A screenshot of CTV's story about sexual assault allegations against Patrick Brown, which touched off a series of resignations and firings in January. (Screenshot/CTV News)

Rachel Aiello, one of the journalists that worked on the Patrick Brown story, was alleged to have a conflict of interest with one of Brown’s accusers. Bell Media said the accusation was false. (Screenshot/CTV News)

CTV’s now-infamous story about sexual misconduct allegations against Ontario Progressive Conservative party leader Patrick Brown was one of a series that fueled the #MeToo movement in Canada.

But almost immediately, accusations began circulating on social media that one of the story’s reporters, Rachel Aiello, had a conflict of interest with one of the accusers. Brown, who denies the allegations against him, cited the online discussion in a Facebook post Sunday.  “It is now known that this accuser and one of the reporters had a prior relationship,” he wrote. “They both worked and socialized together.”

CTV denies that Aiello and the source had a close connection. “I can confirm that the allegation that Ms. Aiello was close friends with the woman in our story is false,” Bell Media spokesperson Matthew Garrow said in an email. “Because this woman had worked on Parliament Hill, CTV News took steps before publication and broadcast to ensure that there was no previous contact with any of our journalists that would influence our reporting of this story. Our legal counsel participated in this process.” On Sunday, the Twitter account for the GTA-based radio show What She Said posted that one of the reporters on the story was suspended. In a phone call, Garrow said that is false and “CTV News 100 per cent stands by their story.”

Since the New York Times investigation into sexual assault allegations against now-disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein broke last October, countless people have come forward alleging numerous public personalities of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. In Canada, the #MeToo movement began to heat up in January. Allegations have been primarily reported within the realm of politics, including against the now former sports and disabilities minister Kent Hehr, Nova Scotia PC leader Jamie Baillie and Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown.

But while many people are inspired by the #MeToo movement and praise those who have come forward with their stories, there are others that are skeptical of such claims—many of which have not been proven in a court of law, but investigated by news organizations and fuelled by social media instead.   

When reputable newsrooms conduct investigations into crimes or scandals, there are often misunderstandings about what that entails. To avoid losing a defamation suit in court, journalists need to ensure they’re reporting fairly and doing everything in their power to prove any allegations. Sexual assault and harassment investigations are especially difficult, however, because it’s often a matter of one person’s word against another.  

After the The New York Times’ story about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of sexual harassment broke, the paper’s tip line began ringing off the hook with people wanting to come forward. People suddenly felt emboldened to share their stories after years of rumours about sexual assault and misconduct. Eventually, someone well-connected to the comedy world came forward to the Times, accusing the comedian Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct; people were now willing to talk about it.

“People started sharing information either through the tip line or reaching out to our reporters directly,” says Melena Ryzik, a Times reporter and the lead writer on the Louis C.K. story. “Some of the sources in the Louis C.K. story came to us that way.” From there, the Times corroborated all the stories they heard about Louis C.K., speaking to dozens of people in the process.

“I have done a few of these investigations, and they’re very difficult to do,” says Kevin Donovan, Toronto Star’s chief investigative reporter. Donovan is known for, among other things, co-writing the Star’s 2014 investigation into sexual assault allegations against then-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. “It was very much a person-oriented story, as opposed to a document story. There are no documents on this thing,” Donovan adds. In 2016, Ghomeshi was acquitted on four counts of sexual assault.

When the Star first got wind of the allegations against Ghomeshi, Donovan interviewed the victims at length­­. Each interview took about three to four hours, and after, there were follow-ups. “I was interested in getting as much information that would corroborate or not corroborate the person’s story,” Donovan says. “The difficulty of these cases is that it’s one person’s word against another, and so I was looking for electronic communication.”

Similarly, Ryzik says the Times hasn’t published sexual assault allegations without corroborating them. This includes talking to people the alleged victim spoke to at the time of the incident, or looking at any electronic communication. “There is no instance in which we hear an account from someone and then just say, ‘Print,’” she says, adding that many people don’t realize there are usually more allegations that go unpublished, which is sometimes because people aren’t ready to come forward. “In every case, there are lot of people who have experienced this misconduct,” Ryzik says. “What we try and do with the story is kind of convey that this is a pattern of behaviour and here’s how it ricochets through one person’s life or through multiple people’s lives.”

When Donovan is reporting on sexual assault and misconduct, he says he tries to be transparent with people by explaining the investigative process, and its potential outcomes. “I try to be really open, and I find that’s the best way to be… human or caring,” he says.

Ryzik says she does this, too. “You really want to be as open and available to your sources as possible,” she says. “I think we all felt it was important for us to let the sources know that we are there to listen to them when they have something to say, or really importantly, if they have a question about how this might proceed.” In some cases, Ryzik says, she communicates daily with sources.

During the 2016 trial, Ghomeshi’s defence attorney Marie Henein came down hard on two of his accusers, Linda Christina Redgrave and Lucy DeCoutere. In 2016, DeCoutere told Chatelaine  she felt shame after the trial. In a NOW Magazine article, Redgrave criticized Donovan’s book Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation, saying, “He shows his bias when he mentions in his book his reasons for asking Ghomeshi’s victims why they didn’t leave, or just stop Ghomeshi.”

Donovan says his goal is getting at the truth of the story, which requires him to sometimes ask tough questions. “I am an investigative journalist first in this because I am trying to seek the truth, and I understand that in doing so I may cause upset to other people,” he says. “I don’t want to be so worried that I will upset the person making the allegation that they will not cooperate.”

Sometimes, when thorough journalistic investigations are not completed, mistakes can derail allegations. In 2014, Rolling Stone published a story about an alleged gang rape at a fraternity party, which was later discredited, and a Columbia Journalism Review investigation found the magazine failed to corroborate the alleged victim’s story. “It’s the worst thing I’ve seen ever as a journalistic mistake,” Donovan says. In order for journalists to maintain the breadth of sexual assault and harassment allegations, it is imperative to keep following up with sources and work to verify every detail. “Go to the people early, go to them often, go to them again and again,” Donovan adds. “Make sure they know what you’re investigating or what you’re going to say about them.”

Days before the Times published the story about Louis C.K., he cancelled a couple of events to promote his new movie, I Love You, Daddy. He knew early on that the story was imminent. “We had gotten a call from his publicist at the time when they got wind of the story a couple weeks into our reporting,” Ryzik says. The Times reached out to Louis C.K. and his representatives for a formal response to the investigation on Nov. 7. The comedian had two days to respond before the story was published on Nov. 9, but didn’t end up doing so until afterwards, confirming the accusations were true.

“I think one thing that is important to highlight is that nobody has tried to sue us. Nobody has tried to sue any of our sources. Nobody has claimed defamation,” Ryzik says. “That’s because we are very careful about accuracy in doing this stuff.”