An undercover reporter posed as an employee of an escort service. One of her two clients included a Hasidic rabbi, who masturbated in a motel room while looking at pornography on television and at the reporter in her underwear.
- The Press - Editorial / Op-ed (09/18/1986)
by Clair Balfour
The Gazzette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) - September 18, 1986
Freelance reporter Lindalee Tracey wrote of her experiences on two dates as an employee of two escort services. Each date led to overtly attempted sexual activity. Tracey described her avoidance of sexual intercourse in each case. Her name appeared on the story, but she was not further described.
Names and physical descriptions were used, including those of one client described as an Hasidic rabbi, who masturbated in a motel room while looking at pornography on television and at Tracey in her underwear.
The story was accompanied by a photo of a woman, shown from the back and not identifiable, standing in an open doorway. An associated headline and the photo's caption implied she was a prostitute on her way into a hotel room.
Jim Peters, assistant managing editor in charge of local news coverage, said the story was "to point out a glaring loophole in Canada's strange melange of laws designed to stop prostitution.
"What better way to do so than to prove that prostitutes - and the people who prey on them - are still making big bucks under the eyes of the legislators and the police?"
That strikes me as a reasonable explanation overall, but some aspects are worth scrutiny.
The story was based on surreptitious work which, although questionable, is ethically acceptable when clear to readers that the writer was operating in such a manner, as was the case here.
The Gazette's code of ethics says, "Staff members must not induce people to commit illegal or improper acts."
Some readers considered the story to have contained improprieties. Although Tracey was not a staff member, clearly she was carrying out the assignment for the newspaper.
The code also says, "The Gazette and its news staff should, in the pursuit and presentation of news, be considerate of personal privacy." Privacy was protected by altering descriptions of some individuals, other than operators of escort services.
(Since 1975 The Gazette has had a written code of ethics. It is under review by a newsroom committee.)
While some of those considerations may conflict, some conclusions may be drawn.
First, the writer ought to have been described as well as being identified. The Gazette lacks consistency in this area (as do other newspapers). While non-staff book reviewers and some freelance contributors to The Gazette's Comment page are described in brief, italic footnotes, the credentials of freelance reporters rarely accompany news stories.
Such information would help readers evaluate the news. In this story, partly written in the first person by a known Montreal personality, the omission seemed glaring.
Tracey's most recent story in The Gazette appeared July 5; it was about Vietnamese boatpeople who settled in Montreal.
She has been a scriptwriter for the National Film Board, an announcer on CJAD radio, a researcher for Canadian Broadcasting Corp., a film actress, and a stripper who used the name Fonda Peters and started an annual strip show to raise money for the Montreal Children's Hospital in 1976. Later she became a lobbyist and activist against pornography.
Some may argue that her stripping was irrelevant here. However, it was widely known, has been previously reported several times in The Gazette and meant that Tracey had some skills helpful to her for this assignment.
In my view, it was directly relevant and should have been stated. This would have added to the credibility of the story and the newspaper.
A second conclusion is that facts, including personal identifications, should never be altered without warning readers and telling them why.
The undisclosed, deliberate falsification of even a single fact is misleading and casts doubt over an entire story. Fakery has no place in a newspaper that wishes its readers to believe and to trust it. Indentities can be protected in other ways.
Similarly, the unidentified woman photographed in a doorway was not a prostitute in a hotel but a temporary Gazette newsroom secretary, Michelle Sarrazin. She had posed in a doorway to the newspaper's boardroom.
Readers deserved to know that the scene had been modelled: No guessing.
Details of Tracey's date with a rabbi troubled some readers, for obvious reasons.
While names, ages and other details enhance the readability and believability of any story, selection of dates was a matter of luck. The other date was with a businessman, also described in some detail. Each represented about 13 per cent of the story.
But the treatment of the rabbi was unnecessarily harsh. The story was about prostitution in the escort business, not about a sexual encounter with a rabbi. The story lost its way here and took to stomping where it could have tip-toed.
Some readers found parts of the story offensive and their comments deserve to be heard by senior editors, although taste is subjective and each reader will have his or her own view. Also, any story about sex is fraught with possibilities to offend.
However, rigorous editing can deal with most trouble spots in stories of this nature. As stated on the opening page of Stylebook, the Canadian Press news agency's 358-page guide to news coverage, used at The Gazette, "good taste is a constant consideration. Some important news is essentially repellent. Its handling need not be." One or two more passes through the editing process would have helped this story.
If you have a question, comment or complaint about fairness or accuracy of news coverage in The Gazette, write to our ombudsman, Clair Balfour, at 250 St. Antoine St. W., Montreal H2Y 3R7, or telephone 282-2160.