Criminal Law

Greater balance required in #MeToo media reports

By Staff

The media needs to adopt a more balanced narrative when covering the #MeToo movement, Toronto criminal and civil litigator Laurelly Dale tells

Dale, principal of Dale Law Professional Corporation, says a correction is needed to combat an overzealous media, that has, in her view crossed an ethical line in the reporting of unproven allegations against many individuals.

“The way this content is being presented only serves to diminish due process for people caught up in the system as an accused person,” she says, highlighting media personalities’ adoption of hashtags such as #believethevictims.

“By reporting stories in a way that assumes guilt and by continuously having content that equates accusations with statements of fact, you’re doing damage to important concepts such as the presumption of innocence,” Dale says.

“There needs to be more balance in the media narrative,” she adds, noting that some outlets, including the BBC, do a better job than others of distinguishing between allegations and facts.

Dale emphasizes her comments are in no way meant to “disparage those who have been victimized, whether or not their claims have been proven in a court of law.

“Anyone with allegations should be listened to, but that doesn't have to equate to automatically believing everything they say without some form of testing,” she adds. “When it comes to the consequences of a criminal conviction, due process still stands, and is key to the prevention of wrongful convictions.”

Dale says media coverage of criminal proceedings involving movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — whose case helped kick-start the #MeToo movement — is a perfect example of the problem.

Even after one of the charges against Weinstein was withdrawn by New York prosecutors and questions were raised about police tactics during the investigation of complaints against him, Dale says most stories she's read seemed to assume his guilt.

“It was smart of the prosecutors to pull that charge if there was evidence of police misconduct. Many of the news reports failed to explore the issue of police misconduct. Most were concerned with Weinstein allegedly ‘getting away with assault,’” she says. “This is the case that brought the movement to the forefront. Convictions cannot be secured if the method of gathering evidence is tainted.

“He deserves a fair trial, which is difficult to get when you’ve already been tried and executed by the media,” Dale adds.

While she admits that her perspective is “not a popular one,” Dale maintains it’s critical that such views are heard in mainstream media.

“The media have not yet found a spokesperson to deliver the message in a diplomatic and sensitive way that accused people deserve fair trials and guilt should not be assumed,” she says. “It can’t really be delivered in an effective way by another white male in a position of power, but it’s going to be a problem finding someone because it’s such an unpopular position to take.”

In the meantime, Dale says the balance could be redressed by greater focus on “rare but horrifying” cases of false accusations, such as the recent prison sentence handed to a New York woman for filing a fake rape report against two football players, or the fan who falsely accused a member of her favourite band of rape.

“The message shouldn’t be that all claims are made up, but they are a reminder of why we need to hold onto that Blackstone principle that it’s better to let 10 guilty people go free than to lock up one innocent person,” Dale says. “Without protecting accused persons, there’s a serious risk of wrongful imprisonment."

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