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Posted by Tamara Baluja on January 28, 2014

When Ryerson professors Ivor Shapiro and Brian MacLeod Rogers sat down to plan their annual graduate seminar in ethics and law for last fall, they quickly realized that they wouldn’t need to look far for examples. News coverage of Rob Ford and his family provided case studies in almost every aspect of journalists’ rights and wrongs. The result was a fascinating set of guest lectures and case studies—and a unique collection of term papers, including those published here. 

 The Mayor and the MediaContents

  1. Introduction. By Ivor Shapiro and Brian MacLeod Rogers
  2. Time to publish: How Gawker drove the story forward. By Josh Kolm and Ronan O’Beirne
  3. Get off my property!: Pursuing the people's mayor. By Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Katrina Sieniuc
  4. Private lives? Covering the kids & bystanders in the Ford affair. By Sarah Murphy  & Graeme Bayliss
  5. Using confidential sources: is there a public disconnect? By Rebecca Melnyk and May Warren
  6. Money Matters: When is it OK to pay for information? By Anam Latif and Kim Brown 
  7. That “alleged” video: Reporting what other reporters saw. By Lee Marshall and Kim Magi
  8. Why didn’t they sue? Libel law was on the media’s side, so long as everyone trod carefully. By Mitchell Cohen and Josh McLean
  9. Rob Ford Around the World. What international coverage spotlighted about differences in media law. By Samantha Fernandes and Amanda Kline

By Ivor Shapiro and Brian MacLeod Rogers

Sometimes, nothing is clear until the decisions have been made, the stories published, the ink’s dry, the Twitterverse’s attention elsewhere.

Certainly, when we sat down last August for our annual talk about how to revamp our seminar for master of journalism students (we hate reruns), we knew we’d be talking a lot more than, perhaps, anyone wanted to about one man: Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto, our fair city. 

The course would start in late October—a six-week, 12-class intensive. As we fleshed out our course outline and week-by-week plan, more and more examples came to mind of how the coverage of Ford, and of his family, illustrated fine and not-so-fine points of the law and of journalists’ moral dilemmas.

So, we decided to focus almost our entire class plan on this one series of stories. We’d invite some of the drama’s key players, including reporters Robyn Doolittle of the Toronto Star (one of our own school’s headliner alumni) and the Globe and Mail’s Greg McArthur, City Hall columnist Marcus Gee of the Globe, and, of course, the mayor and/or his brother Doug . We’d ask our students to attend the Ontario Press Council’s hearings (held in September, three floors up from our classroom) into complaints of unfair reporting on the Fords and frame class questions around what they heard. We would structure our class discussions of readings from Dean Jobb’s excellent media-law text around some of these questions, and most of our ethical debates too.

Experimenting with the course plan every year keeps us (and, we hope, our students) awake, but it also means taking risks. Our guest list would, we knew, make for must-attend classes, but, focusing this hard on the Fords for an entire course? What if the news moved on in the coming weeks, and the media forgot about Ford, and it all started seeming oh, so old?


We’d barely gotten started before the Ford floodgates blew open. Stories poured out day after day: admissions and apologies, lewd remarks and wife-parading, police statements and documents released, a holy-shit rant-video and more apologies, late-night comedy and mainstream anchor interviews, an embattled council stripping its mayor of key powers, the famous “Get out of my driveway” media-mayor standoff, and on and on.

But we knew for sure we had a class plan with “legs” just after noon on Tuesday morning, November 5th. Councillor Doug Ford had just said a cordial farewell after an invigorating hour in our class, mostly answering students’ questions with courtesy and even some apparent candour, when everyone’s phones and computers went stir-crazy: the suave, amiable councillor’s little brother, Rob, had emerged from an elevator a few blocks away at City Hall to admit that he had smoked crack cocaine—minutes after Doug had told us it was all lies, as both Fords had claimed over and over again.

Soon, it would be easy to forget the widespread media-gone-wild concerns of six months earlier, when first Gawker, and swiftly also the Star, reported that their reporters had seen video of the mayor appearing to do what he now at last admitted to have done. If the video existed, people worried, why wouldn’t the Star produce it? Surely, without documentary evidence, such a terrible allegation should not be reported?

And so it had begun: the most confusing, entertaining, infuriating, morally weird story in, at least, the history of Toronto’s urban politics. (OK, that’s perhaps an understatement.)

If anyone was bored with the idea of testing legal and ethical questions on the Ford coverage—as we did in about eight of the course’s dozen classes—it certainly wasn’t our students. And several of them chose to team up to explore these issues further, and to offer their resulting term papers to J-Source.

