Answering journalism questions that arose from #peegate
This is the kind of crazy controversy usually reserved for Florida. Over the weekend, the Canadian Conservative campaign dropped two candidates from the Oct. 19 federal election because of forehead-slapping videos that been around for years.
The CBC reports:
Tim Dutaud, who was running for the Tories in Toronto-Danforth, was forced out Monday after he was identified as a man known as the UniCaller in prank YouTube videos that included him pretending to orgasm while on the phone with a woman and mocking people with disabilities. The videos appear to have been posted about six years ago.
That jaw-dropper followed another that unfolded Sunday when a caller told the CBC that somewhere in their files was a video of another Conservative candidate for Parliment who used to work as a home repairman. Turns out, the CBC captured Jerry Bance on an undercover video a few years ago when the CBC program "Marketplace" was investigating the honesty of repairmen. Bance kneeled down, fixed a sink pipe and while he was on his knees, reached into the customer's kitchen sink and relieved himself. Twitter quickly named the storm that followed #peegate.
OK, roll the tape, then let's talk about some serious journalism questions underlying this nuttiness.
Some Journalism Questions
The election is just more than a month away. We still don't know who tipped off the CBC or why. I asked some smart people how journalists should treat stories like this, stories that set social media on fire and cost candidates any chance of election. Lisa Taylor is a former CBC journalist, a lawyer and now an assistant professor at Ryerson University. Jack Nagler is the director of journalistic public accountability and engagement at CBC.
The video has been sitting in the CBC files for years, is it fair to trot it out now?
Nagler: This was video that had already aired on "Marketplace." Nobody had ever linked it to a political candidate until we received a tip on Sunday. Once it was verified, any responsible journalist would report it. It was relevant information about the character of someone running for office. That is clearly in the public interest to report. And you can't sit on information like that and try to time its release in a way that either helps or hurts a particular party. Can you imagine the repercussions of holding back from reporting a story like that?
Taylor: Yes, it’s fair for the CBC to air this video. If anything, I feel there were may have been more challenging ethical questions the first time around — Bance was singled out as a result of a hidden camera investigation — a journalistic technique that, while undoubtedly a valuable tool, one that also requires careful ethical reasoning to ensure its use is justified. Second time around, it’s clear — the video is already in the public domain, and most reasonable people would feel that, even if it’s not directly related to Bance’s platform, it’s a matter that goes clearly to character, and character is always relevant in politics. From the moment CBC received the tip, it had an ethical quandary on its hands — just as there are important ethical considerations in airing the video, there would be equally challenging ethical questions were the CBC to withhold it.
How would the decision be different if it was, say, a week or a day from Election Day and the CBC got the call?
Taylor: I think the decision would be tougher the closer we are to the election, and the CBC would be subject to greater scrutiny and criticism, because people might conclude that the potential for damage to the Conservative brand would be greater the closer we are to the election. In this case, however, #peegate will be a distant memory by the time we actually go to the polls. But, while the scrutiny might be greater, I think the decision would be the same: This is a powerful comment on Bance’s character, and character is always relevant in politics.
The only way the CBC would find itself in a vulnerable spot in terms of its ethical reasoning would be if it had the information and sat on it for any significant period of time before releasing it, which I understand is not the case. But, for example, if the news organization had the information in early September but didn’t release it until mid-October, there would be fair questions about the timing of the story.
Nagler: Probably not at all different. Of course editorial decisions can be more difficult as an election approaches. But you have to make decisions based on journalistic principles. And if you have a solid, verified story that is of public interest, you can't shy away from the responsibility.
What if the person who notifies the CBC is from the opposing political party? Would that change the journalists’ decision? Should the CBC disclose who contacted them?
Nagler: It's almost always the case that a news tip comes from someone with an agenda — they're trying to make someone look good or look bad. You should always be aware of what that agenda is as you go forward, and do what you c an to avoid being manipulated. But the judgment call has to be ours. Is the information actually important to report? And if it is, you absolutely have to verify it independently, or you don't report it.
Taylor: While I don’t think it would matter whether the information came to CBC from a political rival, I concede that it would raise more difficult questions. But the fact that Bance peed in someone’s coffee mug is an incontrovertible truth. I have to point out once again that, whether the CBC chose to broadcast or to ignore the information, there are ethical implications.
As for naming the tipster, that’s an interesting question. I would prefer to know who supplied the tip, but I also understand that person’s identity may be protected because they are concerned about being harassed by Bance’s supporters. At a minimum, we should have some description of who the person is, and what his/her stated motivation was for sharing the tip.
It’s also a powerful reminder to not promise anonymity too quickly, without a careful weighing of the risks and benefits to the individual and the risks and benefits to the news organization. Anonymity, once offered, should not be withdrawn, regardless of the circumstances.
The conversation is so animated that the phrase #peegate is trending on Twitter. How should journalists think about when or whether to feature some of the really funny comments the public is making about this turn of events?
Taylor: I don’t mean to sound glib, but I don’t really have a problem with integrating some of those funny social media comments into news coverage of this development. This is one of those rare stories that lands in the journalism sweet spot — it’s important and humorous and clearly engaging. The story offers insight into what tends to engage the social sphere and a story about the character of a candidate in a hotly contested election, both of which are valid preoccupations for the media. Kovach and Rosenstiel tell us that the journalist’s responsibility is to make the significant interesting — this story is one of those rare examples of a story that is inherently both interesting and significant.
Nagler: There are times where political stories evoke witty (and not-so-witty) remarks from pundits and public alike. It's all right to reflect that conversation. But the goal should be to respect people's dignity and not overplay a story's importance. This is not the only time in this election campaign that a party's candidate has had to withdraw for exercising bad judgment of one kind or another.