CBC's coverage of the Rob Ford video story

The complainant, L. D. Cross, thought CBC News had no business picking up on the stories of a video which allegedly showed Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor, smoking crack cocaine. Without the physical evidence of the video, he felt this was nothing but reporting hearsay evidence. I found that the burden of proof in journalism is not the same as a court of law, and that CBC’s coverage of the story was in the public interest.

COMPLAINT

About two weeks after the initial reports of a video that purported to show Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, you wrote to express your displeasure with CBC news coverage of the mayor. Your concern was clear:

I am fed up listening to you 'report' innuendo, he said, she said, they saw...

Show me the Rob Ford video or, SHUT UP !

CBC's constant repeating of unsubstantiated comments is insulting to me the viewer not to mention possibly libelous to Mr. Ford.”

You rejected the management response to your concerns, and stated that just because “two veteran Toronto Star reporters say they saw it (the video) does not make it so.” You felt CBC repeatedly transmitted hearsay evidence and there is no public interest justification to continue reporting on the story without concrete proof. The only thing that would justify the coverage in your estimation was the video, or as you stated, some “tangible proof.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News, responded to your concerns. She acknowledged that “you have put your finger on one of the key issues in the story and one of the reasons it is so difficult to cover.” She pointed out that the video was seen by two experienced Toronto Star reporters, and then by the editor of Gawker, a New York based online news site:

Does the video exist? Three credible journalists, two of them who saw it several times, say it does (or perhaps did). CBC News journalists did not see it.

But that video is at the heart of serious allegations of criminal behavior involving the city’s top elected official. They could have an effect on the mayor’s performance, on the work of city council, on potential investment and on the city’s economy. The story is clearly in the public interest. Although we did not see the video, the story is important enough with such potentially wide ranging implications that it would be irresponsible not to report what three reporters working for two respected news organizations had seen.”

She pointed out that CBC news also prominently reported the mayor’s response to the allegations, and that coverage featured the views of his supporters and as well as his critics. She noted:

“With that information, viewers and listeners may reasonably be expected to evaluate the comments, test them against each other and the facts and reach their own conclusions about the nature of the story and the mayor’s activities.”

She felt CBC News had adhered to CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

REVIEW

The coverage of the allegations against Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, and subsequent events, have been challenging for journalists. When a credible news organization puts a story like this one out there, it takes on a life of its own. One of the many unusual things about this story is that other news organizations did give it a lot of coverage. It is not often the case – there is a strong competitive spirit between publications and broadcasters, and often they are loathe to give credit, or draw more attention to a story that belongs exclusively to one news outlet.

In this case, the allegations were serious enough, and its potential impact far-reaching enough, that it met any test of “public interest.” CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices includes serving the public interest as part of its mission:

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.”

It does so by abiding by its principles of accuracy, fairness and balance. “Public interest” is a broad term. The role of news is to provide information to help citizens make informed choices about issues that matter to them, and to highlight potential anti-social or criminal activity by people or in institutions that have some public accountability.

You acknowledge that at least initially there may have been a public interest in the reports but that they should have stopped when the tape could not be produced. There was no tape, but the Toronto Star did publish a picture of the mayor with two men subsequently arrested in a police sweep targeting drug and gun dealers. The third man in the photo was shot and killed in March. The mayor explained that he takes pictures with everybody. But its existence raised legitimate questions. The point of these details is to show that this story and its allegations did not exist in a vacuum. It also clearly had a potential impact on the running of Canada’s largest city, and therefore CBC News was justified in running it.

The story did not remain static. It took a full week for the mayor to respond. He said: “I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine.” He declined to answer any questions from reporters. It is the obligation of news organizations to seek accountability from public figures. CBC News prominently reported the mayor’s response, as is their obligation. But his statement did not answer all the questions around the incident, which is why CBC News continued to report on it, and reporters kept asking the questions.

Subsequent news reports have raised issues about the mayor’s own staff attempting to reclaim the tape. In the light of the ongoing controversy, about eight members of his staff either quit or were let go. There was also a major police drug and gun bust, involving some of the players related to the photo and tape. It would have been impossible to ignore all these facts and new stories, and equally impossible to omit references to the initial allegations around the tape. It would render all that happened after that incomprehensible.

It has no credence for you that three journalists describe a tape they saw and heard. I can understand the frustration you feel that it has never been made public. But as Ivor Shapiro, Chair of the journalism program at Ryerson University pointed out on The Current, “reporters have always reported on what they have seen and heard. We were not present, and to a certain extent have to take their word for it. In this age of YouTube and social media, we have come to expect a look at the raw data, the primary proof.”

There can be no arguing that audience members deserve to know how reporters came to the conclusion they present. You talk about hearsay evidence – CBC News was always honest about the fact that their reporters were not the ones who had seen the tape, and stated who had. That is sufficient to allow audience members to make up their own minds about its credibility. Hearsay evidence is a legal concept. It is not appropriate to apply that standard to daily journalism. The whole notion of reporting is that information is being conveyed by a reporter. There is a responsibility to seek out various perspectives on the information being conveyed. I believe CBC did that in the coverage of the Ford story.

I can understand, given how long the story stayed in the news, and the number of news media pursuing it, that it feels like the media is “ganging up” on the mayor. It is hard to judge, in an ongoing, rapidly developing story like this one, what is the right amount of coverage. I know CBC staff had discussions about it. They were correct to pursue the story, and they made attempts to provide the mayor’s perspective, as well as that of the people who support him. They also made attempts, in some of their current affairs programs, and online, to deal with some of the journalistic issues raised. It is certainly not ideal to have been talking about a tape that no CBC reporter had seen, but given the high profile of the people involved, and how the story evolved, the decision to stay with the story was a correct one. There was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman