Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Exactly is Responsible Journalism?

Now that the Supreme Court of Canada has established a new defence to defamation -- responsible communication on a matter of public importance -- it will be interesting to see how much journalistic consensus develops on exactly what constitutes responsible communication.

There is no question that the court's ruling modernizes Canada's defamation law and provides greater leeway for journalists to probe matters of public importance. But it also places a greater burden on individual journalists and news organizations to debate and constantly perfect methods and principles. This is particularly true when it comes to investigative journalism.

For example, is it responsible for news organizations to use hidden cameras? Some do, others don't. Is it responsible for journalists to misrepresent themselves in the gathering of information? Some do, others don't. What about engaging in the so-called ambush or doorstop interview? Will the courts deem that to be fair game?

Even when it comes to more routine decision-making in the journalistic process, there are differences between organizations. Some city editors and news directors will publish the names of anyone charged with a criminal offence. Others will suppress the names of people accused of sex crimes. Some will publish names of the accused only if they intend to follow up the story to ensure that an eventual acquittal or dropping of charges isn't missed. Which of these approaches is the most responsible one?

And exactly how far should journalists go in exposing every last detail of the Tiger Woods saga?

Not every news organization in Canada has an established code of ethics, and I would suspect that not too many bloggers have one either. The absence of a written policy or set of guidelines can lead to ad-hoc decisions when it comes to determining what is responsible and what isn't. Some journalists tend to make it up as they go along, arguing that their gut is the best test for what feels right.

Even when a written set of journalistic practices exists, there are grey areas. While certain practices are frowned upon, they can be seen as acceptable in exceptional circumstances. Just what those circumstances are becomes a matter of subjective interpretation. It would be hard to imagine an absolute bible of journalistic laws that provided a clearcut answer every time on whether an act was responsible or not.

Not even the Supreme Court is willing to say definitively which practices are responsible and which are not. For instance, here is what it had to say about the controversial question of confidential sources:

"It may be responsible to rely on confidential sources, depending on the circumstances; a defendant may properly be unwilling or unable to reveal a source in order to advance the defence. On the other hand, it is not difficult to see how publishing slurs from unidentified 'sources' could, depending on the circumstances, be irresponsible." (Para. 115, Grant v. Torstar).

This is a groundbreaking statement from Canada's highest court that the reliance on confidential sources might be a proper journalistic practice. To date, journalists have had no substantial judicial protection when it comes to refusing to reveal sources. Some lawsuits have been lost as a result, and in some cases journalists have gone to jail for refusing to reveal their sources. But there is still no certainty here. The court is reserving its right to decide this question "depending on the circumstances," which is what many questions of journalistic ethics tend to revolve around.

Still, I believe an articulated set of standards is far better -- and in light of the Supreme Court's decision, now far more crucial -- than nothing at all. It allows readers and viewers the opportunity to see what the news organization's thinking is when it comes to journalistic methodology. It guards against arbitrary decision-making, and it gives people a basis to complain if they feel the organization has overstepped its bounds.

Whether a formal code exists or not, I believe every news organization should use the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to widen the debate about methods and practices. The public at large needs to be drawn into the discussion. And there have to be ways to hold journalists and their organizations accountable both for their guidelines and how journalists put those practices into action on a daily basis.

Many news organizations have seen their credibility plummet in recent years, as people grow tired of journalistic methods they don't understand or trust. When managing editors or news directors take arbitrary decisions on newsgathering practices, or are vague about explaining their rationale, it only adds to the mistrust. A free-ranging, inclusive, ongoing and transparent discussion would be a healthy development.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Should reporters be deputies for the police?

A ruling by the Manitoba Court of Appeal this week has some important lessons for police and the media, and the troubling tendency on the part of police agencies to use media to further their investigations.

Five years ago, police forces were given a new tool called the production order. Though it bears some similarities to a search warrant, a production order can compel someone who is not the subject of an investigation to turn over documents and video tape to the police.

When a media outlet is served with a production order, a series of important questions touching on freedom of the press are raised. These can be particularly vexing when it comes to investigative journalism, but the principles involved are important for all types of reporting.

In April 2008, RCMP were attempting to arrest Terrence Yellowback following an alleged assault in God's River, Manitoba. Police allege he charged an officer with a weapon, at which point he was shot in the hip.

The weapon turned out to be a table leg. When the officer realized Yellowback wasn't brandishing a gun, she resorted to her Taser to immobilize him.

Later that month, the Manto Sipi Cree Nation called a press conference to criticize RCMP for its decision to investigate the circumstances of the shooting itself. Yellowback also spoke at the press conference, calling for an independent inquiry into the shooting. The press conference was covered widely in the media.

Instead of responding to the call for an independent inquiry, the RCMP decided to ratchet up its own investigation. Police were granted an ex parte hearing before a provincial court judge. The judge issued production orders which would force CBC, CTV, Global and APTN to turn over all their videotaped material from the press conference and the one-on-one interviews that followed.

And everything about these production orders was to remain a secret. Here is the provision as it applied to the CBC:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and any employee, servant or agent shall not directly or indirectly disclose or permit disclosure of the content, existence or operation of this order, in any manner, or to any person except as may be necessary for the purposes of compliance with its terms or obtaining the advice or assistance of legal counsel unless otherwise ordered by a Court of competent jurisdiction.

Two other media outlets, Global Winnipeg and APTN, complied with the production orders and turned over their tape to the police. But RCMP still insisted the other stations do the same, hoping they would get additional information from interviews that might appear on the tapes.

The law creating production orders came into force in 2004. Unlike search warrants, they can force people who aren't under investigation to produce documents, or even to prepare documents based on data already in existence, where those materials might pertain to the commission of a crime.

Failing to comply with a production order carries a fine of up to $250,000, or a six-month jail term.

CBC and CTV refused to comply with the orders and took the matter to court, where Justice Glenn Joyal of Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench quashed the orders. He ruled that the production orders constituted an unreasonable search of a media organization pursuant to section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Attorney General of Manitoba and Canada both appealed that decision to the Manitoba Court of Appeal. Earlier this week, the appeal court upheld Justice Joyal's judgment and dismissed the government's appeals.

The original judge's ruling said the RCMP knew about the press conference in advance and could have tried to attend if it wanted to, but chose not to. Instead, it tried to deputize the media after the fact, and use them as part of its investigative machinery.

"Production orders against the media casually given can have a chilling effect on the appearance of independence and on future actions of members of the public and the press," the appeal court ruled. "There may be a resulting loss of credibility and appearance of impartiality."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How Will Non-Profit Investigative Journalism Survive?

The U.S. has seen an explosion of non-profit efforts aimed at providing investigative journalism to communities that are witnessing cutbacks in conventional media operations.

In most cases, private foundations have provided the start-up funds to hire journalists and launch the operations, many of which have their primary presence on the web. Universities are also partners in many of the enterprises.

As these organizations mature and enter their second and third years, they all have to figure out a sustainable business model. Although a number of foundations have been very generous and have pledged multi-year support, it is not at all clear that these commitments will continue indefinitely. In short, the question will soon be: how will these ventures survive?

Perhaps the largest start-up is called ProPublica. Under a tab that says "steal our stories," it announces: "You can republish our articles and graphics for free, so long as you credit us, link to us, and don’t edit our material or sell it separately." With headquarters in Manhattan, ProPublica employs 32 journalists and has generous support from the Sandler Foundation and a host of other philanthropic groups. bills itself as the only professionally-staffed, non-profit provider or online local news in the state. It has a funding model very different from ProPublica's, relying on a mix of revenue from foundations, private individuals and advertisers on its website.

The Texas Tribune doesn't accept advertising, but it has already raised more than $3.6 million from foundations and corporations. It doesn't hurt that its chairman has been a venture capitalist in Austin, Texas for nearly 30 years. It claims to be non partisan, and its focus is exclusively on public policy, politics, and government. "Because we’re non-profit, we don’t have to sacrifice our mission at the altar of commercial considerations." A surprising sentiment from a Texas venture capitalist.

