Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide, second edition

After a year of teaching with the text, J-Source asked two j-school profs what they thought of Robert Cribb, Dean Jobb, David McKie, Fred Vallance-Jones’ second edition of Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide. Here’s what they had to say.  

by Gennadiy Chernov, Assistant professor, School of Journalism, University of Regina.

When one hears the words “investigative reporting” the first thing that may pop to mind is an image of adventure that stems both from the stunning experience of discovering shocking secrets and from pinning down social evil at its core. One thing is easy to overlook though — the hard work of information gathering that bridges the beginning and the ending of this adventure.  The authors of Digging Deeper, Robert Cribb, Dean Jobb, David McKie and Fred Vallance-Jones, steer the reader through the key stages of the information search, without which all the excitement might plunge into confusion.

Through numerous examples and references, the authors respond to two main concerns in any investigation: where to search and how to search for relevant information. A step-by-step guide for how to find and use public, historic, legal and justice system records helps make investigative research feasible. Students and reporters can gain necessary tools for uncovering what is not on the surface, but the book gives more than that. It teaches us how to gain information from those who try to hide it.

According to the authors, an investigative reporter turns a ruthless, prosecutor-like search for information gathering into a social undertaking. Instead of cornering an opponent, a reporter acts as a partner who gives a chance to a counterpart to give his or her version of events. Their advice takes into account how someone reacts in a hot spot. If a reporter wants someone to reveal uncomfortable facts, partnership is a better option for an interviewee. Yes, such a partnership may be uneasy, but it shows that a reporter is seeking the truth, not harm to an individual involved in the story.

Another set of problems emerges when a journalist tries to use access-to-information and freedom-of information laws when dealing with the government officials. The authors offer quite a few examples of how  public servants can hamper an investigative process: it can take months to retrieve the records; the cost of documents may exceed the limits media outlets are ready to pay; the requested materials may arrive to a reporter with the most important information blacked out, and so on.

Governmental departments rely on staffers whose job is to help officials respond to public requests. This apparatus prepares “communication products” that take out the sting from the most aggressive journalistic inquires. The authors make suggestions about how to counter this administrative zeal on behalf of public servants. These antidotes range from journalistic appeals to overturn the departmental decisions to appeals to lower the charges after having payed the exorbitant fees. There are many forces that could unite for the sole purpose of restricting journalistic access to information sensitive for those in power, but Digging Deeper offers strategies that can effectively lead to obtaining needed records.

It is impossible to give a fair appraisal of all merits the book has for those who are ready to dedicate their life to investigative reporting in such a short overview, but if your goal is “to move people in authority to fix the problems”, Digging Deeper will become your guide in fulfilling it.

by Pat Bell, Adjunct Professor, Visiting Chair, School of Journalism, University of Regina.

After five years of familiarity with the first edition of Digging Deeper, the words of E.B. White in Charlotte’s Web spring to mind: “It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.”

It is also not often people come along who are both generous guides and award-winning reporters. Robert Cribb, Dean Jobb, David McKie and Fred Vallance-Jones are these people.

They may not be lifesavers in the sense that Charlotte the spider was for her farmyard friend Wilbur, but their sage advice can certainly help followers keep their reputations intact while pursuing leads that could reveal important stories. In 2006 the authors offered a work that was instructive, inspiring and a very good read.  This second edition is even better.

As they point out, much has changed in the world of journalism in just five years. Accordingly, in this edition there is less marveling at the reach and speed of the Internet, and more practical advice on how to use its many facets including Facebook, Twitter and other social networking search tools.

As computer-assisted reporting continues to be an important element in painstaking research, the authors point out that journalists requesting data from government departments or other sources have every right to suggest that it be made available in its data base format — and to firmly and politely ask “why not?” when someone balks at that request.

At the University of Regina School of Journalism, Digging Deeper has been the prescribed text for research classes since 2007. Along with Cecil Rosner’s Behind the Headlines (Oxford University Press, 2008), it has also been a staple for investigative journalism classes every semester since this course was introduced in January 2009.  Digging Deeper has been a welcome guide, detailing specific routes for searching out information as well as reinforcing students’ instincts that extra effort pays off in more satisfying journalism. This new edition includes case studies taking readers through the steps of recent investigative projects.

By the time students come into the investigative journalism class, they have been disabused of the idea that journalism is some kind of refuge from ever having to do math again.  But still, some are anxious about figures, percentages, costs estimates and annual budgets.  As journalism instructors themselves, the authors of Digging Deeper  understand some of this hesitation, and use language that helps beginners decipher unfamiliar documents, while also reminding more experienced journalists of the thrill of finding unexpected and revealing information.

The exercises that have been added at the end of Chapter 9: Following the Money. Seeing the Business Angle in Any Story provide worthwhile challenges to journalism students, with realistic odds of actually coming across a story that otherwise might go unnoticed and unreported.  In this chapter, a business writer’s account of Sheldon Kennedy’s ill-fated fundraising odyssey has been replaced with the timely and intriguing work of the Hamilton Spectator’s Steve Buist on the unanswered questions surrounding the bankruptcy of a nursing-home chain. Other new examples of investigative journalism bring a freshness to this edition, while the work of Andrew McIntosh on Shawinigate and that of Daniel Leblanc and Campbell Clark on the sponsorship scandal continue to illustrate   the importance of curiousity, relentless document searches and insistence on access to public information.

Digging Deeper provides very practical advice for delving into complex stories, but, once-learned, many of the techniques will also serve reporters well in daily news-gathering, especially in this time of severely-stretched newsrooms.  It’s a guidebook, and like any good guide to unfamiliar territory, it enlightens, explains, provides directions and tips and promotes possibilities.  It’s a strong start for enterprising journalists who will take it and set out on their own paths of discovery, going further, wider and deeper as they ask themselves “faced with these puzzle pieces, what would Cribb, Jobb, McKie and Vallance-Jones do?”