By Ivor Shapiro
In the beginning was the word from Gawker. And on the second day, there came a Toronto Star story, and evening became morning, and then a full-blown scandal was on every front page, every newscast, and lo, the Daily Show saw that it was good, or at least funny.
And on the eighth day, the mayor of Toronto, who had been pleased to remain silent, spoke.
Several smart and credible people have complained about this series of events. Their points are well argued. Their logic almost irrefutable. “Verification is what distinguishes news from gossip,” wrote respected media ethics scholars Maggie Jones Patterson and Romayne Smith Fullerton here on J-Source. Good journalism doesn’t rely solely on anonymous sources or what’s on the Internet, cautioned my own former colleague (and former Star manager) John Gordon Miller. Good journalism isn’t about haggling with drug dealers or helping them ignite a bidding war, scolded Mark Hasiuk on the Huffington Post.
All true, so far as those statements go.
Related content on J-Source:
- Why hasn’t Mayor Rob Ford sued the Toronto Star?
- Chequebook journalism: Should news outlets pay for the alleged video of Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine?
- Opinion: The press owes the public more than repeating gossip on the alleged Ford video
But if the prevailing opinion among media ethicists is, like, “habeas video, or shut the crack up,” well, wait a minute.
When did the accepted standard for reporters’ verification become that raw evidence must be seen by the audience to be believed?
If a reporter sees with her own eyes a document, witnesses with his eyes an event taking place, or hears with her own ears a statement being made, is this not good enough as the basis for reporting?
Must I now record every interview and hyperlink to the tape when I write a damaging story?
If I don’t have a camera rolling when I witness a cop beating a citizen, must I then hold my tongue, at least until I find another (named) witness?
Nope. I came. I saw. I report. No verification required.
Not, at least, as a matter of ethics.
And as a matter of law? Sure, a tape or a picture will make me and my editors and our lawyers feel more comfortable about defending a libel suit, but the law does not require these things—only that I make my best efforts to verify the accuracy of what I reported, and provide prior opportunity of explanation to the person whose reputation I’m about to damage.
Which the Star seems to have done.
Reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle were not in a position to do a CSI on the video for signs of fraud, and the paper was careful to say, repeatedly, that it had not authenticated the footage. But two respected reporters saw and heard something that they considered of public interest, and they reported what they saw and heard.
They also stated that the video was well lit in good definition, and that the intoxicated, hate-spewing man who looked very like Rob Ford also sounded very like Rob Ford. They wrote separate notes about the video they’d watched three times, and compared notes, literally, before filing their story.
And both are in a pretty good position to know what the Mayor looks and sounds like.
This is what reporters do, folks: they go places, see things and tell the public what they see.
Is it possible to fake a video? Perhaps. It’s not easy to fake a video that would fool hard-nosed skeptics like Donovan and Doolittle, not to mention Gawker’s John Cook, but it’s not impossible that the drug dealer’s nephew has a budding career in digital enhancement.
It’s therefore not impossible that when the mayor finally got round to denying the allegation (“I do not use crack cocaine”), he was telling the truth, the whole truth, and everyone had got it plain wrong.
But if they did, it was not for want of trying, and let’s not blame reporters for trying to do their job.
OK. But still, isn’t it a bit thick that the Star waited for Gawker to publish before it dared to, and that other media did nothing with the Gawker story until the Star matched it – and then everyone piled on?
If that were what happened here, it would be neither the first nor the last example of pile-on news judgment, which is sadly all-too-standard fare on the news menu everywhere, and always has been, to all participants’ well-deserved discredit.
But it’s not what happened here.
The Star was clearly working on the crack-video story long before Gawker published. Its reporters had seen the video, which seemed to be of public interest not only because of the outlandish way in which the partying mayor appeared to express himself, but also because it appeared to help explain at least some of the mayor’s frequently bizarre behaviour on public occasions.
Having seen the video, the Star chose not to publish--yet--in order to seek additional sources who could “shed light on the story,” as Donovan explained in a live Q&A on the Friday.
The paper must have realized it risked being scooped, but its cautious choice was to seek additional meat for what would certainly be a landscape-shifting report.
Once Gawker went public with the video’s existence on Thursday night, May 16th, was the Star expected to sit back and pretend it had not viewed the video, or that its reporters had serious reason to doubt what they saw and heard?
Get real, people. Reporters report, scooped or not. Which the Star did, as fast as it could, with enough vivid first-hand detail, to justify, in my opinion, a perhaps cheeky “exclusive” tagline, which itself has been the subject of dispute.
The rest of the Canadian press were in a tougher spot that Thursday night. Their reporters had not themselves seen the video (as far as anyone knows) and would have been relying on Gawker’s veracity in repeating what was, in certainty, a highly defamatory statement (meaning a statement that, true or false, defensible or not, is likely to damage someone’s reputation).
Some might argue that the mere existence of the online story, quickly viral on Twitter, was news on a matter of clear public interest, and reporting it, with a fair opportunity of rebuttal, therefore defensible as “reportage.” Clearly, that’s not what any news managers were thinking late Thursday night, and it could have been a stretch.
But on Friday, once the Star’s reporters revealed what they had seen, the earth moved. A huge allegation had been made that the mayor could surely be expected to respond to. And when the mayor responded in his now famously ridiculous fashion, the story naturally grew, as grow it had to. The Globe and Mail, National Post, CBC and others quickly added substance and context, raising the amount and level of public knowledge and understanding -- and then today the Globe published what it said was an 18-month an investigation by reporter Greg McArthur and freelancer Shannon Kari into “the Ford family’s history with drug dealing”. No one has yet gotten sued. The mayor eventually emerged from his shell to issue a brief denial, and the rest of this little piece of history will play out in the political sphere, as it properly must.
In a 1986 essay on achieving quality in journalism that quickly became a much-reprinted classic, the Columbia media theorist James Carey described journalism as a “curriculum,” rather than something made up of isolated single works. His meaning was that when journalism achieves its social purpose of providing citizens with needed information and understanding, it is not the outcome of a single report or to the credit of a single reporter or news team.
Journalism often does its job best when journalists build on one another’s acts of discovery, examination and interpretation -- when they stand on one another’s shoulders to build stories.
In the current golden age of minute-by-minute ubiquitous news, the “curriculum” of journalism may start with a tweet or a blog post, get built on in a considered report, and then built on further in the age-old way by reporters seeking more information and columnists shedding more light.
Some days, the free press behaves like a free press, and digs and digs and digs whatever betide, and citizens get informed as they’re supposed to be. Those are good days for a democracy.
And yes, the other point of view--that how a mayor parties in private is a private matter, and what he says in private is private, and journalists should keep their noses out --is a worthy opinion too.
Hey, it’s a free country.
Ivor Shapiro is chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, where he teaches media ethics and feature reporting. He’s also the chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee.