and again by the Quebec Court of Appeal on July 26. The injunction was eventually quashed after an emergency session of the Supreme Court of Canada on August 8. But Daigle had already defied the injunction by ending her 21week pregnancy the week before in an American clinic.

During those steamy summer weeks, readers picked up their daily papers to discover that Barbara Dodd had undergone two previous abortions and that she had two children who were in the care of their father. They read about her ultrasound report and details of when and why she had her intra-uterine device removed. They learned that she had once worked as an exotic dancer. They read excerpts from a love letter and got information from her personal diary. They read about what her sister and father thought about her relationship with Murphy. They learned when, how often and with whom she had had sexual intercourse.

Readers debated at their proverbial dinner tables whether she had intended to get pregnant, whether she enjoyed the media attention, whether she was mentally stable and whether her hearing impairment prevented her from understanding what was happening to her. Most of all, they debated her morals and whether she deserved to be forced into giving birth because of her past indiscretions.

“We had to establish what Barbara Dodd was and this is certainly part of her: that she was deaf, that she had had two abortions, that she was a stripper,” says Donn Downey, who covered the Dodd story for The Globe and Mail.

“You’ve got to humanize a story, even at The Globe and Mail. You can’t always talk about issues and abstracts. The whole thing could have been decided in parliament, but it wouldn’t have been as good a story, would it? There were real people here with real frailties.”

Many journalists who covered the story argue that their readers deserved as much detail as the media could find in order to understand the complexity of the issue. “The main thing on your mind when you are covering this kind of story is: get as much as possible, without being distasteful,” says Jane Armstrong, who covered the Dodd-Murphy case for The Toronto Star. “A lot of pro-choice people said: ‘Why is her [Dodd’s) past being brought up?’ But it wasn’t us [journalists) who brought her into the limelight. I do have pity for Barbara Dodd. But sometimes the only way people will think logically about an issue like abortion is when there are real faces, real people attached to the issue. Until then, it’s just the two sides name calling. Finally there was a real person, two real people, attached to the issue. And that’s why readers were spellbound by those stones.

Armstrong wrote the banner story in The Star on July 7 headlined, “Second ‘father’ appears in abortion injunction case.” Head shots of the two men were accompanied by the caption,”WHICH ONE? Gregory Murphy, left, and Christen Mucciacito both claim to be father.”

“I didn’t think that was a terribly valid story and I really didn’t expect it to be on the front page. That [the debate on who Dodd was sleeping with and when) was just titillating. I thought the other one on the judge’s perspective was more relevant.” (Armstrong wrote another article for the same issue about a pro-life book the judge had authored.)

But Armstrong points out that the paternity question was one of the reasons the judge gave for throwing out the injunction. So she concedes that the decision to play the “which one?” story prominently was justified. In other words, the public must hear as much of the evidence as possible in order to understand why the judge ruled as he did. Just one week after her abortion, Dodd called a news conference and, with Murphy at her side, announced that she now regretted her decision to end the pregnancy. On the cover of the July 31 Maclean’s, Dodd was featured in a covergirl-style, backlit photograph, wearing red lipstick and a matching red tank top beside the bold headline: “Barbara Dodd’s Change of Heart.” Some said the media had created a monster.

“The press built her up to such a degree that when it stopped she was lost and she wanted the attention back. I don’t think her turnaround had anything to do with how she felt about abortion,” said Judy Rebick, a pro-choice activist in Toronto.

Meanwhile in Quebec, “l’affaire Daigle” was being “humanized” by the news media to such an extent that relatives of Chantale Daigle and Jean-Guy Tremblay found their phone lines constantly jammed. The Montreal daily, La Presse, carried lengthy interviews with Daigle’s father, mother, brother, stepfather and a childhood friend. The paper published polls on the case, such as how many Quebecers were rooting for Chantale and how many for JeanGuy to win the case. Every Quebec daily published details-like where the couple had met, when they began to sleep together, and when and why Daigle stopped taking birth control pills.

“Reporters forget sometimes that there are real people involved in these conflicts,” says lawyer Daniel Bedard, who represented Daigle through her trials. “Chantale’s family was very upset by all the publicity surrounding the abortion.”

Daigle was treated well by the press compared to Dodd and, according to most journalists who covered the story, seemed to understand the national interest her case had generated. Though she realizes that journalists were just doing their job in covering her case, she says sometimes they went too far.

“Journalists wanted to make the story too spectacular,” said Daigle after a news conference on November 16, the day after the reasons for the Supreme Court judgment were finally made n public. “They wanted to get the big ~ scoop no matter what. It was open season, a big show, and I didn’t like it. It really hurt my family. There was a lot of fanaticism. It stopped being a debate about a woman wanting an abortion. Suddenly everyone was ‘pro-Chantale’ or ‘pro- Jean-Guy’.”

Though reporters seemed to respect Daigle more than Dodd, this was as much due to Jean-Guy Tremblay’s abrasive manner as to Daigle’s own grace and self-assuredness under pressure. At the hands of journalists, Tremblay fared even worse than Dodd. They happily gave him more than enough rope-and his inflammatory quotes more than enough space-to hang himself several times over. Journalists had used Dodd’s history to help their readers judge her. But in Tremblay’s case, they used his own words.

“I don’t have milk. What would you like me to do with a baby?” said Tremblay in La Presse, July 27, after the Appeal Court upheld his injunction. That quote, which contradicted his previous assertions, was ridiculed on placards at the many pro-choice demonstrations the case provoked.

The same story in La Presse featured an interview with Tremblay’s mother. She called her son “irresponsible, violent and a liar” and denied cracking his skull with a hockey stick when he was 10 years old, as reported in several newspapers. The July 26 Globe and Mail quoted Tremblay as saying he was “sick and tired of people calling [him] a wife-beater and a criminal.” He also said he never hit Daigle “hard enough to leave marks.”

Tremblay, who had never dealt with the media before he sought his injunction, now regrets his voluntary foray into the limelight and feels victimized by the press: “Everybody in the world knows me but nobody likes me,” he said at a press conference three months after the case was decided.
Tremblay may be correct that the world had little sympathy for him. He made the decision to make his private life public and he spoke openly to the ~ media at every opportunity. Pro-choicers touted him as the kind of ~ heartless, sexist monster who epitomized the “anti-choice” movement, just

as pro-lifers had condemned Barbara Dodd-before her post-abortion change of heart-as an irresponsible, immoral young woman who to them epitomized the “pro-abortion” movement.
In fact, giving the abortion battle a human face by laying bare the lives of these men and women may have succeeded only in galvanizing the stereotypes readers already held.

The Star’s Armstrong says there is a line to be drawn in the “get all you can” reasoning. Three months after the Dodd-Murphy case ended, she interviewed the reunited Dodd and Murphy, but wrote no follow-up. “I found they were just regular people and nothing they had to say was newsworthy. My editor said, ‘Come on, they were the most talked about couple in Toronto last summer. There must be something there,’ But there was absolutely nothing of news value.”

Clayton Ruby, the Toronto lawyer who represented Dodd, argues that much of what was reported on his client during the case was of no news value either: “The press showed an incredible lack of judgment. They published all this horrible sexual detail about her life. It was appalling. The press has got to have a right to print that in an open court system, but a responsible press exercises some restraint in choosing which details to print.”

Neither Ruby nor Bedard considered seeking a limitation on publicity for their clients (like banning the use of their names or photos) because such bans are granted only in very specific circumstances, such as for victims of sexual offences. Besides, every journalist who covered the stories would likely have fought a ban, further delaying these cases in which time played a crucial role.

“The public was just absolutely famished for all “the information we could get on this guy and her too,” says Lynn Moore, who covered the Daigle case for the Montreal Gazette. She says it is only human nature to want to know what motivates people in this kind of real-life drama. Ruby argues, though, that the curiosity of the reader does not justify printing all the personal information that appears in a court affidavit. “Of course they want to know. They want to know all kinds of things, like how they fuck and when, and whether they feel good. It’s titillating, but it’s not news.”

However, Peter Desbarats, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, defended the overall performance of the media in the coverage of both cases. He said if a decision is going to be made to exclude information, that decision should be made by the judge, not the journalist. “You can’t seal off the courts from public view. The principle is that you or I should be able to walk into a courtroom so that justice is seen to be done. The journalist serves as the eyes and ears of the public and is under an obligation to report what is going on in the courts.”

But it is not uncommon for journalists or editors to voluntarily withhold information, even without a directive from the court. The Globe and Mail, for example, often does not publish the name of an accused person if the trial is not going to be covered from start to finish by the paper. The Montreal Gazette does not publish the names of most criminal suspects unless they are charged. These are editorial policies, not examples of individual journalists considering the adverse effect mass publicity could have on the lives of their subjects. Most of the time, reporters are expected to make the story as hard-hitting as possible and leave the hair-tearing decisions to their editors. Editors, in turn, usually leave the decision about publishing a name up to the court.

“In a rape case,” says Desbarats, “you’ve got someone who is a victim of a terrible crime who will be seriously affected in the future if her name is published. But in this case you’ve got somebody who had a relationship with a man and became pregnant. Now I suppose there is still some social stigma attached to that in this day and age, but it is not nearly as extreme [as in the rape case]. She was a consenting partner in a relationship. Yes, the publicity may have unfortunate effects as far as she’s concerned, but you have to balance that against the merits of having an open court system.”

He says human interest is a legitimate justification for publishing background details about parties in a legal battle, even if the details did not come up in open court. Details about Tremblay’s bad luck with women or Dodd’s previous abortions, he says, served the double purpose of shedding light on the cases and adding human interest to the stories.

Rebick, however, argues that just as society is willing to protect rape victims from public scrutiny, the same protection should have been extended to Dodd and Daigle, and for the same reasons. She argues that abortion, though tolerated to some extent, is still stigmatized by society. She suggests that journalists, if not judges, should have been more mindful of the impact the coverage would have on these women. They had broken none of society’s laws, and yet paid a much higher price than most of us do to live in a democracy.

Many details which were published -such as the fact that Tremblay’s, father had had a vasectomy or that Dodd had worked as an exotic dancer -straddle that border between illuminating a case for the reader and needlessly violating the dignity and privacy of the subject. True, the case was spectacular and legally important, and the open court argument is a strong and time-honored one.
But as the justification for what happened to Dodd and Daigle, that reasoning begs some delicate questions: Was there damage done to these four people and their families? Was the damage totally unavoidable? Can we maintain a free press and an open court system and also respect the dignity and rights of private citizens?

Perhaps as journalists, we use the that’ s- the- price- you -pay- for-living- in a-democracy excuse to avoid making complicated decisions about our responsibilities to readers and subjects. Does the simple fact that a piece of information is made public in an affidavit always make the news? And does the fact that something is news always mean it must be published?

“That she [Dodd] worked as a stripper, when she had sex and how often, whether she liked it…that was all in the affidavits. It was there, but it’s not news,” Ruby says.

Not all of the coverage was abusive, and the public would not have been better served by colorless, sanitized, chronological accounts of what was happening in the courtroom. But in some cases, the ethical judgment in the newsroom relaxed. In some cases, relevance to the issue at hand was ignored and information was included that would serve no purpose other than to harm or embarrass the subject and briefly amuse the reader.

When we begin to make news decisions based solely on what we think will interest the reader, we sell ourselves, our readers and our profession short. Unless we constantly weigh the public import of our stories against the private pain of our subjects, the public will begin to fear us. And when we are feared and mistrusted, our ability to gather information, to communicate honestly with people and to truthfully reflect the complex events of our times, is critically hampered.

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About the author

Michelle Lalonde was an Associate Editor for the Spring 1990 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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