City & Politics

Phoenix Sinclair inquiry and the failure of minute-by-minute news

As the dust around the Manitoba Court of Appeals fight settled and the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry resumed, the floodgates opened and the Tweets began to spew.

From a handful of local reporters came a thousand little Tweets, each parceling out the details of the proceedings in ad hoc jargon. Mostly, these missives were about social workers’ meetings, and memories of meetings lost to time and replicated by decade-old notes.

For the most part, it wasn’t really fascinating stuff. The Tweets were often dense and repetitious, crowded by messages from as many as three other reporters, often entirely the same. They were filled with names most in the general public won’t recognize, and followed scattered bits of testimony whose importance was never really clear. They were just…there.

“KG has no notes of family interactions during weekly visits at her office.”

“Guinden: So no notes on how often u met, or what was discussed. U just don’t have them. Orobko: ‘No sir’.”

This flood of play-by-play is a natural offshoot of the typical news media mandate: that overarching drive to be first and be current and to stake out a little plot of land in the social media space. For news media, that’s an absolutely key feature. But in this case, it is not necessarily wise.

Here’s the thing: some events are suited to be absorbed in real-time, their particulars dispersed quickly to feed the anxious minds of a curious or fearful public. A plane crash, say. Or a shooting, or a city council vote.

For these events, there will be time to wrestle over the context of it all. But first, there is import in the immediacy of the event, and the facts are hard enough to stand alone: rescue workers are on the ground. The victim is dead. The motion was defeated.

But the legacy of the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry will not be written in breathless bites of testimony. It is not a trial, and not a game of “gotcha” with the guilty – though you might think it was, as the detritus of the proceedings flows onto social media without curation, and without context of what lies ahead.

Consider: with its sizable scope, the inquiry is scheduled to last well into next year. It is slated to be the most expensive such undertaking in Manitoba history, and yet the angry comments on news websites indicate that many cannot see the reason for the cost. “What’s the point of this?” they ask. “It’s been too long.”

The point is this: yes, the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry is about Phoenix, and how she hurtled through the chasms of a system littered with problems. And it’s about how she came to be passed into the brutal hands of her mother and stepfather – the hands that, in June 2005, would violently snuff her life.

But more importantly, the inquiry is about the Phoenixes yet to be saved, and even those yet to be born.  It is about trauma, and the bloodstains of a howling pain that taint successive generations. It’s about a social safety net ripped to shreds by the edge of all that screaming. It’s about a system in which paperwork is tasked with the responsibilities that should belong to parents, and the horrors that come when that system buckles and fails.

Try explaining that in 140 characters or less.

You can’t, and you won’t, and at best you risk exhausting the folks flooded by the Tweets. Twitter has given us a powerful tool to spread our news, but it has also given us a space to subvert the telling of the story. With the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Phoenix Sinclair, we must be careful not to allow the narrative to be derailed by distractions.

If it is a success, then the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry will be an experience that can only truly be understood as the pieces are assembled. As the bigger picture spreads out before us, as the recurring shapes of struggle are spread out on the table – then we can understand where we’ve been, where we are, and what we need to do.

Until then, we should be wary of reading too deeply into the fractured details of minute-by-minute news.


Melissa Martin is a freshly freelance wordslinger, print media refugee and Winnipeg woman to the core. She writes things, thinks things, and even sometimes does both together on her personal blog,