One of the new players on the scene is California Watch, a Sacramento-based venture that will launch in earnest next month as a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. They too have lined up significant start-up money from foundations, but their strategy is not to give away their content or invite anyone to steal it. Their hope is to syndicate the material to news outlets that wish to buy it.

In September, California Watch whetted the appetite of news outlets by distributing a successful package of stories on homeland security spending. It charged just a nominal fee for stories that reached 1.8 million newspaper subscribers and millions more on TV and online. But that was just a teaser.

"The mission of California Watch is to distribute high-impact investigative and enterprise journalism," it says on its website. "But we won’t last long if we give it away. Over the coming months we plan to explore all types of distribution models. The goal will be to develop an equitable payment structure that works for us and for our partners. No one knows exactly what that will look like."

Of course, reliance on advertising and commercial models may eventually land the new ventures back to the same problems that are currently hurting conventional media outlets. When success is defined by the number of eyeballs that can be delivered to an advertiser, the founding principles of some of the outlets might take on less importance. It is the same conundrum that non-profits in many fields face.

But if a non-profit news venture is truly filling an important niche, and doing a consistently good job at it, there is reason to believe it could rely on ongoing support from charitable foundations that believe in the work. A good example is, which has published online every weekday since Jan. 25, 1999. It was founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in response to shrinking news coverage of state government in the U.S.

Ten years later, the site remains a thriving and credible source of news about state governments. There is no reason to think the same pattern couldn't hold true for investigative journalism sites.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Investigating climate change

Frontline/World and the Center for Investigative Reporting have announced a unique joint project which will encompass radio, print, television and online reports.

Over the next year, they will report on what they call the "soon to be trillion-dollar carbon trading market." They promise to look into the hidden interests behind the various carbon emission reduction plans.

With climate change such a pressing issue in the world today, this shapes up to be an important and ambitious year-long collaboration. I am looking forward to seeing whether there will be any Canadian aspects to the reporting.

All of the findings will be available here:


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Protecting the Identity of Whistleblowers

In the fall of 1999, from his home in Hull, Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc spotted a giant hot air balloon in the shape of a Mountie on a horse, making an appearance at a Gatineau festival.

It struck the inquisitive reporter as strange. The RCMP was in serious financial straits at the time, and was asking government for an increased budget. Why was it spending money on giant balloons?

Leblanc filed an access to information request to find out more. He learned the balloon had been built in England at a cost of about $100,000, but the government had paid $324,000 to rent in for 11 months. A marketing firm based in Ottawa, which had contributed to the ruling Liberal party, owned the balloon. Leblanc had a front page story.

That's as far as the story might have gone, but the article encouraged insiders to begin feeding Leblanc more information about other unusual marketing schemes. It finally led to the revelation of the sponsorship scandal, an affair that arguably played the biggest role in the federal Liberal party's eventual fall from power. Leblanc's best source was a female whistleblower who identified herself only as MaChouette, or "my dear." Her identity remains secret to this day.

But lawyers for advertising company Le Groupe Polygone Editeurs Inc. want Leblanc to reveal his sources, and the Quebec Superior Court has agreed. Yesterday, lawyers for the Globe and Mail appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which has reserved its decision.

Leblanc has indicated he would go to jail rather than be forced to reveal his sources.

The case parallels another fight over sources in the Shawinigate affair. Former National Post reporter Andrew McIntosh, who led the coverage, also received confidential information from sources. The RCMP secured a warrant and an assistance order to seize a leaked document from McIntosh so they could perform forensic tests and determine if the whistleblower had broken any law. McIntosh refused to hand the document over.

The case went to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, where Justice Mary Lou Benotto quashed the warrant and order, and issued a landmark ruling. Among other things, she said: "If the journalist-informant relationship is undermined, society as a whole is affected. It is through confidential sources that matters of great public importance are made known. As corporate and public power increase, the ability of the average ctizen to affect his or her world depends upon the information disseminated by the press. To deprive the media of an important tool in the gathering of news would affect society as a whole. The relationship is one that should be fostered."

But the Ontario Court of Appeal later overturned that ruling. "We do not diminish the press's important role in uncovering and reporting an alleged wrongdoing," the court said. "But in our society, it is the police who are charged with the crucial role of investigating and prosecuting crime." The case also now rests with the Supreme Court.

Protecting confidential sources is one of the most important yet vexing issues for investigative journalists. Often a whistleblower turns to the media as a last resort, the only path to correct a wrong after all other avenues have failed. But if the whistleblower fears that the media will be unable to protect his or her identity, then even the last resort will be lost.

Media lawyers have argued that confidential sources were important in many of the most important pieces of journalism over the last half century. But journalists in this country currently have no legal right to protect the identity of sources.

Journalists will be carefully watching the Supreme Court's judgments when they come, as will future whistleblowers. If the situation governing source protection remains unchanged, one has to wonder how many scandals might go unreported in the future as a result.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fighting for Access to Tommy Douglas' Files

Tommy Douglas has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, movies and debates that finally crowned him, in a CBC competition, as the Greatest Canadian.

But the federal government is still reluctant to tell Canadians everything they know about the man.

Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill, who knows the Access to Information Act better than most any other journalist in Canada, has tried and so far failed to pry the information loose. He filed an access request in 2005, getting a file that showed the RCMP secretly monitored the former NDP leader's speeches and even eavesdropped on private conversations. But much of the file was blacked out.

Now Canadian Press is taking the federal government to court to force disclosure of hundreds of pages of material they have so far withheld.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Standing Up to Corporate Bullying

The BBC wasn't mincing its words last May when it reported on a shocking incident involving a multinational corporation and one of the poorest countries on earth.

"It is the biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century," the public broadcaster said, "the type of environmental vandalism that international treaties are supposed to prevent. Now Newsnight can reveal the truth about the waste that was illegally tipped on Ivory Coast's biggest city, Abidjan."

The story involved the giant oil and mineral-trading firm Trafigura, which was attempting to treat and dispose of hundreds of tons of toxic sulphur sludge. In the dead of night on August 18, 2006, the waste was off-loaded in Abidjan and dumped all over the city. Residents picked through debris, looking for anything of value. Thousands later got sick.

The BBC interviewed Fidel Kouadio, eight months pregnant when the fumes invaded her home. She gave birth prematurely and her baby died within a day. According to some reports, nearly 100,000 people eventually sought hospital treatment, and more than 30,000 launched a lawsuit against the company, citing breathing problems, diarrhea and other health issues.

Ever since the episode had begun in 2006, Trafigura tried to deflect responsibility for the dumping and argued that the materials weren't particularly dangerous anyway, only that they smelled bad. The company also launched a comprehensive public relations campaign to counteract negative publicity. And they aggressively threatened to sue media outlets who waded into the story.

According to the Guardian newspaper, whenever journalists tried to write critically about the company, they were pressured by Carter-Ruck, London's most aggressive libel lawyers. The BBC was slapped with a libel writ for its reporting, and other journalists in the Netherlands and Norway were put on notice as well.

Last month, the story took another twist when the Guardian and BBC revealed internal company emails showing that Trafigura knew the waste dumped in Abidjan was so toxic it was banned across Europe. The emails revealed an effort to profit from suspect methods of treating the waste. As the story was breaking, Trafigura countered with compensation offers to the thousands of people who had initiated the lawsuit against it.

The damning internal emails had been gathered by a group of agencies including Greenpeace and Amnesty and shared with reporters at different media outlets. The Guardian said the effort was a good example of international co-operation among media outlets. Spokesmen for Greenpeace said they noticed many media outlets shying away from the story in the early going because of fears they would be sued. But the eventual release of the emails gave the story a different complexion.

Even the UN human rights special rapporteur, Okechukwu Ibeanu, criticized the company for potentially stifling independent reporting and public criticism in a report Trafigura ironically tried to prevent being published as well. Trafigura maintains the settlement of the court case vindicates its position, and it continues to deny direct responsibility for the dumping, which was done by a sub-contractor.

What are the lessons for investigative journalists from this episode? For one thing, it demonstrates that even in an age of international awareness of human rights and environmental concerns, there can be disturbing cases of illegal activities that affect so many thousands of people. What is equally disturbing is how little coverage the case has received in North America.

