Rob Ford crack story: Is seeing believing?

Have the news media been responsible in their coverage of allegations that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was caught on tape smoking crack cocaine? Journalists and media experts debate the question with CBC's The Current.

With the video yet to surface, debate turns to journalistic ethics

A sidebar to the current scandal surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is the debate about the media’s role in covering the entire affair.

Both the Toronto Star and the U.S. gossip website Gawker published stories last month claiming their journalists have viewed a video of Ford smoking what appears to be crack cocaine. 

The story set off a media frenzy, but it has been more than two weeks since it came to light. 

With the alleged tape yet to surface, questions are turning to how news organizations have covered the story.

The Toronto mayor and his brother, Coun. Doug Ford, have admonished the coverage of the story while denying the tape exists. Last week, Doug Ford said the stories about his brother are proof journalism has sunk "to an all-time low."

The coverage prompted Rob Ford to call the news media a "bunch of maggots," a statement he later apologized for.

But have news organizations fallen short of their own ethical standards in covering this story?

Monday’s edition of The Current on CBC Radio One tackled the issue, with host Anna Maria Tremonti speaking to a panel that included:

  • Star reporter Robyn Doolittle.
  • Ivor Shapiro, chair of the Ryerson University School of Journalism.
  • National Post columnist Matt Gurney.

Discussion quickly turned to the issue of whether the tape even exists.

"It’s interesting to me that people believe there is some mass conspiracy between two organizations and three separate people," said Doolittle, one of two Star reporters who claim to have viewed the video.

"It’s fair that people are questioning the things that they’re reading," she said. "The people who don’t believe it, maybe won’t believe it even when they’re confronted with the video.

News consumer want to see the goods

Shapiro said the advent of social media means news consumers now want to see material with their own eyes, instead of simply trusting reporters’ accounts.

"The expectations of audiences is raised and therefore the skepticism of audiences is raised," he said. "That’s not a bad thing in a democracy, that the public is skeptical. It raises an unfortunate situation when the video isn’t available."

Gurney agreed.

"During the Boston [Marathon] bombing, media scrambled to catch up with what people were tweeting. [People] expect to see it with their own eyes and have some of the gaps filled by followup reporting."

Gurney said he believes the video does exist, adding he’s doubtful three journalists from two different organizations would falsify or get wrong a story on which their journalistic reputation hinges.

Chequebook journalism?

Also at issue is the question of whether it’s right to pay for such a video.

Doolittle said the Star had been pursuing the story for weeks prior to the Gawker’s scoop about the tape that came to light May 16.

The Gawker story essentially forced the Star to publish what they had gathered the next day. According to the Star's account, Doolittle and another reporter were shown the video on a cellphone by people asking $100,000 for it, a price the Star wouldn’t pay.

Gawker raised $200,000 to buy the video in an online campaign, but were unable to complete the purchase, saying it had lost contact with the person possessing it. The Star has also reported difficultly in trying to re-establish contact with the person who showed them the tape.

The use of so-called "chequebook journalism," while common in other countries, is controversial in Canada.

VIDEO | Finance minister tight-lipped on friendship with Rob Ford

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty underscored his personal friendship with embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in a Monday night interview on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon — brief comments that sparked a longer debate among a panel of political observers.

Watch the video and the P&P panel's reaction here.

CBC does not pay sources for information related to a story. (CBC does pay fees at recognized rates to specialists for an expert report or a scientific analysis of a story).

Unnamed sources a 'necessary evil'?

Doolittle said most people she has spoken to about the Ford video story are angry the Star didn’t purchase the video.

"The biggest backlash that I’ve had is, ‘Why didn’t you guys buy the tape? [Why didn't you] give $100,000 to drug dealers for the greater good of the city?'"

Another issue is the use of unnamed sources.

In the days following the original Gawker and Star stories about the tape, the Star dug up other details, including a story alleging the mayor knew in which apartment the video was stashed. On their weekly radio show Sunday, the Fords demanded that the Star apologize for that story.

Shapiro said unnamed sources make editors uncomfortable, but said they are often an "necessary evil" for any journalist working to uncover information others want to suppress.

"I’ve never met a reporter who likes to use anonymous sources," he said. "I don’t think anyone should be expected to kill a story because their sources can’t be named."