Sunday, September 21, 2014

Building an Alliance Between Journalists and Hackers

The ability to access and manipulate data is increasingly becoming one of the most important new frontiers for investigative journalism.
While a great deal of information is currently available online, not everyone is adept at locating it or putting it into a format that will yield a useful result. Journalism schools are now turning their attention to training new journalists in the techniques that will make this possible.
There is a group of people who are exceptionally good at finding data online right now -- hackers.
Now comes word of a conference that will bring journalists and hackers together.
The Centre for Investigative Journalism is organizing the Logan Symposium for Journalists and Hackers, to be held in London Dec. 5-7.  The event is designed to allow both groups to discuss common concerns and to learn from each other.
"Journalists will offer hackers a social and political context and expertise in evidence based story telling," according to the CIJ's website. "Hackers will offer an insight into digital tools to protect journalists and their sources and ways of accessing and exposing evidentially based material about truth in our time."

While some people identify hacking with illegal online entry and criminal activity, the symposium is clearly suggesting that ethical hackers will be the ones in attendance. It identifies a hacker as "someone who identifies and explores the strengths and weaknesses of computer systems and networks. Usually supports free and open source software, and whose beliefs include sharing, openness, decentralisation and world improvement."

Some major names will be participating, including Seymour Hersh, John Pilger, Julian Assange (via Skype) and others.

It's a novel concept, but recent events have clearly shown that journalists and hackers can assist each other. Just how exactly that process will work in the future is one of the things the conference will help clarify.

Audio and Video from Winnipeg Investigative Conference

If you couldn't attend Holding Power to Account, the investigative journalism conference in Winnipeg in June, check out the website for recordings of some sessions.

We captured video versions of speeches by Carl Bernstein and Peter Mansbridge. We also made audio recordings of many other sessions.

Please visit Go to the schedule page, and at the far right of each session is a button. While we were not able to record every single session, there are many audio recordings to choose from.

Thanks to everyone who helped create the recordings, and of course to all the speakers for participating.

Monday, June 9, 2014

More Than 300 to Attend Winnipeg Investigative Journalism Conference

More than 300 journalists, academics and journalism advocates are descending on Winnipeg this weekend to attend a unique conference organized jointly by the CBC and the University of Winnipeg.
CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge will deliver the opening address, and the opening keynote luncheon speaker is Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. The timing is perfect – it is exactly 40 years since Bernstein and Bob Woodward released All the President’s Men, their account of the Watergate break-in and cover-up that ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
The conference is called Holding Power to Account: Investigative Journalism, Democracy and Human Rights. It’s a unique collaboration between a broadcaster and an educational institution, but one that makes sense. Both organizations are dedicated to informing and enlightening people, and bringing information and knowledge to the forefront.
Many of CBC’s most influential investigative journalists will be there, from Linden MacIntyre and Bob McKeown of the fifth estate to senior network correspondents Diana Swain and Adrienne Arsenault. We also have Radio-Canada’s top investigators on board, with Alain Gravel and Marie-Maude Denis of Enquete. They were responsible for uncovering and first reporting on the construction and political scandal in Quebec that now forms the basis of the Charbonneau inquiry.
Other speakers and delegates include journalists from CTV, Global, Sun Media, the Toronto Star, the Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Free Press and others. More than 70 speakers will be in attendance from all over the world, including Canada, the U.S., South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, Austria, Tunisia, India, Bosnia, Kenya, Germany, Australia and other countries. A number of young journalists are coming from different countries to share their experiences working in difficult conditions.
CBC editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire and University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy will be on hand to kick off the proceedings Friday morning.
Journalism professors from across the country and the U.S. will also be in attendance, with representatives from UBC, Regina, Concordia, Ryerson, Carleton, Western, King’s College and several U.S. states.
We have also invited some speakers who interact with investigative journalists. One session will feature David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Other sessions feature ethics professors and advocates for whistleblowers and non-governmental organizations.
You can see the full schedule at Conference sessions will be recorded and posted to the website, and J-Source will be live-blogging the event. The conference hashtag is #wpginvestigates
In all, it’s going to be an exciting weekend. As our conference program says, holding powerful interests to account is one of journalism’s most important missions. It’s critical to democracy and the preservation of human rights. We hope this conference makes a modest contribution to ensuring that the work continues.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Registration now open for Holding Power to Account: International Conference on Investigative Journalism, Democracy and Human Rights

Dozens of speakers from around the world have confirmed their attendance at an international conference on investigative journalism in Winnipeg, and more are expected in the coming weeks.

