Oh, Canada: Ethical Frameworks in Journalism and the Rob Ford Scandal

              dailyshowimageIn February 2014, Robyn Doolittle – a City Hall reporter for the Toronto Star – was interviewed in the US by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show[1]. While her main purpose was promoting her book on the crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, there was inevitable mockery of how this shenanigan could have happened in such a large city for so long, along with the typical American/Canadian banter. Despite the humour, Doolittle somewhat defended public voters by emphasizing the differences in journalism between the two nations. When questioned on how Ford has managed to get away with his behaviour for such an extended period of time (since he became a Councillor in City Hall in 2000), Doolittle highlighted that access to information laws in the US are perhaps taken for granted; in Canadian law, it is a much more lengthy process to get the information you need to report a fact-checked story. She also noted that Canadian journalism is considerably less concerned with the private lives of political figures, and Rob Ford is presenting a change in this dynamic. When Stewart asked if Canadian news media is conflict-based or if it exercises restraint, Doolittle points out that Canada’s news media has recently begun to shift to an American style, where things that are said in a more commentary setting, such a talk radio, are perceived as factual, and errors start to become truths. These are just some of the points brought to light by the Rob Ford scandal, and how it has exemplified some of the ethical issues in journalism. Although the Ford story began as a cutting edge news story that challenged journalism ethics, it was quickly framed by the tabloids as a celebrity meltdown. The dilemma of the Daily Show interview was not one of US/Canada relations, however, yet a friction between a reputable, well-established Canadian newspaper, and a comedic, opinion-based television program, which could explain the missing link in understanding the ethical difficulties of investigating and reporting on Rob Ford.

In the debate of journalism ethics, there is a question of if there’s a universal ethical framework or various national ethical frameworks. I argue that there is neither a universal nor a national ethical framework. Instead, there exists what I will define as transnational ethical frameworks that are divided by cultural differences, such as corporate structures/business models, political principles, and foundational ethics within individual news agencies. To exemplify these characteristics, this essay presents theoretical arguments of ethical issues of reporting on Rob Ford that translate across nations but not necessarily across all news agencies; and then looks at the practical segregations in news media agencies that are comparable in the US, the UK, and Canada, while considering the aspect of libel law in each state.

For a reputable, factual newspaper like the Toronto Star, the ethical issues of publishing this type of story strongly oppose those faced by the satirical blogging site Gawker[2]. The initial decision to publish faced the question of how much fact-checking was necessary, the confidentiality of their source, and the dilemma of paying for information. As the story became more heated, ethical boundaries Ford’s privacy and the privacy of those related to him were called into question (and does it qualify as stalking), and how news agencies should treat reporting done by other news agencies (that is, do you acknowledge that it is factual without having access to their sources).[3] While journalism sources such as Gawker may deal with these issues differently, it is arguable that these ethical debates would have happened and been dealt with in the same manner in newsrooms in other national contexts, and drawn the same conclusion. One can therefore draw parallels of ethical frameworks not by nations, but by transnational factors that influence a news agency’s ethics of reporting and publishing.

Ethical Journalism: Where the Ethical Boundaries Lie

In the timeline of events both before and after the publication of the Toronto Star’s headline on the alleged video, the debate on ethical journalism most likely would have occurred in April, as Doolittle and fellow reporter Kevin Donovan deliberated how to deal with the information they’d been given. As Doolittle and others have suggested[4], the Rob Ford story signified a shift in the landscape of journalism in Canada. Shapiro (2014) would suggest, however, that the Ford story did not signify a shift in Canadian journalism, per say, but instead exemplified the controversies in ethical boundaries for a certain type of news agency, one that’s values are paralleled in other nations, thus the argument for transnational ethical frameworks. The debate therefore lies in how we define responsible journalism, what qualifies as media ethics, and who is held to this standard. Ethics on a global/universal scale do not exist (Couldry, 2013, p.26), making a discussion of meta-ethics (operating in a normative framework) a difficult conversation with multiple contestations (Couldry, Madianou, & Pinchevski, 2013, p.8). We can, however, think of ethical frameworks in a categorical sense, by considering practical measures, such as corporate structures, political positions, etc. This transnational ethical framework assists in describing the behaviour of journalists within news agencies around the world that have a common understanding of their purpose. The opinion that responsible journalism follows the philosophy of participating for the betterment of the public good (Merritt, 1998,p.96;Couldry, 2013,p.15) is limiting, in that the perception of the ‘public good’ is highly contestable, and as Couldry (2013) notes, “the practical conditions of working journalists are inimical to ethical practice” (p.14). In addition, the journalistic practice defies the establishment of ethical standards (Zelizer, 2013, p.271) by pushing boundaries preconceived notions of journalism ethics, as the world has seen recently through scandals such as the News of the World, Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, and, as I will argue in Canada, the Rob Ford crack video.

