That “alleged” video: Reporting what other reporters saw



    How do you report on what you haven’t seen? Journalists across Canada and around the world were faced with this question when Gawker’s John Cook and the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan said they had seen a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack.

    As the details emerged, it was clear no one else had seen the video and there seemed to be no way for anyone to get a hold of it. But the allegations were too large to ignore. Media outlets had no choice but to report on what Cook, Doolittle and Donovan had seen.

    Did other news organizations take Gawker and the Star at their word? Did they consistently attribute news of the video to those outlets? And how did they manage to advance the story without ever having seen that alleged video themselves?

    The Canadian Press, a national wire service; the Toronto Sun, a daily local right-leaning newspaper and NOW Magazine, a weekly, left-leaning magazine, assessed the credibility of the reports in different ways.

    Stories that CP, the Sun and NOW published between when the story broke on May 16 and Oct. 31—the day police chief Bill Blair announced the police service had the video—show that, however they felt about credibility, they gave credit to Gawker and the Star for the news.

    Together, they built a curriculum of news around the video by doing their own reporting and investigating occurrences that seemed linked to the crack allegations, such as the Project Traveller raids in June. Eventually, some journalists started writing about the video as if it were common knowledge rather than attributing its existence to the reporting of other journalists.

    The following essay explores the ethical and legal concerns that arise when journalists must report on something they haven’t seen and what that alleged video means for the future of journalism.

    How do you report on what you haven’t seen? Journalists across Canada and around the world were faced with this question on May 16, 2013 when American news website Gawker ran the shocking headline “Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Smokes Crack.” 

    “I got an email from people at the Star saying, “You’re not going to believe this. The story has come out on Gawker,” said Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan. That night, the Star decided to post the information they had been gathering for months online.

    Both organizations described, in detail, a cellphone video their reporters had watched, in which Ford was seen smoking what appears to be crack from a glass pipe. But neither Gawker nor the Star was able to procure or publish a copy of the video to support the controversial story. For half a year, Ford denied the allegations until, seemingly off the cuff, he told a crowd of reporters at City Hall that, indeed, he had smoked crack cocaine.

    Throughout those intervening six months, many other news organizations reported on the alleged video. They were covering news that they did not gather and could not confirm — but it was also news that they could not ignore.

    WATCH: Kevin Donovan on covering second-hand news

  2. Kevin Donovan - Old-fashioned newspaper story
  3. A number of ethical and legal concerns arise when journalists rely on information from other news sources; covering the “alleged” Rob Ford crack video turned several journalistic norms of practice upside down.

    Verification is called the essence of journalism by authors Kovach and Rosenstiel in their seminal book, The Elements of Journalism. This theory falls apart with respect to coverage of Rob Ford’s alleged crack-smoking. Journalists had to consider whether it was ethical to write about a video they could not independently verify; they had to assess the credibility of news that they were repurposing, and they had to worry about potential legal repercussions.

    Matching stories is popular in the media, but relying on other news organizations is not optimal.  Since other journalists could not independently verify the existence or the contents of a video they could not see, they had to credit Gawker and the Star as original sources. Giving credit where it is due is not only an ethical choice--it’s a wise legal decision. But each organization still had to make the story their own.  

    Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that differentiation is essential to survival within the field of journalism: “Falling into undifferentiatedness – the constant problem of the center in the political space – means losing existence, and so nothing is more threatening than the look-alike who dissolves your identity” (40). Media outlets had to retell incriminating information without inciting a defamation lawsuit.

    Keeping the story alive for months required journalists to continuously rely on original reporting from Gawker and the Star. Media critic James Carey calls journalism a “curriculum” which relies on constant readers for whom news becomes knowledge (308). An entire curriculum of news arose from information that only three people had witnessed. Journalist had to consider whether it was ethical to perpetuate news that they could not prove.

