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The Toronto Star ran an incorrect story reporting that Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper “is making plans to play on a Canadian hockey team in two exhibition games against a Russian squad that will include Prime MInister Vladimir Putin,” public editor Kathy English reported Jan. 13.

According to English, the Star’s report on the hockey game “was based on interviews with tournament organizers and other sources.” This is the Jan. 9 article by Rick Westhead.

CBC noted that the Star’s story was published on the front-page. Westhead’s story was anonymously sourced and included a prime minister spokesperson noting that “no firm travel plans have been made” for the first game, iMediaEthics notes.  According to English’s report, the story “said the PM was already making plans to visit Moscow in September when the Canadian ambassador to Russia, John Sloan, contacted tournament officials to request the date of the first exhibition game be changed so Harper could play. Westhead was unable to reach Sloan to confirm this.”

But, the prime minister’s office denied the story after it was published. The Star ran a second story by Westhead Jan. 9 in which he notes the denials of his initial report.  Westhead wrote that despite its sources’ claims that “there have been talks to get Harper and Putin on the ice…press secretary Andrew MacDougall said the story was not true.”

The Globe and Mail noted that the follow-up story was “an updated story” after the PMO denial, maintaining its initial reporting was accurate.

Where Story Went Wrong

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The Star’s Westhead had been told by Canada’s prime minister’s office that there were “no firm travel plans,” which Westhead included in his report.  But, the office also questioned comments confirming the Canadian prime minister’s participation, off-the-record, according to English.

The reporter mistook the following exchanges with the prime minister’s office and told English that in hindsight he should have “demanded an on-the-record answer.”

English added:  “I don’t understand why such critical information was given to Westhead off the record. Why deny something off the record?”

English also commented that Westhead should have indicated in his initial report “that the Star could not confirm with Harper or the ambassador what his sources had said” and that nothing was finalized.

While Westhead’s second story does note that hockey game plan had been denied, neither story clearly indicates that the Star was wrong in its reporting.  We have written to English to ask if the Star will be adding notices or links to her column explaining how the account was wrong.

UPDATE: 1/18/2012 11:01 AM EST: English told iMediaEthics by e-mail that the Star does “need to address this online with the original stories,” but that the newspaper hasn’t decided what the “best way to handle this” is.

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Toronto Star: Report that Vladimir Putin, Stephen Harper Would Play Hockey was Wrong

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