Sunday, November 21, 2010

Exposing International Tax Havens

The CBC and the Globe and Mail have been following the case of tax havens in Switzerland that have attracted Canadian investors. There is an interesting complementary investigation that looks at how some people use the desire of international investors to hide assets to their own advantage.

Reporters with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which covers the Balkans and Eastern Europe, looked at schemes that stretched from
Eastern Europe to New Zealand, Cyprus, Seychelles islands and to the US state of Delaware.

Part of the investigation used undercover work that eventually led to the arrest of a man alleged to be involved in a money-laundering scheme. The project exposed schemes that helped people hide company ownership, avoid taxes, and skirt monopoly laws.

The full series is on their website.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Exoneration 101

Investigative journalism, almost by definition, requires a significant commitment of time and resources – commodities that are in short supply at most news organizations.

That’s why it makes perfectly good sense to harness the talents of students to help with the research work that any good investigative project entails. Properly trained and mentored, a team of students can provide the research muscle for any ambitious project.

This lesson has been grasped well at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where a team of students and faculty won an Emmy award this year for a documentary about electronic waste. And a recent initiative by the school to partner with law students could play a significant role in uncovering new cases of wrongful convictions in Canada.

Earlier this month, the school announced a partnership with UBC’s law faculty to investigate miscarriages of justice in BC. Since 2007, the law faculty has run an Innocence Project that has been looking into more than 20 murder cases. The joint-venture is the first of its kind in Canada.

UBC’s Innocence Project is one of three across the country. The others are at Osgoode Hall and McGill, and all involve law faculties. Merging the talents of law and journalism students seems like a no-brainer, but no one has done it before in Canada. So it is encouraging to see such a partnership come to fruition.

Tamara Levy, a law professor and director of the UBC project, says on the university’s website that the journalism students “bring unique skills that will help us shed some light on our investigations and move them forward more quickly.” Mary Lynn Young, director of the journalism school, sees it as “a great opportunity for students to learn investigative journalism skills” in collaboration with the law faculty.

Students have played a pivotal role in overturning convictions in the U.S. for years. Most famously, the Medill journalism school in Chicago developed evidence that has freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row, since 1996. Former Illinois governor George Ryan credited the school with helping provide the impetus for his moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.

One of the most memorable and gratifying projects in my own career involved an investigation into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard. Through news stories, documentaries and eventually a book, we were able to document an extraordinary case of a man who spent 23 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Seeing how that work impacted both the justice system, and one man’s eventual freedom, was humbling.

What better training could there be for journalism students than to be involved in a similar pursuit? To get some idea of how life-changing those experiences can be, you just have to peruse the stories of Medill alumni and read their descriptions of watching an innocent man walk free – in part, because of their work.

There will be no shortage of cases in Canada to investigate. It’s estimated that as many as five per cent of convictions could be faulty. It is only the fortunate few who link up with a lawyer, family member or journalist who are persistent enough to spend the time and resources to investigate their case.

The UBC project says it hopes to put forward its first case for ministerial review by the end of the year. With the new potent partnership of law and journalism students, there is little doubt that we will soon be learning about new cases of wrongful convictions from British Columbia.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

WikiLeaks: Transparency or Treason?

Investigative journalists spend a lot of time thinking about whistleblowers.

They encourage them to come forward, persuade them to talk, promise them anonymity, and sometimes they even risk going to jail to prevent their identities from being known. Whistleblowers have been key to many important exposes over the years, and they are a crucial component to investigative journalism.

That’s why the current debate over WikiLeaks is both perplexing and troubling. The website, founded in 2006, is devoted to soliciting and publicizing important information from whistleblowers. So why are so many journalists, including some investigative reporters, raising questions about what WikiLeaks is doing?

WikiLeaks has broken many stories in its brief history, posting everything from secret detention documents at Guantanamo Bay to a video showing American Apache helicopters firing at civilians in Baghdad. The stories have not endeared the site to U.S. authorities.

But whistleblowers rarely lead a placid life after they make their information known, and media that transmit the information also often find themselves targeted for retribution. Just ask Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times, both of whom faced threats, injunctions and prosecutions for their role in publishing the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers.

This year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange raised the stakes by publishing more than 77,000 classified Pentagon documents on the war in Afghanistan. He followed that up recently with a further release of about 400,000 documents on the war in Iraq.

The Pentagon was predictably not happy. It said the Afghan documents endangered lives of people whose names had not been redacted, though no concrete evidence has yet surfaced of reprisals against anyone. Its reaction to the Iraq documents has been twofold: on the one hand, it says they reveal little new, while it also feels their release may be grounds to charge the people who leaked and publicized the documents with treason.

It is generally accepted that the release showed evidence of about 15,000 previously unreported and undocumented civilian deaths in Iraq, a remarkable fact given the difficulty of concealing such a large number of casualties in today’s plugged-in world. It also called into question previous U.S. and British claims that there were no official counts of casualties in Iraq. The documents instead showed meticulous records and an exact toll of 66,081 non-combatant deaths over a five-year period.

Assange also maintains the records show the U.S. failed to investigate hundreds of reports of rapes, assaults, and even murders by Iraqi police and armed soldiers over the years, a charge the Americans deny.

What has been the response of the journalism community to WikiLeaks? Surprisingly, there have been many reporters sniping from the sidelines. Reporters Without Borders criticized the site for publishing names of Afghans acting as informers for the U.S., while other journalists have supported the Pentagon’s analysis that the site is playing into the hands of terrorists.

Marc Thiessen, former White House staffer and a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, was blunt: “Let's be clear: WikiLeaks is not a news organization; it is a criminal enterprise. Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national security information and disseminate it as widely as possible -- including to the United States' enemies.”

Assange himself now finds himself living like a virtual fugitive. Originally from Australia, he is looking for a safe haven were he won’t be subject to a possible prosecution under the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act, the same legislation that was used to prosecute Ellsberg.

This seems odd, since a Pentagon spokesman has called the latest release “mundane”, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that it contained nothing new. Some have argued that authorities simply want to ensure future leaks are plugged before they can cause any further embarrassment.

Nevertheless, the level of international intrigue surrounding Assange seems to grow daily. He applied for Swedish residency, but shortly afterwards was accused of molestation and rape by two women there. Assange maintains it was a set-up, but whatever the case, it torpedoed his attempt to settle there. He is now looking at Switzerland as a possible new home. A former professional hacker, he protects the security of the site by routing his servers through a maze of complex connections in safe locations.

In response to the backlash, especially from some sectors of the reporting community, a group of international investigative journalists is now coming to the defence of Assange and WikiLeaks. A statement of support, signed by members and associates of a global investigative journalism association, seeks to defend the principle and practice of the site.

“We believe that Mr Assange has made an outstanding contribution to transparency and accountability on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, subjects where transparency and accountability has been severely restricted by government secrecy and media control,” the statement says. “He is being attacked for releasing information that should never have been withheld from the public.”

The statement, which has already been signed by journalists from more than 40 countries, defends WikiLeaks’ right to post confidential military documents. “If it is espionage to publish documents provided by whistle blowers, then every journalist will eventually be guilty of that crime. Mr Assange deserves our support and encouragement in the face of the attacks.”

Investigative journalism seeks to hold powerful people and interests to account, and that inevitably means challenging the status quo. The history of such reporting shows that those same powerful interests often strike back, launching counter-offensives. How this current battle will end is unknown, but it is fascinating to see how members of the journalism community are aligning themselves in the process.

The full statement in support of WikiLeaks is available at the Global Investigative Journalism Network website.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Future of Investigative Journalism

Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, has written a useful summary of current issues in the field of U.S. investigative journalism.

Houston chronicles the downsizing that has taken place in conventional media outlets, and the simultaneous rise of new, mostly publicly-funded models.

Houston notes that a study last year showed that since 2005, foundations have contributed $56 million to investigative centres and projects in the U.S. That is a signifcant infusion of dollars and it has already reaped equally significant results.

The report is reprinted on the university's College of Media website.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Encouraging Signs: Is Investigative Journalism on the Rise Again?

While tough times generally put intense pressure on investigative journalism, the last two weeks have provided evidence that solid reporting can still create significant impact across the country.

A number of reports probed deeply into such diverse issues as daycare conditions, retirement homes, charitable donations, tax evasion and international terrorism investigations. Each of the stories did what good investigative journalism ought to do: hold institutions that wield power to account, and employ solid research methods.

There’s another factor that is harder to quantify and hasn’t been well-studied. Competition among media outlets can give rise to more investigative projects, as the urge to create impact and distinctiveness in the marketplace can lead to greater investment in this kind of reporting.

The Globe and Mail chose the day of its major re-design to highlight an investigative piece about a global manhunt for three University of Manitoba students who allegedly disappeared into al-Qaeda controlled territory in Waziristan. Despite a major effort on the part of CSIS and the RCMP, as well as other intelligence agencies, the case was a secret until the newspaper broke the news.

Six reporters were credited with working on the story, and it has now spurred many others to begin asking questions.

The same day, the Toronto Star’s front page featured the headline: “How Can This Happen?” The newspaper sent reporter Dale Brazao undercover to a Toronto retirement home while Moira Welsh checked the home’s health and court records. They documented dirty conditions, bad food and poorly trained and underpaid staff.

The CBC has also been active on the investigative front, with a major report by Diana Swain on the Canadian connection to a list of 80,000 secret HSBC Private Bank accounts in Switzerland. The report, a joint project with the Globe, says more than 1,700 Canadians had accounts in the bank, and the Canada Revenue Agency is probing possible tax evasion.

A week earlier the CBC revealed the results of an investigation into registered charities that employ external fundraising companies. The national picture showed that over five years, those fundraisers had earned more than $760 million. Individual stories from across the country revealed many examples of charities paying more than 50 per cent of their proceeds to fundraising companies (Disclosure: I was part of the team that reported this story).

And there were other examples. Radio-Canada showed how easy it was to sell illegal stun guns in Canada, while a joint CBC/Radio-Canada probe revealed that many Quebec children are being cared for in daycares that are either illegal or don't have the necessary permits. The investigative program Enquete also revealed that officials at a Montreal college turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s.

Canadian Press continues to be one of the leading journalistic users of the Access to Information Act, mining the legislation for important stories. Last week Dean Beeby pried loose an internal study from Justice Canada that showed aboriginal people and those in remote communities are spending more time in remand than others.

There is little question that hard economic times usually translate into less investigative reporting. The examples I have cited above are from the country’s biggest media institutions. Smaller newspapers and media outlets are struggling to maintain staff, and investigative reporting finds it difficult to flourish in an atmosphere of slashed resources and bare-bones reporting.

But it is encouraging to see renewed commitments being made by some media outlets to investigative work, both at national and regional levels. Reporters who possess the investigative impulse, no matter where they work, should take this as a cue to press their employers for the time and resources needed to join the fray.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Interrogation, Sensory Deprivation and the CIA: A Canadian Connection

Thirty-six years ago, Donald Capri was driving across the Redwood Bridge in Winnipeg when he spotted a body floating in the Red River. Police later identified the victim as Prof. John Zubek, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Manitoba. Cause of death was determined to be suicide by drowning. Zubek was 49.

Zubek’s mysterious life and death has a direct and largely unexplored relationship with the CIA’s methodology of interrogation. Zubek devoted his life’s work to researching sensory deprivation. In a special isolation chamber at the University of Manitoba, he conducted experiments on more than 500 people over 15 years, depriving them of all sensations for up to two weeks. The research was begun at a time when the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program was spending millions to understand how manipulating human behaviour could assist interrogations.

