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Four ways to deal with coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi trial

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It's been well over a year since Jian Ghomeshi's name persistently occupied headlines across Canada. With the first of his two sexual assault trials taking place this coming week in Toronto, a new crop of articles about Ghomeshi are being produced with increasing speed and intensity. Some pieces offer a retrospective of Ghomeshi’s career "before the fall;" others focus on the incredible difficulty that the plaintiffs will face during the court process; yet others focus on the larger context of rape culture, as well as the potential impact for a re-opening of wounds at Ghomeshi’s former workplace, the CBC.

Ghomeshi’s trial doesn’t begin until tomorrow, but I find myself faced with a looming sense of anxiety. I feel anxious about the trial itself, about the impact of the trial on our larger discussions of sexual violence, as well as what is sure to be an absolutely overwhelming amount of media coverage. 

During the first go-around of the Ghomeshi media machine, I felt unprepared. Like many others, I am bracing myself for what is sure at times to be a teeth-gritting, enraging, disappointing, frustrating, and heartbreaking process of awaiting updates, listening to analyses, and anticipating the trolls that are certain to emerge any time such a public case is discussed.

This time, however, I'm reminded that I don't have to engage with the Ghomeshi trial without a series of guidelines to help both myself and others deal with the difficult conversations and emotions it will inevitably spark. Here are four that I've come up with.

1. Don't assume everyone wants to talk about the trial.

While trials such as Ghomeshi's are certainly fodder for both water-cooler gossip as well as more serious and earnest conversations, it can't be taken as a given that people want to talk about it. Whether they are survivors or not, many people are often profoundly affected by such public (and often graphic) discussions of sexual violence. Being ambushed with questions or with unsolicited links to articles can be very difficult to contend with. While we can't always avoid these discussions if they appear on various social media platforms, we can try our best to model principles of affirmative consent in our discussions. Ask if someone feels like talking about the trial. If they don't, don't press them to figure out why. Respect people's decisions to halt the conversation or change the subject at any time.

2. Be mindful of what you share.

During the initial events following Ghomeshi's departure from the CBC, including the disclosures from numerous women who described violence at Ghomeshi’s hands, I, like many others, was eager to share articles and analyses. Despite a desire to help circulate vital information, it is important to be aware of what we post -- both in terms of content and in terms of frequency. If you are on Twitter or Facebook, you can openly state that people can feel free to mute/unfollow certain topics. If you know that an article contains graphic details of an assault, take the two seconds to do survivors a favour and put a trigger/content warning on it.

3. Be mindful of what you write.

This one is for the media. You've been fairly warned: survivors, activists, and fellow journalists are taking notice of how you choose to cover the Ghomeshi trial, and you will be called to account for it. Recall how just a few months ago, Ottawa Sun reporter Tony Spears was swiftly challenged on his use of the word "tryst" to describe how an elementary school teacher (and former band-mate of former PM Stephen Harper) sexually abused a 13 year-old girl. Not to worry: there's a free guide to reporting sexual assault in the Canadian media that is readily available to consult. Entitled "Use The Right Words," Femifesto’s guide is a comprehensive and vitally important resource for journalists working across a variety of media.

4. Be mindful of what you read.

Last fall, I (like many others) was transfixed by the sheer volume of Tweets and articles and stories about Ghomeshi that crossed my newsfeed. When #BeenRapedNeverReported started trending on Twitter in response to the larger discussions around sexual violence in Canada, I found myself staying awake late into the night, scrolling through hundreds of stories of assaults and abuse and violations. It's difficult not to want to bear witness, and harder still when these stories and articles are at our fingertips on our various devices, omnipresent on numerous social media platforms. Take breaks. Save articles to read later, if you feel you might want to return to them. Take a social media vacation. Do what you need to do. After all, whether the proliferation of articles about sexual violence causes emotional distress or renders us comfortably numb and desensitized, it takes a toll. 


It is impossible tell what the outcome of the Ghomeshi trials might be. It is harder still to predict if and how these trials will achieve what so many promised they would: to create a "watershed" moment regarding sexual violence in Canada. I don't know if Ghomeshi will be convicted. Knowing the absolute brokenness of the Canadian justice system when it comes to sexual assault cases, I am deeply skeptical of such an outcome. I don't know if our conversations about sexual violence will change: but, if they do, it will certainly take more than the trials of one former Canadian media darling. Sexual violence is not unusual or exceptional. It is happening every day in Canada. Most perpetrators will never see a day in court. Most victims will never receive justice. I don't know how to fix a broken system.

What I do know is that as Ghomeshi's trials take place, we do need ways to approach these difficult conversations: to be mindful of ourselves, of others, and to make sure that talking about violence doesn’t become another form of violence in and of itself.

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