Secondly, the case is another reminder of the courage that journalists need to show in the face of intense pressures. Threats of lawsuits and gag orders can weigh heavily on individual journalists and their organizations. The BBC responded with a fighting defence, arguing that Trafigura's denials lacked candour and credibility, and accusing the company of a cover-up.

Even though Trafigura has agreed to pay about $50 million to settle compensation claims, and an additional $160 million to the Ivory Coast government for the cleanup, the case is not over. Greenpeace now wants to prosecute Trafigura in the British courts for manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Checking Under the Sheets -- A New Kind of Undercover Reporting

Investigative journalism aims to hold powerful institutions to account, and it does so with a method that is methodologically sound and free of bias.

But it also has to tackle subjects worthy of public attention. Do hotel reviews qualify?

The creators of Oyster Hotel Reviews seem to think so. They have assembled an impressive team of reporter/photographers to stage undercover visits of hotel rooms and provide unbiased reviews of what they see. The result is easy to dismiss as inconsequential. But you might change your mind if you're about to embark on a trip and need a hotel room.

Searching on the Internet for hotel rooms can be frustrating. Just about any property can be made to look clean and luxurious, and the reality sometimes doesn't present itself until it's too late. Even sites that offer user reviews can be suspect. It is impossible to know whether establishments are somehow pumping up their own venues with planted reviews, or dissing the competition.

The team that created Oyster sensed an opportunity. They put together more than $10 million in financing, hired about 20 reporters, and set up an ambitious project that is labour-intensive and financially risky. They send reporters to hotels around the U.S. and the Caribbean at their own expense, where the employees anonymously check out every aspect of the property and their rooms. Then the reporters file exhaustive reviews, often with hundreds of photos detailing everything from the shower stall to the coffee maker.

The reviews are rigorous. Reporters have to follow a 60-page manual, allowing readers to compare amenities precisely. At the end, in addition to the length review, reporters provide a condensed bottom-line assessment and a 0-5 rating.

The reporters' credentials are listed for all to see, though the site coyly protects their identities by just giving first names and initials for the surname.Most are former journalists at places like the New York Times, the Village Voice, BBC World Service and other large mainstream organizations. One has investigative experience with the New York police department. Some are former financial services reporters.

The site highlights one of the distinctions between professional journalism and user-generated content. While travel sites such as TripAdvisor can be useful if there are large numbers of reviews on single properties, their value becomes less clear when the numbers of comments are sparse. Anyone who regularly wades through comments on online news stories knows the ranting and uninformed discourse that can dominate. Oyster is offering a far-more unbiased and professional approach.

So far, there are no ads on the site. And the expenses are huge. Oyster pays its reporters full-time salaries and sends them on all-expense paid trips. Still, they believe the business model will eventually become clear. Owners hope to keep building the reporting team and expanding the coverage areas. The goal is to become the largest U.S. travel media outlet by the end of this year.

OK, I confess to clicking on the Jobs portion of the site to see if there are any opportunities for journalists. Could this be the dream job, travelling to exotic locations with the onerous responsibility of jumping on the mattress and photographing the shampoo bottles? I couldn't find any current opening for a reporter. But I did notice one for editorial assistant. One of the job benefits? A catered lunch.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Investigative Journalism at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network

It has been more than two years in the making, but the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is about to unveil its first foray into investigative journalism with the premiere of APTN Investigates on Sept. 18.

Executive producer Paul Barnsley said the Winnipeg-based program is something the network's chief executive officer, Jean LaRose, has wanted to do for a long time. Barnsley arrived at the aboriginal network two years ago from Windspeaker, an Edmonton-based newspaper, with the mandate to create an investigative show. He has assembled a team that will create 11 half-hour shows this season.

"There are many stories in the aboriginal community people don't like to talk about. We're hoping to shine a light in those places," he said. The primary focus of the program will be on aboriginal social, political and legal issues, but Barnsley said it won't necessarily be limited to those areas.

While the program can't afford to be seen as an advocate or crusader for a point of view, Barnsley said it will still challenge conventional media stereotypes of aboriginal people. At the same time, he said it won't be afraid to hold aboriginal chiefs accountable in an aggressive way for their actions.

One of the half-hour investigations aims to follow a dollar from Treasury Board as it goes to Indian Affairs, through the system and ultimately to a First Nation citizen. The program will attempt to show how much of that dollar ends up in the citizen's hands. In the first episode, the show takes a second look at the case in Thunder Bay where an aboriginal boy's hair was cut involuntarily at his school, and the consequences that followed.

A team of seven works on the show, including host Cheryl McKenzie and a number of interesting newcomers to the world of investigative journalism. One of them is Darrell Doxtdator, a lawyer who has seen the world of First Nations politics from the inside. Doxtdator, a graduate of Osgoode Hall, refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen when he was originally admitted to the bar in Ontario. More recently he acted as a senior political advisor to the elected Six Nations chief.

In creating the program, Barnsley researched investigative reporting methodology and spent some time at W-FIVE examining the work process. He concedes that the task of doing in-depth investigative work is daunting and will improve as the program's team develops more contacts. But by starting modestly, the program is making a statement that the network is committed to telling stories that might otherwise not be told.

Barnsley says the mainstream media has a limited understanding of the complexity of issues in First Nations affairs. But until now, he says there hasn't been a significant amount of hard-hitting investigation into many of those issues. He promises the program will not respect any sacred cows. One of the stories it will tackle, for instance, is the perception of widespread corruption at certain levels of First Nations communities. It will also routinely hold government and other powerful institutions accountable for their questionable practices with respect to aboriginal people.

"We have the opportunity to perform a really important function here," he says.

APTN Investigates begins Sept. 18 at 6:30 pm ET and runs every second Friday.

Non-Profit Investigative Work in California

A decade ago there were more than 80 reporters based in Sacramento, scrutinizing the state government. Now the number has declined to about 25.

That is why a new non-profit organization called California Watch was founded. Created by the Center for Investigative Reporting, it hired a dozen journalists with the help of foundations and sponsors. This makes it the biggest investigative team in the state.

This week it distributed its first major investigation, a look at waste and mismanagement in the state's homeland security spending. Versions of the story have already run in more than two dozen news organizations.

It's just the latest example of how investigative reporting is migrating from the private to the public sector in the U.S.

Free Student Support for Investigative Work

How many investigative journalists could benefit from some free research support?

Quite a few, judging from the way many media organizations appear to be retreating from this field lately. In Britain, a unique program offers support from students at London's City University journalism department.

Journalists fill out an online application, and if approved, get free research services for up to six months.

This is a model journalism departments in Canada should look at seriously. It provides some real-life experience to students in a way that might be more beneficial than a traditional internship.

The key, though, is having an experienced investigative journalist mentoring the students. Luckily City University has Gavin MacFadyen in that role.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Investigative Journalism and Consumer Reporting

In my History of Investigative Journalism in Canada, I showed how modern consumer reporting has played an important role in investigative work for at least 50 years.

Ralph Nader's famous inquiries into automobile safety began as early as 1959, when he wrote an article for The Nation called "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." Jessica Mitford exposed the funeral industry in her renowned work of 1963, The American Way of Death. Newspaper columnists in both the U.S. and Canada began writing action columns and responding directly to consumer concerns. Some outstanding early work was done by the CBC's public affairs programs in the 1960s, and this became institutionalized when the public broadcaster created a program called Marketplace in 1972.

Over the years, many newspapers and broadcast outlets appointed consumer reporters and columnists. But the relationship was often an uneasy one, since consumer reporting can quickly confront the very same people who are funding the media institution where the reporter works.

At journalism conferences and in discussions with journalists, I have heard countless stories about how advertising departments at media outlets have exercised influence over what the consumer reporter can do. This is especially true when the advertiser is a car dealership or a major food chain, which can typically be a large source of income for a station or paper.