    Innumerable outlets repurposed Gawker and the Star’s work, but for the sake of clarity, we will consider how three highly diverse organizations covered a video they had never seen: The Canadian Press, a national wire service; the Toronto Sun, a daily local right-leaning newspaper; and NOW Magazine, a weekly local left-leaning magazine. We don’t suggest that what these three did was necessarily representative of what other wire services, newspapers or magazines did, but they do represent a spectrum of news sources available in Canada.

    We searched Factiva’s online database for mentions of the words “Rob Ford” to learn about how the three outlets built a curriculum of news around the video, assessed the credibility of original reporting, and gave credit where it was due between the months of May and October 2013.


    Robyn Doolittle’s tweet rang out around Toronto that spring night in May: “Myself and Kevin Donovan have viewed the video of Mayor Rob Ford that is the subject of the Gawker piece. Read the Toronto Star tomorrow.”

    An hour and a half before, Gawker published a story in which editor John Cook describes how he was shown a video of Ford smoking crack cocaine, which was for sale for $200,000. Cook wrote that he had felt he had to publish when CNN’s Canada reporter, whom he had been in discussions with about buying the video, called Ford’s office. In turn, Gawker’s story incited the Toronto Star to publish. In the late hours of May 16, the Star posted an online version of their side of the story, with the headline “Rob Ford in ‘crack cocaine’ video scandal.” 

    In a span of a few hours, two outlets – one American and one Canadian – had verified they had both seen the same video. Had anyone else seen it? Was it even Ford in the video? Would the public get to watch it, too?

    For days, rumours swirled around Toronto as Ford chose not to address the allegations. Other media outlets hadn’t seen the video, so they couldn’t verify the information. But they couldn’t ignore it, either.

    The Toronto Sun mentioned the possibility of a video, skeptically, two days after the original reports. Don Peat covered the video from Ford’s point of view, writing that Ford called the allegations “ridiculous”: “In the wake of the Gawker story, the Star published a story Friday morning by two reporters who stated they were shown the video earlier this month and alleged Somali drug dealers were shopping the video around” (“allegations” May 18).  (N.B. The Star first published their story online Thursday night.) 

    The nation’s wire service, The Canadian Press, published a report in the early hours of May 17. Ellen Huebert, CP’s national editor, said, “You have to think: Are you serving your clients by ignoring what was certain to be a major story? No you aren’t. And it’s out there, so I felt that there was no choice but to report on it.” Providing the news for clients was more important than deliberating the ethical implications of reporting on an unseen video.

    But they were careful about the words they used. “We had to say that it was an alleged video, we had to say that it appeared to show the Mayor smoking crack … partly it was legal, for sure, but also it was just to be accurate in our reporting” (Huebert). In each paragraph, CP attributed the information to either the Star or Gawker, with sentences such as: “The Star said two of its reporters watched the video and said it appears to show Ford in a room, sitting in a chair, inhaling from what appears to be a glass crack pipe.” For Huebert, these word choices were as much about being honest as they were about being conscious of legal repercussions should Ford have decided to sue for defamation.

    Throughout the scandal, CP reported on how the story was advancing, but always attributed the Star, which is also one of their clients. In an Aug. 17 article, CP was still referring to the video as “alleged” and credited the Star for further reporting the story: “The Toronto Star is reporting that two members of Ford's entourage were beating the bushes in the days after media reports surfaced that some journalists had viewed the alleged video” (“Rob Ford entourage”).

    Jonathan Goldsbie, who writes for NOW Magazine, said, “initially it was just a matter of, let’s just treat it as a matter of aggregation. Here’s what these places are saying, here is a summary of it, here’s what we know, we’ll try to find out more, which is I think how pretty much every outlet treated it initially, because you can’t ignore it.” (Goldsbie).

    WATCH: Jonathan Goldsbie on advancing the story

  4. Jonathan Goldsbie - Advancing the story
  5. In the essay “Why And How: The Dark Continent of American Journalism,” James Carey writes, “Journalism must be examined as a corpus, not as a set of isolated stories” (308). After the scandal broke, it was hard to ignore it when reporting on anything to do with Ford, as it was all part of the curriculum.