As previously mentioned, one of the primary concerns of the Toronto Star was the degree of fact-checking and anonymity; at what point can a ‘responsible’ journalist publish something as ‘truth’ that they themselves have only been exposed to in a limited context? Dayan (2013) explains that the danger of decontextualizing a statement or source is that once it is validated by the media, it tends to be accepted by all parties (p.163). On this thought, he refers to Lyotard (1988), who states “reality is a status of referent that results from the effectuation procedures of fact-establishment” (p.32). In actuality, once the Star published the story and made the claim, despite Ford’s continual denial, there was little doubt that the video existed, and more so a collective effort by the media and the public to obtain the video from the source. Instead of speculation for the truth, it became a waiting game for the next big move by either the media or the Mayor. As Thompson (2007) points out, the increase in the prevalence of political scandal is not the result of the lowering moral standards of politicians, but a change in the moral conventions used to assess the behaviour of politicians (p.262). Once Gawker published the headline that the video was for sale, I would argue the Toronto Star had little choice but to publish the story due to extenuating factors such as competition. Had Gawker not been a factor, the Toronto Star may have been more hesitant, and taken more time to back rumour with fact, and ensure they were not breaching Ford’s right to reputation[5].

In conjunction to the practice of fact-checking, academics in the field of ethics often highlight the importance of truth-seeking as an ethical standard in journalism. Couldry (2013) suggests that truth-seeking is not only vital to journalism, but is a “value for all effective forms of human organization” (p.16). Thurth-seeking fits into Couldry’s (2013) broader ethical framework that he composes of three elements: accuracy, the aim to truth; sincerity, the act of only making statements that align with what you believe; and care, the disposition to show care for the common characteristics of interaction that the media make possible (p.25). While perhaps these characteristics must be revisited and considered in the actions of journalists, Couldry’s virtues are idealistic, and do not define the standards by which even responsible journalists work. As O’Neill (2013) notes, “since the disciplines of truth-seeking are constraining, appeals to truth-seeking can at most support conceptions of media freedom that incorporate the relevant constraints” (p.25). Although responsible journalism ideally aims to seek the truth, circumstances exist that surpass the importance of this virtue, as was the case in the publication of the alleged Rob Ford video. It was put into practice that although the utopian virtues of ethics exist in the newsroom, they are separated from the behaviour of journalists by other extenuating factors that influence actions.

Revisiting Couldry’s (2013) ethics element of ‘care’, the Rob Ford scandal acts as a prime example of how respect for the interactions that the media make possible – a component of journalism ethics – can become side-lined by other weighted priorities in the behaviour of journalists. While the Toronto Star is a well-respected liberal news agency ( though Shapiro (2014) views this to be irrelevant, as it is a differing paradigm from that of ethics), the decision to contribute to the betterment of public life outweighed the importance of ‘care’, consequentially creating tensions in the interactions of the media with politicians in Toronto. When considering this situation, it is not only external factors such as competition that were integral to decision-making, but components of ethics that conflicted with one another.

An important consideration in the ethical dilemmas of the publishing of the Rob Ford scandal is power in the newsroom. An editorial piece – written as a follow-up to the publication by a writer at the Star – focuses on the role of the Star’s lawyer, who was closely involved in the decision of if publishing anonymous sources in this case was irresponsible journalism, and broke the Star’s policy on confidential sources (Gunn, 2013). In this sense, can the journalist be solely responsible for their ethical actions, or do other figures within the same newsroom hold more weighted power? Undoubtedly, certain powers pressure journalists, and manipulate journalist behaviour. As Silverstone ( 2007) argues, the current crisis in journalism ethics is due to the “capacity of the global media to fulfil their responsibilities to a world which at the same time, in its political and economic dynamics, continues to undermine that capacity” (p.163); for example, there are media outlets that “embody the more commercial pole with relatively little journalistic autonomy and where economic capital dominates over journalism’s cultural capital (Hanitzsch, 2011, p.479-480). If we think of editors, newsroom lawyers, and business directors, as collectively pushing for political and economic dynamics, there is a system that is consistently conflicting with the purpose and goals of the journalist. These dynamics act as the controlling forces of the ethical framework under which the journalist operates, and work in various ways across different countries, hence putting into practice transnational ethical frameworks.

