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News reports of Toronto mayor’s alleged crack cocaine use sparks journalism ethics debate

Robert Ford. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Explosive news reports alleging the mayor of Canada's largest city was videotaped smoking crack cocaine with drug dealers have ignited an intense debate over the corroboration of sources' claims and checkbook journalism in the digital media age.

Gawker, a New York City-based website, and the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper by circulation, both reported on May 16 that Rob Ford, the controversial mayor of Toronto, was seen on a smartphone video smoking a crack pipe and making homophobic slurs against Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

John Cook, editor-in-chief of Gawker, viewed the video and also claimed on CBC Radio that he interviewed people who were present when Ford allegedly smoked crack cocaine. Unable to purchase the video when he watched it in Toronto, Cook returned to New York City and launched what the website called "Crackstarter," an online crowd-sourcing campaign to raise $200,000 to buy the video. More than 8,000 people helped Gawker raise over $200,000 but the website lost contact with the intermediary representing the video's owners. Cook has given the video owners about a month to contact Gawker.

Toronto Star reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle also watched the 90-second video three times in the back seat of a car parked in a Toronto neighborhood on May 3. In an account of their discussions with their source, who led the reporters to drug dealers seeking at least "six figures" for the video, the reporters admitted they could not authenticate the video, but the lighting was good and the image on the screen was "crystal clear." They concluded it was Mayor Ford. Near the end of the video, Ford apparently looks into the camera and says: "That phone better not be on."

After days of silence, Ford finally denied the news reports at a May 24 press conference, saying “I do not use crack cocaine nor am I an addict of crack cocaine," the Toronto Sun reported. Regarding the video, Ford said, "I cannot comment on a video that I have never seen or does not exist.”

Regarding the journalistic ethics surrounding the video and paying for news, CBC Radio's Jian Ghomeshi recently hosted a debate between Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former senior journalist at NPR and CBC Radio now heading a journalism program at the University of Toronto, and Cook from Gawker. Dvorkin chastised Cook for not verifying the video: "The essence of journalism is verification. There has been no verification here." Cook replied that he simply reported what he saw: "Reporters witness things and write about them."

Dvorkin, who spoke in traditional journalistic terms such as Ford "allegedly" smoked crack, noted the "Crackstarter" funds would be handed over to drug dealers. "How do you know that the money isn't going to a group of people who are then going to use the money to buy guns?" he asked Cook.

Cook, who spoke with conviction that Mayor Ford uses crack cocaine and his older brother is a former hash dealer, replied that it is "utterly routine" for U.S. news outlets to buy video from any number of sources.

At one point Ghomeshi chided Cook for making journalistic "standards" sound like a bad thing. The reference was to the Toronto Star waiting until May 16 to report about the video its reporters saw on May 3, and the Globe and Mail waiting 18 months before publishing its investigative report about the Ford siblings' alleged ties to illegal drugs.

"I think it is a bad thing," Cook replied, "if those standards get in the way of muscular, honest, truthful reporting on your mayor and I think in this instance that's what happened."

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and a co-founder of Global Voices, notes that "not only has Gawker’s editorial board made the decision that it’s ethically permissible to pay for the Rob Ford video" but so have the thousands of donors to the "Crackstarter" campaign. This leaves Gawker vulnerable to the likelihood that the majority of those funds came from Ford's opponents, opening the question of whether crowdfunded journalism will be a forum dominated by the rich and famous. "I’m more curious whether the donors will share the credit and the blame if crowdfunding checkbook journalism becomes the next big thing," Zuckerman said on his blog.

Writing for Forbes, J. Maureen Henderson sarcastically applauded Gawker for its smart business move: crowdfunding passes the risk on to its readers in case paying drug dealers doesn't pan out, and it shows up "mainstream news outlets by delivering a master class in the new model of iterative journalism — publish now, flesh out or course correct later."


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