    NOW Magazine started grouping their coverage under the tag “crackpipe phone scandal,” which is online editor John Semley’s play on the 1920s U.S. teapot dome scandal. The graphic attached to the tag shows Ford with closed eyes, his mouth partially open, with a pipe under bold black font. But Goldsbie was apprehensive about using the tag too much. “It’s gotten trickier recently because there are a lot of Ford stories that are about Ford, about his behaviour but don’t directly connect to that scandal ... I tried to add something to the Star’s story about him getting intoxicated, getting drunk after or before he arrived at this Conservative Party barbecue in August … Does that fall into that category, I don’t know. It’s certainly about his conduct ... but it’s not about the crack or the phone in any way” (Goldsbie).

    The Sun was careful to tiptoe around the allegations. On Halloween, after Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced that police had the video, the Sun started adding the tag “Ford Video” to their reporting on the subject. The tag itself is quite vague, but it serves to connect the coverage.

    Carey writes, “if a story can be kept alive in the news long enough, it can be fleshed out and rounded off. Journalists devote much of their energy to precisely that: keeping significant events afloat long enough so that interpretation, explanation, and thick description can be added as part of ongoing development” (308). The Star obviously kept – and is keeping – the story alive.

    Other outlets found a way to keep the story alive, too. Since they couldn’t report on the video, they found new angles and stories around it. In June, Toronto police descended upon a number of Dixon Road high rises for what would eventually be known as the “Project Traveller” raids. The information that came from police documents about these raids gave some support to the drug allegations against Rob Ford. These police findings allowed news outlets to cover stories connected to the crack scandal with their own original reporting.

    The infamous photo of Rob Ford with three men in front of a house on Windsor Drive also led journalists to new stories. Mohamed Siad, one of the men in the photograph, was arrested during the Project Traveller raids, which gave the media more background information relating to the scandal. Anthony Smith, for example, who was murdered in March, was eventually identified as another man in the photo with Ford.

    Findings from the raids, the photograph and the activities of Ford’s questionable acquaintances kept the story alive for months. For example, on Sept. 17, Sam Pazzano of the Sun wrote, “The home of an accused drug dealer, who reportedly tried to sell the alleged Rob Ford crack cocaine video, was searched by police during a massive anti-gang raid, a Toronto Sun lawyer said Monday.”

    For months, the video had only three eyewitnesses. It was also nowhere to be found. During this time, Ford could have sued for defamation. The Star was, after all, claiming the mayor had smoked crack cocaine and made racist and homophobic remarks. If the Ford family had decided to sue for defamation—before the mayor’s confession — CP, the Sun and NOW would not necessarily have been protected on the grounds they credited Gawker and the Star.

    However, even if Ford had sued, the story would have been defensible under the responsible communication defense, first used in the Grant v. Torstar Corp. case. The story was a matter of public interest and the journalists had done their due diligence. On May 16, Donovan said they tried to get a comment from the mayor using 14 different people and phone numbers (Donovan). This effort would have held up in court (“responsible communication” Jobb).


    Verification is traditionally seen as a key element of what ensures the credibility of journalism. Kovach and Rosenstiel recommend outlets confirm competitors’ stories first: “Rather than publishing another news outlet’s scoop, journalists have tended to require one of their reporters to call a source to confirm it first. In part, this was a way of avoiding having to credit the other news organization. Yet it had another more important effect. Stories that couldn’t be independently confirmed would not be repeated (100).”

    The media could not watch the video, but they did try to verify its contents in other ways. “We considered our due diligence,” said Huebert. “We put in a call to the mayor, which was pretty much fruitless. We … had a photographer staking out his house, we called his lawyer and had comment from him, we spoke to the police and had comment from them, and then of course, the obvious person, who should have spoken up very quickly, and did not, was the mayor. We had to include all these voices as much as you can to try and do all the diligence around the actual video” (Huebert).

