Journalists usually know that when they get a brown envelope with a big scoop, the source remains a secret. But the identity of who leaked information to the Barrie Advance was too explosive.
Journalists usually know that when they get a brown envelope with a big scoop, the source remains a secret. But the identity of who leaked information to the Barrie Advance was too explosive. The newspaper named the source – the PMO – and suddenly found themselves in the centre of a debate on journalists and government sources. Editor-in-chief Lori Martin says the fact that the Barrie Advance is making news for “doing the right thing” indicates there's a bigger problem.
Susan Delacourt, the Toronto Star's senior writer in Ottawa, wrote that her former boss told her: "This is Ottawa. Of course you're going to be manipulated. You only have to make sure that YOU decide how much."
Martin talked to Eric Mark Do about the media reaction to the story, what it says about political reporting and more.
J-Source: How did the PMO contact you, exactly?
Lori Martin: It was a phone call that we received around noon on Monday and I spoke to a woman on the phone who identified herself as calling from the PMO indicating that she had some information that she would share with us on Justin Trudeau's speaking engagement in Barrie at our community college here.
JS: What was your reaction after realizing it was the PMO that was calling?
LM: I was a little dumbfounded that the PMO was calling with that information. Linking the two things together that it was about Justin Trudeau and that it was coming from the PMO.
JS: Do you believe that's outside the role of the PMO?
LM: Yes absolutely. To clarify: if they were sending a note and identifying themselves as the source, that would be one thing. But it was really part in parcel that they wanted to be not identified.
JS: What was the discussion in the newsroom after receiving this information?
LM: We talked about the fact really the story was the source of the email, not the content. And we all agreed that that's the way we would roll with it. What we did after that was we wanted to make sure it was a legitimate email because that was our other concern. One of the things is that the PMO doesn't phone here, ever. At first I thought Stephen Harper was coming to town, I thought that was the reason for the call. But we have a great relationship with Patrick Brown, our MP here, and his office notifies us of what's going on, all kinds of events. So it was very much out of the ordinary to get this call.
JS: There's a lot of reaction from media outlets and journalists all across the country. Why do you think there's such a big reaction to this story that was published?
LM: We've been overwhelmed by the response — obviously we've become the story now. So what we decided was the story made us become the story which is very odd. We're not here to make news, we're here to report news so it's kind of a weird situation to be in — an odd situation. But yes, we're really shocked by the response to our story. I guess it reaffirms that we made the right decision.
JS: So you would make the same decision if you were in the same position?
LM: Yes but I doubt we're going to get a call again.
JS: What's your response to people to say this story will kill any aspirations of a political reporting career for the reporter Laurie Watt?
LM: I don't believe that there will be any ramifications for us after this. What I'd obviously like to see is a change in how things are done at the PMO and I believe that's going to happen, so hopefully that will be the outcome. If it ends up being something else, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
JS: The Barrie Advance wasn't the only news organization to receive this information from the PMO, but they didn't go forward with the story the same way. Why do you think that is?
LM: I really don't know why they didn't. You'd have to ask what the process was that they went through. I don't know why they didn't react the same way because for us it was an immediate reaction once — our first concern was verifying the information — secondly, we felt that that was the story. I'm not sure, what the process was for other people, but that was certainly what happened here.
JS: So then Erica Meekes from the PMO also spoke to the general manager of your paper. Can you describe what that was about?
LM: It was a conversation about us violating an agreement that we had to receive the information based on it coming not from the PMO, but from a source only. And the conversation that I had before we received the information was that I couldn't make a promise about the content until I saw it. It's important to recognize we didn't know this person — we didn't have a relationship with them. Those are things that are all part and parcel to us. One of the things that I learned well in journalism school was that it's our choice to go off-the-record and to not go off-the-record all the time and there's a certain amount of control that you need to maintain and asking to give that up, from the premise itself is very strange.
JS: Does the Barrie Advance usually report on happenings in Ottawa?
LM: No. We would localize the stories if there was a local tie to it we would certainly do that angle. So we take take whatever's happening in Ottawa and bring it home or whatever's happening at Queen's Park and bring it home and let our readers know how it's affecting us and what it means to us.
JS: Would you have been more hesitant to potentially burn this source if the Barrie Advance did regularly report on the hill?
LM: I don't know. Obviously there's been decisions made between journalists and news organizations to be able to access information. So I can't say, I'm not in the same situation. I know working with departments a lot of organizations now make it more difficult for us to do our jobs because we're only given a certain amount of information and information is handled so much more differently now—so much more controlled. The fact that we don't have that relationship and we're not in that sphere that this all happened.
JS: What do you think this series of events will mean for political reporting in Canada?
LM: I'd like to think that it will maybe change the way that the information is disseminated, but I don't know that I have that much faith that it will. If it's accepted by all other media outlets except this paper, then we have a bigger problem. And the fact that it's news that we've done the right thing — people view that we've done the right thing — it's kind of backwards that it wouldn't be the people who didn't do the right thing in the spotlight.
JS: What's your reaction to all the praise for the Barrie Advance as a result of this story?
LM: It seems to be such a huge response to just doing your job. I believe we were doing our job, we were looking out for the interest of our readers and that's what we come here everyday to do.
JS: Last comment?
LM: While we appreciate all of the support, I'd like to think it reaffirms for journalists the importance of the job we do and how every story can make a difference.