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Public editor: When victims come forward, journalism amplifies the truth

In the midst of the #MeToo reckoning, let's consider the role of journalism.

Of course, the foundation of the movement is the brave women who have been abused and who have stood tall willing to reveal the most intimate details, willing to stand the questioning and trolling to tell their truth.

Without them, there would be no story.

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A newspaper is responsible for amplifying voices, especially those of people in positions of less power. However, hearing their accounts is only the start of an often long process of corroboration, finding relevant documents and then asking the accused for a response to the allegations.

We saw it in The Globe and Mail's Unfounded series, conceived and written by Robyn Doolittle, who told the stories of many women across Canada whose allegations of rape were dismissed as unfounded. In the course of the 20-month investigation, she not only spoke with dozens of women, but also used Freedom of Information requests to gather police data from across the country. Her findings that women's sexual-assault allegations were dismissed at a rate far higher than allegations of any other type of assault caused a Canada-wide reckoning, with police reviewing and reopening cases and government promising funding to probe gender-based violence.

In the United States, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story, along with Ronan Farrow, writing for The New Yorker.

Ms. Kantor spoke recently about The Times' commitment to sexual-harassment coverage. She knew that allegations against Mr. Weinstein were openly referenced, yet little had been researched and written. The reporters spent four months talking to women, looking at the money trail and internal documents. "[W]e wanted as many documents, as many records of settlements … and we wanted it to be irrefutable, because a lot of these things happened in the privacy of a hotel room," she said in a podcast on Slate.com.

This week, we saw the sentencing of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Although many women had complained to authorities, it was an Indianapolis Star investigation by Tim Evans, Mark Alesia and Marisa Kwiatkowski that found at least 368 athletes alleged some abuse. The prosecutor in the case said if those journalists hadn't exposed the abuse, it could have gone on longer. "We, as a society, need investigative journalists more than ever," said Michigan Assistant Attorney-General Angela Povilaitis. "What … ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting. Without that first Indianapolis Star story in August of 2016, without the story where Rachael [Denhollander] came forward publicly shortly thereafter – he would still be practising medicine, treating athletes and abusing kids. Let that sink in for a minute."

Mr. Nassar was convicted and sentenced to up to 175 years in jail.

And now we have former Ontario Conservative leader Patrick Brown, who resigned early on Thursday morning following allegations of sexual misconduct first reported by CTV News's Rachel Aiello and Glen McGregor. Mr. Brown has vehemently and categorically denied all claims.

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In Canada, we have strong libel laws and reporters must do their due diligence. You cannot publish rumours. Journalists must ask questions about these difficult allegations: Did the person talk to anyone else about their experience at the time and did the person back that up? Is it credible? Do their times, dates and facts match up with others' recollections and other information? How many people are involved and are the references similar? This can take weeks and months. Then you must go to the person accused of the wrongdoing, tell them what you have been told, give them every opportunity to respond and include that response with some prominence.

While I have no direct knowledge of the time and effort behind the work of CTV News, the Indianapolis Star and The New York Times, it seems clear that, like The Globe's work on Unfounded, they followed the journalism practices codified by Canada's Supreme Court in its 2009 ruling on responsible communication in the context of defamation.

That year, the court ruled that on matters of public interest, the media has to consider the seriousness of the allegation, the public importance and urgency, the status and reliability of a source and whether the other side of the story was sought and fairly reported. It said that while not every fact had to be precise, there must be an overriding ethic of fairness and responsibility.

The Globe's code of conduct expands on the law, saying the organization will "seek to provide reasonable accounts of competing views." The code includes an extensive section on the use of anonymous sources, which mentions they are a last resort, used when they convey information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. They are not used to voice opinions or make personal attacks.

At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, then-chief justice Beverley McLachlin said while this law does not "confer a licence to ruin reputation," … "freewheeling debate on matters of public interest is to be encouraged and the vital role of the communications media in providing a vehicle for such debate is explicitly recognized."

The journalists provide that vehicle for debate and the details to inform it. But it always takes others to come forward, bravely, to provide their stories first.

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