Wed, 12/17/2014 - 17:08

Posted by Janice Neil on May 25, 2013

By Ivor Shapiro

In the beginning was the word from Gawker. And on the second day, there came a Toronto Star story, and evening became morning, and then a full-blown scandal was on every front page, every newscast, and lo, the Daily Show saw that it was good, or at least funny.

And on the eighth day, the mayor of Toronto, who had been pleased to remain silent, spoke.

Several smart and credible people have complained about this series of events. Their points are well argued. Their logic almost irrefutable. “Verification is what distinguishes news from gossip,” wrote respected media ethics scholars Maggie Jones Patterson and Romayne Smith Fullerton here on J-Source. Good journalism doesn’t rely solely on anonymous sources or what’s on the Internet, cautioned my own former colleague (and former Star manager) John Gordon Miller.  Good journalism isn’t about haggling with drug dealers or helping them ignite a bidding war, scolded Mark Hasiuk on the Huffington Post.

All true, so far as those statements go.


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But if the prevailing opinion among media ethicists is, like, “habeas video, or shut the crack up,” well, wait a minute.

When did the accepted standard for reporters’ verification become that raw evidence must be seen by the audience to be believed?

If a reporter sees with her own eyes a document, witnesses with his eyes an event taking place, or hears with her own ears a statement being made, is this not good enough as the basis for reporting?

Must I now record every interview and hyperlink to the tape when I write a damaging story?

If I don’t have a camera rolling when I witness a cop beating a citizen, must I then hold my tongue, at least until I find another (named) witness?

Nope. I came. I saw. I report. No verification required.

Not, at least, as a matter of ethics.

And as a matter of law? Sure, a tape or a picture will make me and my editors and our lawyers feel more comfortable about defending a libel suit, but the law does not require these things—only that I make my best efforts to verify the accuracy of what I reported, and provide prior opportunity of explanation to the person whose reputation I’m about to damage.

Which the Star seems to have done.

Reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle were not in a position to do a CSI on the video for signs of fraud, and the paper was careful to say, repeatedly, that it had not authenticated the footage. But two respected reporters saw and heard something that they considered of public interest, and they reported what they saw and heard.

They also stated that the video was well lit in good definition, and that the intoxicated, hate-spewing man who looked very like Rob Ford also sounded very like Rob Ford. They wrote separate notes about the video they’d watched three times, and compared notes, literally, before filing their story.

And both are in a pretty good position to know what the Mayor looks and sounds like.

This is what reporters do, folks: they go places, see things and tell the public what they see.

Is it possible to fake a video? Perhaps. It’s not easy to fake a video that would fool hard-nosed skeptics like Donovan and Doolittle, not to mention Gawker’s John Cook, but it’s not impossible that the drug dealer’s nephew has a budding career in digital enhancement.

It’s therefore not impossible that when the mayor finally got round to denying the allegation (“I do not use crack cocaine”), he was telling the truth, the whole truth, and everyone had got it plain wrong.

But if they did, it was not for want of trying, and let’s not blame reporters for trying to do their job.

OK?

OK. But still, isn’t it a bit thick that the Star waited for Gawker to publish before it dared to, and that other media did nothing with the Gawker story until the Star matched it – and then everyone piled on?

If that were what happened here, it would be neither the first nor the last example of pile-on news judgment, which is sadly all-too-standard fare on the news menu everywhere, and always has been, to all participants’ well-deserved discredit.

But it’s not what happened here.

The Star was clearly working on the crack-video story long before Gawker published. Its reporters had seen the video, which seemed to be of public interest not only because of the outlandish way in which the partying mayor appeared to express himself, but also because it appeared to help explain at least some of the mayor’s frequently bizarre behaviour on public occasions.

Having seen the video, the Star chose not to publish--yet--in order to seek additional sources who could “shed light on the story,” as Donovan explained in a live Q&A on the Friday.

The paper must have realized it risked being scooped, but its cautious choice was to seek additional meat for what would certainly be a landscape-shifting report.

Once Gawker went public with the video’s existence on Thursday night, May 16th, was the Star expected to sit back and pretend it had not viewed the video, or that its reporters had serious reason to doubt what they saw and heard?

Get real, people. Reporters report, scooped or not. Which the Star did, as fast as it could, with enough vivid first-hand detail, to justify, in my opinion, a perhaps cheeky “exclusive” tagline, which itself has been the subject of dispute.

The rest of the Canadian press were in a tougher spot that Thursday night. Their reporters had not themselves seen the video (as far as anyone knows) and would have been relying on Gawker’s veracity in repeating what was, in certainty, a highly defamatory statement (meaning a statement that, true or false, defensible or not, is likely to damage someone’s reputation). 

Some might argue that the mere existence of the online story, quickly viral on Twitter, was news on a matter of clear public interest, and reporting it, with a fair opportunity of rebuttal, therefore defensible as “reportage.” Clearly, that’s not what any news managers were thinking late Thursday night, and it could have been a stretch.

But on Friday, once the Star’s reporters revealed what they had seen, the earth moved. A huge allegation had been made that the mayor could surely be expected to respond to. And when the mayor responded in his now famously ridiculous fashion, the story naturally grew, as grow it had to. The Globe and MailNational PostCBC and others quickly added substance and context, raising the amount and level of public knowledge and understanding -- and then today the Globe published what it said was an 18-month an investigation by reporter Greg McArthur and freelancer Shannon Kari into “the Ford family’s history with drug dealing”. No one has yet gotten sued. The mayor eventually emerged from his shell to issue a brief denial, and the rest of this little piece of history will play out in the political sphere, as it properly must.

