Opinion: The press owes the public more than repeating gossip on the alleged Ford video

By Maggie Jones Patterson and Romayne Smith Fullerton

Much of the Canadian press has bet its credibility that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was indeed caught smoking crack on a smart-phone video that two Toronto Star reporters viewed in the back seat of car.

By Maggie Jones Patterson and Romayne Smith Fullerton

Much of the Canadian press has bet its credibility that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was indeed caught smoking crack on a smart-phone video that two Toronto Star reporters viewed in the back seat of car.

Problem is that the bookie—and filmmaker—in this case is purported to be a drug dealer. He (or she) wants money – a lot of it, like $200,000 – before he (or she) will turn over the video for public scrutiny.  And this dealer belongs to a “profession” characterized by the kind of brutal dishonesty that clogs up the criminal justice system.

   It’s hard to say why the press has bet the store on such a risky and seedy venture, but three reasons come to mind:

         1. His honour holds himself out as such a big, fat, juicy target. Ford faced a lawsuit for defamation, overcame conflict of interest charges, side-stepped public accusations that he groped a former mayoral colleague, and he’s even been photographed texting while driving. But he’s survived. In fact, he’s so infamous that Facebook has a page dedicated to the top ten stupid things Rob Ford’s done or said since elected.

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         2. The mayor of a major Canadian city indulging in an illegal and highly addictive drug is legitimate news.  Rumors of his alcohol and other drug abuse have been circulating for years,         and the press has been waiting for just such a “gotcha” moment.

         3. Once the online news blog Gawker broke the story under the United States’ more lenient libel laws, the Canadian press sidestepped its own ethical responsibility and rushed in through Gawker’s pierced veil of verification. 

But all three of these so-called reasons for publication fall on their face.  Should the story turn out to be a drug dealer’s double dealing, the public will not readily forgive the press for indulging short-term titillation in lieu of long term loyalty to its own standards.

In their seminal book The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel, on behalf of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, set out to articulate journalism’s mission: “[T]he purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self governing.”  From that mission follow nine elements that articulate the manner in which this purpose is to be fulfilled.  The first three elements are most relevant here: journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; its first loyalty is to citizens; and its essence is a discipline of verification.

In its own words, the Toronto Star subscribes to these tenets, as do almost all North American news media outlets that value the public’s faith in them as a public trust.  In contrast, Gawker’s motto is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.” 

Verification is what distinguishes news from gossip, Kovach and Rosenstiel proclaim, and the news media would do well to keep that in mind.  Yet two Globe and Mail staffers – Steve Laudurantaye, media reporter, and Simon Houpt, senior media writer – seem to portray the obligation to verify as a silly handicap. They poke fun at the Star’s cautious admission that they cannot verify what the video purports to show about Ford, compared to Gawker’s caution-to-the-wind outright accusation.  (Granted, they also make fun of Gawker’s reporting style on another story.)

Houpt’s dime-store summary of Canadian vs. U.S. libel law states correctly that the Canada puts the burden of proof on the media while the United States puts it on the accuser.  However, it is not true, as Houpt states, that U.S. reporters are off the hook if they simply believe that a libelous statement is true.  Court precedents established since the U.S. Supreme Court set the “actual malice” standard in the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case say that reporters must follow “standard journalistic practice” to verify the truth of each statement they carry and are only excused for merely “believing it is true” if their deadline is imminent and public’s need to know is critical.

We are hard pressed to see how either condition is at work in this case.

The video alone provides only gossip, not news, at this point.  And the press owes it to the public to verify.

The mission of public trust is journalism’s guiding light by which it illuminates its primary values of truth, loyalty to citizens, and duty to verify.  Without its light other, less noble values move in under the cover of darkness.  These other values include, but are not limited to, the three mentioned above.

Now the press is boxed in. It can commit one of two other ethical violations by either paying the dirty source’s price for the video and trying to determine its accuracy, or it can turn the matter over to the police and betray a source.  But the press’s biggest problem is that now it needs the accusation to be true.  It has invested too much in the story already. And no matter what the press does, the public will be left to wonder whether that need outweighed the search for truth. 

Romayne Smith Fullerton is editor of J-Source.ca Ethics and an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario. Maggie Jones Patterson is a professor of journalism at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh and a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Press.