Holding Power to Account: Investigative Journalism, Democracy and Human Rights will be held June 13-15 this year. It is being jointly organized by the University of Winnipeg and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Several Pulitzer Prize winners will be in attendance, including Carl Bernstein. He will deliver a keynote speech on the lessons of Watergate, the seminal story more than 40 years ago that brought investigative journalism into the modern era.

The conference will feature a unique blend of working journalists and academics. Professors of journalism will be coming from coast to coast, along with teachers from the U.S. Everything from whistleblowing to hacking to reporting in disaster zones to the ethics of investigative work will be discussed.

Michael Hudson, senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and former Wall Street Journal reporter, will be on hand to discuss international journalistic collaborations.

Linden MacIntyre, Bob McKeown and Diana Swain of the CBC will describe the evolution of investigative work over the years. Rob Cribb of the Toronto Star will talk about projects that cross borders, and Steve Buist of the Hamilton Spectator will discuss health journalism that touches on human rights. Adrienne Arsenault discusses the dangers inherent in international reporting.

Speakers include journalists from Italy, Austria, Romania, Uganda, Nepal, Malaysia, Australia and many other places. There will a number of journalists from Africa in attendance.

There will be special sessions on coverage of Aboriginal and Indigenous peoples in Canada and the U.S. Advocacy journalism will also be on the agenda. In a special session, the team from Enquete will describe how they initiated the current massive investigation into corruption in the Quebec construction industry.

To register for the conference, and to see a preliminary list of speakers and sessions, visit the conference website.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Getting at the Truth: Organic Answers or Misleading Information?

In the delicate dialogue which media conduct daily with various levels of government, reporters sometimes come away with a feeling they are being misled.
It's not every day that proof of this suspicion surfaces. But that's exactly what happened in a recent story CBC reported on the testing of organic fruits and vegetables.
It began several weeks ago when our investigative unit in Winnipeg requested results from tests conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency into the presence of pesticide residue on organic produce. The Access to Information request was granted, and data between September 2011 and September 2013 was released.
Even though CFIA stated that the results showed about 20 per cent of organic produce contained pesticide residues, CBC's own analysis revealed the number to be 46 per cent. The CFIA eventually agreed with our findings.
What was even more alarming was that eight per cent of all organic samples had so much residue that it was a good indication there may have been deliberate application of synthetic pesticides.
That's disturbing news to anyone who pays a hefty premium to ensure their food is grown in an environment as free as possible of pesticides.
Faced with the prospect of CBC reporting on this matter, the CFIA sought to re-assure the public by telling us that it took deliberate measures whenever it discovered pesticides on organic produce. Even though it didn't consider this to be a health risk, the CFIA said it sent those test results to organic food certification bodies for follow-up.
To be clear, this wasn't just a casual comment offered by the agency. It was explicitly stated in emails, documents and a telephone interview with the CBC.
"If there is non-permitted substances found in organic products, we would notify the CFIA-accredited certification body who would request the organic operator to take corrective action," a CFIA spokesperson told us. "So we have the system in place, and we have the confidence in our system, and we have the mechanism to address any non-compliances if they arise."
We included that explanation in our original report, published Jan. 8. That's when the story took an interesting twist.
We received a tip from an insider - someone in a position to know the truth about this situation. The tip was that the CFIA was not submitting test results to the certification bodies, because it was still figuring out a protocol for how to do so.
Confronted with this information, the CFIA then conceded that the data was still being analyzed and no results had yet been sent to certification bodies, despite telling us otherwise for the last few weeks.
"We apologize for misleading you, but that wasn't our intent," said Ron Milito, director of the CFIA's issues, communications and media relations unit.
Sometimes the line between being coy with the truth or outright lying can come down to the specific words asked in questions, and the precise words that are offered in response. Remember former president Bill Clinton's famous stern pronouncement that: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Or Rob Ford's explanation to reporters for why he hadn't lied in the past about using crack cocaine: "You didn't ask the correct questions.... You ask the question properly, I'll answer it."
The organic testing story showcases the need for media to ask the right questions, and to keep asking them until they are satisfied the answers are responsive to the public's need for getting as close to the truth as possible on important issues.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Global Investigative Journalism Conference Draws Record Numbers

Journalists from nearly 90 countries traded stories and techniques at this year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference, discussing everything from corruption scandals in Ukraine to an undercover expose of child murders in Ghana.

More than 1,300 journalists travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the conference, which combined the annual gatherings of Brazilian and Latin American reporters with the Global Investigative Journalism Network’s biennial event. The result was one of the biggest events of its kind in history, and a fascinating look at how investigative reporting has spread throughout the world.

There was no hand-wringing about the decline of journalism or the lack of investigative work. In fact, the recently-retired investigations editor of the Guardian newspaper, David Leigh, told the conference that this was a golden age for muckraking.

