Two Canadian newspapers decided against letting readers comment on its news stories about the alleged video of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack.
As iMediaEthics has written, gossip website Gawker and the Toronto Star reported last month that their reporters had seen a video of what they said showed Ford smoking crack cocaine. Ford has denied he uses crack, and the two sites couldn’t provide the alleged video because the owners wanted hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gawker started a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign on Indie Gogo and successfully raised the $200,000 to buy the video, but as of now, hasn’t been able to find the video owners.
Public editors Sylvia Stead for the Globe and Mail and Kathy English for the Toronto Star both reported in recent online posts that readers complained about not being able to comment on the newspapers’ stories about Ford, but that the newspapers blocked the comments sections because of the nature of the stories.
According to Stead, “comments are closed for legal reasons” because of the possibility of contempt of court. She explained what types of stories warrant shutting down comments:
“They tend to be stories on official investigations of named individuals, arrests, charges laid or ongoing trials where publication of any content, including reader comments, could affect a person’s right to a fair trial.”
The difference between readers commenting and journalists reporting is that the Globe and Mail’s “serious or high-profile cases….are often vetted first by legal advisers,” whereas commenters might not know about legal standards, she wrote.
In an email to iMediaEthics, Stead confirmed that “comments on the Ford story are blocked, although The Globe did allow open comments on my blog explaining why they had been closed.”
Further, the executive editor for the newspaper’s website Jim Sheppard told Stead more about how comments could possibly lend themselves to contempt.
“Our legal advice on what’s known as contempt of court has been consistent for years now – the right of any person to a fair trial, untainted by advance publicity, is a fundamental cornerstone of our judicial system and we generally err on the side of caution to protect that right.”
(iMediaEthics has written several times about British newspapers accused or fined for contempt of court because of their reporting on high-profile court cases.)
Over at the Toronto Star, public editor English explained that the Star won’t let readers comment on the Ford stories for several reasons:
- Not every article by the Star is open for commenting. Until now, the Star has only offered comments sections on “a few articles.”
- In general, Star readers have complained about “offensive reader comments.”
- The Star wanted to keep comments closed on Ford stories because they are “sensitive” and readers likely will not contribute “respectful and civil conversation.”
Quoting Star Digital Editor John Ferri, English reported the newspaper expected comments would largely become argumentative. He said, “It’s just one of those polarized issues in which the comments are very likely to become diatribes and personal attacks and anything thoughtful that actually advances the discussion gets overwhelmed by the vitriol.”
And for her own part, English added that “I am less certain that any sort of constructive or civil discourse on those political and journalistic issues would occur should the Star open up online commenting” on the Ford stories.
iMediaEthics has written to English to confirm that comments were closed for all Ford stories and will update with any response.
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