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.