What did they find? For a start, libel chill does so exist. Gawker proved that, when it beat the hometown Star to the punch and reported having seen the “crack” video. As Josh Kolm and Ronan O’Beirne show in Time to publish: How Gawker drove the story forward, that moment changed everything. Within hours, the Star ran with the story it had sat on for nearly two months. And within days, the Globe had followed with its long-awaited investigation into Doug Ford’s early history with the drug trade, among other aspects of the Ford family’s past.

From then on, as Kim Magi and Lee Marshall describe in That alleged video: reporting what other reporters saw, reporters across Canada and beyond stood on one another’s shoulders to cover, or at least survive, an unrelenting flood of news breaks, raising questions about the degree to which it’s OK to rely on other journalists’ research.

Many times, the public image of the media took nearly as hard a hit as the mayor’s, with repeated glimpses of reporters yelling questions over each other while the mayor seemed, sometimes (but definitely, definitely not always) above the fray. Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Katrina Sieniuc chose Storify to describe, in “Get off my property!” Pursuing the people’s mayor, how reporters tried to do their jobs despite a subject who preferred speaking directly to his adoring constituents. Time-honoured truisms about “chequebook journalism” were challenged as editors pondered paying for “that” video—see Money Matters: When is it OK to pay for information? by Anam Latif and Kim Brown. Perhaps the most painful problem, according to Private lives? by Graeme Bayliss and Sarah Murphy: how to handle the children and family members caught up in the story with no say in the matter. 

Rebecca Melnyk and May Warren, meanwhile, looked into McArthur’s and others’ sourcing and credibility to produce Using confidential sources: is there a public disconnect? Was it all, in the end, responsible journalism? Well, it was mostly, at least seemingly, libel-proof, as Mitchell Cohen and Josh McLean show in Why didn’t they sue? Likewise, international coverage of the Fords helped Samantha Fernandes and Amanda Kline to spotlight differences in the way libel law works, in Rob Ford around the world.

These papers are presented here unedited, as submitted to J-Source by the authors. We don’t necessarily agree with every opinion or consider every insight accurate, but we certainly admire how each team isolated a distinct legal or ethical question and went at the task of answering it. As academic papers, the works include some conventions (MLA citations! reference lists!) that don’t usually grace a news/commentary space as this. We’re grateful to the J-Source editors for risking this publishing experiment, and we hope readers will find the package a fitting look-back at a turbulent year.

Brian MacLeod Rogers is a leading media lawyer and an adjunct professor at the School of Journalism, Ryerson University. Ivor Shapiro (@ivorshap) is the school’s chair. 

The Mayor and the Media: Contents

  1. Introduction. By Ivor Shapiro and Brian MacLeod Rogers
  2. Time to publish: How Gawker drove the story forward. By Josh Kolm and Ronan O’Beirne
  3. Get off my property!: Pursuing the people's mayor. By Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Katrina Sieniuc
  4. Private lives? Covering the kids & bystanders in the Ford affair. By Sarah Murphy  & Graeme Bayliss
  5. Using confidential sources: is there a public disconnect? By Rebecca Melnyk and May Warren
  6. Money Matters: When is it OK to pay for information? By Anam Latif and Kim Brown 
  7. That “alleged” video: Reporting what other reporters saw. By Lee Marshall and Kim Magi
  8. Why didn’t they sue? Libel law was on the media’s side, so long as everyone trod carefully. By Mitchell Cohen and Josh McLean
  9. Rob Ford Around the World. What international coverage spotlighted about differences in media law. By Samantha Fernandes and Amanda Kline

Time to publish: How Gawker drove the story forward

Click to zoom in on the timeline

By Josh Kolm and Ronan O’Beirne

When Gawker’s John Cook hit “publish” at 8:28 p.m. on May 16, he may not have known he was opening the floodgates on one of the biggest stories to come out of Toronto in years.

Apart from the immediate consequence—the Toronto Star publishing its story about the crack video—Gawker’s decision to publish (which was itself indirectly caused by the Star’s first story about the mayor being asked to leave an event because organizers thought he was intoxicated) had long-lasting ramifications, thrusting previously unreported stories into the spotlight. It was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: once the story broke, the rest of the story could come out. What changed, then, when Cook’s story went live?

