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Public Editor: Error in RCMP story shows lessons to be learned

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Last Thursday, the main story on the top of the newspaper was wrong. It said the RCMP had declined to mount an audit of recent sexual-assault complaints.

Following The Globe's series Unfounded on the high number of sexual assault complaints that are dismissed in some jurisdictions, police departments were being asked if they planned to review previous cases and a number said they would.

For two days, calls were placed to the RCMP. They were asked if they planned "a full review of such cases." The RCMP spokesman didn't answer that question, but rather answered about their processes and policies.

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On Tuesday, the RCMP was asked: "It seems like the OPP will be reviewing all of its Unfounded cases of sexual assault. As you know, we got the Commissioner on this yesterday, but are there any plans for a full review of such cases or anything new on this front?" The next day, the RCMP spokesman responded that the force was "examining those policies and practices to ensure that they are consistently adopted and enforced. As stated by Commissioner [Bob]Paulson this past Monday, the result of an investigation must turn on evidence, and not on opinion."

The reporter then tried Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale asking "have you anything to add in relation to the RCMP statement. Any sense this is going far enough/not far enough?" Mr. Goodale's office said that RCMP policies and training procedures will be updated "if a gap is identified in how sexual assaults are investigated."

Neither the RCMP spokesman nor Mr. Goodale's office had answered the initial question if they were planning a full review. But the problem is, faced with vague answers, the sources were not challenged again to say if they had either decided to or declined to audit the complaints, not just their policies and practices. The main writer on the story was another reporter who pulled together the work of three.

The next morning when the paper landed, at 6:35 a.m., Mr. Paulson asked The Globe reporter in a message "where did you get that we declined? It's not accurate. A review was directed yesterday morning." Both Mr. Paulson and the official spokesman apologized for not being clear about the ordered review of all cases.

The story was quickly updated with the correct information Thursday morning before 8 a.m.

Friday's newspaper story was accurate and played at the top of the page as the initial incorrect story had been, giving it as much prominence as possible, but it should have clearly said the previous day's story was wrong and should have included Mr. Paulson's statement that he made the order Wednesday.

As it was, it looked to some readers as if the RCMP had rejected the idea of an audit, then the next day re-thought the matter and decided it was in fact a good idea.

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Globe Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley said there are lessons to learn from this. "We should have pressed the RCMP for a direct answer to our question and, internally, we should have challenged the basis of the story when their response didn't support it."

The online version and the paper version will be corrected.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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