Ethics in Practice: Transnational Ethical Frameworks and Libel Law

In the US, the story of Rob Ford has been little more than a farce – a series of YouTube videos, late-night comedy sketches, and blog posts asking “Is this guy actually a politician?” In the UK, the Rob Ford crack video story became the second most-read item on BBC’s global news website (Fernandes & Kline, 2014). At the Toronto Star, however, the Rob Ford story and the uncovering of the infamous crack video has been a dilemma of journalism ethics, and how far a reputable newspaper can push the envelope. While the stories are very different, one could compare the decision to publish to the struggle faced the New York Times and the Guardian on Edward Snowden, or the unethical behaviour or the phone-hacking scandals and the Leveson Inquiry; the comparison is in the decision to publish information obtained in an unethical, irresponsible manner[6]. I argue that in terms of ethical decision-making in the newsroom, equivalent ethical divisions and areas of contestation can be found across the UK, the US, and Canada; divisions in the news media are based on other factors than national ethical values, such as views on the role of the journalist. I will however make the case that the element of the ‘national’ is brought into the deliberation of ethical frameworks through the workings of defamation law, and the different law systems used by each country.

Divisions in ethical frameworks implemented by journalists can in part be explained through perceptions of journalists’ role. These perceptions are not only defined by the journalist themselves, but are embedded in the structure and purpose of the news agency they represent. According to Hanitzsch (2011), there are three key areas of contestation in journalists’ role perceptions: interventionism, power distance, and market orientation (p.481). Interventionism describes journalists who pursue specific missions or promote certain values. In this case, journalists can either be involved – whereby they are socially committed and assertive in their reporting – or uninvolved – where they maintain objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality. Power distance is a journalist’s position towards the allocation of power in society. Journalists either act as a ‘Fourth Estate’, or as a loyal opportunist who collaborates with ruling elites in political processes. Lastly, a contested area of role perception is market orientation, which dictates how a journalist perceives his or her audience; market orientation is higher in journalism cultures that “subordinate goals to the logic of the market”, and lower in cultures that prioritise public interest and use the dissemination of information as a tool to create an informed citizenry.[7]

In simpler terms, these three divisions can be viewed as the foundational values of specific news agencies (interventionism), political principles (power distance), and corporate structures (market orientation). In various combinations, these choices form an ethical framework individual to each news agency, but that categorizes it into a broader spectrum of journalism practice. While these divisions are not themselves ‘ethics’, they have a strong role in determining ethical behaviour. Applying these variables to the case of Rob Ford and the decision to publish, it becomes clear how other news agencies even in the same country, like the Sun News Network (which according to Shapiro (2014) is the Canadian equivalent of Fox News in the US) would consider extremely different factors than did the Toronto Star (which works more similarly to a newspaper like The Guardian in the UK).

Although it is a large topic that cannot be fully unpack in this essay, libel/defamation law and the law systems that constrain journalists in different countries is integral to the question of ethical frameworks and ethical behaviour. Despite my argument of transnational ethical frameworks, it is one factor that operates at the national level, and visibly influences ethics in the newsroom. The UK, the US, and Canada all operate under Common Law systems, yet libel law has transpired differently in each country. In Canadian courts, freedom of speech is more balanced with the right to reputation (Shapiro, 2014). The UK, however, reformed its defamation law in 2013, and it is now required that a defamatory claim must have caused or be likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant (The National Archives, 2013). This reform acted in response to the ‘chilling effect’ that libel law has had on the freedom of expression, and legal threats faced by journalists in the UK. It also acts against ‘libel tourism’, whereby foreigners would come to the UK to sue journalists, where their defamation charges were likely to be accepted (The Guardian, 2013). With the consideration of libel law alone, it is evident that the Rob Ford scandal probably would have disseminated under different circumstances, and the ethics of anonymous sourcing would have likely been more highly contemplated.

In the US, libel law was widely defined by the case of the New York Times vs. Sullivan in the Supreme Court[8]. Due to the result of this case, it is now implied that Congress will make no law that impedes the freedom of expression, which will always be prioritized in court. According to Shapiro (2014), American journalists would have nothing to lose on Rob Ford, and the story would have proliferated with considerable less consideration of ethics and responsible journalism.

In Canada, “truth or justification is a complete defence against libel in Canadian law” (Cohen and McLean, 2014); that is, if the fact is true, it has a full defence for libel. In the case of the Rob Ford video, as long as the reporters published their own experience of viewing the video, they were not making untrue claims that could have subjected them to a lawsuit. The differentiation of libel law in practice in each country is a major factor in the previously discussed ethics of truth-seeking and fact-checking, and supports the argument that ethical frameworks in different nations may be further paralleled or segregated by similar/differing law systems that dictate the degree to which ethical virtues affect journalist behaviour.


