Luka Magnotta: Reflections on the Role of the Internet, the Media and Understanding Crime

In July of 1910, when Dr. Hawley Crippen arrived by ocean liner in Quebec City, he was arrested for the murder of his wife; the emerging technology of the wireless telegraph was responsible for his demise. The good doctor was the first person to be caught in such a manner: he had fled the United Kingdom with his lover, but the wireless telegraph –- the precursor to the telephone — allowed the British to effect his capture.

Much has changed since 1910. We now have technologies of communication that would have seemed unthinkable even 20 years ago. The arrest of Luka Magnotta is a telling illustration of the power of the internet, a framework of communication that was, in practical terms, only in its infancy in the 1990s.

As the sordid saga of Magnotta reveals, the internet can be both lauded and reviled. The global release of photos, videos and stories about the “Canadian psycho” left Magnotta with no place to hide; he was detected, appropriately enough, in an internet café in Berlin, surfing for both porn and news about himself.

But it was also the internet that appears to have provided a platform for Magnotta, giving him the opportunity to broadcast repulsive videos of sadistic cruelty. And these videos, once released into cyberspace, are now almost impossible to recall. The other side of this coin, however, is that the online visibility of Magnotta also served to facilitate his capture. Put differently, every critique of the internet’s porous lack of accountability can be met with the observation that online visibility also shines a light into the darkest recesses of  human behaviour.

We have yet to discover what crimes Luka Magnotta may have committed, but the sensational nature of his case is also a depressingly familiar reminder of how most of us come to understand the reality of crime. Only the most horrific and sensational allegations of homicide are reported with any detail in the mainstream press, or online. We all know of the barbaric deeds of Willie Pickton, Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olson. But the typical homicide – one man stabs a former friend or acquaintance to death in a drunken dispute – receives little or no attention. We learn of the rarest and most predatory of criminal acts, not of the staples of crime that populate the lives of our police officers, our courts and our correctional centres.

The problem with this selective reporting, based on the understandable principle that the most horrific acts make for better reading, is that extensive coverage of these crimes skews our perceptions of crime and criminals. We over-emphasize the predatory offender, relative to the norm of crime:  individuals with little intelligence and poor social skills making bad decisions in difficult circumstances, a sad trail of events that are more appropriately described as tragic than as evil. We rarely hear of the reality that 35 per cent of the 13,300 inmates in federal penitentiaries have significant mental health impairments, and are in need of treatment.

Given the selective reporting of crime, it is not particularly surprising that Canadians are more likely to believe that crime has increased rather than decreased, and that they are less safe than they were a decade ago. Police data tell us of a very different reality – consistent decreases in both the severity of crime and in the count of the specific crimes of homicide, sexual assault and assault. Unhappily, against this backdrop, our current Prime Minister is only too happy to stoke the fires of misinformation, catering to the public’s misplaced fears. “Let me be clear”, Stephen Harper told a Winnipeg audience in 2006, “our government has absolutely no intention of standing by and allowing this plague of violent, organized crime to grow unchecked”.

The case of Luka Magnotta is a reminder of our myopia and of the media’s imperatives. They work to sell a product; education of the public is neither critical nor necessary for this task. And so we have another riveting tale of horror – the haunting and disturbing face of Luka Magnotta, atop the front pages of almost every major newspaper. Sadly, this reliance on sensationalism is a feature of crime reporting that seems unlikely to disappear.

Reprinted from The Globe and Mail, June 7, 2012.

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