Crossing the line? The controversy sparked by Carol Todd’s blog post
The Vancouver Sun won the 2013 Jack Webster Award for Best Reporting of the Year in Print for its coverage of Amanda Todd—who committed suicide after posting a video detailing being bullied. But a blog post by Todd’s mother, Carol, that described how the Sun's stories came about raised eyebrows in the journalism community. Then the blog post was edited and later removed entirely. Mount Royal University journalism professor Brad Clark spoke to J-Source about the ethical concerns.
The Vancouver Sun won the 2013 Jack Webster Award for Best Reporting of the Year in Print for its coverage of Amanda Todd—who committed suicide after posting a video detailing being bullied. But a blog post by Todd’s mother, Carol, that described how the Sun’s stories came about raised eyebrows in the journalism community. Then the blog post was edited and later removed entirely. Mount Royal journalism professor Brad Clark spoke to J-Source reporter Eric Mark Do about the ethical concerns.
J-Source: Carol Todd’s original post read: “Thank you Mark!! Thank you Mike for knocking at my door!! And thank you Gillian for trusting me and allowing me to read what you had written before you sent your pieces of writing to your editor. Together, we got the stories and details right.” The CAJ ethics guideline say that “We do not show our completed reports to sources – especially official sources – before they are published or broadcast, unless the practice is intended to verify facts. [Doing so might invite prior restraint and challenge our independence as reporters.]”
Brad Clark: If this is what was going on, I think you have to ask how independent the journalist really was. Were the journalists censoring? Were they allowing the pieces to be censored in some way? And if not, were they self-censoring? So certainly it’s a violation of CAJ code of ethics. The tone of the column is sort of how these journalists and photographers were a real support to her at a really rough time. And I think certainly a lot of the media could learn to appreciate that you need to be compassionate in these sorts of situations.
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But what would concern me is if you’re going to become this close to sources in a story, you need to disclose that. You need to disclose the fact to your audience that you are answering the door and apparently screening the media as well, which sort of speaks to protecting your own interests here as well—if that’s in fact what happened. Now we haven’t really heard any response from the Sun on this so I don’t know what their take on this is beyond the cryptic remark where the post was removed in the Huffington Post, suggesting that the columnist may not have recalled events quite accurately. So I’m not sure whether they’d say this is inaccurate or not, but it certainly raises questions and I think they need to address them, especially in light of just winning a major award for the journalism.
J-Source: Huffington Post Canada removed the post because “the blogger [Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother] expressed reservations about her ability to accurately recall the events described therein.” What do you think of that statement?
BC: It sounds like they’re suggesting that her ability to remember this emotional time somehow affected the content of her column. I guess from that standpoint, we don’t know to what extent what she wrote is or was accurate. If the photographer and the reporter were that close or if the reporter was allowing her to look at scripts in advance of it being sent to the editor. But at the very least the original entry sure raises eyebrows.[node:ad]
J-Source: Do you think that was the right course of action, that is, for the Huffington Post to remove that post?
BC: I don’t think so, no. And it sort of flies in the face of a lot of the code of conduct provisions even in the CAJ’s own code of conduct. I think it flies contrary to established reasoning for un-publishing things. This sounds a lot like “columnist remorse” in this sense. It wouldn’t be too big a leap, I think, to trace the evolution of what happened here. It seems that [Carol Todd] wrote the article right about the time that the Vancouver Sun was collecting the Webster award or immediately after … for the coverage of this suicide. When the column inadvertently called into question the journalistic ethics of the reporters who put the pieces together that won the awards, one could probably guess that some pressure was brought to bear on the columnist and the columnist brought that pressure to bear on the Huffington Post, who then removed the column.
BC: I think if the post was true, then I think the Vancouver Sun reporters certainly need to explain themselves [and] address concerns that most people would have about getting so close to a story to the point where you’re actually controlling the agenda for other media outlets—answering the phones and potentially screening calls for other organizations that may have been interested in this story and may have forged similar bonds had they been allowed access to the Todd family. On top of that, the whole issue of whether the copy was pre-screened by Amanda Todd’s mother, I think is very alarming. It speaks to independence. I can’t think of a single journalist who would subject their written material to that kind of scrutiny and if you are going to do that, at the very least, I think you owe it to the public, your audience, to disclose it. I haven’t seen the Sun’s coverage myself: I don’t think any of that happened. But If it did, then I think that mitigates some of the concerns here, but to my knowledge that sort of transparency didn’t accompany the coverage.
J-Source: The following is an excerpt from the original post, courtesy of Globe and Mail media reporter Steve Ladurantaye:
“It was later that day that [they] came to the house. This is where they practically lived for two weeks. They didn’t stay as journalist and photographer. They have become life-long friends who shared the journey of loss with me. Gillian and Mark assimilated into life. They answered the door. Took flowers in. Gave out tissue. Answered phone calls that were probably other media outlets. Prepared food. Washed dishes. They became part of the story also. When working on the writing deadlines, they would find someplace to write and report. No one could have prepared us for all the media attention we were about to receive.”
Ladurantaye says he probably would have done a lot of the same things in that situation and many journalists might agree. Are you concerned with the part where Todd says “they became part of the story also”?
BC: I guess I’m concerned if they’re not telling people that’s the case. This sounds like they became awfully close. How does that shape the coverage? What sort of information are you including and what sort of information are you leaving out because you’ve become so close to the story? When you are that close, are you asking all the questions you need to ask? As I’ve said, I think it’s really important in situations like this that the media are sensitive, caring and understanding—and not going in with their sun guns blazing on their cameras demanding for access. These are tough times for people.
But at the same time, when you’re preparing food and washing dishes, that’s a level of commitment to a source that goes well beyond journalistic objectivity and impartiality. It’s not to say, again, that journalists always need to be impartial and to not show some compassion. However, if you’re going to get this close to somebody in a story, you certainly need to disclose it. It almost gets to the point of conflict of interest. You’re so close to people that you’re maybe losing objectivity or at least people can question your objectivity here and the foundation of your journalism.
This interview has been edited and condensed.