Ghomeshi: How the Reporters Who Broke the Story Set the Tone of Division

Screenshot 2016-04-03 08.49.32


The public does not show any signs of slowing down the debate surrounding the not guilty decision in the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi. As expected, there has been an outcry from some members of the public over the perceived lack of justice in the case. Others agree with the decision, arguing that the witnesses were so unreliable that the judge had little wiggle room and could have only reached the decision he did. The public is predictably polarized and will probably have it out until the next Ghomeshi trial begins in June.

But if you ask the two main reporters involved in breaking this story – the Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan and freelance scribe Jesse Brown – you might begin to understand why this particular story seemed destined to divide the country. There was always an element of polarization, even before the story actually broke.

Brown had a scoop. He had already interviewed 8 women by the time he brought the story to The Star. Brown had never met 7 of the women before interviewing them as sources for the story, but one woman was decidedly different. Brown and she had a long-time friendship, which made things problematic from the Star’s point of view. Journalists, especially those who work for a big publisher, are meticulously careful about even the appearance of a possible conflict of interest when reporting on a big story. Reporters are almost never allowed to remain on stories if they have a personal connection to any of the subjects involved.

Brown, for his part, feels like his reporting was not a problem, and says neither Donovan nor the Toronto Star seemed concerned about his relationship with one of the alleged victims.

“He (Donovan) knew…and never raised it as an issue. In fact, he never bothered to interview her prior to our 1st story’s publication, though he had opportunity to do so. “

The truth is the Ghomeshi case created a rift between Donovan and Brown, born out of the stark differences in how a full time reporter and a freelancer investigates a story.

On Brown’s professionalism, Donovan says, “I found Jesse Brown reluctant to ask the sort of questions that needed to be asked. On social media he aggressively asks questions, but that was not my experience with him in person. To be fair to Jesse Brown, he has no background in this type of journalism.”

Donovan added, “…my interviews elicited more information due to the nature of the questions I was asking.”

Brown, who has secured a decent following since the Ghomeshi case broke at his Canadaland podcast site, continues to insist that his personal friendship did not negatively impact his ability to objectively investigate the story.

“…my connection to (name removed due to publication ban) actually helped with the reporting of the story, as I could personally confirm that she made her allegations years ago, when she said she did, back when the alleged incidents occurred. “

Donovan sees Brown’s involvement differently.

“ a reporter who has a connection or friendship with someone who is an alleged victim in a story cannot objectively do his or her job. It’s very important for journalists to be open about these things and to know when to step back.”

This is why Jesse Brown’s initial involvement is problematic. Nobody I have spoken with for this story had anything negative to say about Brown’s honesty or his intention to find the truth behind the Ghomeshi accusations. He’s not accused of fabricating interview notes, but we should consider the possibility his friendship did impact his work, as Donovan suggested. This is precisely the reason you walk away from the story if you are too close to a subject. Donovan knew this and interviewed the same women Brown had interviewed, a sort of insurance policy on accuracy. Indeed, Donovan did not have confidence in the type of questions Brown asked the other alleged victims, although he did not elaborate as to how Brown’s questions were insufficient, just that he was able to unearth additional info not pursued by Brown.

But it’s not just the integrity of the story, or your new career as a podcaster, or even your loyalty as a friend that matters, it’s the professionalism to understand that your perceived lack of objectivity could be seen as activism rather than journalism. Since Brown admits he was friends with one woman and knew about her alleged encounters with Ghomeshi years beforehand, he should have never interviewed the other 7 women.

From the very beginning of the Ghomeshi affair, objectivity seemed to take a back seat to salacious details of statements made to the media. Some articles from major papers and online publications seemed almost annoyed at having to use the word “alleged” in front of the allegations, often peppering the rest of the article with language that implied Ghomeshi’s guilt, such as referring to the alleged victims as ‘survivors.’ Journalism seemed lost as regular news articles were written like editorials, featuring an activist slant against a man who hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. While columnists and civilians are free to share their unfiltered opinions, those opinions began to largely outnumber the reporting that should have remained neutral.

As for Donovan, he didn’t break any rules or have a friendship with any of the witnesses. Instead, he reserved the right to take some of the interviews  as part of a soon-to-be-published book entitled Jian Ghomeshi – A Secret Life. When the largest daily paper in the country spends months publishing articles that deal with the fear some women have coming forward to report sexual assault, they probably didn’t think their lead investigative reporter working on the biggest story in the country would one day add to those fears by publishing the details of those interviews. He isn’t the first reporter to write a tell-all, but the sensitivities surrounding this case makes his book tough to swallow, especially for some of the women he interviewed in good faith.

With the first trial resulting in a not guilty verdict, and with the second trial looming, this saga will reign supreme as the most volatile, socially relevant and consequential story in recent memory. Many will see it as proof the justice system is not equipped at handling sexual assault crimes, while others will see it as proof that reporting sexual violence promptly is the tough pill victims have to swallow in order to achieve justice. But from a journalist’s perspective, it should give every writer pause as they ponder what their role is when unearthing a story of this magnitude, especially if they are connected to one of the alleged victims.