The Last Word: Media Coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada

By Riddell, Troy | Justice System Journal, May 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Last Word: Media Coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada


Riddell, Troy, Justice System Journal


The Last Word: Media Coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada, by Florian Sauvageau, David Schneiderman, and David Taras. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2006. 272 pp.

reviewed by Troy Riddell

The authors of the Lost Word, two communication professors (Florian Sauvageau and David Taras) and one law professor (David Schneiderman), begin by stating that the book is "about the relationship between arguably two of the most important institutions in Canadian life: the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) and the Canadian news media" (p. 8). Indeed, since the Charter of Rights was entrenched in Canada's constitution in 1982, the SCC has become a much more powerful and influential institution in Canada's system of governance. This book is, therefore, a welcome and overdue addition to the literature.

Sauvageau, Schneiderman, and Taras use content analysis of TV and newspaper reports about the SCC and its decisions as well as interviews to describe news reporting of the SCC, comment on the nature of media power, and discuss the relationship between the SCC and the media. The book begins with a very interesting vignette about reporting on the SCC's Sharpe (2001) decision about the constitutionality of Canada's child-pornography law. It focuses on the travails of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television reporter who finds herself under enormous time pressure to report on the decision for a lunch-hour newscast only minutes after it had been released. That reporters have difficulty communicating accurately the legal reasoning and nuances of decisions because of time, resource, and knowledge limitations becomes a recurring theme throughout the book.

Following an accessible summary of the academic debates about the nature of the SCC's power and of the power of the media, a "year in the life of the SCC" is presented. Statistical summaries of news coverage from selected newspaper and TV outlets are supplemented nicely with particular examples. Although the statistics are only descriptive in nature, they illustrate some important trends. Of particular interest is the divide between the English-language media outside Quebec and the French-language media inside Quebec. Only a few cases captured the attention of the "two solitudes," such as the case of Robert Latimer who killed his severely disabled daughter. Even so, the English-language media seemed more inclined toward leniency in the case than did the French-language media. The French-language media also were less interested in the debate over judicial activism than were the English-language media, though both tended to focus on controversial decisions rather than on the SCC as an institution (especially TV coverage). Importantly, however, coverage of the SCC in French-language media tended to be as favorable as in English-speaking media.

This overview of a year in the SCC is followed by four in-depth case studies involving gay and lesbian rights in the province of Alberta (Vriend, 1998), the constitutionality and legality of Quebec seceding from Canada (Quebec secession Reference, 1998), aboriginal fishing rights (Marshall I, 1999 and Marshall II, 1999), and Canada's child-pornography law (Sharpe, 2001). All of the case studies convey a clear and nuanced understanding of the legal and policy dimensions that surrounded the decisions. Unfortunately, as the authors highlight, the same cannot be said of the media reporting. With the exception of coverage of the Quebec Secession Reference, which was aided by the fact that the judges consciously tried to write the decision with abundant summaries, media coverage of the decisions revealed a lack of sophistication and sometimes even basic understanding. In the Sharpe case, for example, the Supreme Court upheld the law, but created two exemptions-written stories for personal use only and video recordings of lawful sexual activity-and read the defenses in the law, such as artistic merit, broadly.

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