Gawker blew open the working definition of “the public interest.” The concept of the public interest has carried significant legal weight in Canada since Grant v. TorStar in 2009, which enshrined “responsible communication in the public interest” as a defence in defamation law. But the ethical implications of the public-interest argument were just as, if not more, important. While some outlets may once have been timid to explore the darker corners of the mayor’s life, they became emboldened once those corners made the news and became a matter of intense public debate.

This was perhaps best demonstrated by Rosie DiManno’s Nov. 15 column, in which she described an incident involving Renata Ford, the police and unexplained cuts and bruises. “The Star obtained the incident report from this episode many months ago,” she wrote. “Editors agreed [at the time] that Mrs. Ford, though the mayor’s spouse, was not someone who is in the public eye and was therefore entitled to privacy.” (Halifax Chronicle-Herald columnist Jan Wong shared a similar story two weeks later, claiming that editors at Toronto Life had withheld an anecdote involving the mayor’s wife from a story about her in 2011.) DiManno wrote that the impetus for this story finally coming to light was a press conference in which the mayor’s wife stood by his side as he apologized for making crude remarks about her.

To illustrate the gate-crashing effect the Garrison Ball and crack video stories had on journalism in Toronto, and to show how competition between outlets drove journalists to push out similar stories in quick succession, we have assembled the publication dates of some key stories, along with the dates of some earlier whispers and rumours about the mayor, into a timeline. As the timeline shows, the difference between zero media outlets having a story—such as the address of the house where the infamous photo was taken or the identity of “the broker”—and all of them having it was often just a few hours.

 Ronan O'Beirne is a second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson University. He is the  blog editor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism and has previously worked for the Globe and  Mail and The Canadian Press. Josh Kolm is a writer, photographer, video producer and  multimedia journalist. He currently lives in Toronto where he is completing his master of  journalism degree and working as music director at The Scope at Ryerson. His work has  previously appeared on


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Get off my property!: Pursuing the people's mayor

By Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Katrina Sieniuc

When news broke that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had been seen in a video smoking crack cocaine, the days of conventional city hall reporting ended. The pack descended, and the waiting game began.

Ford was well into his mayoralty when the crack story first broke on May 16, 2013. He had already been close to losing his office for allegedly violating the Ontario Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. He had already used city resources to coach high school football on the side. He had already admitted to reading while driving and even called the cops on a CBC prankster at his front door. His seemingly never-ending, always evolving gag reel of missteps made him a fixture of Toronto media.

Then along came the rest of the world.

American gossip website Gawker broke the crack video story, and soon countless other media outlets that had never before cared about Toronto’s municipal politics started sending their star personalities to scope out the scene at the clam shell. 

Ford had always been only selectively available to the media. Now, the group of reporters he was dodging had grown. As more and more people wanted answers, Ford answered less and less. His refusal to comment, combined with journalists’ need to know, cooked up a fiery press pack taking on the mayor day in, day out, for weeks.

Did the press play right into Ford’s media playbook with its coverage of the crack scandal? What options did city hall reporters have? And did the press ultimately do the right thing for their audiences and live up to their ethics codes? The following essay delves into the ethical quandaries that arise from pack journalism.

Kat Sieniuc is a Toronto-based journalist from Vancouver. Her past work includes reporting and web editing for the Globe and Mail, and covering the Rio+20 United Nations conference in Brazil. She is currently a master of journalism at Ryerson University. Sarah-Joyce Battersby lives and reports in Toronto. She’s worked in print, online, broadcast and film, with stints at CBC, the National Post and Torontoist. She is currently a web writer for CityNews and 680 News and a Ryerson journalism student.

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Private lives? Covering the kids & bystanders in the Ford affair

By Sarah Murphy  & Graeme Bayliss

The media cover the families of high-profile politicians as a matter of course—it is in the public interest for them to do so, as it can often illuminate aspects of a politician’s character in ways his carefully nurtured public image cannot.

But Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s extraordinary public behaviour, as well as sordid elements of his private life revealed by police investigations and surreptitiously recorded videos, mean that there may be more interest in Ford’s family than would be true of other politicians, but covering his family could be damaging to them.

Much has been written about the Ford family’s past and their involvement with the drug trade, which the Fords contend is unfair. The journalists and editors involved in these stories, meanwhile, have defended the stories as being in the public interest—they reveal information that, far from being merely titillating, belies Rob and councillor Doug Ford’s public anti-drugs stance. But they also reveal information about other Ford family members who are not elected officials and whose characters are, therefore, not inherently in the public interest.