Leigh said a new era had opened up for journalism in the last three years, characterized by mass digital leaking of information and a corresponding mass international co-operation among journalists. He pointed to Wikileaks, the offshore tax haven stories co-ordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and the Edward Snowden leaks as examples of the trend.

While the phenomenon has opened up new vistas, Leigh said it was important for journalists to enhance their technological sophistication and step up their international efforts at collaboration.
The conference provided ample evidence that investigative work is alive and thriving in many parts of the world.

Dmytro Gnap described how he and his colleagues at an investigative website in Ukraine uncovered corrupt practices involving a $200 million plan to enhance insulation in the country’s schools and orphanages. Piercing the veil of shell companies, they traced the ownership of firms that benefitted from the government funds to friends of the president. They also showed that very little retrofitting work ever got done.

Eduardo Faustino, meanwhile, showed some remarkable hidden camera footage from an investigation conducted by Brazil’s Fantastico television program. With the help of a local hospital, journalists set up a sting in which suppliers were caught offering bribes and kickbacks to hospital officials in the hope of winning contracts. 

Canada’s Frederic Zalac also showed how the CBC and Radio-Canada followed the trail of lawyer Tony Merchant’s secret offshore holdings. It was one of dozens of reports around the world that followed the revelation of offshore tax havens by the ICIJ.

In addition to describing and sharing their stories, journalists also spoke about investigative techniques and the increasing trend to collaborate across borders in their inquiries.

Miranda Patrucic of Sarajevo demonstrated the revamped capabilities of the Investigative Dashboard website, developed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. By collecting public records and scraping registries and official gazettes in various countries, researchers have assembled a searchable database of companies and directors that is an invaluable resource for investigative journalists.

Patrucic said the site has already been helpful in uncovering numerous paper trails of hidden assets and corrupt practices. Searches are now possible for business records in Panama, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands. More corporate registries will be added to the site in the future, she said.

The undisputed highlight of the conference was a speech by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who continues to break stories based on Edward Snowden’s trove of U.S. intelligence files. Greenwald, who lives in a Rio neighbourhood not far from where the conference was being held, had a controversial message for the gathering.

Journalism as a profession had become extremely corrupted, he said. He rejected conventional wisdom that journalists should never express opinions about the stories they work on, or get close to the sources they quote.

“I’m not going to pretend I’m a robot,” he said, adding that he admires and supports Snowden’s courage and actions. Journalists owe an obligation to their sources to help and protect them.

Greenwald said no one should lament the decline of many large, conventional mainstream outlets, since it is a sign that newer forms of media are being invented. He spoke about a democratization of the media that the Internet and mass dissemination of data had afforded.

Greenwald was accorded rock star status at the conference, with journalists mobbing him before and after his speech. Everyone wanted to get close to him, to snap a picture or exchange a few words. In a way, he embodied the new era that Leigh had described at the beginning of the conference.

While some journalists and news organizations have been critical of Greenwald for being an activist and too strident in his commentary, there was no hint of that attitude in Rio. Listening to his well-reasoned and passionate articulation of his work, the journalists in attendance seemed to realize its historical significance, and the importance of supporting and defending the work of whistleblowers and journalists who persist in holding powerful interests to account.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Whistleblowers, Journalists and the Public's Right to Know

Blowing the whistle on illegal or immoral behaviour has never been an easy task.
It usually results in loss of income, possible prosecution, and in extreme cases, it can be deadly. It's safe to say that a whistleblower's life is never quite the same after that fateful decision to speak out publicly.

Just ask Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who is currently scrambling to find a country willing to protect him from prosecution in the U.S. Snowden, like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Jeffrey Wigand, Daniel Ellsberg and dozens of others like them, is finding out the hard way that shining a light in dark places is not always to everyone's liking.

Journalists have a particular interest in whistleblowers, because they are often instrumental in uncovering stories of great public interest. The CBC and most other media outlets have relied repeatedly on whistleblowers to gain insight into how government, industry and other powerful interests conduct business. Sometimes those whistleblowers wish to remain anonymous, and the media does its best to protect their identities.

At other times, the identities are public from the outset, and that gives rise to another common phenomenon. Not only do the whistleblowers come under attack by the people whose secrets are being revealed, but so do the journalists who report the stories.

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the Snowden stories, has been accused in some quarters of "aiding and abetting" the former intelligence employee. Some U.S. politicians have suggested he should be prosecuted alongside Snowden. Other commentators have questioned whether Greenwald is really a reporter, suggesting he is an activist or at best a "blogger." A concerted campaign seems to be underway to spread innuendo about aspects of Greenwald's past, with the suggestion that such revelations should somehow call his journalism into question.