The latest controversy on this front has erupted at the Hartford Courant, where reporter George Gombossy maintains he was fired for doing his job. Gombossy's credentials are impressive. He has been with the paper for 40 years, and has led teams of reporters that have won dozens of awards. He spent 12 years as business editor when the paper asked him to work on the consumer beat three years ago.

Gombossy says his Watchdog column resulted in more than a dozen state investigations. But it was his last column that ended his career at the Courant. The newspaper refused to publish it, and the two decided to part ways.

The column reported that the state attorney general had launched an investigation into a mattress company called Sleepy's. It was alleged that the company sold old mattresses but billed them as new. In one case, a mattress was allegedly infested with bedbugs.

While the newspaper hasn't commented on Gombossy's claims, the reporter was quick to set up a website called Connecticut Watch with the slogan: "Never give up, never give in." He reprints the column that was supposed to run Aug. 2 in Hartford, but never did.

It is a well-researched and balanced piece of journalism. He quotes a spokesperson for Sleepy's challenging the allegations, and insisting that the company has never represented old mattresses as new ones. Gombossy's supplements the story with a detailed letter from Sleepy's rebutting the allegations. The letter was copied to the newspaper's publisher.

Gombossy maintains it was his first time in 40 years at the Courant that an investigation by the state attorney general was withheld from the public.

It is difficult to know the full details about this story or of Gombossy's relationship with the newspaper, since the Courant hasn't issued any comments about the matter. But if his new website is any indication, Gombossy is a meticulous and ethical reporter who could serve as an example to other consumer journalists.

In a statement of personal disclosure on the site, Gombossy lists the stocks he owns and discloses his land holdings. He even reveals that his son works for an automobile group. In an answer to those who think consumer reporting only exists to find problems with businesses, he provides a list of consumer-friendly businesses and invites readers to submit other examples.

Finally, he calls on companies to advertise on his site, proclaiming: "You will be treated just as fairly as non-advertisers."

Gombossy's website is at

Addendum: Soon after I posted this, Gombossy posted an internal memo from Courant management giving the newspaper's side of the story.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Can Investigative Journalism Save the Mainstream?

The Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting organized a timely discussion on this and related subjects earlier this month in Toronto.

Melissa Wilson covered the meeting for jsource.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Using Investigative Techniques to Cover Breaking News

The scanner in the newsroom is blaring. On any given day, you can be confronted with pretty much anything. A wildfire is threatening your community. A bridge has collapsed. There has been a shooting on campus. A bus accident has sent a dozen children to the hospital.

This is breaking news, and there's little time to do anything except send the first available reporter out the door and to the scene. There's no time for any fancy database analysis or in-depth investigation. Or is there?

The strength of any sophisticated news organization is its ability to cover breaking news while also ensuring that it asks the right questions and gets to the truth of the situation. That means not just gathering facts, but collecting the pertinent ones. Sometimes that's a challenging task, given the shrinking resources and smaller staff complement in many newsrooms.

For beat reporters, the task becomes somewhat easier. They have a ready-made list of contacts and brains filled with history and context. Events can quickly be put into perspective. This can not only save time, but also provide a road map to the right lines of inquiry.

There is another route to ensuring more context and meaning are brought to breaking stories, and that is a working knowledge of the tools and procedures of investigative journalism. Knowing how to find information quickly, where to access pertinent details, and how to analyze them can often mean the difference between a superficial and an informed report. True, a breaking story on a collapsed bridge will not immediately benefit from a database analysis that would take three months to complete. But knowing that there was a previously released database study of such a problem, and having the knowledge of how to get it fast, would be instantly useful.

Then there are the techniques of dealing with human sources that investigative journalism can employ. I have seen some journalists get consistently better and more informed answers to interview questions than others, and it almost always comes down to the manner in which those questions are posed. This is a field of social science that too many journalists either ignore or don't take seriously enough.

Investigative Reporters and Editors in the U.S. provides a useful archive of data and suggestions for reporters who are following breaking news. If a particular plane has crashed, the IRE links to databases of repair and accident histories. There are tipsheets on what questions to ask and what issues to probe with such stories. Similar data are offered for many other kinds of breaking stories.

Canada also has sites that are useful for quickly locating pertinent data on breaking stories and other topics. I have listed a number of these sites at the bottom of this blog. There is a great deal of relevant information available in online searchable public record databases, and every reporter should know how to access them quickly. A great directory of online databases from Canada and the U.S. is available at

Naturally, every breaking event will have its unique characteristics and issues. But a knowledge of how to access information and context quickly is crucial to covering such events meaningfully. Investigative techniques are a helpful guide.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Trends in Investigative Reporting

One of the most striking things I noticed at the recent conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Baltimore was the depth of the media crisis in the U.S.

It seemed every second or third person I met had been laid off, repositioned or downsized in recent months. This also included the speakers at the various sessions. One presenter said he was one of two surviving members of a local TV investigative unit that had 11 employees. Another talented reporter at a Florida newspaper was let go earlier in the year, despite her consistently strong enterprise work. One colleague who has done outstanding work over the years is considering getting out of journalism altogether following the shutdown of her newspaper.

Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, took part in a fascinating discussion with Bob Woodward. He talked about the dominance of the newspaper industry for the last half century. In many cases, the business model was so rich that no single advertiser could dictate terms to an editor or publisher who wanted to do challenging journalism. That might be so, but even then if often took the alternative media and some courageous individual practitioners to push the mainstream media in the right direction. Still, Downie maintains it was a unique golden era that has now vanished. And he said it's not going to return.

Leavening this grim atmosphere was a feeling at the conference that there are new models springing up which could point a way forward for investigative work. These are publicly-funded enterprises that raise money from universities, foundations, and sometimes users themselves. There is a certain irony in seeing that in the land of free enterprise, where public broadcasting ranks lowest in the world in terms of state support, there is now an interest in a public journalism model.

This comes at a time when public broadcasters are facing their own set of financial challenges. But the new models don't depend directly on government support. Through alliances with universities, and by strategically linking with non-profit foundations, investigative reporting centres have sprung up in several U.S. locations.

Now comes news that Britain is following the lead of the United States in establishing an independent investigative journalism fund.

A number of prominent British journalists have banded together to create The Investigations Fund, supporting public interest journalism. Its mission: "to support the sort of investigation of grass root stories and services that is dying by the minute as local newspapers are hit hard; and to support those many stories of vital public interest in Britain that have an important international connection, particularly in the developing world, but where the costs of chasing down the truth may seem prohibitively high."

The Potter Foundation in Britain has provided two million pounds to create a bureau of investigative journalism in connection with the initiative.

It will be interesting to follow how this trend develops. In Canada, there is a new Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting that has recently achieved charitable status. It will now need to tap into substantial funding sources to be able to commission some ambitious projects.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Review of American Radical

Here is my review of American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

American Radical
The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
By D.D. Guttenplan
Farrar Straus Giroux

"EVERY government is run by liars," I.F. Stone once famously said. "And nothing they say should be believed."

Isadore Feinstein Stone's trademark skepticism served him well in an American journalistic career that spanned more than half a century. While many of his colleagues chased official sources and provided surface coverage of events, he laid bare the underlying realities of U.S. society and fearlessly held politicians of all stripes to account.

As D.D. Guttenplan's highly readable biography shows, it wasn't hard to guess what the career path would be for the son of an immigrant Philadelphia peddler in the 1920s.

At 14, Stone began publishing his own neighbourhood newspaper, filling it with editorials that provided opinion on everything from the American economy to the Treaty of Versailles. Before he turned 25, he was writing lead editorials for one of New York's most influential dailies.

While he might have carved out a comfortable niche in the journalistic mainstream, Stone had a penchant for independent thinking that didn't often sit well with his bosses or government officials.

At 19, when an editor turned down his request to cover the murder trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, he quit the paper to attend anyhow. And while he held significant positions with major American publications over the years, his greatest journalistic triumphs came as the one-man proprietor of the independent I.F. Stone Weekly.