    WATCH: Ellen Huebert on verification

  6. Many people, especially reporters, see the Star as a legitimate, trustworthy news source, and this helped propel the story forward.

    “If it had just come from Gawker, I would have had more concerns,” said Huebert. “But, we had, in essence, two sources reporting the exact same thing. The Star – no matter what the Fords say – the Star, and Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle are reputable, professional people and I am not going to think they would misreport something, especially of this magnitude” (Huebert).

    Goldsbie agreed, saying he trusts the Star. Goldsbie also trusts Gawker and considers it journalism even though it isn’t a traditional outlet:  “It’s about a set of ethics… Part of Gawker’s mandate, part of its appeal is that it plays with those, but they don’t lie, they don’t make shit up. Their slogan these days is “Honesty is our only virtue.””

    WATCH: Ellen Huebert and Jonathan Goldsbie on credibility

  7. Ellen Huebert and Jonathan Goldsbie - Credibility
  8. The Sun, on the other hand, was more cautious about trusting the Star’s reports, at least at first. On May 18, two news stories ran alongside two op-eds criticising the Star. In one op-ed, Simon Kent took issue with the Star’s sources: “As we all know, drug dealers are paragons of truthful virtue, never given to exaggeration, falsehoods or untruths. They NEVER make stuff up. Scout's honour.” In the other op-ed, Anthony Furey was critical of the Star’s style: “Sure, the Canadian outlet driving this is the Toronto Star, known for their ‘gotcha’ approach to Ford that's eroded their credibility. But, if true, this story may have greater implications than previous cheap-shots levelled against Ford.”

    Donovan said it doesn’t bother him to take the fall for “outrageous” stories. “I’ve had many stories that I’ve been attacked for doing, and I don’t mind the heat. I learned quite quickly to be very professional in my responses and to try and explain to the people who are attacking us why we were doing the story and how we did the story. I think if you’re in the business of firing arrows at people you’ve got to be able to take a few back” (Donovan).

    Newsrooms are being squeezed tighter and tighter, notes Angela Phillips in “Transparency and the new ethics of journalism” for Journalism Practice, which is a threat to the credibility of journalism. “Time and budgetary pressures are pushing news organisations in the wrong direction, towards an increasing reliance on re-purposing the same material and a decreasing amount of time spent on the kind of investigation which allows for differentiation” (380).

    For the Ford story, the tide turned when Blair announced he had the video on Oct. 31. Skeptical people now had a third source – and one of high credibility – to rely on. The word “alleged” was dropped by several organizations in relation to the video. Even reporters who had traditionally been on the mayor’s side, such as the Sun’s Joe Warmington, stopped questioning the existence of the controversial video.


    Information about the video from Cook, Doolittle and Donovan is not covered by copyright. “Information cannot be copyrighted, only the form in which it is presented,” explains The Canadian Press stylebook: a guide for writers and editors (243). “The actual news in the story cannot be protected” (The Canadian Press 243).  This means that the contents of what allegedly occurs in the video became public property once the reports were published.

    Other news organizations were acting within their legal rights when they chose to reuse the information from Gawker and the Star’s reports, because they relayed the information in their own words. “Someone else using an original method of expression may reproduce the information. Making a few changes in expression is not sufficient; the presentation must be substantially original” (The Canadian Press 243).

    That being said, news organizations should credit the source of information. (That’s true even when they are not repurposing news from another organization.) In Media Law for Canadian Journalists, Dean Jobb advises that journalists “ensure the original story has been published or broadcast, or has appeared online, and give credit where credit is due” (176).

    “We took the story with full credit to the Star because of course they need to get credit for the work they’d done and Gawker as well” said Huebert. Even after Blair substantiated the Star and Gawker’s reports, on Nov. 4, CP attributed the video to “two media outlets.”

    For Huebert, crediting isn’t just about fairness. It’s about telling the truth. “I actually went back and looked at all of our stories, and every single one acknowledges the source of this video. I don’t think we had one where we didn’t say where it came from. That would not be fair, and it would not be truthful” (Huebert).