"When I made the choice to report aggressively on top-secret NSA programs, I knew that I would inevitably be the target of all sorts of personal attacks and smears," Greenwald wrote in the Guardian. "You don't challenge the most powerful state on earth and expect to do so without being attacked."

It is not the first time this has happened. There are many Canadian examples of reporters facing accusations of bias, lawsuits and court orders to disclose confidential source information, all because they reported on what a whistleblower had to say.

But one of the most instructive examples is that of Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon and state department employee who leaked an internal government analysis of the Vietnam War called the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Ellsberg was subjected to the familiar litany of threats and smears, and U.S. intelligence officers even staged an illegal break-in at his psychiatrist's office to find material to discredit him. He was accused of theft, espionage, and endangering U.S. security interests. Sound familiar?

Ellsberg gave the papers to the New York Times, and lawyers for the Times advised against publication. But the newspaper published the story amid risks of injunctions, lawsuits and dire threats. The newspaper's right to proceed was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Here is what Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said:

"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people, and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. ... The government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."

Ellsberg, by the way, eventually had all charges against him dismissed. And it's difficult to find anyone today who thinks the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers was a bad idea.

Anyone who has seen the movie The Insider also knows about the case of Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on big tobacco's practice of increasing nicotine content in cigarettes. In reporting the story, CBS was also accused of aiding and abetting Wigand's purportedly illegal breach of contract, and faced the prospect of a crippling lawsuit if it proceeded.

What should Canadian journalists learn from the cases of Snowden, Ellsberg, Wigand and the journalists who covered their stories? It would be unfortunate if they concluded such coverage was somehow improper or too dangerous to risk. That attitude would not serve the cause of journalism, or the public's right to know, terribly well.

Whistleblowers who speak out must carefully assess the risks. They should know the consequences of their actions might bring job dismissal, or government persecution, or jail. Often, as Ellsberg did, they hope that public opinion will judge their act of defiance so important as to trump any contractual or legal bounds they might have overstepped.

As for the journalists who deal with these whistleblowers, they need to consider that their primary obligation is to their audiences, who are interested in the inner-workings of powerful institutions that hold sway over their lives. Even if a whistleblower is breaking a contract, or breaking a law, it need not disqualify the importance of reporting the information.

In a 2010 ruling, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louis LeBel commented directly on this type of issue.

LeBel noted that "in order to bring to light stories of broader public importance, sources willing to act as whistleblowers and bring these stories forward may often be required to breach legal obligations in the process. History is riddled with examples. In my view, it would also be a dramatic interference with the work and operations of the news media to require a journalist, at the risk of having a publication ban imposed, to ensure that the source is not providing the information in breach of any legal obligations. A journalist is under no obligation to act as legal adviser to his or her sources of information."

Even though many levels of government around the world have enacted whistleblower protection legislation, the climate for people who are considering blowing the whistle is decidedly chilly these days. Journalists might also be thinking twice about what they can safely report.

The criminalization of whistleblowing is unlikely to result in a more open and transparent society. In the end, it's the public that is usually in the best position to judge whether we should punish or reward the people who are stepping forward to shine the light. And the only way the public can make that judgment is by being armed with all the available facts.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Half a Century of Investigative Journalism at the CBC

The CBC has created some of the most important and memorable examples of Canadian investigative journalism over the last half century, often leading to sweeping policy and legislative changes.

Modern investigative journalism began to expand in the 1950s, and the CBC was in the forefront of creating new techniques and ways of working. Journalists like Douglas Leiterman, Ross McLean and Patrick Watson made a significant contribution to investigative techniques in those early years, laying the foundation for further advances in the decades that followed.

read full article

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Historic Day for Investigative Journalism with Release of Offshore Tax Haven Story

This was an historic day for investigative journalism.

In a simultaneous display of journalistic prowess, dozens of media organizations around the world released stories about how the rich and powerful hide their assets in offshore tax havens. The stories have already triggered major repercussions and imminent resignations, and they have opened a window into how tycoons and the ultra-wealthy dodge their national tax authorities.

The stories stem from a massive leak of financial documents that contain names and details of more than 122,000 offshore companies or trusts, and about 13,000 agents.

The documents were on a computer hard drive that arrived by mail to Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It contained more than 260 gigabytes, and special software was used to try to sort and make sense of the data. Then, media organizations around the world were contacted to partner with the ICIJ in analyzing the data and teasing out stories of interest in their respective countries.

The ICIJ has conducted multinational investigations in the past, but this is the first time it has co-ordinated a project on such a massive scale. Partners included the BBC, the Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post and Asahi Shimbun. It worked with 86 investigative journalists from 46 countries.