Zubek, who was funded by the Canadian defence department and the US government, was considered a world leader in sensory deprivation research, elaborating the covert work begun by colleague Donald Hebb at McGill University -- work he assisted, according to documents in Zubek's personal papers.

Despite his death in 1974, Zubek’s legacy endures in the methods used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other detention centres. The notorious photo of a hooded prisoner in Abu Ghraib, standing on a box with arms extended, shows the importance of sensory deprivation in the CIA’s methods. So does the declassified Foreign Affairs document that reveals how Omar Khadr was placed on the “frequent flyer” program at Guantanamo, constantly moved from cell to cell and denied uninterrupted sleep. “He will soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks and then he will be interviewed again,” says the once-secret 2004 memo. In his influential book A Question of Torture, Alfred McCoy argues that the “no-touch torture” technique of sensory deprivation is critical to the US interrogation paradigm.

I have examined Zubek's archives at the University of Manitoba and written a lengthy article about his activities for the current issue of Canada's History magazine.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Getting Closer to the Truth in the Mulroney-Schreiber Affair

Harvey Cashore has a new book on the stands about the Airbus Affair. It's called : The Truth Shows Up: A Reporter's Fifteen-Year Odyssey Tracking Down the Truth About Mulroney, Schreiber and the Airbus Scandal.

I have reviewed it in the July/August issue of the Literary Review of Canada. Here is a portion of that review:

Cashore’s book is an engaging and instructive roadmap for any aspiring reporter. And he succeeds in revealing more of the truth behind the story than anyone else has to date. He takes the reader on a fascinating, behind-the-scenes journey of a complex journalistic investigation. The stakes are always high, because at the heart of the story is the suggestion that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney may have benefited from commissions paid by Airbus to secure a sale of jets to Air Canada.

The secrets held by prime ministers and presidents are rarely, if ever, fully revealed. Last year, at a speech to the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors, legendary Watergate journalist Bob Woodward described a dinner he recently had with former vice-president Al Gore. How much does the public know about what really went on in the Clinton White House, Woodward asked his dinner guest. Gore thought for a moment before replying: “About one percent.” Add to the equation potential illegal behaviour on the part of a prime minister, and the odds for revelation of the truth become far smaller.

When Air Canada decided to buy 34 jets from Airbus in 1988, Karlheinz Schreiber received about $500,000 in secret commissions per plane. Reporters with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine began chasing the story in 1994, and soon they were in partnership with CBC’s the fifth estate. Cashore was assigned to research the story for the program, and over the years his research produced a number of important documentaries and books about the affair.

Cashore brought with him a specific journalistic methodology he had learned from his mentor, former newspaper reporter and author John Sawatsky. In his groundbreaking investigation of the RCMP security service in the 1970s and 1980s, Sawatsky learned the importance of taping and transcribing all conversations. By studying his own questions and the answers they produced, and analyzing the questions posed by his colleagues and students, Sawatsky deduced that the quality of information was often directly related to the precise language employed in the questioning. He came up with a unique methodology of interviewing, and he stressed the value of maintaining a chronology of events in every story he worked on. Sawatsky also believed in maintaining a militant neutrality in his approach, always keeping an open mind and allowing for disconfirmatory evidence to be heard.

As a researcher for Sawatsky’s biography of Mulroney, The Politics of Ambition, Cashore learned the methodology well and adopted it for his own inquiries. Much of the book’s rich detail comes in the transcripts of Cashore’s taped interviews.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Exposing the Dangers of Asbestos

For most people, asbestos is the stuff we desperately try to remove from old buildings because of its cancer-causing properties. But in much of the developing world, asbestos continues to be used, causing an estimated 100,000 deaths per year.

Canada plays a role in this situation by continuing to mine asbestos and export it around the world. Even though 52 countries ban the use of asbestos, Canada exports it to India, China, Mexico and other countries, where controls on its use have been shown to be lacking.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, working with the BBC and journalists around the world, recently released an expose on the problem called Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade.

