Star, Globe reporting on Fords appropriate, Ontario Press Council hearing concludes

The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail each followed appropriate journalistic guidelines when producing and publishing stories about alleged drug involvement by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Toronto Councilor Doug Ford, the Ontario Press Council has concluded.

Public complaints against both newspapers were dismissed in separate decisions released today following public hearings held by the Press Council Sept. 9 at Ryerson University.

George Thomson, senior director at the National Judicial Institute and a former deputy minister and judge, chaired the three-person panel convened by the Press Council to hold hearings and make recommendations. The panel also included Joanne De Laurentiis, president of the Investment Funds Institute and former chief of staff with a provincial minister, and Drew Gragg, deputy editor of the Ottawa Citizen.

In dismissing the public complaints, however, the Press Council expressed concern that not enough has been done to build public understanding of the laws and regulations governing the role of the media and news coverage – particularly where investigative journalism techniques are employed. When writing stories where such techniques are used, it urges news organizations to make better efforts to explain their approach and why it serves the public interest.

“Transparency will help consumers of media better understand the reasons behind decisions to cover specific issues,” said Frances Lankin, Chair of the Ontario Press Council. “It will also help the public to understand the journalistic guidelines and court decisions that define the ethical and legal parameters within which reporters do their jobs.”

The formal complaints questioned the practices employed by each newspaper in its reporting. Complaints against the Star argued its May 17 story, “Rob Ford in ‘crack cocaine’ video scandal,” lacked credibility since an alleged video showing the mayor smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine has not surfaced. Complaints against the Globe argued its May 25, 2013 story, “Globe Investigation: The Ford family’s history with drug dealing,” was defamatory to the Fords and lacked credibility because it relied on unnamed sources.

The primary role of the Press Council is to deal with complaints from the general public. In so doing, it assess if news organizations followed acceptable journalistic and ethical practices, but it does not determine if facts in stories are true. In these hearings, senior editors from the Star and Globe were asked by the panel to provide detailed accounts about how information was obtained, what steps were taken to verify facts presented in separate stories by each newspaper, and how publishing the stories was in the public interest.

At the hearings, the panel also heard from representatives of each newspaper about efforts made prior to publication to provide Mayor Ford, his brother Doug and other members and representatives of the Ford family opportunities to counter allegations that they were involved in the activities described in the stories planned for publication.

According to Thomson, the Press Council looked at whether each newspaper had followed rigorous internal ethical standards and practices for investigative reporting.

“The Press Council also considered recent Supreme Court decisions, codes of conduct and previous Council decisions to better define acceptable conduct by investigative reporters,” he said. “The panel concluded that The Star and the Globe both followed appropriate journalistic guidelines in their reporting on the Fords.”

In its decisions, it was noted that that both Rob and Doug Ford were invited by the Press Council to participate in the process, but neither responded, filed a complaint or attended the hearing.<