Did the Toronto Star cross an ethical line in reporting information from confidential sources with inside information about Mayor Rob Ford's rehab stint?

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

The privacy of personal health information is an important principle in our civil society.

The Toronto Star well understands that principle and has a strong record of reporting vigorously on violations of personal privacy rights.

Why then, did the Star report on the alleged bad behaviour of Mayor Rob Ford during his two-month stay in a Muskoka drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility?

Did the Star cross an ethical line in reporting information from confidential sources with inside information who said that the mayor was kicked out of group therapy and that management was concerned Ford continued to use drugs or alcohol during his time in rehab?

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“It would seem to me that there is a strong expectation of privacy at such a facility, especially in group therapy activities, because of the personal and confidential nature of the medical treatment,” said one of several readers who came forward this week seeking to understand why the Star published these disturbing details about Ford’s rehab stint.

“The decision of the Toronto Star to violate that expectation (even for an individual with the reprehensible public conduct of Rob Ford) felt like a bold one that warrants some explanation,” he added.

The decision was indeed bold and involved considerable thought about the competing principles at stake here. And certainly, this call warrants explanation to Star readers as publishing private health information is generally not in line with this news organization’s policies and practices.

It should be noted that the Star did not in fact reveal any private details of the mayor’s personal health. Still, the newsroom understood fully that publishing information from three people with inside confidential knowledge of Ford’s behaviour at GreenStone Muskoka would be seen by some — especially those who work in the health-care field — as crossing a prohibited line between the public and private realms.

There are few greater conflicts in journalism than that between the responsibility to seek truth and report it in the public interest and the rights of individuals to privacy of personal information.

The Star’s policy offers little concrete directive here. On “privacy” it states: “Conflicts between the public’s right to know and the expectation of privacy of individuals are inevitable in the gathering and publishing of news, but common sense, our duty to inform and compassion should govern our judgment.”

In practice, unless it is judged to be of important public interest, the Star generally does not regard an individual’s private and confidential health information as falling within our duty to inform.

But, as with much of the Star’s outstanding, awarding-winning reporting on the scandals involving Toronto’s mayor, this confidential information presented the newsroom with a unique ethical dilemma. Given the extraordinary circumstances of all that led up to and followed Ford’s rehab stint, the newsroom determined that it must publish this information.

I don’t think it had any other choice. The information revealing the truth about Ford’s rehab stint is indeed of compelling public interest to Toronto voters in the midst of a mayoral election campaign.

To continue reading this column, please go thestar.com where this 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.