Rob Ford’s children also present ethical concerns for the media. While many media outlets have guidelines for when and how to report on young people in news coverage, Ford’s children are in a unique situation. The mayor is notorious for denying interviews and refusing comment, which has prompted reporters to try to catch the mayor at home. And as allegations of criminal activity have become increasingly serious, there has been a concomitant increase in the likelihood of media coverage harming or unduly embarrassing Ford’s children. The issue is further complicated by Ford’s tendency to use his children (not to mention his wife) as political human shields in times of controversy.

The following essay explores these ethical issues and the effectiveness with which the media handled them.

Graeme Bayliss lives and writes in Toronto. His work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Spacing, The Grid, Torontoist and the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Sarah Murphy is a writer in Toronto and is currently completing her final year of Ryerson’s master of journalism program. She freelances for Exclaim! Magazine and has also done work for CBC Music and Q with Jian Ghomeshi.

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Using confidential sources: is there a public disconnect?

By Rebecca Melnyk and May Warren

In May 2013, both the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star published controversial investigative stories involving separate drug allegations about Mayor Rob Ford and his family. Both stories relied upon the use of confidential sources.

The Star story focused on a cellphone video, viewed by reporters Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, in which the mayor is seen to be allegedly smoking crack cocaine. The Globe story, written by reporter Greg McArthur and freelance journalist Shannon Kari, alleged that city councillor Doug Ford had once been a drug dealer.

Many readers disapproved of the newspapers’ reliance on confidential sources and wanted more information on the reputations and personal motivations of those sources. But the journalists involved felt they were acting responsibly, writing stories in the public interest.

Clearly, one revelation that surfaced over the course of the summer, leading up to the Ontario Press Council hearing on Sept. 9, 2013, was that a communication gap exists between readers and journalists that has to be examined more closely.

In an attempt to bridge both sides of the story—public and journalistic—this essay includes interviews with Connie Harrison, the representative complainant in the Globe case, and McArthur, who offers insight into how the use of confidential sources could have been better communicated. Andrew McIntosh, a former reporter for the National Post who was involved in the historic R. vs. National Post case, shares his ethical framework about when and how to use veiled sources.

Rebecca Melnyk graduated from The New School in New York as a Riggio Honors Fellow. She is currently a second year student in the master of journalism program at Ryerson University. Her work has appeared in This magazine, the National Post the Ryerson Review of Journalism and BOMB Magazine. May Warren is a second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson University.  She has undergraduate and master’s degrees in political science from the University of Guelph and Queen’s University respectively. She has interned at the Globe and Mail, The Guelph Mercury and The United Church Observer and her work has been published in The Huffington Post Canada.

Listen to Greg McArthur talk about how he contacted another key source for the story:

Click here to listen to Connie Harrison speak about why she doesn’t trust confidential sources in this case:Click here to see how the legal protection of sources influenced McArthur’s decision-making process:

Click here for more about McArthur’s methods:

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Money Matters: When is it OK to pay for information?

By Anam Latif and Kim Brown

In November 2013, the Toronto Star paid $5,000 for a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in the middle of a drunken rant. This video was more than a minute long and was solicited to the Toronto Star and one other news outlet by a person who remained anonymous.  

The Star based its decision to purchase this video on the intense public scrutiny the mayor had been under for several months. Ford had recently admitted to smoking crack cocaine—an admission the public had been seeking since the Star and Gawker reported on a previous video of the mayor allegedly doing illegal drugs (a video the Star did not buy).

Although the Star routinely pays for content, it is uncommon for any news organization to announce publicly how much it paid for such material. When the Star reported it had paid $5,000 for this video, it caused uproar and raised some eyebrows.

The Star was also criticized for purchasing this video because of the paper’s turbulent relationship with the mayor. The Ford family, and its supporters, characterize the Star as determined to destroy the mayor’s reputation. Some would argue that publishing this video wasn’t newsworthy at all, but merely a way for the Star to ridicule Ford publicly.      

So, is this an example of chequebook journalism or merely a more transparent approach to paying for content? The following essay explores historical examples of paying for content and chequebook journalism to reveal that although the jargon may have changed, the process remains the same. It includes a response from Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke about why the paper decided to pay for the video and surveys several columnists and journalists about the issue to try to answer the question: what is the line between chequebook journalism and paying for content, and did the Star cross it?

Kimberley Brown is a second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson University. Anam Latif is a second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson University.


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That “alleged” video: Reporting what other reporters saw

By Lee Marshall and Kim Magi

How do you report on what you haven’t seen? Journalists across Canada and around the world were faced with this question when Gawker’s John Cook and the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan said they had seen a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack.