Among other things, the series looks at a global network of lobby groups that has spent nearly $100 million since the mid-1980s to preserve the market for asbestos. It exposes relationships between governments, industry and scientists to promote the continued production and export of asbestos.

One of those lobby groups is Canada's Chrysotile Institute, based in Montreal. Asbestos mining has been a traditional industry in Quebec, one which governments continue to support.

The ICIJ report says Canada exported 153,000 tonnes of chrysotile, or white asbestos, to India, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the UAR. Only a small fraction of that amount is used back home.

There is currently a debate over enhanced funding for the expansion of an asebstos mine in Quebec. The Canadian and Quebec governments support the production and export of asbestos, while arguing that end users need to ensure the product is handled safely. The Canadian Cancer Society is urging government not to extend loan guarantees to the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine. The town of Asbestos in Quebec retaliated by cancelling support for the society's Relay for Life fundraising effort next year.

The ICIJ works collaboratively with reporters in many countries to produce investigative reports. This expose involved reporters in eight countries, though Canada was conspicuously absent.

A year ago, the CBC broadcast a powerful documentary on the asbestos issue called Canada's Ugly Secret. Reporter Mellissa Fung showed how workers in India handled Canadian asbestos with virtually no protection, exposing them to long-term health hazards.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fire the Editors, and Work Till You Die: Seymour Hersh

For the last few months, I had been looking forward to attending the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva. This is the sixth meeting of a group that brings together muckrakers from dozens of countries.

Unfortunately, the Icelandic volcano had a say in my travel plans, and I had to cancel at the last moment. But that didn't stop me from following some of the proceedings online, including a keynote speech by the always provocative and entertaining Seymour Hersh.

No one has had a more illustrious career in investigative work than Hersh. He came to international prominence with his story about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Later, working for the New York Times, he broke many of the important stories during the Nixon administration. And he has kept on working, breaking the Abu Ghraib detainee scandal and many other exclusive stories about Iraq and Iran. Hersh's books are also fine examples of his investigative reporting.

Hersh began his remarks in Geneva by describing how difficult the life of an investigative journalist can be, chasing relcutant sources, and struggling with the moral dilemma of trying to convince people to talk, while knowing that their participation might ultimately damage their own interests. And then there is the question of editors.

"The better the story, the more they hate it," he said, only half-jokingly. Hersh repeated a line I have heard him use before. We could lose 70 per cent of the top editors at newspapers and networks, and be better off. The reason: people who get promoted into the upper echelons tend to be among the most cautious and conservative.

To the relief of many in the audience, he acknowledged there are a small contingent of editors who demand accurate sourcing and work with reporters to make their stories better. But then he turned his attention to governments.

"Governments lie," he said, echoing maverick journalist I.F. Stone's most famous dictum. "We don't. We make mistakes. There's a big difference."

In fact, Hersh said the biggest danger he sees in the collapse of the conventional journalism model is the potential for unchecked corruption at the local and regional levels. Without vigorous teams of investigative reporters operating at a local level, politicians will have a field day at the public's expense, he said. The rise of foundation-based journalism models, together with mass distribution possibilities of the Internet, could well pave the way for a promising future for the genre.

After trashing editors and government, Hersh turned his attention to journalism schools. He wasn't that impressed with them, noting that they often concentrate too heavily on newspaper layout and other technical tasks to the detriment of real journalistic skills. Even the live streaming version of the speech showed that the moderator of the session -- Brant Houston of the University of Illinois -- squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

When asked about how much longer he could continue doing this kind of work, the 73-year-old Hersh seemed amused.

"This is a lifetime job," he said. "Illegal and immoral wars are good for my career."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Milestone for Non-Profit Investigative Journalism

Alternative journalism used to be a kind of slur in mainstream media circles, a phrase describing journalists who couldn't or wouldn't adhere to conventional norms.

In truth, alternative journalists have produced some of the most groundbreaking stories throughout the history of investigative journalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the alternative newspapers and magazines that dragged mainstream media outlets into a prolific era of muckraking work.

