Going with a story not your own

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Going with a story not your own May 7, 201 Summary: The complainant questioned CBC reporting a story based on the work of the Toronto Star, which included some anonymous sources. I found the story was clear about which information was provided by the Star and which was confirmed by CBC.

Complaint

On March 26, 2013, the daily newspaper the Toronto Star reported that Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford was asked to leave an event because he appeared intoxicated. It documented other episodes and reported that staff at city hall had concerns about the mayor’s use of alcohol.

Throughout the day, there were developments on the story, including a denial from the mayor.

You questioned CBC News reporting the story based on the work of the Toronto Star, which used some anonymous sources. “My complaint is how CBC has reported something without having facts to prove what they said.”

MANAGEMENT REPLY

Jack Nagler, Managing Editor of Radio News, explained that CBC News felt obliged to cover the story even though they had not done the legwork because the story in the Toronto Star had prompted public reaction from the mayor and had become a story of some public interest. He wrote: “With the mayor’s outspoken public defence, the story had become much larger. The World at Six that evening took a broader view. It said allegations of inappropriate conduct had dogged the mayor for months and now there are ‘questions about whether the substance abuse is interfering with Mayor Rob Ford’s ability to perform his official duties.’” He explained that the Star’s reporters had spent weeks developing the story, and that CBC could not duplicate that work in one day. “The only way for CBC News to report it then was to attribute it to The Star. And that is what we did. Our only other choice would have been to ignore the story altogether – that would have been, in our assessment, a failure to serve our audience.”

REVIEW

The question you raise is one journalists grapple with all the time. It has become even more pressing in the age of instant news and information via social media. Editors and reporters are constantly making a judgment about the newsworthiness of a story versus their own ability to verify and confirm all aspects of it. Limited resources mean they cannot possibly be everywhere. They must assess the impact, consider the source as they know it and then begin to verify. The question is at what point do they publish.

In this case, another news organization had broken an exclusive story. It was not the first time though that issues around the mayor’s behaviour had made the news. Just two weeks earlier a Toronto businesswoman said the mayor had inappropriately touched her while acting “out of it” at a different social event. So the news staff was faced with a choice – to completely ignore the story or acknowledge it was out there on the public record.

Having worked for many years in newsrooms I can tell you no editor or reporter enjoys having to attribute their story to another news organization. They did so, so that listeners would understand that CBC had not done the leg work. They did have to weigh the value of telling a story that had real impact and concern for people in Canada’s largest city, against the policy imperative of having two sources for stories. It is not ideal, but it does not violate CBC policies on sourcing: “Our commitment to accuracy and integrity means we try where possible to verify the information with a second source.” The policy also states that use of sources will be guided by the values of integrity, accuracy and fairness.

As Mr. Nagler explained in his response to you, news staff weighed the pros and cons of running the story and opted to do so, given the limitations. In the early part of the day, they did not have the second source. But they continued to try to verify the work done by Star reporters, which is as it should be. The World at Six comes at the end of the day’s news cycle, and by then reporter Maureen Brosnahan was able to balance the story with the mayor’s response, and to have independently confirmed at least some aspects of the Star story: “Concerns about Ford’s behavior have been mounting. Staff who work with him have told CBC News they are concerned about his drinking.” Her story provided further context, reminding listeners that in the past Mr. Ford had been convicted of impaired driving in Florida, and mentioned other instances when his behavior due to alcohol had been an issue. The story was clear about which information was provided by the Star and which was independently confirmed by CBC, and it represented the views of those who support the mayor. It was a comprehensive summary of the day’s events and in no way violated CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman