It’s crucial we get the facts straight. That’s why the public editor’s job is so vital

Don’t give up on facts.

As I step into the job of public editor at the Star, my thoughts hearken back decades ago to my early years as a journalist, when I worked one night alongside two fellow Star reporters on what would become one of the biggest breaking news stories of my career.

Several days beforehand, Toronto police had alerted the media to a story of an individual with a terminal illness who had been robbed on the street and left flat broke. The police publicized that person’s story, and then launched a fundraising drive that garnered over $100,000 from a public moved by the individual’s plight.

The story made international headlines.

Sadly, it turned out to be a complete hoax. The person didn’t have cancer, wasn’t dying and hadn’t been robbed. The day that aspect of the story broke, the trio of us Star reporters got an early morning tip that helped push us ahead of other media outlets in the city.

We were able to press the police, talk to health professionals familiar with the individual’s medical history, and find others who had background information on the person.

All of which helped us garner details our competitors missed. For example, some members of the police service close to the case were initially motivated by good intentions, and were now trying to hush the situation up. The officers didn’t want it known they’d been duped by a fraudster, my Star colleagues and I discovered that day.

In the end, the individual at the centre of the case was arrested by police, later convicted on mischief-related offences and punished by the justice system. Some of the $100,000-plus raised was given to local charities, some of it back to the original donors and some to the individual’s child.

But as the hoax unravelled, I recall a few colleagues from other media outlets in the city clinging fast to false narratives. The individual was really dying, but of another ailment, they insisted.


The officers couldn’t possibly have made a mistake because they publicized the case and fundraised for the individual, others asserted.

Wrong again.

The story demonstrated how important it is to get the facts straight.

And that’s one of the main reasons I’ve always been very aware of, and intrigued by, the public editor post at the Star.

The public editor is an accountability role that gives our readers an avenue to question and challenge the accuracy of content that appears in our print and online news pages.

“Fair news reports provide relevant context, do not omit relevant facts and aim to be honest with readers about what we know and what we do not know,” says the Torstar Journalistic Standards Guide.

Facts — a word that is so germane at this seemingly existential point in time, when misinformation and conspiracy theories can metastasize in ways that feel threatening to our democracy.

That’s why the public editor’s job is so vital.

The media, one of the pillars of our democracy, is under attack from an increasingly cynical public. The public editor acts as a gatekeeper, ensuring Star stories meet the highest standards of fairness and accuracy — a bulwark against that growing distrust.

Created in 1972, the public editor position (it was formerly called ombudsman) has been filled by accomplished journalists including Rod Goodman, Don Sellar, Sharon Burnside, Kathy English and my predecessor Bruce Campion-Smith.

English, who was public editor for 13 years, penned these wise words when she took over in 2007: “Information overload fills all of our lives with so much noise and confusion. But news and information you can trust, gathered ethically, and written and presented fairly — what the best journalism aims for — is another thing altogether.”

She went on to say that the public editor must “hold our newspaper and online journalism up to a light for readers — to examine it, explain it, defend it and, when necessary, criticize it.”

I’ll report to Jordan Bitove, publisher and co-owner of Torstar Corp. I’ll be working with Brian Bradley, associate public editor.

Aside from my work ensuring the Star’s content meets ethical guidelines, I’ll be keeping a watchful eye, along with others in the Star newsroom, on the disturbing level of vitriol, nastiness and ugly personal attacks against journalists. Part of my role will be helping to mitigate the harm directed at reporters, editors, photographers and others by bad actors, who do so for sport or to vent frustration and anger.

As for future subjects, I’m planning to write about the important issue of newsroom diversity, in a column where I also intend to pay homage to those in the Black community who helped break down barriers and pave the way for me to get where I am today.

I’ll bring a new perspective to the job. That’s a fact.