As the details emerged, it was clear no one else had seen the video and there seemed to be no way for anyone to get a hold of it. But the allegations were too large to ignore. Media outlets had no choice but to report on what Cook, Doolittle and Donovan had seen.

Did other news organizations take Gawker and the Star at their word? Did they consistently attribute news of the video to those outlets? And how did they manage to advance the story without ever having seen that alleged video themselves?

The Canadian Press, a national wire service; the Toronto Sun, a daily local right-leaning newspaper and NOW Magazine, a weekly, left-leaning magazine, assessed the credibility of the reports in different ways.

Stories that CP, the Sun and NOW published between when the story broke on May 16 and Oct. 31—the day police chief Bill Blair announced the police service had the video—show that, however they felt about credibility, they gave credit to Gawker and the Star for the news.

Together, they built a curriculum of news around the video by doing their own reporting and investigating occurrences that seemed linked to the crack allegations, such as the Project Traveller raids in June. Eventually, some journalists started writing about the video as if it were common knowledge rather than attributing its existence to the reporting of other journalists.

The following essay explores the ethical and legal concerns that arise when journalists must report on something they haven’t seen and what that alleged video means for the future of journalism.

Lee Marshall is a second-year Master’s student in the journalism program at Ryerson University. She is the film reviewer for Queen’s Quarterly. Kim Magi is a second-year Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University. She has been an intern at the Toronto Star since September 2012 and will be joining the Edmonton Journal this summer.

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Why didn’t they sue? Libel law was on the media’s side, so long as everyone trod carefully

By Mitchell Cohen and Josh McLean

No journalist wants to receive a libel notice, but the reality is it happens on a fairly regular basis. Journalism that serves the public good challenges people in powerful positions—the kind of people who aren’t afraid to use the courts to push back against what they deem bad or unfair press. Journalists who aim to tell the whole story—warts and all—will undoubtedly find a libel notice in their inbox at some point in their career.

In the words of the Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan, “the best education in the world of libel is if you get sued.” But it can’t hurt to be prepared.

The law arms responsible journalists with a suite of defences against libel suits, and understanding these defences can help a reporter avoid the grief that comes from a court battle.

Being knowledgeable about defamation law and the expectations of responsible journalism can protect reporters in their day-to-day jobs. To see why, we need look no further than the news coverage of the scandal that surrounded Toronto Mayor Rob Ford during the second half of 2013. The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail accused Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, of involvement with drugs. Despite the defamatory nature of those claims, neither the journalists involved nor the publications themselves faced any legal action from the Ford brothers.

The stories the papers ran are excellent examples of how journalists can report controversial and potentially damaging stories without exposing themselves to lawsuits. The following essay provides an analysis of the information-gathering methods and precautions taken by reporters to develop a better idea of what it means to write a libel-proof story and provide as definite an answer as possible to the question: why didn’t the Ford brothers sue?

Josh McLean is an editorial assistant at CBC News Now and second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson University. Mitchell Cohen is a second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson University.

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Rob Ford Around the World. What international coverage spotlighted about differences in media law

By Samantha Fernandes and Amanda Kline

On May 17, 2013, U.S. gossip website Gawker published a story that would introduce Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to the United States—and the world. When the Toronto Star published a similar story the next day, also alleging that its reporters had seen a video of Ford smoking crack cocaine, Ford was well on his way to the international spotlight.

Since then, not only was Ford named Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year by the Canadian Press, but his face and name have been splashed across newspapers, websites and broadcasts around the world. He has even become the butt of recurring jokes on popular U.S. late-night talk shows.

But there’s a problem. Some of the international coverage of Ford over the past year has not been accurate. Libel laws differ all over the world and can greatly affect how a story is reported. While truth is an absolute defence in Canada and other common law countries, this defence does not work everywhere, and sometimes, the expense of litigation outweighs the truth.

Although revelations about the truth of Ford’s actions from the man himself have slowly surfaced, these international stories highlight the complications that could arise if editors and journalists are not aware of the differences in libel law in countries worldwide.

Through a combination of original research, interviews with media law experts and journalists, and a hypothetical international libel-suit scenario, Samantha Fernandes and Amanda Kline discuss how Ford coverage has varied in the United States, Australia and three European countries, as well as potential lessons for journalists covering stories for global audiences.

Samantha Fernandes is a master of journalism student at Ryerson University. She works as a freelance journalist and video producer. Amanda Kline is a master of journalism student at Ryerson University. She is a freelance producer at CTV News Channel. 

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J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.