Here is what the ICIJ says on its website:

"The files identify the individuals behind the covert companies and private trusts based in the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, Singapore and other offshore havens. They include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as Russia corporate executives, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Wall Street fraudsters, international arms dealers and families and associates of long-time dictators.

Among the key findings:
  • Government officials and their families and associates in Azerbaijan, Russia, Canada, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Mongolia and other countries have embraced the use of covert companies and bank accounts.
  • The mega-rich use complex offshore structures to own mansions, yachts, art masterpieces and other assets, gaining tax advantages and anonymity not available to average people.
  • Many of the world’s top’s banks – including UBS, Clariden and Deutsche Bank – have aggressively worked to provide their customers with secrecy-cloaked companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore hideaways.
  • A well-paid industry of accountants, middlemen and other operatives has helped offshore patrons shroud their identities and business interests, providing shelter in many cases to money laundering or other misconduct.
  • Ponzi schemers and other large-scale fraudsters routinely use offshore havens to pull off their shell games and move their ill-gotten gains."
The CBC was the ICIJ's Canadian partner, and stories began rolling out today with questions about Saskatchewan lawyer Tony Merchant and his wife, Liberal Senator Pana Merchant. The CBC reported that the prominent class action lawyer "moved nearly $2 million to secretive financial havens while he was locked in battle with the Canada Revenue Agency over his taxes." CBC's coverage includes a number of interactive web features and maps that demonstrate the extent of the practice in Canada.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Wikileaks, but the ICIJ rollout so far appears to have gone smoothly and with great impact. It is certain to encourage other leakers and whistleblowers to share information in the future.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Last Post Files: Fighting subversion or protecting the government from embarrassment?

The Last Post was an alternative magazine started in 1969 by a group of journalists who created some innovative pieces of investigative journalism.

Now, in newly-released documents, it has been confirmed that the magazine was under scrutiny by the RCMP's Security Service.

Toronto writer Paul Weinberg looks into the story at J-Source.

The Last Post Files: Fighting subversion or protecting the government from embarrassment?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Grilling the Guest – Laurier LaPierre and the Hot Seat Interview

As a pioneer of early CBC current affairs journalism, Laurier LaPierre made a lasting contribution to a key element of investigative work – the focused accountability interview.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the public broadcaster began developing programs that would re-shape television journalism for the next few decades. Programs like Close-Up, Inqui’ry and ultimately This Hour Has Seven Days utilized a set of techniques designed to hold powerful interests to account and get closer to the truth of important issues.

In 1963, producers Patrick Watson and Douglas Leiterman drew up a document that would become the manifesto for Seven Days, which was destined to become CBC’s most popular and controversial program. It had three main planks:
  1. A Film Report: The mainstay of the magazine will be the film report with live links covering in energetic style the significant current affairs of the week.
  2. An Investigative Report: Using special camera techniques we will probe honesty and hypocrisy.
  3. A Hot Seat would be a tough encounter with a prominent guest who is hot in the news and prepared to be grilled.
As co-host of Seven Days, LaPierre’s specialty was the hot seat interview, and he exhibited no shyness in mercilessly grilling the willing and provoking those who thought they could outwit him.

In one interview, with cabinet minister Mitchell Sharp, LaPierre violated every convention of modern questioning technique by kicking things off with the statement: “The affairs of this country are in a hell of a mess,” and then waiting for a response. This resulted, as it often did, in a lively exchange.

Most famously, he allowed his passion and emotions to shine through in a piece about Steven Truscott, a story the program had adopted as a recurring symbol of injustice. Another interview with John Diefenbaker led to a formal complaint by the former prime minister.

What LaPierre was doing wasn’t accidental.  Leiterman firmly believed that interviewers had to adopt a devil’s advocate stance for maximum impact. As for Watson, he saw the accountability interview as one of the CBC’s main contributions to investigative journalism in the early 1960s. But it couldn’t be just any kind of interview.

“I began to realize that careful, thoughtful, reasonable discussion was not what held viewers to the screen,” Watson wrote in his memoirs. “It was vigorous dispute and strong images that did the trick.”

With such a deliberate stance, it proved difficult to strike a balance between provocative investigative work and stunt journalism – and Seven Days would often serve up helpings of both. But its serious work had the most lasting impact.  LaPierre’s persistent pillorying of people in power served to steer the program away from what Watson considered at the time to be the typical CBC program’s deference to the establishment.

The problem, of course, was that it wasn’t just interviewees who were being provoked. The government didn’t much like what LaPierre and Seven Days were doing, and it wasn’t hesitant in passing along its displeasure to CBC management.