Today, as the economic crisis cuts deeply into the heart of the U.S. media mainstream, the alternative sphere has a whole new texture. Some outstanding journalists from leading media outlets have either quit or have been laid off, providing a strong pool for independent organizations to draw on. And such organizations have been proliferating in recent years, raising money from foundations and universities to practice a brand of investigative work that doesn't place the profit motive at the head of the list of objectives.

This week one of those organizations, ProPublica, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. It is a significant milestone that everyone needs to appreciate and try to analyze. In many ways, it marks an important turning point for American investigative journalism.

The Pulitzer went to Sheri Fink, who wrote a 13,000-word article called The Deadly Choices at Memorial. It chronicled one hospital's activities in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and how some doctors gave lethal injections to patients they thought could not be evacuated.

Fink's article appeared first on ProPublica's website. Two days later, it was published in The New York Times Magazine. This was an example of the organization's method of work, in which it researches an investigative story and then partners with one or more media outlets to ensure widespread circulation.

ProPublica is perhaps the biggest and best-funded example of the new breed of non-profit and non-partisan investigative institutes. With a significant endowment from the Sandler Foundation and support from other foundations, it has built an impressive team led by a former Wall Street Journal managing editor and a former investigations editor at the New York Times. With a newsroom in Manhattan, it has assembled a formidable staff of 32 journalists, some of them award-winning reporters and researchers from mainstream organizations.

In 2009, ProPublica produced 138 stories and partnered with 38 print, broadcast and online media organizations. The Pulitzer was the crowning achievement of the year, but there were other awards as well, including a George Polk Award, a Selden Ring Award and wins at the Investigative Reporters and Editors competition.

"The honors are gratifying, and we deeply appreciate them, but they are not a goal in themselves," wrote managing editor Paul Steiger on the group's website. "We view them as a sign that our nonprofit, nonpartisan model -- publishing both on our own Web site and in partnership with major print, video, audio and online news organizations -- can make a meaningful contribution to the information needs of the American people in an era of explosive change in newspapers and other media."

The awards will almost certainly provide a boost to similar groups that have sprung up across America, and are only now trying to grow in Canada. But they are by no means a guarantee of the long-term success for the model. Grants from foundations, like other charitable contributions, are subject to economic and political considerations, and can be withdrawn as easily as they are awarded.

Those non-profits that forge close links with ordinary readers, listeners and viewers -- audiences that are willing to pay for a high-quality product in one way or another -- will likely be the ones to succeed in the long run.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Should the National Enquirer Win a Pulitzer for Investigative Journalism?

Some days -- if not most days -- the line between celebrity gossip, rumour and journalism becomes increasingly difficult to discern.

When most of the Western world drops everything to see how Tiger will explain himself, mainstream journalism outlets can no longer smugly stay out of the fray. To avoid irrelevance, they must cover the story. But then the question becomes: how much attention, resource, prominence and seriousness should they attach to the story, or stories like it?

This question was put squarely on the table of the Pulitzer Prize board recently when the National Enquirer decided to enter its John Edwards story in two categories: investigative reporting and national reporting. The supermarket tabloid, known for its celebrity gossip and bizarre news stories, cites its three-year long pursuit of presidential candidate Edwards and his extra-marital affair as worthy of American journalism's highest honour.

The entry has stoked much debate in journalism circles, with mainstream publications questioning whether the Enquirer belonged in the elite club, and a variety of bloggers cheering the supermarket paper on. Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler initially tried to block the entry. He said the Enquirer was really a magazine, and not a newspaper, and that the publication violates conventional journalism ethics by paying subjects for their interviews. But conventional media did eventually match the Edwards story, and the Pulitzers have finally said they will allow the entry to stand.