Stone himself would have been impressed by the prodigious amount of material that Guttenplan amassed to chronicle his life. It includes more than 100 interviews and mountains of archival documents, along with the fruits of a 15-year battle to pry loose information under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

What emerges is a story so rich in detail and historical context that the reader derives an added benefit of learning about key elements of U.S. political and intellectual history through the decades. Stone's support for New Deal ideas is chronicled against the backdrop of the lead-up to the Second World War.

His socialist and anti-fascist sentiments lead to his fierce critiques of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. And his analysis of Vietnam made him a darling of the New Left in the 1960s.

Even though his radical politics enraged his enemies, it was his investigative journalism that critics found hard to assail. His Hidden History of the Korean War questioned American tactics and policies in triggering the conflict, while he was also one of the first American journalists to wonder openly whether the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a manufactured pretext for wider U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The sweep of history has proven many of Stone's insights and exposés to be correct.

Stone succeeded by carefully examining the public record, looking for clues to the truth. Guttenplan, an American investigative journalist based in London, does the same. He unearthed the FBI files that detailed a massive and paranoid undercover campaign to follow Stone everywhere, open his mail, tap his telephone and recruit informants.

Even the doorman at his Park Avenue apartment building was on the bureau's payroll.

What the FBI failed to appreciate was that Stone's independent nature meant he would never be unquestioningly obedient to any single party or cause. Despite his sympathies, he routinely criticized Communist parties and governments.

While he passionately supported the young state of Israel, he infuriated Zionists by calling for a binational state and equal rights for Palestinians. And though he called Richard Nixon a fascist in the 1950s, he saw much to admire in Dwight Eisenhower.

After working on the biography for 18 years, Guttenplan has created a labour of love for a man he admires. It shows.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Investigative Reporters Discuss How to Use Sources

It was an interesting study in contrasts as I listened to a session involving Seymour Hersh and James Bamford at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Baltimore.

The two investigative journalists were asked to discuss the issue of sourcing, and it quickly became clear they approach it from very different perspectives.

Bamford, author of Body of Secrets and The Puzzle Palace, has built his career investigating the ultra-secret National Security Agency (NSA). His books have opened a window on the activities of the U.S. agency that eavesdrops on pretty much everybody. Hersh, meanwhile, continues to occupy a perch as one of the best investigative reporters in the U.S. His career has produced decades of scoops, ranging from My Lai and CIA dirty-tricks to the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.

Both journalists operate independently and without the institutional support of a large media outlet. Yet they continue to find sources who will tell them about some of the most sensitive secrets in the U.S. Everyone in the audience was eager to find out how they do it.

Bamford described his process of attending trade conferences and tracking down current and former employees of the NSA, offering to buy them lunch in return for a friendly chat. As he builds trust and confidence, he begins to learn more about the agency and finds more names to contact. Unlike the CIA, which has had a number of dissident agents produce articles and books about the agency, Bamford said no former NSA employee has ever openly written about experiences inside.

Though he guarantees anonymity to all his sources, Bamford also makes an effort to convince people to allow their names to be published. He said it enhances the credibility of the reporting when actual names are attached to the information. Bamford also relies on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to supplement his intereviews and find background information.

Hersh takes a very different view. He said he does not bother using the FOI Act and concentrates on human sources. He also doesn't see the identification of sources as a big issue. "The story is either true or it's not," he said.

I have heard Hersh speak before, so I know that he can bristle when people ask him to specify exactly what techniques he uses to nail down his stories. In the world he inhabits, having cultivated top level sources in key positions, he is careful about doing anything that might give his enemies any information about his methods. But this time he provided some insights into the work.

Hersh said he tries to cultivate military personnel who are retiring. People often have regrets about not achieving their career goals fully, and this can lead to candid discussions. He said he would never schedule an interview in a public place like a restaurant, as Bamford does. He and Bamford also cautioned against doing sensitive interviews on the phone. Hersh said his preference is to go the source's home.

Interestingly, Hersh also said he worries about getting set up. He is suspicious when someone approaches him with some information. He always prefers to be the one making the first move. At a previous talk, I heard Hersh say he would pay no attention to a document that came across his transom anonymously, for fear that it was a set-up.

Bamford insisted that no employee of the NSA has ever gotten into trouble for talking to him. Still, one should never underestimate the risks whistleblowers and anonymous sources take when talking to journalists, especially when dealing with sensitive government information.

Hersh makes a good point by insisting that the real issue in journalism is getting at the truth. That surely is a more important principle than worrying about whether too many anonymous sources are quoted in a story. But at the same time, the danger of being manipulated by sources is always present. A reporter who grows to rely on being steered in the right direction by a source can wind up disseminating disinformation. Some of the most egregious lies have been transmitted through the media by "sources close to the government" or "sources familiar with the investigation."

The best measure, as in all investigative journalism, is to look for verification for all information. Relying solely on a single source, whether named or anonymous, is always a risky venture.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wayward Cabinet Documents

Leaving secret memos and cabinet documents in unauthorized places has a long history in Canadian politics. What's unusual is that it continues to happen with regularity.

My own experience with this phenomenon occurred in November 1984, when I was covering provincial politics for the Winnipeg Free Press. Then finance minister Michael Wilson, in the newly-minted Conservative government, was making his first Western swing, meeting with his provincial counterparts to discuss, among other things, transfer payments.

Manitoba was worried that it might lose $72 million in payments. But in his meetings with provincial officials, Wilson assured them no decisions had yet been made.

During the visit, Wilson held an impromptu press conference in the lobby of Winnipeg's Westin Hotel, just before heading off to a luncheon speech.

He put a big stack of binders and file folders on the coffee table in front of him and placed an ashtray on top. When the press conference ended, Wilson left for his speech, with a few dozen reporters in tow. The papers remained on the coffee table.

When all the rival media members were gone, I slowly opened the files and saw a black book marked Secret. Inside were confidential briefing notes to Wilson from his deputy minister, Mickey Cohen.

It was one of those moments reporters seldom experience -- and never forget. Here was the finance minister delivering one message publicly, while the briefing notes indicated that he was not telling the full story.

Even though Wilson was assuring Manitoba that no firm decision about transfer payments had been made, his deputy minister was telling him not to raise the province's hopes about getting the money.

Finding the binders gave me a unique opportunity to test Wilson on the spot.

One of the memos explicitly said that the cost of reviewing and raising equalization payments across Canada would be about $1.3 billion, a considerable sum.

After his luncheon speech, and before any of his aides knew that I had read the briefing notes, I asked Wilson what the cost would be. Hard to say, he replied.

Neither Wilson nor his aides had any idea his files were missing. After more than an hour of quietly reading the documents and taking notes, I informed the minister's assistants about the forgotten binders on the coffee table.

They were very appreciative, until the next morning, when the contents of the secret documents were splashed across the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press. We debated the ethics of publishing the material, but finally decided that papers abandoned in a public place were fair game – especially since they touched upon such an important public issue.

The Mulroney government was still enjoying a honeymoon following its impressive election victory two months earlier. But suddenly here was an issue the opposition could dig into.

The hotel caper, as it was called, dominated question period for the next three days. There were demands for the government to table all the documents that I had found.

Mulroney said he didn't know which documents they were, since he hadn't "pilfered" them.

That led then NDP leader Ed Broadbent to say: "It is a curious world when a cabinet minister is so sloppy and careless to leave behind a document that the prime minister accuses someone else of pilfering. It is a strange government we have."

It also prompted then Liberal critic Lloyd Axworthy to demand Mulroney apologize to me for the pilfering accusation. He did.

Fast forward 20 years. I was teaching a course on investigative journalism techniques where I was explaining how access to information laws worked. Cabinet documents, I told the group, are secret for 20 years, after which they can be accessed through a request.

Mulroney had fervently defended Wilson during the whole episode and resisted any calls that his minister should feel badly about what happened. It occurred to me that I could finally see what really happened in cabinet during the hotel caper.

So I requested the cabinet minutes for December 1984, and sure enough, there was an item entitled: "General Discussion: Security of Classified Material."

"The prime minister reminded cabinet of the importance that must be attached to maintaining proper security of classified and other sensitive documents by ministers," the minutes said. "He underlined that this was a matter of personal responsibility with particular care and prudence being needed when ministers travel outside the National Capital Region where facilities for safekeeping of documents may not be readily available."

