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.