By Espe Currie
The Toronto Star has paid $5000 for a second video of Mayor Rob Ford in which he appears enraged and inebriated.
Did the paper do the right thing?
Kevin Donovan, investigative editor and senior reporter at the Star justified the purchase to the CBC’s Evan Solomon Thursday night.
“We felt it was in the public interest when we saw this video to obtain it and get it out before the public,” he said.
“There’s been many attacks on the Star going back six months – when we saw a video we did not purchase it, and people said ‘Well, show us the video evidence.'”
But the head of Carleton University’s journalism program, Christopher Waddell, told Humber News the purchase sets a dangerous precedent in an industry dependent on the credibility of both journalists and their sources.
“Clearly when you’re buying video you’re encouraging people to violate some of the principles we uphold,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a good path to go down.”
The Star‘s ethics policy says the paper “does not pay for content.”
They didn’t buy the now-infamous “crack video” when the opportunity arose and have faced criticism ever since.
That video is currently caught up in a Toronto court, where lawyers representing media outlets are arguing for its release as a matter of public interest.
Alan Shanoff, Sun Media’s lawyer from 1991 to 2007, told Humber News purchasing content is a marketplace issue, not an ethical concern.
“We’ve got an insatiable demand for the news, and there’s a lot of competition,” he said.
“If someone can purchase the news – they’re going to purchase the news. It’s entertainment. Someone will do it.”
Waddell agreed journalism is changing, but says journalists need to fight back.
“We’re moving into a different world where everyone is equipped to record things,” he said, “And I think we need to examine that on a ethical level and on a practical level.”
He said the source of the material becomes a crucial issue.
“I think they followed the right policy when they didn’t buy the crack video. Why is it in the public interest to pay drug dealers?”
Gawker Media, an American website, was also approached to purchase the video – the company didn’t have the money and outsourced the purchase with Indiegogo. Their Crackstarter campaign exceeded the $200,000 goal but by then the sellers couldn’t be tracked down.
But the video did surface.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced Oct. 31 that his department was in possession of “a digital video file which is consistent with that which had been previously described in various media reports.”
Rob Ford addressed the revelation shortly after, admitting he had smoked crack cocaine.
Since his admission, the media frenzy has picked up speed, culminating (to date) in the Star‘s $5000 purchase of the second video, a surreptitiously-taken clip showing the mayor in an inebriated rage, threatening to kill an unnamed man.
Shanoff told Humber News the Star‘s actions are a natural evolution of reporting.
“In today’s internet world, we may have to pay for news because we’ve cut back on staff so dramatically.”
He said when citizen journalists are producing content major news organizations want, paying may be the only answer.
“We’re dealing with a mayor that says he has nothing to hide. I think it would be unethical not to purchase it.”
But he said it is also crucial media outlets scrutinize a potential seller.
“In this case, if you’re buying news, you have a duty of due diligence to make sure you’re getting the real thing.”
Kevin Donovan told the CBC that while the crack video was peddled by Torontonians in the drug trade, the paper was confident Thursday’s video came from an unimpeachable source.
“I’ve satisfied myself that in this case the money we paid is not going to – I can’t disclose who it’s going to – but it’s not going to fund any illegal activities,” he told Evan Solomon.
“They had the intention of showing something to the public that would help them understand what kind of man Mayor Ford is.”
But Waddell said the purchase is not in the public interest.
“I don’t think the video told us anything we didn’t already know. It’s already been reported that Rob Ford is a belligerent drunk.”
He said the precedent has been set – and it’s worrying.
“We’re moving into a world where people can’t trust journalism unless they see it themselves – and that’s problematic for journalists.”
Check out Thérèse Jastrzebski’s timeline of past instances of chequebook journalism here.