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.