                  Despite the argument that Canadian journalism is tempered by the Canadian culture for greater respect for authority and the “reserved nature of Canadian social intercourse” (Desbarats, 1987, p.A7), there are several more factors in considering journalism ethics than the national reputation for politeness and manners. Factors beyond ethics have proven to prevail in journalist behaviour, and “the fight is on for ever-more lurid stories both online and off” (Phillips, 2013, p.261). Foucault ( 1994) writes that in order for a person to have ethical behaviour, the individual must be free to make moral judgements[9]. As this essay has argued however, journalists are not free to do so; they are constrained by external factors that define the limitations of the ethical frameworks in which they operate. Unfortunately for Rob Ford, both ethical virtues and factors such as corporate structures, political principles, and foundational aspects of news agencies are all forces collectively working to bring him down.

 Works Cited

Blatchford, C. (2013, November 8). Paid-for video new journalism low; Rob Ford: New footage of Toronto mayor in full rant bought by newspaper and posted online. Vancouver, BC, Canada: The Vancouver Sun.

Couldry, N. (2013). Why Media Ethics Still Matters. In S. J. Ward, Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives (pp. 13-29). West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Couldry, N., Madianou, M., & Pinchevski, A. (2013). Ethics of Media: An Introduction. In N. Couldry, M. Madianou, & A. Pinchevski, Ethics of Media (pp. 1-18). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dayan, D. (2013). On Whose Terms Are You Shown?:(or, at least, following what principles?). In N. Couldry, M. Madianou, & A. Pinchevski, Ethics of Media (pp. 161-177). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Desbarats, P. (1987, December 11). Canadian Journalism respects privacy staying out of the gutter. Toronto, ON, Canada: The Globe and Mail.

Doolittle, R. (2014, February 7). The Daily Show . (J. Stewart, Interviewer)

Fernandes, S., & Kline, A. (2014, January 28). Rob Ford Around the World: What International Coverage Spotlighted about Differences in Media Law. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from The Canadian Journalism Project: http://j-source.ca/article/mayor-and-media-how-toronto’s-news-gave-j-students-crash-course-media-law-and-journalism-eth##world

Foucault, M. (1994). In P. Rabinow, Ethics: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gunn, F. (2013, April 6). Reporting on Rob Ford. Toronto, ON, Canada: The Toronto Star.

Hanitzsch, T. (2011). Populist disseminators, detached watchdogs, critical change agents, and opportunist facilitators:Professional milieus, the journalistic field, and autonomy in 18 countries. The International Communication Gazette, 477-494.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). Le Differend. Paris: Minuit.

Merritt, D. (1998). Public Journalism and Public Life. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

O’Beirne, R., & Kolm, J. (2014, January 28). Time to Publish: How Gawker drove the story forward. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from The Canadian Journalism Project: http://j-source.ca/article/mayor-and-media-how-toronto’s-news-gave-j-students-crash-course-media-law-and-journalism-eth

O’Neill, O. (2013). Media Freedoms and Media Standards. In N. Couldry, M. Madianou, & A. Pinchevski, Ethics of Media (pp. 21-38). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Phillips, A. (2013). Journalism, Ethics and the Impact of Competition. In N. Couldry, M. Madianou, & A. Pinchevski, Ethics of Media (pp. 255-270). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shapiro, I. (2014, April 8). Phone Interview. (K. Fuller-Jackson, Interviewer)

Silverstone, R. (2007). Media and Morality: on the rise of the mediapolis. Cambridge: Polity Press.

The Guardian. (2013, December 31). Libel: new Defamation Act will reverse ‘chilling effect’, ministers claim. The Guardian. UK: Press Association.

The National Archives. (2013). Defamation Act 2013. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from legislation.gov.uk: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/26/crossheading/requirement-of-serious-harm/enacted

Thompson, J. B. (2007). The Nature of Political Scandal. In R. Negrine, & J. Stanyer, The Political Communication Reader (pp. 261-265). London: Routledge.

United States Courts. (n.d.). New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). Retrieved April 17, 2014, from Supreme Court Landmarks: http://www.uscourts.gov/multimedia/podcasts/Landmarks/NewYorkTimesvSullivan.aspx

Zelizer, B. (2013). When Practice is Undercut by Ethics. In N. Couldry, M. Madianou, & A. Pinchevski, Ethics of Media (pp. 271-285). Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] See Doolittle, 2014; edited transcript in Appendix A

[2] A brief background of the Rob Ford scandal is given in Appendix A (See O’Beirne & Kolm, 2014)

[3] See Shapiro, 2014.