    Huebert describes crediting original sources as a Golden Rule for ethical journalism. It’s about reciprocity. “If another organization breaks the story, then they should get the credit. The reverse is true. If we break a story, and we do break our fair number, we feel unhappy when we’re not given the credit we deserve” (Huebert). In an industry where you are defined by the information you find, credit is essential.

    Goldsbie said that crediting other news organizations hasn't always been the industry norm. “I think traditionally there has been some reluctance to credit or name other mainstream media outlets ... But I think that standard is changing and should be changing and that we should be moving towards open citations and acknowledgement whenever possible” (Goldsbie).

    NOW gave ample credit to Gawker and the Star when the news first broke, but as time passed they took for granted that their readers knew about the video’s origin. In October, before the police chief’s press conference, NOW’s Enzo DiMatteo called it “the cellphone video that started this whole mess – the one allegedly showing the mayor smoking crack” but didn’t link it to Gawker or the Star (“Cops”).

    The mayor’s brother and city councillor Doug Ford has been known to criticize the media, but when asked if any outlets had done his family justice, he said: “I think the Sun is fair. Now keep in mind, they’re all against Rob and I’m saying this. I’m not being biased. Every day the Sun is after Rob but I think the Sun is fair” (Ford).

    Doug Ford's view may stem from the fact that the Sun took a conservative approach towards reporting on the alleged video by often simply omitting the video (and the related allegations) from their coverage.

    In an Oct. 29 news story about the mayor’s plan to run for reelection, the Sun’s Don Peat made a subtle reference to the video by quoting Ford: “It's going to be a bloodbath, they're coming after me and I'm sure they're going to bring up everything” (“bloodbath”). Peat never explains what “everything” is. Like NOW’s DiMatteo, Peat is relying on the city’s news curriculum.  By the date the article was published, Oct. 29, some journalists were treating news of the video as common knowledge rather than crediting the original report.


    In analyzing coverage of Ford, we found that the video was the foundation for a curriculum of investigative and unflattering news about the mayor. Although the publications we examined could not watch the video, they verified facts around it and relied on the credibility of Gawker and the Star’s reporting. It seems that the Sun did not find these reports credible, so they avoided referencing the video. Regardless of their trust in the original reports, at least in the beginning, before the video became institutional knowledge in Toronto, the media gave credit where it was due.

    WATCH: Kevin Donovan on controversial evidence

  9. Kevin Donovan - ORNGE vs. buffoon mayor
  10. The case of the crack video sets a precedent for journalism to come. Some were skeptical of the news and clamoured to see the video evidence. But Donovan calls it an “old-fashioned newspaper story” because they reported on something they had seen. Traditionally, readers have trusted newspaper reporters’ descriptions of things—from war battles to legislation passing at Queen’s Park to theatre productions—without demanding video footage. As newspapers fight to stay relevant in a world where people want to see things for themselves, trust and credibility are more important than ever.

    What made this story so special, then? Donovan said it’s the subject matter. Everyone is interested in the “buffoon mayor” (Donovan). The personality of the mayor was a popular topic of conversation around Toronto even before news of the video broke. And it seems that Ford’s unwillingness to discuss the allegations only attracted more media attention.

    But while the story of “that alleged video” may be the first of its kind, it’s probably not the last. Anyone with a cellphone has the potential to scoop (and record) something shocking. That’s bad news for anyone with a secret to hide, but perhaps its good news for journalism. Newsrooms are shrinking: reporters have less time and resources to look for big stories. Vigilante videographers might just give journalists the ability to see everywhere at once; they can expose and support stories that would be unbelievable without video evidence. 

    Following a video lede may become standard practice in the future. There’s no harm in that for journalists, even if they haven’t seen the evidence themselves, as long as they continue to assess the credibility of their information and give credit when it is due before building a curriculum of news around a single video.


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