What followed was a comprehensive set of instructions on how to keep classified material secure. It included keeping material in locked security briefcases when travelling and never removing cabinet papers from Ottawa without the express consent of the Privy Council Office.

The instructions also advised ministers never to discuss sensitive matters on the telephone. "This lack of security is particularly acute in the case of the mobile telephone, i.e., the radio telephone mounted in private automobiles or staff cars."

The cabinet minutes make for fascinating reading. They might also hold some valuable tips for present-day ministers.

(Also posted at the CBC website)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Investigating Wrongful Convictions

One of the most tangible ways investigative journalism can produce meaningful impact is through intensive inquiry into possible wrongful convictions.

In modern Canadian history, journalists have played an active role in this process since the 1950s. J.E. Belliveau of the Toronto Star questioned the conviction of Wilbert Coffin, who was hanged in Bordeaux jail in 1956 for the killing of an American hunter in Quebec three years earlier. Jacques Hébert also took up the investigation, leading to a royal commission and questions about the conviction that continue to today. Betty Lee of the Globe and Mail did a similar expose of the Arthur Lucas case. Lucas was executed in Toronto's Don Jail in 1962 for killing an FBI informant. But the most famous case of that era, of course, involved Steven Truscott.

Isabel LeBourdais spent years investigating Truscott's case and trying valiantly to persuade a media outlet or book publisher to run with her story of wrongful conviction. But there was timidity on the part of the publishing community, and a general feeling that the justice system could not be held to account as emphatically and stridently as LeBourdais proposed. She eventually went to a British publisher who agreed to put out her book, which had longstanding impact and led to a lengthy re-examination of Truscott's case -- a case that was not finally resolved until his recent exoneration.

All the early pioneering journalists played a crucial role in convincing Canadian authorities that capital punishment had to be abolished. In more recent times, journalists had a major hand in helping to clear wrongly convicted men such as David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin and James Driskell, among others.

But mounting a thorough investigation into a wrongful conviction is a complicated endeavour. It can't be done on a daily deadline. Any journalist undertaking such an investigation has to devote serious time and resources to the project. In today's journalistic climate, that can be a challenge.

Throughout the US and in some Canadian cities, Innocence Projects have been formed. These are agencies, usually connected to universities, that investigate cases of wrongful convictions. The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, has freed 11 men, five of them on death row. In some cases, Innocence Projects have forged partnerships with journalists to share the work and ensure that cases are properly investigated and publicized.

One interesting partnership exists at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. Since 2001, the Innocence Institute there has completed more than a dozen investigations into possible wrongful convictions. Bill Moushey of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette organized the Innocence Institute and publishes articles on the results of the investigations in his newspaper.

It's a model that could prove useful to Canadian universities and media outlets. So far, Canada only has Innocence Projects in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and their main focus is on law schools rather than media agencies. But as many of the Canadian wrongful conviction examples demonstrate, media pressure was a crucial component in convincing justice systems to re-examine cases. The federal justice minister, for example, rejected David Milgaard's appeal, but reconsidered only after further media revelations and pressure mounted by Milgaard's supporters.

While it is difficult to state with certainty how many people are wrongly convicted, academic studies suggest the number could be anywhere between one and five per cent of all convictions, or higher. Only in recent years have serious flaws been noted in the fields of hair analysis, eye witness testimony, police interrogation methods and a host of other factors that were routinely unquestioned in past prosecutions. All of this has led to wrongful convictions, and many of them still remain to be discovered. The thought of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wrongly convicted people languishing in jails is offensive in any society that calls itself democratic. Investigative journalism, which has as one of its main aims to hold powerful institutions to account, needs to play a vigorous role in this field. Partnerships with universities might be a viable way to do so in the future.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Good Day at the St. Petersburg Times

At a time of shrinking circulation and advertising cutbacks, newspapers don't often experience the kind of day that journalists at the St. Petersburg Times had on April 17.

First, a grand jury credited one of the newspaper's reporters with discovering that a former House Speaker had falsified documents for the benefit of a private developer. The jury said the issue would have gone unnoticed without the work of the reporter.

Back at the office, a team of reporters was finishing a special report on decades of abuse at a North Florida boys' reform school. The series began running on the newspaper's website that day.

That same day, the board of the Pulitzer Prizes announced that the Times had won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Not a bad day for the Florida newspaper that prides itself on quality work and a devotion to investigative journalism.

The newspaper has a fascinating and unique history which positions it to do excellent work. Former publisher Nelson Poynter died in 1978, and left the controlling stock of the company in the hands of a non-profit institution that was charged with teaching journalism and promoting excellence. The Poynter Institute provides training to many journalists annually, and also conducts research that is valuable to all practitioners.

One of the newspaper's Pulitzers was awarded to PolitiFact, a website that was created in August 2007 to check the accuracy of statements made by the presidential candidates. Today, reporters and editors fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups. Then they rate them on a "Truth-O-Meter". They are also tracking more than 500 of Barack Obama’s campaign promises and recording the results on an Obameter.

It's an innovative way to sort through the noise that political discourse often creates. Instead of merely being content with reporting who said what, and collecting opinions from different sources both pro and con, the newspaper tries to figure out the truth of the statements.

For example, Michelle Bachmann, a Republican member of Congress from Minnesota, recently said: "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence."

Politifact points out that the scare started in February 1976 at Fort Dix, N.J., when the president was Republican Gerald Ford. And Bachmann also forgot to mention a 1988 swine flu death under another Republican administration. Having noted the truth, the PolitiFact journalists aren't afraid to voice their opinion.

"So Bachmann is wrong about a Democrat being in charge during the 1976 outbreak and she fails to note the swine flu death in 1988. Hmmm. Two swine flu incidents during Republican administrations. By Bachmann's logic, we should find that 'interesting.' But we don't. It's ridiculous for her to suggest a partisan link with a deadly disease. That's not just a mistake, that's absurdly false. So we'll get out the lighter (after we wash our hands!) and set the Truth-O-Meter ablaze. This one's a Pants on Fire."

It's a simple example of the journalism of reminder, and it also shows a devotion to getting "the real story" on a political assertion, something not every media outlet has the time or inclination to gather. If the St. Petersburg Times can afford to devote the time and resources to projects like these, it's reasonable to assume other media outlets could arrange their budgets to do likewise.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Alternative Journalism Matters

Chris Atton of Edinburgh Napier University raises some provocative questions in the latest issue of Journalism with his paper entitled "Why alternative journalism matters."

While considerable attention has been paid to citizen-based journalism and its growth, there has been little said about the everyday routines and processes that are involved. "It is at the practices of alternative journalism that we should look most closely, not least because they raise challenges to the dominant practices of professionalized journalism," he says. "They offer a critique in action that can encourage educators, students and journalists to think epistemologically about journalism - an activity that has been found lacking in craft-based journalism programmes."

In my history of investigative journalism in Canada, I devote a chapter to alternative journalism called "Out of the Mainstream." This is because the 1960s saw a huge increase in alternative journalism, and it is undeniable that this genre had a major impact on the subsequent growth of investigative reporting. Mainstream media of the 1950s and 60s were still operating largely within the limitations of official journalism. There was an institutional timidity in many organizations when it came to challenging the status quo, unless sources deemed reliable and official could be found to do so. I don't mean to diminish the excellent work done by some newspaper and broadcast journalists of this era. Some of the work by journalists at programs like Close-Up, Document and This Hour Has Seven Days was particularly influential in the development of investigative reporting. But the overall reticence to do challenging work was extensive. Nothing illustrates this better, in my view, than the inability of Seymour Hersh to interest any mainstream organizations in his groundbreaking expose of the My Lai affair. It was left to his neighbour, who ran a tiny alternative news service, to distribute the story.

Alternative magazines and newspapers, many run by students and left-wing organizations in the 1960s, produced some probing work. In the US, Ramparts was particularly influential. In Canada, Dimension, the 4th Estate and The Last Post offered similar examples. Political groups ran investigative articles in their own publications. Soon the mainstream was paying attention. By the early 1970s, it was becoming fashionable in many mainstream organizations to form teams to engage in muckraking.