[4] See Stewart, 2014; and Blatchford, 2013.

[5] The right to reputation is a part of libel law, which will be discussed in Section 2.

[6] I acknowledge the differences in the various scandals, but for the purpose of this essay, I have chosen not to elaborate on the case of each individual scandal, and instead use the examples as a reference point to demonstrate the common ethical dilemmas across various news agencies and nations.

[7] See Hanitzsch, 2011, p.481.

[8] In 1960, the New York Times published an ad criticizing the Montgomery, Alabama police department and their treatment of civil rights protestors. The police commissioner, Sullivan, won his appeal in the Supreme Court of Alabama, but after arguing the case to the US Supreme Court pleading the First Amendment and winning their case, setting the tone for freedom of expression in American journalism. (United States Courts, 2014)

[9] See Phillips, 2013, p.262.

 Appendix A: Brief Background of Rob Ford Scandal

Before differentiating between ethical frameworks used by different news agencies, it is important to outline the unravelling of the Rob Ford scandal, and the ethical issues that were faced by the Toronto Star. Years before word of a video of the Toronto Mayor smoking crack cocaine ever emerged, Rob Ford was already making headlines. He was commonly seen in a drunken stupor in public and at political events, and was known for his aggressive behaviour both at work and at home. On April 1, 2013, Robyn Doolittle received a call from an anonymous source claiming to possess a video of the Mayor smoking crack. The source was demanding $100,000 for the video, and although he did not initially show the reporter the video, he eventually did in a future meeting on May 3. Meanwhile, the video was also shown to John Cook, the editor for the American tabloid website Gawker, who then proceeded to contact acquaintances at CNN to try and pool resources to purchase the video. Soon after, Gawker published a headline that read: “For Sale: A Video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Smoking Crack Cocaine”. The following day, the Toronto Star published on its front page “Ford in ‘Crack Video Scandal’”, along with a photo of Ford that was given to Doolittle by the initial seller of the video. A crowd-funding campaign was quickly started to raise money to purchase the video, and the Mayor immediately aggressively defended himself – along with his brother, Doug Ford – and the story was picked up by every major news agency in the city, some of whom claimed they were also contacted with an offer to purchase the video. After months of media speculation and a war of words between the Fords and the Toronto news media, in October, 2013, Toronto Police announced that in a separate drug investigation, they have retrieved the alleged video on a hard drive. (Kolm and O’Beirne, 2014)

Appendix B: Edited Transcript of the Daily Show

Part 1 of Interview:

Jon: So there’s rumours of domestic abuse, drugs, and absenteeism, and everyone waited a year…(laughter). How does he get away with this? …What keeps him loveable and in charge?

Robyn: Well, part of it, I think you guys take for granted how great your access to information laws… That’s a big part of the problem when you’re reporting on these issues, is it’s so hard to follow up on this stuff, and it took a full year to follow up on this investigation.

Part 2 of Interview:

Jon: What is Canada’s digestive process for how they destroy people? Because I know what we [Americans] do.

Robyn: You know part of the reason, because you asked me earlier, that something wasn’t done earlier – In Canada, we are much less comfortable with getting into people’s personal lives. So when I was writing the book, I was really torn about including details about his siblings, his wife, who are not elected officials. And that is the part of the story that is truly crazy, is the sister, two of his siblings struggled with hard drug addiction. His sister’s estranged husband murdered her boyfriend. She was shot in the face by another boyfriend…with her father’s gun… These details are hard to be pulled out…

Jon: Because of your culture.

Robyn: Because we’re just like, that’s their private business.

Part 3 of Interview:

Jon: What is your news media like up there? Are they conflict-based or do they also exercise restraint?

Robyn:…We are, very recently, evolving to an American style – thank you, America – where we’re seeing like talk radio… And I think talk radio contributed to this because the Fords ( there’s two of them, there’s a brother as well) will say things that aren’t true, and they’ll look into cameras, and just talk about it as fact. There’s not that sort of pause of fact-checking. And with talk radio, those errors become true.

Jon: Amplified.

Robyn: Right.

Jon:…Oh, you guys are going to start going in the shitter pretty soon. Yeah, it’s an absoluteloy crippling phenomenon that paralyzes a country’s ability to address its own problems, which in many ways, is the story of Rob Ford.

Robyn: And then we’re going to need a Daily Show to point out those hypocrisies.

*Photo courtesy of CTV News



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