Toronto Star public editor defends use of anonymous sources for story on Ford’s alleged alcohol abuse

By Tamara Baluja

Toronto Star public editor Kathy English defended the newspaper’s use of anonymous sources in the story about Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged drinking problems.

By Tamara Baluja

Toronto Star public editor Kathy English defended the newspaper’s use of anonymous sources in the story about Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged drinking problems.

In a column published Friday, English wrote that “while only a judge can ultimately decide whether they meet the legal tests of Canada’s defamation laws, I believe the Star took the necessary steps to assure this explosive story was reported in a responsible manner.” She added the editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, managing editor Jane Davenport and city editor Irene Gentle “grilled at length” reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle about their sources, and were satisfied with the credibility of said sources.

Meanwhile, the mayor and some of his supporters have called the Star’s story an “outright lie” and demanded to know who the identity of these confidential sources.

The Star was criticized by many readers as well because it used six sources who it claimed did not want to be identified for two reasons. First, they did not want to be linked to a story that would cast a negative light on Garrison Ball, where the mayor had allegedly been drunk. Secondly, the Star said “these guests, who all have prominent positions in the community, feared they would somehow be blacklisted for speaking out about the mayor."

English, who says she was on vacation when the story broke, “knew that an inbox of readers’ questions, concerns and complaints awaited me, with many concerned about the report’s reliance on confidential, unnamed sources.”

While acknowledging that the Star has a problem with overusing unnamed sources, English said “having talked with the lawyer, reporters and their editors, I think the stories meet the Star’s standards on the use of unnamed source” in this particular case.

English says the story, in her opinion, would meet the Supreme Court of Canada’s standard for responsible journalism. Public interest is “clear” with the content of the story and the court has acknowledged previously that confidential sources may be relied upon depending on the circumstances.

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When the story broke last month, CBC’s Peter Mansbridge wrote a blog post on confidential sources.

“It looks to me as though the Star has been transparent in telling us how it tried to substantiate its story. It has spoken to a lot of people. And it has told us why some people insisted on remaining anonymous,” Mansbridge wrote. “The reader can judge if those reasons are sensible or not, and if the allegations are credible or not.”

There's a long history of using anonymous sources in journalism, Mansbridge wrote, but it became a “real phenomenon” in the early 1970s when the Washington Post relied on a source they called “Deep Throat” to report on the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to U.S. president Richard Nixon’s resignation.

“Since then, reporters have used anonymous sources to uncover scandals big and small. But they've also over-used anonymity. I think the expression, "sources say" has been trivialized. It's no longer reserved for important news that has been uncovered,” Mansbridge added.

There have been several examples where stories based on confidential services turned out to be grossly wrong and eventually had disastrous consequences, he said, using the 2005 example from Newsweek magazine that reported American soldiers in Guantanamo had flushed a Koran down a toilet in order to get information from prisoners. The story sparked rioting in the Middle East and at least nine people were killed. Newsweek eventually retracted the story. .

USA Today’s founder Al Neuharth has effectively banned the use of anonymous sources and described it as "the root of evil. “His reasoning,” Mansbridge writes, “was that most anonymous sources tell more than they know. Reporters then write more than they're told. And that means fiction mixes with fact.”

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Toronto Star city editor Irene Gentle's name. We regret the error.