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.