Today, the alternative media aren't nearly as mysterious or exotic as they might have seemed 40 years ago. Random surfing produces site after site of journalistic endeavours. Some barely earn the right to be called journalism, but others are delving into areas that the mainstream don't or won't cover. The work methods and editorial policies of the organizations practicing these forms of journalism are worth studying. Chris Atton argues that many aspects of modern alternative journalism have a social basis that links writer and audience together in a stronger way than conventional journalism does. He offers the following conclusion, along with some pointed advice for journalism schools: "Studies of the practices of alternative journalism and the embedding of those practices into teaching programmes might go some way to re-establishing the often shaky connection between professional journalists and their audiences."

Kick-starting Investigative Journalism

Seymour Hersh was a young and little-known journalist when he approached the newly-created Fund for Investigative Journalism in 1969 for help. He wanted assistance to investigate reports of a civilian massacre perpetrated by US soldiers in Vietnam. He was awarded a $250 grant. A subsequent grant of $2,000 allowed him to finish reporting the story. Hersh's My Lai expose became one of the seminal examples of investigative journalism in the Vietnam era.

Since then, the fund has given away more than $1.5 million in grants to freelance reporters, writers and small publications. That has leveraged the publication of more than 700 stories and about 50 books.

The fund was started by Philip M. Stern, a philanthropist with a sense of social justice. According to the fund's website, "Stern was convinced small amounts of money invested in the work of determined journalists would yield enormous results in the fight against racism, poverty, corporate greed and governmental corruption." Stern was understandably proud of his initial contribution to Hersh's groundbreaking work. "Think of it," he wrote, "a mere $2,250 in fund grants enabled Seymour Hersh to leverage a whiff into a colossal stink and contribute mightily to the change in how Americans viewed the war in Vietnam."

In its latest disbursement, the fund gave $57,000 to 15 journalists. In keeping with its practice, it didn't name the recipients or explain exactly what their projects were. But in general, it said they concerned "government wrongdoing, improper medical experimentation, the economics of immigration, environmental conservation efforts, education and past U.S. activities in Vietnam and in the development of the atomic bomb." In addition to stories in the US, the recipients will be investigating stories in Cambodia, India, Uganda, Mexico, Afghanistan, Jordan and Kenya.

While Canada has its Atkinson and Michener-Deacon fellowships, there is no exact parallel to the US-based investigative fund. The Centre for Investigative Journalism (later renamed the Canadian Association of Journalists) began a similar program when it was founded in the late 1970s, but it didn't last long.

A sampling of stories that were kick-started by the Fund for Investigative Journalism is available on the fund's website.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Is History Repeating Itself?

Those of us old enough to remember the economic situation of the early 1980s may be wondering: is history repeating itself in the way the media are valuing investigative journalism?

The 1970s witnessed an explosion of investigative work. The social forces of the ‘60s put many people into motion, and the public was growing increasingly skeptical about governments and institutions. Various alternative media institutions demonstrated that intensive inquiry could lead to revealing exposes. According to journalism professor Mark Feldstein’s muckraking model, the demand for investigative reporting was increased by an aroused public hungry for exposes in times of turmoil. Supply was spurred on by new technologies and media competition. Then along came Watergate, and the idea that a couple of young reporters relentlessly working a story could bring down a president. Newspapers formed teams, television networks created programs, and investigative journalism became the darling of Hollywood. Time magazine declared 1974 The Year of the Muckrakers.

The growth curve seemed limitless, but the new decade brought harder economic times. Newspaper chains began consolidating, shutting down the Ottawa Journal and Winnipeg Tribune. Budget cuts and hiring freezes became the norm. Investigative reporting, seen as expensive and time-consuming by some media outlets, began to suffer. “Investigative reporting on the country’s dailies, always in fragile health, is wheezing worse than ever as the strangle is put to editorial budgets,” wrote Barry Zwicker in the Fall 1982 issue of the CIJ (Centre for Investigative Journalism) Bulletin. In fact, the CIJ dubbed its 1983 conference “Hard News: Hard Times.” The result of all this downsizing was a process that can still be felt in many organizations today. Fewer reporters began to cover legislatures, city halls, Parliament and other key institutions. Decreased scrutiny inevitably means less enterprise and fewer opportunities to learn the truth about important events as they are happening.

The cutbacks weren’t universal. But as companies in other industries have learned, cutting capacity in critical areas can often impede the process of building back that capacity when conditions improve. By the mid 1980s, economic conditions in Canada had strengthened, but many newspapers that had curtailed investigative work did not reinvest back to the original levels.

The atmosphere today feels similar. With the current economic crisis, some local television stations across North America are downsizing and eliminating their I-Teams. These teams have been a regular staple of many local television stations for more than 25 years. They vary greatly in quality. Some do genuinely important enterprise and investigative work, while others employ gimmicks and chase after easy-to-get gotcha stories. But they all try to achieve something beyond conventional, daily reporting. Many newspapers as well are concentrating more on breaking and daily news than investigative work. It’s a trend that is prompting some experienced investigative reporters to leave such newspapers as The Wall Street Journal in search of a Plan B.

The American Journalism Review has a good column on this trend in its latest issue. Bill Lord of WJLA in Washington, DC expresses a common sentiment as he justifies cutting back on his I-Team. "I've got to do newscasts before I can do specialty items," Lord tells the AJR.

But can investigative work really be seen as a "specialty item?" Holding the powerful to account is a constant need for journalism, not something to be dropped when economic times get tough. Arguably it's at times like these when hard-hitting, watchdog journalism is needed most. I have heard many American journalists criticize themselves for not being tough enough in their scrutiny of government following 9/11. There have been many mea culpas from the press for not investigating more thoroughly the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It’s crucial that investigative reporting take place at the moment events are unfolding, not in hindsight or years after the fact. The public demands and deserves a media that is constantly looking out for its interests, challenging conventional wisdoms, holding power to account.

The situation isn’t entirely bleak. The Toronto Star has a full-time investigative unit of five journalists. The Globe and Mail has a talented group of investigative reporters uncovering important elements in many stories. The CBC conducts strong investigative work in its news service, in many of its regional centres, and through current affairs programs like the fifth estate and Marketplace. CTV continues to pursue investigative work at W-FIVE. Journalists at many other media outlets across the country, both in the mainstream and alternative media, do important work. But the economic pressure on media institutions is posing a challenge to this form of journalism. Individual media outlets will all be faced with choices in this regard over the coming months and years. They should all consider the history of the early 1980s, and take care not to make decisions that will be difficult to reverse. The AJR column mentioned earlier has one last quote worth repeating. It’s from WFOR-TV, a Miami-based station that maintains a nine-member I-Team. "We feel that, now more than ever, we need investigative reporting," news director Adrienne Roark said. "It's what sets you apart from all the other noise out there."

Friday, April 17, 2009

National Endowments for Journalism?

"The internet is well suited to detect scandals that require lots of bloggers to spend a little bit of time searching for bits of incriminating evidence. But it's no substitute for serious investigative reporting that requires weeks of intelligent inquiry to get to the heart of the problem. Without Woodwards and Bernsteins, there will be even more Nixons and Madoffs raining mayhem and destruction."

That's an excerpt from a provocative article in the Guardian by Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres. Their solution to declining newspapers and mass reporter layoffs? A national endowment for journalism.

Full article

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Global Investigative Journalism Conference Handouts

There is a terrific archive of handout material available from last year's Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Lillehammer, Norway. Presenters have offered either a transcript of their talk or a copy of their Powerpoint presentation. Here is just a sample of the materials that can be downloaded:

How to get people to talk
John Nicol, CBC

Exposing political parties and their strategies
Nicky Hager, freelance, New Zealand

20 Steps to Dig into the American Secret Archives
Alexenia Dimitrova, 24 Hours, Bulgaria

How to present your investigation on TV - and giving your crazy ideas a go!
Trojkan: Fredrik Laurin, Joachim Dyfvermark and Sven Bergman.

