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EDITORIAL: Disturbing details

How much is too much?

That’s a question that reporters who cover court ask themselves a fair amount — and that reporters in Toronto are asking themselves this week in particular.

Covering the courts is a rollercoaster at any time: sometimes, the process can be almost comical as witnesses take you through twists and turns that defy description.

Other times — and far more often — the damage that you are being told about is so raw that even being in the courtroom makes you feel complicit: if any longtime reporter tells you that covering court hasn’t affected or scarred them, they’re lying.

Every court reporter has a case they just cannot forget or put behind them.

On a professional level, the line that most reporters struggle with is how graphic should their stories be, particularly when covering brutal or sexual crimes.

Clearly, the purpose of court coverage is to explain just how serious a case is — the problem is that, while explaining what happened in a sexual assault or a violent attack, how do you keep from crossing the line into some form of violence porn?

You’re not alone if you’ve grabbed the channel changer to quickly bail out of a television news program that’s veered too far into the grotesque.

On a professional level, the line that most reporters struggle with is how graphic should their stories be, particularly when covering brutal or sexual crimes.

News outlets now often carry warnings that the material you’re about to see either contains descriptions of graphic assaults or violence. You can be sure that the debate about how much information to include in coverage is one that takes place in most newsrooms.

In Toronto, news outlets are trying to handle how to report the details of the guilty plea of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who murdered eight members of that city’s gay community.

News stories have carried warnings, but the graphic details are more than disturbing. As McArthur’s sentencing hearing started, prosecutors warned those in court that what they would hear “ could impact your appetite and ability to sleep.”

Even Twitter feeds out of the McArthur case are carrying their own warnings: “I’m not going into a bunch of detail here, but mute this thread if you’d rather not hear any of it,” reporter Justin Ling wrote. Reporter Alyshah Hasham echoed that in her Twitter feed: “We are expecting to hear more details today about McArthur’s crimes — most of them likely disturbing and hard to hear. This may be a thread you want to mute.”

It’s simple enough to say that many of the details released at Monday’s sentencing hearing were the sorts of things that are extremely hard to forget.

Are they necessary?

Perhaps, if for no other reason than to understand that true evil walks among us.

But there is still that critical balance — how much do we need to tell you to make that point clear?

And how much is too much?

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