There are days when I am embarrassed to be a journalist. Usually, it’s because of pack journalism, personality assaults or lowest common denominator fear-mongering.
All three converged on May 8, when the face of a gay man appeared on the cover of the Ottawa Sun.
“Cops urge people who have had contact with this man to seek medical help,” screamed the Sun.
Contact meaning what? If you’ve ever shared a lunch table? If you sat beside him on the bus?
The gloriously vague all-caps beneath read SEX PARTNERS WANTED, which in its own bumbling way sounds as much like a cheeky invitation as a call for witnesses.
Of course, my shame at the Sun’s treatment goes much deeper than the inadvertent double entendre of the cover text.
[May 13 editor’s note: my colleague Mitchell Axelrad, managing editor of the Ottawa Sun, dropped me a line this morning to point out that the headline was, in fact, SEX PARTNERS WARNED. So, no double entendre. Regrets.]
The story — with its slightly more sophisticated iterations in the Citizen, on CTV and CBC.ca — was a grim one. Police, acting on a complaint from a gay guy, have charged a man with nine counts of aggravated sexual assault for failing to disclose his health status.
Police named him and released his photo. All the media outlets followed suit — except Xtra. We are declining to report identifying details about the accused.
The police are calling him a “sexual predator.” But he’s not a rapist or a sexual predator — he’s accused of having consensual sex with someone he met online but failing to disclose his HIV status.
The name of the accused ought not to be released in cases like this — and certainly not photos.
Look at the case of a Vancouver man who was acquitted on May 7. The same thing happened when he was charged: his name and photo were distributed, and he was treated as little better than a rapist.
When it went to trial, his name was protected by a publication ban, but guess what? It was too late, because police had already outed him as poz and branded him a sex offender. He was acquitted, for all the good that does for his rep at this point.
Police and media tend to tread lightly on cases of a highly personal nature. Ottawa Police respond to more than 3,000 cases of domestic abuse a year and don’t announce what’s going on. In most solicitation cases, police don’t release the names of hookers or johns. And the media plays along, a tacit acknowledgement that splashing those kinds of personal and sexual details around can lead to ostracism and depression — in short, it can ruin lives.
If police and the mainstream press can muster that kind of sensitivity elsewhere, why not here?