The Globe and Mail's public editor Sylvia Stead says the newspaper did something unprecedented–paying a source $10,000 for a series of photographs showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking what was described by a drug dealer as crack cocaine.

 By Sylvia Stead, public editor for The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail did something that I think has not happened before, and that was to pay a source $10,000 for a series of photographs showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking what was described by a drug dealer as crack cocaine. The payment was to an admitted drug dealer.

So the question in the world of journalism is, Was that right? Is paying for such material ever justified or does it fall within the maligned term of chequebook journalism?

I asked readers on Twitter and noted the comments on editor-in-chief David Walmsley’s note to readers in the paper and online. Here is briefly what he said: “The Globe was offered the opportunity to buy still images from these videos by an admitted drug dealer. This is not our normal practice. But in this instance, The Globe felt it was a matter of public interest, and that readers needed to see what our reporters watched and reported on. We paid $10,000 for a series of photographs. Toronto is the financial capital of this G8 country and the sixth-biggest government in Canada. Paralysis in Toronto is bad for the country. The mayor is supposed to be the guardian of his city. The photographs we published are a price worth paying.”

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Out of about 250 comments on the story, remarks on Twitter and to publiceditor@globeandmail, the vast majority agreed with the decision in this particular case and only a handful outright said it was wrong. (A number dismissed the argument, but more on that later.)

Here’s the top-rated comment on the article: “You are fully justified in paying for these photos. Finally, a Canadian news op showing some courage and defending the public interest.”

And here are a few more:

“Don’t apologize. Just publish. He is a public figure.”

“There are times that paying [for] information by a news media is justified. This is most certainly one of them.”

“I support. Forced him into action.”

“Why do you even have to defend yourself? It’s very important news and you’re a news organization doing its job.”

“I couldn’t agree more with the purchase of these photos. You are doing what a media channel is supposed to do, dig [for] information and make it available to the public. By doing this you are looking into the public best interest …”

A few readers had no problem with the payment, but were irritated at the argument that this was done in the public interest. “Baloney! You just want to sell newspapers,” said one. Here was the response from another reader: “You know, it’s possible for a paper to want to sell papers AND perform a valuable public service by pointing out the egregious actions of our leaders.”

Those who opposed the action were offended by the notion of paying a drug dealer. “Paying large sums to drug dealers for photos is really just courting sensationalism,” one said. And another said: “The Globe should be ashamed of itself. It could have reported on the story without enriching a drug dealer.”

Mr. Walmsley further explains the decision on a video.

So what exactly is chequebook journalism and is it ever justified?

To continue reading this column, please go where it was originally published.

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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.