The overt ideological battle between producers and managers became evident in some of the internal documents that became public in the wake of the program’s death. An internal management memo in 1966, commenting on a Seven Days satirical song about U.S. policy in Vietnam, noted: “This is just one example of a long series of straight and light items which made fun of or criticized the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. These skits do not appear to contravene any specific corporation policy, but they are in bad taste.”

Even though Seven Days was drawing a record audience of 3.2 million, the program was cancelled after just two years on the air. LaPierre’s CBC career was short but memorable. He returned to academic pursuits, and eventually entered the political arena.

People who are hot in the news today are far less willing to be grilled than they were 50 years ago. A platoon of communications and public relations advisors stands between journalists and prominent newsmakers, making it difficult for accountability to be captured in its most basic form.

Sadly, too many journalists are now pressured into accepting email responses to their questions. Those responses are often designed to dodge the real accountability issues, but the lack of back-and-forth means that key questions remain unanswered.

It might be refreshing for a younger generation of journalists to revisit LaPierre’s flamboyant but persistent style of truth-seeking, and adapt it to a modern context. There are still plenty of people around who need to be provoked.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Very Short Primer on Investigating Companies

When it comes to investigating companies, it makes a huge difference whether the corporation is publicly-traded or privately-held.

Securities regulators ensure that public companies report certain types of information regularly. The best place online to find such information for Canadian companies is

But it's a completely different story for private outfits. There are few mandatory reporting requirements. This means investigative journalists have to be more resourceful.

A good place to check is with credit rating agencies. Equifax will gladly prepare a report on a company, public or private, and offer it for sale. These reports can provide a good idea of how promptly a company is paying its bills, and how much litigation it might have on its hands.

Corporate registries are another useful place to look. Companies registered provincially or federally have to file basic information about directors and, in some cases, ownership. The federal database is online at Industry Canada's site, while provincial registries have to be checked individually.

It's sometimes worthwhile to track the activities of Canadians abroad by checking on their corporate activities in different countries. This can be done online in many cases, though language barriers might make the task daunting for some countries.

Luckily, there are some sites that have aggregated this information in a user-friendly format. Open Corporates, for example, has scraped data from dozens of countries and re-purposed it to make searching simpler. So has the Investigative Dashboard's worldwide company data site.

A great article by Sheila Coronel, of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, provides links to these and other useful places for corporate research.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Investigative Journalism Reading List

 Check out Alex Roslin's blog post with links to investigative journalism resources, as well as online materials. Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Soccer documentary a testament to CBC’s relevance

Bruce Dowbiggin points out in the Globe and Mail that CBC's coverage of a soccer game-fixing scandal would be unlikely on many other networks.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

YouTube Launches Channel on Investigative Journalism

YouTube has launched its specialized channel on investigative journalism. It's a project managed by the U.S.-based Center for Investigative Reporting, with support from a Knight Foundation grant. Called the I Files, it curates content from a variety of sources around the world and showcases video in an accessible format. Some of the larger contributors include the New York Times, BBC, Al-Jazeera and the Investigative News Network. The Center promises to feature student work and independent projects, in addition to mainstream examples. The CIR is also launching a contest that challenges journalism school students to submit investigative videos, with the best winning a $2,500 prize. The 10 best videos will be featured on the I Files. Contest deadline is Oct. 31.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mike Wallace and His Impact on Canadian Journalism

While Mike Wallace had a legion of both admirers and detractors, there is little doubt his work exercised an influence over modern Canadian investigative journalism.

Many of the genre’s practices and techniques developed in the 1950’s, and Wallace’s Night Beat program for independent New York TV station WABD became an important point of reference for many producers. He and producer Ted Yates created the show in 1956, and it quickly drew a massive audience for each edition.

Even though Edward R. Murrow had already popularized the television interview format with See it Now and Person to Person, Wallace and Yates took it to a new level. They intensively researched each guest, and didn’t shy away from asking uncomfortable questions.

The visual motif of the set also served as a template. It was a stark, black environment, with a single klieg light trained on the guest. Frequent close-ups of the interviewee heightened the drama of the program.

At around the same time, the CBC was asking producer Ross McLean to create a new public affairs program for the network. While he drew on many influences, including BBC’s Panorama and other shows, McLean clearly wanted to capture some of the intensity and success that Wallace had created.

McLean’s show was called Close-Up, and it became the most groundbreaking program of its kind to that point. It featured many early versions of investigative journalism, and its signature interviews were some of the most memorable segments. Journalists like Pierre Berton, Jack Webster and Charles Templeton were among the people doing the interviews.

More importantly, it was a training ground for some of CBC’s most promising producers, including Patrick Watson and Douglas Leiterman, who later went on to create This Hour Has Seven Days.

