When Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale launched his lawsuit against Mayor Rob Ford and said he would continue to report on the city hall beat, a J-Source reader asked if it was acceptable to write about a source you’re suing. Shauna Snow-Capparelli, a member of the CAJ’s national Ethics Advisory Committee, responds. 

Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.

The question: 

Shauna Snow-Capparelli, a member of the CAJ’s national Ethics Advisory Committee, is chair of the Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She chaired the writing in 2011 of CAJ’s updated “Ethics Guidelines” and “Principles for Ethical Journalism.”

While every situation has its own intricacies—and the journalist in me wants to know the details of this particular situation—I simply cannot conjure a potential case when reporting on someone you’re suing might be acceptable.

I can see many reasons a reporter should not report on such a source. But I can’t think of any compelling reason why he or she should.

Simply put, we cannot—or at least should not, if we wish to maintain credibility—report on people (or entities) with whom we have a conflict of interest or may have reason to advance a certain perception (negative or positive) of that person.

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If a reporter has taken legal action—or is even considering doing so—the reporter obviously believes, or wants to advance the belief, that wrongdoing by the other party has occurred. Whether justified or not, that reporter has a grudge. Even if a lawsuit were based on seemingly cut-and-dried facts—someone failing to pay an amount owed by contract, for instance—the reporter would have a vested interest in what gets reported about that source, and motives around reporting even unrelated circumstances would certainly be called into question.

A good bottom line that I’ve used: could the reporter personally benefit or be harmed (or be perceived to benefit or be harmed) by what might be reported? This would include if the reporter found out something unexpected—whether positive or negative—during the reporting process.

What if, for instance:

  • the reporter discovered that the alleged wrongdoing had also taken place before?
  • the reporter found out the suit’s target had much deeper pockets than previously known?
  • the respondent was voted “citizen of the year” and received international acclaim for moral or business excellence?

The answers seem clear. Any such developments could potentially sway public opinion of the source, with evidence uncovered even possibly influencing the suit’s outcome and/or how the reporter proceeds with the action.

A more interesting question might be what would happen if the respondent were found liable and appropriately sanctioned, and if the reporter were satisfied with those sanctions. Could that reporter—if full transparency disclosures were made, of course—then resume reporting on the subject?

This would be a case where the particulars would really matter. For instance:

  • how could the reporter make clear that there was no leftover grudge against the subject?
  • would the source even be willing to talk to the reporter, or would the public interest be better served by a different journalist?
  • would the audience trust the reporter to be able to set aside the past and start anew?

One such scenario has recently played out at the Toronto Star with Daniel Dale, who dropped his defamation suit against Mayor Rob Ford after the latter apologized for making false statements about the reporter. Initially Dale said he planned to continue reporting on Ford during the legal proceedings, and since dropping the suit he has continued reporting on Toronto city hall (and Ford). But the magnitude of public interest around Ford and his relationship with the media may well have made Star readers much more accepting of the reporter’s real or perceived biases.

The details in this highly unusual case are everything.

Got a question? The Canadian Association of Journalists will consult its members across the country to find the appropriate expert to craft a response to your question, which will then be posted on J-Source. Tweet @jsource your question with the hashtag #AskMentor or email your question to feedback@j-source.ca

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.