Blog by John Miller

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Rush to print?

So this is what passes for "news judgment" in the age of instant information? Give us a break.

Beneath an advertising wrap-around for President's Choice proclaiming "Get fired up for the weekend," the Toronto Star's front page today featured what it said was an "exclusive" -- Mayor Rob Ford in crack video scandal.

Except it wasn't an exclusive. News of the video was posted earlier on Gawker, a New York-based celebrity gossip website.

Reporters for both organizations claimed they had seen a video offered for sale by someone in Toronto that showed the Toronto mayor inhaling from a glass crack cocaine pipe and talking incoherently. Both stories indicated the Star and Gawker had been sitting on the story for a considerable time -- the Star for at least two weeks, for unexplained reasons, and Gawker for an undetermined time so it could line up a news partner with the resources and inclination to pay six figures for the video.

Is the story a matter of public interest? Of course it is. If the video is legit, trafficking and possessing crack cocaine are criminal acts, and this is the mayor of North America's fifth largest city. It may explain why Ford has been misbehaving in public lately. Also, Ford is already campaigning hard for his re-election next year.

But was it good journalism? Not in my opinion.

I have no issue with how or why the Star decided to pursue the story. From the account of its reporters, they appear to have done so diligently and responsibly. But the paper's editors obviously decided they didn't have enough to publish. That changed late on Thursday night. What changed? Somebody else was onto the story, and it didn't seem to matter that "somebody else" was a website with limited resources and a questionable record for deciding what news the public should be interested in. It's clear to me that the Star only decided to publish because Gawker did, at 8.28 p.m. on Thursday. The Star put its story on its website shortly before midnight. It slapped a "Star exclusive" label on it and made only an incidental reference to Gawker publishing the story in the fifth paragraph. That's misleading, but the long Star story was missing something even more significant -- why the paper changed its mind and decided to publish.

Here's what the Star's editorial principles say about using material from the Internet: "For journalists, the Internet is a treasure trove and a minefield. Proceed with caution. The Star does not grab and publish material from the Internet. Any information from web sources such as Facebook, chat rooms, MySpace, Twitter feeds, personal websites or blogs must be verified to establish the bona fides of the sources....The originating source of the information must be identified."

Now, the Star might answer that its reporters had themselves viewed the video three times, confirming what it purported to show. That's true, and it obviously occurred before Gawker even knew about the story. But the paper does not identify the person who shot the video, other than to say he claimed (through a third party who also remained anonymous) to have supplied crack cocaine to the mayor (no details about how many times or what he allegedly paid for it). Nor is the Star's main contact identified, other than to say he described himself as "a community organizer in the Somali community."

Here's what the Star's editorial principles say about identifying sources: "The public interest is best served when news sources are identified by their full names. The Star should be aggressive in pressing sources to put information on the record and should seek independently to corroborate off-the-record information.

"The Star does not provide anonymity to those who attack individuals or organizations or engage in speculation — the unattributed cheap shot. People under attack in the Star have the right to know their accusers."

When anonymous sources are used, the Star says it will provide the following information: "Published articles must explain why sources have been granted anonymity and why the Star considers them authoritative and credible. Sources should have first-hand knowledge of the information and this must be conveyed to the reader. As much information as possible about the source — without revealing identity — should appear in the story. When possible, the Star will disclose the source’s motive for disclosing the information."

In my view, the Star skirted around the edges of these editorial principles by rushing into print, without anything but a last-minute attempt to get Ford and his people to tell their side of the story. It allowed at least two anonymous sources, both drug dealers, to attack a prominent individual without managing to get the other side. It did not explain why the sources were granted anonymity, or what their motive was to video a customer smoking their product. There was time to do all of that in the two weeks the paper has known about the video.