Daily journalism does not often devote the time and expense to the intensive research that’s needed in investigative work. Close-Up created a process for doing just that – establishing a legacy that has continued in current affairs television programs to this day.

Patrick Watson considered the focused accountability interview to be a crucial component of the investigative work of the era. In drawing up their manifesto for Seven Days, which began airing in 1964, Watson and Leiterman noted the importance of a “hot seat” interview: “a tough encounter with a prominent guest who is hot in the news and prepared to be grilled.”

Though Murrow and Wallace had pioneered some of the early interviewing techniques, Canadians did far more sustained and impressive work through Close-Up and Seven Days. That became clear to the Americans after 1966, when Seven Days was cancelled. Both NBC and CBS scrutinized the program carefully, trying to find a way to re-create its huge ratings success.

Leiterman subsequently went to work for CBS, and he was asked to create a detailed planning document for network executives. It eventually led to the creation in 1968 of the long-running program 60 Minutes, a groundbreaking American show but something a Canadian newspaper reviewer said “has roughly the same format we’ve been used to for several seasons.”

The process came full circle as Wallace joined 60 Minutes. His patented interviewing style returned, and soon morphed into a different genre of attack, involving ambushing perpetrators in the field.

Showmanship has always been an element of the Mike Wallace style. In his early interviews, Wallace went seamlessly from pitching the virtues of Philip Morris cigarettes (his sponsor) to grilling whoever agreed to sit in his hot seat. Sensation was often used for its own sake. A 1957 interview featured Eldon Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This Hour Has Seven Days also flirted with the same kind of sensation in its two-year run.

John Sawatsky, one of Canada’s best investigative journalists and a student of the interview, has often used examples from Wallace to illustrate bad interview practices. Wallace often injected prejudicial comments and trigger words into his preambles; he would often simply make a controversial statement himself rather than ask a question; and he would belligerently pester people with closed-ended questions, all techniques Sawatsky abhors.

And the image of a crusading Wallace chasing after bad guys on 60 Minutes is something that has polarized opinion. While it is occasionally important to force accountability by door-stopping someone, many feel this has become an overused and tired tactic. In too many items, on too many networks, Wallace’s pale imitators can be seen chasing all manner of unfortunate subjects down the street.

The “hot seat” interview, meanwhile, is also not what it used to be. But this is mostly due to the savvy nature of politicians and prominent individuals who have become adept at dodging the media altogether. While everyone wanted to appear on Wallace’s Night Beat, it’s now the norm for people to be “unavailable for comment.”

Still, when a journalist does manage to score an important interview, it requires a great deal of research and courage to ensure accountability. As Wallace said in an interview himself, that often requires the interviewer to “make them squirm a little bit.”

While it might be easy to dismiss the showbiz aspect of Wallace’s career, it would be a mistake to discount the influence he exercised over journalism in the last half century. Without him, Canadian investigative journalism, particularly the variety practiced on television, might have developed very differently.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hacker-Assisted Reporting: Can it be Ethical?

I have taken the controversial step of mentioning the words “hacking,” “reporting” and “ethical” all in the same sentence. Now I’ll need the rest of this post to convince you I haven’t lost all vestiges of integrity.

The Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal has exposed a serious malignancy in the state of British journalism. While everyone can see the moral bankruptcy of hacking into cell phones to harvest celebrity gossip, the scandal has raised ethical issues far beyond the odious practices of reporters at the now-defunct News of the World.

Is it justified to pay a private investigator for information the journalist might otherwise not be able to get? How far can deception go in the pursuit of journalistic truth? Is any form of hacking to be tolerated in the information-gathering process?

The answers aren’t as simple as you might think. Journalistic ethics have evolved over the years, and what may have been tolerated at one time might be seen as excessive at another. Here, for instance, is some helpful advice from a 1976 American book on investigative journalism by James Dygert:

“Information about a person’s phone calls, credit records, airline reservations, or utility bills can be obtained by a telephone call requesting the information in a manner implying the caller is the person in question or someone acting on his behalf.”

The British now call that practice blagging, and it has actually been illegal in Britain since 1994, though an exception is made when it can be shown to be in the public interest. The public interest defence has yet to be tested in court. But many British journalists, whether they work for the red-top tabloids or the more austere broadsheets, comfort themselves by hiring private investigators to do the dicey work for them.

Which brings us back to the topic of hacking, and whether it can ever be an ethical tool of journalism. It turns out that it can.

A good example is the work being done by Paul Radu and the coalition of journalistic groups running the Investigative Dashboard website. The site aims to help journalists around the world track corporate crime and corruption, and to share information that reporters uncover.