In a 1986 essay on achieving quality in journalism that quickly became a much-reprinted classic, the Columbia media theorist James Carey described journalism as a “curriculum,” rather than something made up of isolated single works. His meaning was that when journalism achieves its social purpose of providing citizens with needed information and understanding, it is not the outcome of a single report or to the credit of a single reporter or news team.

Journalism often does its job best when journalists build on one another’s acts of discovery, examination and interpretation -- when they stand on one another’s shoulders to build stories.

In the current golden age of minute-by-minute ubiquitous news, the “curriculum” of journalism may start with a tweet or a blog post, get built on in a considered report, and then built on further in the age-old way by reporters seeking more information and columnists shedding more light.

Some days, the free press behaves like a free press, and digs and digs and digs whatever betide, and citizens get informed as they’re supposed to be. Those are good days for a democracy.

And yes, the other point of view--that how a mayor parties in private is a private matter, and what he says in private is private, and journalists should keep their noses out --is a worthy opinion too.

Hey, it’s a free country.

Ivor Shapiro is chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, where he teaches media ethics and feature reporting. He’s also the chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee. 

 

Comments

Well said, Ivor. A simple, clear, persuasive and cleverly written piece. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts. Any reporter who repeatedly saw that video as two Star reporters did would likely report what they saw and heard after due and careful deliberation with a slew of editors and lawyers. After watching the tape, the Star approached the Mayor for comment. He declined to speak to them. But his lawyer spoke for him. The Star reported that too. To get to the video the Star spoke to someone who knew the person in possession of the video. Two reporters arranged to meet that person who shared the contents of the video with them, apparently repeatedly. Unless something else emerges, I'm at a loss to understand where/how/when Donovan and Dolittle did anything even remotely unethical in either gathering or reporting the information they were privy to. Toronto's mayor is a public official. Two reporters were able to repeatedly and independently view and listen to video that appears to show him smoking from a crack pipe. That is a big story and it is most certainly in the public interest. I would, lest anyone think I have a political axe to grind, take the same view if David Miller or Olivia Chow were also seen on video to be smoking from a crack pipe. And I'm sure the Star would do too.   

 

Ivor, while I agree with your observations, a couple of things you failed to address include the hyper politicization and polarization of the media environment and the challenge to monetize and compete in the information business.  While it is easy to espouse the virtues of journalists, let us not lose sight of the fact that they are human and can get caught up in the “reality television” atmosphere that surrounds political news coverage.  This weekend I witnessed photojournalists running after the mayor’s car and banging their cameras against the windows.  This is more like the Jerry Springer show rather than serious journalism.

While I encourage and admire brave and bold journalism, recently we seemed to have moved from “social media” to “vigilante media”.     I too applaud democracy at work, but when we promote disrespect for our institutions are we not promoting anarchy?  I think it is possible to criticize the man/woman without showing total disrespect for the institution whether it be the senate, the prime minister or the mayor of a community.

I think Ivor's analysis is spot on, and could be summed up in this phrase: "This is what reporters do, folks: they go places, see things and tell the public what they see."

The larger issue - for journalists, the public, elected officials and democracy itself - is that reporters rely on readers to trust the moral integrity, skill and accuracy of their own work and the outlet they work for. Our craft is worthless if our audience does not trust us to tell them what we see.

Our audience's demand to see the actual Rob Ford is one small example of how the necessary trust is broken. There's a myriad of reasons (including the behaviour cited by another commenter here), but all of them, arguably, are related to the systems in which journalism operate.

After spending decades in journalism advocacy, I concluded that until journalists stop being serfs working for corporate, government and even non-profit owners of journalism outlets, and fix the system itself, all of our earnest efforts to stand up for and improve journalism will be futile.

While journalists have become very good at examining our ethics and developing specific skills, we have failed to stand up - indeed only a few have spoken out - against consolidation and near-monopolization of journalism outlets, against deregulation of laws that once prevented any one entity from controlling the majority of media outlets in a given area, and against the increasingly crass use of journalism primarily for infortainment wrapping around advertising. Worst of all, we who are professional communicators have failed utterly to communicate to our audience why journalism even matters.

 

This is all very well but answer me this. J-Source is an electronic information service. Should be up to the minute. Why are we not talking about the most recent stuff?

The only journalism story that should exercise any passion this morning is the smear job on the Ford family perpetrated by the Globe and Mail on Saturday, complete with a weasely intro from Stackhouse who obviously is uncomfortable but doesn't understand what's wrong. It was as disreputable a piece of character assassination as I've ever seen in a Canadian newspaper, all of it based on anonymous hearsay.

Some Ryerson journalism students interviweing me asked, "What do you think is the value of a Ryerson Journalism degree?"

We were on the front porch here.

I said in reply, "Instead of me answering that question Max allen, my friend, who is an award winning producer for the CBC just happens to be walking by. Why don't we ask him?"

Then I called Max over.

"Max, these are Ryerson journalism students. They want to know the value of a Ryerson Journalism degree."

"Less than zero," said Max.

Then he continued on his way.

This is a public lynching.

 

"It was as disreputable a piece of character assassination as I've ever seen in a Canadian newspaper"

So you either must believe that the Globe invented all these people, or you believe that all kinds of locals would lie about their memories of Doug Ford. And the paper looked at court transcripts that verify the character of some of the Ford associates. My favorite bit was Doug Ford falsely claiming he didn't know a family associate who was photographed celebrating with the family. Frankly, Mr. Patterson, I think you're a bit blinded by your own bias.

And I don't expect Doug Ford to sue any time soon. 

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.