Friday, September 16, 2011
Media far from fair in kidnapping coverage
Maybe Randall Hopley really will turn out to be every parent’s worst nightmare - a scary, creepy predator who snatches children from their beds in the night.
That rough-looking mug shot of Hopley certainly seems to confirm the image. And how about all the news reports about him being a convicted sex offender? Surely he’s the guy.
Unless he’s not. What’s striking about all the media coverage around Hopley and the kidnapping/return of little Kienan Hebert this past week is that other than police saying so, no evidence has been put forward connecting Hopley to any of it.
I’m stunned by how roundly ignored that fact has been in the reporting of this story. Police have offered no detailed explanation for why they’re convinced that it’s him. Yet we’re all just so certain.
Hopley has been the featured bogeyman in every news story from the moment three-year-old Kienan Hebert’s disappearance went public. His unkempt mug is now known around the world. The make of his vehicle and licence plate number are public information.
All this on the basis of police comments. Innocent until proven guilty? Forget it.
The media coverage of Hopley has been downright inflammatory.
One story quoted a former classmate recalling 46-year-old Hopley as “the dirty, creepy guy who always rode his bike around.” The little boy’s dad lashed out in the national media at “the system” for not doing more to stop a dangerous, damaged guy like Hopley. His conjectures were left to hang there like facts.
No small wonder that at Hopley’s first court appearance Wednesday, picketers outside were calling for the death penalty.
And yes, Hopley could be the bad guy. But it’s way too soon to say, let alone assert it as fact in the media.
Hopley is routinely referred to as a convicted sex offender in news coverage, a phrase that brings all kinds of horrifying images to mind when a child goes missing.
But Hopley’s conviction involves a sex assault from 25 years ago on someone of unknown age, with no suggestions that he has done anything similar since. He got a two-year sentence.
He’s also been reported as having “at least one brush with the law involving a child.” That refers to an incident in which Hopley says he was trying to take a 10-year-old away from a foster home on behalf of the boy’s parents. The charge was stayed for lack of evidence.
Hopley’s criminal record - at least for the eight years of it available in the newly public provincial court database - doesn’t mark him as an obvious child predator. His crimes have been more likely to be break-and-enters and breaches. (He does appear to be fresh out of jail, though, having been sentenced in June to two months for assault.)
Police do what they need to do. I don’t blame them for the tone of the media coverage.
I imagine it makes sense when you’re the police to identify someone like Hopley - he’s well-known to them, after all, and constantly in trouble - in hopes of enlisting the entire country in finding him. If he turns out to be the wrong guy, that’s a problem for another day.
But media have a different duty. They’re expected to be fair and accurate in their reporting of the news. That’s particularly true when reporting on crimes, because you can ruin a person’s life and reputation with a single story that gets things wrong.
Perhaps the news outlets chasing the kidnapping story each made a thoughtful decision that obliterating the rights of a possibly innocent man was worth it given that a child was missing. My fear is that they didn’t even think twice about it.
One observer noted before Hopley’s arrest Tuesday that his image was so high-profile he was virtually “a caught man walking” in terms of public recognition.
In fact, he could have ended up a dead man walking. Imagine if an intense dad had been the first to spot Hopley and acted on the presumption he’d found the sick pervert who grabbed the little Sparwood boy.
If Hopley did it and is competent to stand trial, then may the misery of a lifetime in prison rain down on him. Kidnapping a child is unconscionable, regardless of whether this particular story had a happy ending.
But right now, we don’t know anything. News media have a responsibility to remember that.