While the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires have become adept at setting up offshore tax havens and convoluted business structures to defeat transparency, these journalists have been trying to discover tools to break through the complex web.

One of the most important services provided by the site is a gateway to worldwide company data. This is good as far as it goes, but not every country provides corporate registrations in a user-friendly format. For an investigative journalist, it’s important to be able to plug in a name of an individual to see which companies they are connected to, or to run a name of a company and immediately see the people involved with the firm.

Radu, along with what he calls his “civic hacker friends,” have solved the problem by scraping various sites and reconstituting the data in more usable form. The best example of this is the corporate registry of Panama, a favorite country for hiding money and attempting to cloud the real identity behind corporate directors and owners. Hackers scraped the site of all its data and reposted it in a way that allows investigative journalists to perform meaningful searches.

This is all perfectly legal, since Panama doesn’t charge for any of its data on the site. While the government of Panama may not like having its site hacked and scraped, it’s hard to see what harm, if any, this practice causes. Radu sees this as the beginning of many different ways to use hacking.

“There are organizations of hackers we need to work with,” he said at the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference. “We have to go to local hack spaces to explain what our work is about. Right now hackers build beautiful tools no one uses.”

There is an ever-increasing supply of data available online, but very few Canadian newsrooms are using web scraping to harvest the information in a meaningful way. That’s not surprising, since most journalists don’t have the time or inclination to learn the programming language needed to perform scraping or legal hacking.

There’s a potential ethical minefield here as well, though. Contracting-out a web scraping or hacking project could bring just as many headaches to the journalist as hiring a private investigator with no strict ethical boundaries can. The collaboration can be a useful one, but it has to be well-monitored and thoroughly understood by the journalist at all times.

If it is, then hacker-assisted reporting can be a useful addition to the journalistic toolbox.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Exposing Dirty Media Tricks: "It helps that Murdoch is a bastard"

Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who broke the phone hacking scandal in Britain, described a remarkably simple technique for doing good journalism as he addressed a room full of investigative reporters in Kiev yesterday.

He calls it the "hang on a minute" moment. It's the act of identifying and then doggedly investigating the part of a story that just doesn't seem to add up.

Davies had one of those moments when he thought about the phone hacking prosecution in 2007 of a reporter for News of the World. The newspaper's royal correspondent, along with a private investigator, were charged with hacking into the messages of royal family members. The Murdoch-owned newspaper said it was an isolated practice. 

During the investigation, police had seized material from the investigator. Davies wanted to know exactly what that was, and whether it went beyond the case at hand. He asked to know how many cell phone pin-codes had been found in the private investigator's possession. After months of stonewalling, authorities finally provided an answer: 91. 

That told Davies the hacking was widespread, and it was the start of dozens of stories revealing dirty tricks and unethical practices that were known at the highest levels of the Murdoch empire, he said. 

There was another interesting technique Davies used in his investigation. He convinced a number of the victims to sue, in the hopes of getting further disclosures as a result of the court cases. That's exactly what happened, and it provided Davies with proof that senior editorial bosses were involved in the practice. 

Davies is the author of Flat Earth News, in which he critiques modern journalism as "churnalism" that repeats public relations lies and generally does not serve readers' interests. He blames cutbacks and commercialism that have forced reporters to churn out far too many stories a day, leaving them no time to check for the truth, and making them prey to corporate and government spin doctors. 

There is also a chapter in his book on the "dark arts" used by many British media institutions. These include phone hacking, adopting identities to misappropriate other people's personal information, conducting questionable sting operations, hunting through garbage bins, and generally doing whatever it takes to find a scoop.

Davies was unrestrained in his criticism of Rupert Murdoch as he addressed delegates to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference.  "Murdoch's people lie for a living," he said. "You cannot become as rich and powerful as Rupert Murdoch unless you are greedy," and leave a trail of enemies in your wake. That provided plenty of disaffected people for Davies to interview. "It certainly helps that Murdoch is a bastard."

Murdoch's power extends right into the prime minister's office, and Davies noted that a series of administrations have been in thrall to the media baron's influence. "You can't govern Britain unless Rupert says you can."

Davies continues to get tips about other dirty tricks in the newspaper business. Last week, he broke a story about how the Murdoch empire was using a scam to inflate circulation figures for it's Wall Street Journal in Europe. 

David Leigh, investigations editor at the Guardian, said Davies was instrumental in staying on the story and bringing it to its historic conclusion. "He has done something none of us thought was possible. He has shaken the media empire of Rupert Murdoch."

Davies said arguably the best skill a reporter can develop is mastering the office politics of bargaining for sufficient time to work on important stories. Time is crucial for good reporting, and avoiding the imperative of churning out volume over quality is crucial.