It's remotely possible the central figure in the video was not Ford, but a lookalike. It's possible what he was inhaling was not crack cocaine. It`s even possible the Star was the target of an elaborate hoax, designed to get it off the mayor`s case. Knowing all this, the paper, for whatever reason, chose not to approach the mayor's office for comment before late Thursday night. It never contacted the police, who now will be investigating. There is also the matter of which Toronto media outlet offered $40,000 for the video, as alleged by Gawker. If not the Star, which has policies against paying for news, then who? The Star only says it did not purchase the video; it does not say if it offered something and it wasn't enough.

In my view, publication of this story in a reputable newspaper should have been accompanied by a note from the editor justifying why he decided to do so today. What did the paper know, what did it not know, and what changed its mind?

At least Gawker was more honest about this point, and about its desire to purchase the video. In his story, reporter John Cook explains why he went with the story. Someone else, ah, was onto it. Cook says the asking price of $100,000 for the cellphone video was too high: "So if Gawker can't come up with enough money to ring this owner's bell, perhaps we can find a partner....When I emailed an acquaintance at CNN this afternoon ... he forwarded the email to his producer. The producer, in turn, asked CNN's Canada reporter about it. The Canada reporter—and this was a pretty fucking big mistake—called a source who used to work in Ford's office. Within 40 minutes, word had gotten back to me that 'CNN called Ford's office asking about a crack tape'."

So there we have it: You and I never would have heard about this unless someone had made a pretty fucking big mistake.

The Toronto Star, which has published a number of stories about Ford's questionable activities and ethics, had good reason to be cautious about letting its judgment be influenced by what appears on social media. It recently got egg on its face when it reported, on no other authority than a Facebook photo, that a former Ontario cabinet minister was living it up in Florida while on medical leave from her job. As anyone who uses Facebook knows (and the reporter admits he did not), when a picture is posted does not indicate when it was taken. The paper had to apologize when it learned the photo had been taken three years before. Currently the Star newsroom is undergoing mandatory social media training (and one of the teachers is a reporter whose byline is on the Ford story today).

But at least the Star didn't do the bonehead thing the Vancouver Province did.

It not only reported the story from the Internet, it invited readers to "Help the Province purchase the Rob Ford video." Here's what the link on its website said:

Help us buy the Rob Ford video
Gawker has published a post claiming a video exists of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. We do not know if this is true, but we would like to see it. Gawker claims to have seen it, but they did not want to pay the $100,000 being requested by the owner. Together, perhaps we can pay that. Surely there are 107,500 people who would be willing to pay $1 to see this video. (The extra $7,500 is to pay fees.)

Our promise
If we reach our goal, we will reach out to Gawker for their contact who has the video. If we are successful in obtaining it, and our legal counsel clears it for publication, we will publish it. If any of these things do not happen, your money will be refunded. You cannot lose.

But there's more than one campaign... which should I fund?
While our campaign will return your funds if we come up short, another worthy campaign will donate them to an addiction centre. We won't object if you choose that one!

By this morning, 654 readers had pledged a dollar each to the Province-- surely a low point in the recent history of yahoo ethics at Canadian newspapers.

I think it's safe to say that with this kind of news judgment at work, this story is going to get way crazier before it's over.

NOTE: My issue is with the Star's decision to publish, not the quality of its reporting. I have the highest regard for both Star reporters. We have a history, which has no connection to my comments here. When I was chair of the school of journalism at Ryerson, our faculty chose Kevin Donovan as one of five winners of the Udo Award, for distinguished reporting that advanced the cause of journalism. The award honoured his enterprise reporting of the first Gulf War. Kevin's investigative skills are second to none in Canadian journalism, in my opinion. Robyn Doolittle is a former student of mine. We had a very public disagreement when she was editor of the Eyeopener and took exception to a course I was designing that impacted on students who wished to work for her paper. She wrote a headline "Fuck You John Miller," which I suppose ranks as one of my top 10 outrageous headlines of all time, but it was very effective in the professional sense: I sure as hell read the story. Since she has joined the Star, I have been impressed by her reporting.