Investigating the nuclear threat
Igor Kudrik/Aleksander Nikitin, Bellona, Norway/Russia.

Corporate Spies : How private security companies are secretly watching NGO’s/Journalists
Jean-Philippe Ceppi – Producer « Temps Présent », Swiss Broadcasting Corporation

Download Handouts

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Community Funded Investigative Reporting

New models are springing up all the time for funding different kinds of reporting. Because investigative work is particularly labour-intensive and generally costly, it can be difficult to practice without support from established media organizations or foundations.

Sites like The Real News are attempting to raise grassroots funding from users and subscribers to sustain their journalism. Other groups are forging relationships with universities or other non-profit centres. And there is Spot.Us, a unique experiment in California's Bay Area to see if a community-funded model based on specific story ideas can work.

According to its website: "Through Spot.Us the public can commission journalists to do investigations on important and perhaps overlooked stories. All donations are tax deductible and if a news organization buys exclusive rights to the content, your donation will be reimbursed. Otherwise, all content is made available to all through a Creative Commons license. It’s a marketplace where independent reporters, community members and news organizations can come together and collaborate."

In fact, readers can suggest topics, and freelance journalists can make pitches. Readers then pledge credits towards the cost of the story. If enough is raised, the story is commissioned, and an effort is made to sell the story to a media outlet. It's an intriguing idea.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

African Investigative Journalism

The Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) has a website highlighting investigative reports from the continent.

Some of the headlines of recent reports offer an intriguing glimpse into the work being done:

KENYA: Tough working conditions and risky sex on tea plantations
Massive exports deplete fish stocks in Lake Victoria
Environment criminals build $10bn empire on ivory, timber and skins
Region Awash With Fake Malaria Medicine

On a more practical level, the site also offers a service that identifies affiliated reporters in different African countries. This can help journalists around the world to link up with an investigative reporter on the ground in Africa.

Forum for African Investigative Reporters

Monday, April 6, 2009

Endangered I-Teams

I-Teams have been a regular staple of local television stations in North America for more than 25 years. They vary greatly in quality. Some do genuinely important enterprise and investigative work, while others employ gimmicks and chase after easy-to-get gotcha stories.

With the current economic crisis, some stations are downsizing and eliminating their I-Teams. The American Journalism Review has a good column on this trend in its latest issue. Bill Lord of WJLA in Washington, DC expresses a common sentiment as he justifies cutting back on his I-Team. "I've got to do newscasts before I can do specialty items," Lord tells the AJR.

Those who have studied some journalism history know that viewing investigative journalism as a "specialty item" misses the significance and purpose of this genre. Holding the powerful to account is a constant need for journalism, not something to be dropped when economic times get tough. Arguably it's at times like these when hard-hitting, watchdog journalism is needed most. Miami's WFOR-TV is taking a different view. It maintains a nine-member I-Team. "We feel that, now more than ever, we need investigative reporting," News Director Adrienne Roark tells AJR. "It's what sets you apart from all the other noise out there."

Here is the full AJR column by Deborah Potter

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Berkeley Conference on Investigative Reporting

There is an annual symposium on investigative reporting at the University of California-Berkeley, organized by Lowell Bergman. Unfortunately it's an invitation-only event. Luckily, Mark Glaser attended this year's conference and provided some impressive live blogging. Here it is:

Berkeley conference on investigative reporting

Muckraking Movies

This is an interesting premise.

What are the best muckraking movies?

Here is a top 10 list. There are many more out there as well.

Muckraking Movies: Top 10 List

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Business of Bribes

FRONTLINE and FRONTLINE/World are unfolding an online investigation of international bribery. Covering a practice estimated at $1 trillion worldwide, the team will report on some of the largest bribery investigations in corporate history, leading up to a FRONTLINE documentary, Black Money, airing April 7th.

Lowell Bergman presents the story.

Frontline website


Wobbing is Dutch slang for getting documents through Freedom of Information Legislation.

The wobbing website is a wonderful resource for information on how to use European Freedom of Information Acts. If you want to keep up to date on access issues across Europe, this is a good place to visit.

Wobbing website

Some of the material is in Dutch only, but quite a bit is translated into English.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Huffington Post launches investigative journalism effort

Here is a remarkable development from the Huffington Post. Does anyone in Canada have $1.75 million for a similar venture?

NEW YORK — The Huffington Post said Sunday that it will bankroll a group of investigative journalists, directing them at first to look at stories about the nation's economy.

The popular blog is collaborating with The Atlantic Philanthropies and other donors to launch the Huffington Post Investigative Fund with an initial budget of $1.75 million. That should be enough for 10 staff journalists who will primarily coordinate stories with freelancers, said Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.

full story

Friday, March 27, 2009

Watchdog Journalism Conference

On March 12 and 13, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism hosted Enlarging the Space for Watchdog Journalism, a conference focused on the state and future of investigative journalism.

There is a good site detailing the sessions. It includes audio recordings of the panels.

Columbia Conference

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Plan B: A New Trend?

This is an interesting article about the Wall Street Journal. Two respected reporters have quit to do investigative journalism for private clients. There is also interesting information about the WSJ's emphasis on breaking news.

Plan B

Monday, March 23, 2009

Computer-Assisted Reporting Summer School

This is from Fred Vallance-Jones of King's College School of Journalism:

The University of King's College School of Journalism is proud to announce the second annual Summer School in Computer-Assisted Reporting, once again sponsored by the Canadian Newspaper Association. The 2009 school will be held June 22 to 26 in Halifax.

The 2008 school was an unqualified success and with the economic crisis, skills that distinguish you from the pack are even more important.

To assist in tough times, we are offering special lower rates if you sign up early. The standard registration fee is $475 for the five days but you pay only $375 if you register before April 30. Students, freelancers and those who work for publications with Saturday circulations of less than 30,000 (or weeklies below 30,000) pay a reduced rate of $350, or $250 before April 30.

These are unbelievable rates for five days of intensive training by the country's top CAR practitioners, plus evening social events. Registration for this year's school entitles you to a free copy of Computer-Assisted Reporting, A Comprehensive Primer from Oxford University Press, a $55 value (plus tax). The book will serve as text for the course, and will be an invaluable reference on your desktop for years to come.
As last year, rooms are available at modest cost in the King's residence, or you can get a special rate of $149 plus tax at the nearby Lord Nelson Hotel. We'll post the registration pamphlet soon. In the meantime, for more information and to register using a major credit card, contact Kelly Goldenberg at or 902-422-1271.

Word Cloud

Here is a word cloud based on the preface of my book.
Created by Wordle.

Foundations and Journalism

Foundations are playing a bigger and bigger role in funding journalistic projects, particularly in the US. But what do the foundations get from the relationship? Do the contributions come with no strings attached? What exactly do the journalists have to do to keep the foundations happy?

We don't often hear from the foundations on this question. Here is one article which throws some light on the issue.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Web Sites as Watchdogs

This is an interesting article on the phenomenon in the US.

Web sites that dig for news rise as watchdogs

How many of these sites do we have in Canada?

Investigative Journalism Book List

There are not too many bibliographies of investigative journalism books in Canada. (Maybe that's because there are not too many investigative journalism books in Canada.) Here is one list. Actually, it is the bibliography from Behind the Headlines, with a couple of additions. Books in bold are examples of investigative work, while the others discuss or relate to the genre in one way or another. As with any list, it is completely subjective. Please suggest additions.

Book List

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Protecting Sources

Daniel Leblanc broke many of the major aspects of the sponsorship scandal. Now he may be forced to reveal his sources.

Reporter next up in court

It would be deeply ironic, if not the height of absurdity, should Daniel Leblanc wind up going to jail for his part in the sponsorship scandal

Montreal Gazette article

Manitoba Book Awards

The Association of Manitoba Book Publishers has just announced the Manitoba Book Awards shortlists. The awards will be presented at a gala event on Saturday, April 25.

The shortlists and award winners are selected by a variety of juries comprised of writers, publishers and other book industry professionals from across the country.

Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction