Cross-Border Crime Stories: American Media, Canadian Law, and Murder in the Internet Age

Article excerpt

This essay examines tensions between American and Canadian legal and journalistic cultures through a discussion of Canada's best known serial murder case. The Internet and the rapid global dissemination of media texts have enabled American news reports to cross the border with increasing ease, challenging more conservative Canadian laws about freedom of expression and a criminal defendant's right to fair trial. The most recent case to test these issues involves the prosecution of Robert William Pickton for the sexual murders of 26 women in British Columbia, details of which have been under a court-sanctioned "publication ban" since 2002.

American law, in contrast to Canadian law, allows journalists who cover criminal justice in the United States to operate in an environment of almost total freedom. American news organizations can publish or broadcast virtually any facts about a criminal case, regardless of whether the publicity could bias potential jurors or otherwise influence the administration of justice. (1) Potentially prejudicial facts of the kind that are routinely found in American crime news (e.g., information about defendants' prior criminal records, statements suspects make to police, the nature of evidence discussed at pretrial hearings (2)) are those most likely to run afoul of Canadian laws that limit what may be published or broadcast about pending criminal cases.

These opposing approaches to pretrial publicity came into conflict early in the case against Pickton when American journalists at major news organizations, such as the Seattle Times, breached the publication ban, leading the court to issue the first Canadian ban on the reporting of Internet addresses in relation to the trial. This ban exceeds the normal Criminal Code limits, and in effect prevents media from "steering" their audiences to offending websites. (3) The court's attempt to prevent Internet media reports of the preliminary inquiry from coming into Canada is illustrative of concern about transnational media content, particularly in the wake of a 2005 political scandal and judicial inquiry involving a former prime minister in which an American blog published banned information that many Canadians were able to read via the Internet. (4)

Most empirical studies on pretrial publicity in North America have focused on the impact of media reportage on juries, and the scholarly consensus is that it does not have strong effects on trial outcomes. (5) There have been no systematic studies of how pretrial publicity from the United States about Canadian cases might affect Canadians, though there has been much speculation about the issue, particularly in the wake of the Paul Bernardo--Karla Homolka prosecutions for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in the mid-1990s. (6)

Comparative studies of international crime coverage have generally focused on the nature of the content with respect to the crime or criminal, leaving the cultural or legal context of the journalists largely undeveloped. (7) In addition, relatively few Canadian criminal cases have garnered intense media interest south of the border, with only five homicide prosecutions over the past 50 years generating legal skirmishes between Canadian judges and American journalists over pretrial publicity.

Our research adds to the literature by examining the culturally specific legal and journalistic norms surrounding crime and pretrial coverage over a 50-year period, and in particular, how these elements play out in an age of increasingly global media flows. Our study relies on the media coverage and court documents related to five cases, which range from the slaying of a young woman in Ontario in the 1950s that was covered by American true crime magazines, to one of the most heinous homicides in Canadian history, the Bernardo-Homolka killings, ending with the Pickton trial. We argue that despite heightened fears of the possible erosion of the Canadian criminal justice system by the encroachment of American legal norms via the Internet, cross-border crime content appears to be a negotiation between legal and journalistic norms in which American journalists have generally sought accommodation over the long term rather than conflict. …