When I went to journalism school at the turn of this century, none of my professors thought to include a seminar on the ethics of Crackstarters.
We had seminars on the ethics of almost any other challenge we might encounter. But nobody predicted a time when alleged drug dealers would try to sell a video purportedly showing the mayor of Canada’s largest city smoking crack, and the mayor would pretend nothing happened and thousands of people would join together on the Internet to buy that video in the name of democracy.
Crackstarter is an Indiegogo campaign by Gawker, the website that broke the story of the video’s existence. They say if they can raise $200,000, they can buy the video.
There are good reasons why reputable news organizations, in Canada at least, do not pay their sources. Paying a source for information creates a conflict of interest, in which the source has a financial reason to tell the journalist what she or she thinks the journalist wants to know. Paying sources can create a market for information-gathering that is ethically or legally dubious. It also sets up an expectation of payment that might discourage whistleblowers from freely divulging information.
So ultimately, Crackstarter might work against the public’s right to know, if it changes our political culture in ways we don’t intend.
Although I don’t expect the non-journalists who have contributed to Crackstarter to adhere to journalism textbooks, they ought to share those same concerns, as citizens.
One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it allows anyone to do the work of disseminating information on a mass scale and very quickly. But if we are all the media, we are all subject to media ethics.
In this case, there is an added element of shadiness in that paying for the video is basically compensating crack dealers for breaking the law.
It is also rewarding them for holding the video, and Toronto’s political future, ransom.
I don’t think the mayor’s privacy comes into it. There are two possibilities: It is Mayor Rob Ford, smoking crack and saying nasty things, in which case the public interest in the video massively outweighs the privacy of a man breaking the law while holding public office. Or it isn’t him, couldn’t possibly be him, in which case all he had to do was say so on the first day, and it wouldn’t be a privacy breach but a malicious prank. In either case, privacy’s not in play.
While we’re talking about the mayor, his decision to keep silent until Friday afternoon is at the very top of this dung heap of ethical breaches. Frankly, I’d rather see a mayor who smoked crack and was honest about it when confronted, than a mayor who didn’t but who couldn’t be bothered to articulate an explanation, who let his city and country become an international laughing stock for no reason other than his own arrogance.
If citizens are now forced to decide whether it is better to pay drug dealers for extortionary videos, or to let the mayor keep governing in this weird limbo, it’s the mayor himself who has put them in this position.
Be that as it may, this is the choice before us.
There’s a very good chance the Indiegogo campaign to raise $200,000 for this video will succeed, even though the speed of pledges has been dropping off. It was at $160,000 on Friday, and it ends on Monday.
What will we do, as citizens and as journalists, if the video becomes public thanks to Crackstarter? Will we post the video or link to it?
I suspect the answer will be “yes,” for most of us. The video is so clearly in the public interest and once it’s published, it’s public. But in this sordid chapter in Canadian history, it’s Crackstarter that’s spreading the muck the widest, forcing millions of people to choose between two sets of deeply held values, and try to find a way to live with their decisions.