It is certainly not ideal to have been talking about a tape that no CBC reporter had seen, but given the high profile of the people involved, and how the story evolved, the decision to stay with the story was a correct one, writes CBC's Ombudsman Esther Enkin. 

By Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

The complainant, L. D. Cross, thought CBC News had no business picking up on the stories of a video which allegedly showed Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor, smoking crack cocaine. Without the physical evidence of the video, he felt this was nothing but reporting hearsay evidence. I found that the burden of proof in journalism is not the same as a court of law, and that CBC’s coverage of the story was in the public interest.

COMPLAINT

About two weeks after the initial reports of a video that purported to show Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, you wrote to express your displeasure with CBC news coverage of the mayor. Your concern was clear:

I am fed up listening to you ‘report’ innuendo, he said, she said, they saw…

Show me the Rob Ford video or, SHUT UP !

CBC’s constant repeating of unsubstantiated comments is insulting to me the viewer not to mention possibly libelous to Mr. Ford.”

You rejected the management response to your concerns, and stated that just because “two veteran Toronto Star reporters say they saw it (the video) does not make it so.” You felt CBC repeatedly transmitted hearsay evidence and there is no public interest justification to continue reporting on the story without concrete proof. The only thing that would justify the coverage in your estimation was the video, or as you stated, some “tangible proof.”


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MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

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Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, responded to your concerns. She acknowledged that “you have put your finger on one of the key issues in the story and one of the reasons it is so difficult to cover.” She pointed out that the video was seen by two experienced Toronto Star reporters, and then by the editor of Gawker, a New York based online news site:

Does the video exist? Three credible journalists, two of them who saw it several times, say it does (or perhaps did). CBC News journalists did not see it.

But that video is at the heart of serious allegations of criminal behavior involving the city’s top elected official. They could have an effect on the mayor’s performance, on the work of city council, on potential investment and on the city’s economy. The story is clearly in the public interest. Although we did not see the video, the story is important enough with such potentially wide ranging implications that it would be irresponsible not to report what three reporters working for two respected news organizations had seen.”

She pointed out that CBC news also prominently reported the mayor’s response to the allegations, and that coverage featured the views of his supporters and as well as his critics. She noted:

“With that information, viewers and listeners may reasonably be expected to evaluate the comments, test them against each other and the facts and reach their own conclusions about the nature of the story and the mayor’s activities.”

She felt CBC News had adhered to CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

REVIEW

The coverage of the allegations against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and subsequent events, have been challenging for journalists. When a credible news organization puts a story like this one out there, it takes on a life of its own. One of the many unusual things about this story is that other news organizations did give it a lot of coverage. It is not often the case – there is a strong competitive spirit between publications and broadcasters, and often they are loathe to give credit, or draw more attention to a story that belongs exclusively to one news outlet.

In this case, the allegations were serious enough, and its potential impact far-reaching enough, that it met any test of “public interest.” 

To continue reading, please go to the CBC Ombudsman’s website where this was originally published

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.