If the spate of recent sex scandals has you confused about this one, let me rehash the basic facts. Edwards tried for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008, and was dogged by stories that he had an extra-marital affair with campaign worker Rielle Hunter. The National Enquirer did indeed lead the way on this coverage. It was also reported that the two had a child. Edwards finally admitted all earlier this year, leaving his family life and career in tatters.

Sensationalism and gossip have always been a feature of journalism, even in publications that pride themselves on serious coverage. But the private lives of powerful people have been receiving unprecedented attention lately. Whether it's Bill Clinton or Maxime Bernier, politicians are now on notice that their sex lives may be carefully scrutinized, sometimes even more rigorously than their policy stances.

But should that be the case? While I would salute any reporter for a good scoop, I would also ask any news organization whether it is worth the time and effort to devote three years to dig into John Edwards' sex life. The U.S. has no shortage of important topics to investigate, many of them far more urgent than a DNA analysis of the Edwards love child. This factor needs to be considered by any jury assessing prizes for investigative journalism.

Many news organizations explicitly cite the need to prioritize investigative work, given the amount of time and effort needed to do a good job on this front. The CBC, for instance, says investigative journalism involves the vigorous and intensive examination of matters that touch upon public policy or issues that affect a large portion of the population. 'Investigative journalism should bear in mind the relative importance of an issue and should not be exclusively concerned with the revelation of errors, injustice or wrongdoing. Minor matters should not be treated when more significant topics warrant attention," says the CBC's policy book.

Several years ago, I heard renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh discuss his excellent account of the Kennedy years, The Dark Side of Camelot. One of the chapters details John F. Kennedy's now famous predilection for extra-marital affairs. In some quarters, Hersh was criticized for including this detail. But he argued convincingly that when private matters begin to impinge on public policy, the public needs to know. The mere fact that Kennedy had sex with women other than his wife shouldn't necessarily be relevant to an assessment of his political life, Hersh said. But when some of those women were also connected with gangland figures, it's essential for this to be reported.

An even bigger question, in my view, is the priority we must establish in investigative work. I have heard countless American reporters lamenting their lack of enterprise and initiative in the years leading up to, and following, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They are self-critical about believing presidential arguments that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. They wish they had done more challenging and investigative work at the time. They promise to do better in the future. But how much better can they do if their budgets are devoted to breaking the best angles on Tiger Woods or John Edwards?

The war in Afghanistan is rife with opportunities for investigative work, in Canada and the U.S. Allegations of torture and government complicity in abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are still worth exploring. How many more Toyota episodes would come to light if journalists would devote more time and effort to such a vital question as automobile safety?

So the Pulitzer jury will have its work cut out as it considers this year's entries. It may want to check out the National Enquirer's website, which proudly announces that it pays big bucks for story tips and interviews (In the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, it had to retract a story after its tipsters admitted to fabricating a fantastic account of a family sex-ring connection to the matter). The jury will also want to consider what kind of message it sends journalism students and practitioners as to the type of investigative journalism it wants to honour.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Magazine is Silenced

In a country like Colombia, investigative journalism is practised only by the most courageous reporters.

One of the most daring publications was the weekly magazine Cambio. It broke numerous stories that challenged government, including an expose of illegal wiretapping by the country's intelligence agency of opposition politicians, activists and even Supreme Court judges. It also exposed how the army passed off young civilian casualties in the counter-insurgency war as guerrillas.

But Cambio was acquired by a new ownership group with close ties to the government, and not surprisingly, investigative journalism is no longer a piority. Cambio's top two editors have been dismissed, and the magazine will be converted into a general interest monthly.

Read more details here.

Could Iceland Become a Journalism Haven?

Iceland could have used the services of more incisive investigative journalists over the last few years. Very few reporters foresaw the breadth or severity of that country's financial collapse, which has witnessed the failure of major banks and devaluation of the currency.

Now comes word that a proposal to be filed with Iceland's parliament could make the country a haven for investigative journalism.

The idea, backed by some journalists and parliamentarians, would reform Iceland's media laws to make the country an attractive place for investigative journalists.

See the BBC report on this story.