“Everybody talks”: Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan on getting the story

Reporting by Dana Lacey, video and editing by Anand Ram

What separates the Toronto Star‘s investigative reporting from the rest of Toronto’s newspapers? “For one, we’re actually doing it,” says Star investigations editor Kevin Donovan. He also credits the resources the Star pours into investigations and Editor Michael Cooke for his eagerness to play investigative stories big on the front page.

Kevin Donovan on support for investigative pieces.

J-Source sat down with Donovan (self-described investigative player-coach) and Star reporter Diana Zlomislic, who recently broke a story about Ontario Hydro’s use of Agent Orange in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

The Toronto Star investigative reporters and editors’ “stubborn emphasis on substance” — particularly for their quality and quantity of investigative journalism — helped them secure J-Source’s second annual Journalism Integrity Award for its contributions to quality journalism.

The Star on the return on producing investigative journalism.

The Journalism Integrity Award was established in 2009 to honour journalists or organizations that demonstrate a positive impact on the quality of journalism in Canada.

The Star uses the Access to Information Act often for investigative stories, but Donovan notes it can be hard to convince journalists to take advantage of the system. For one, it’s expensive, although the Star has a successful track record in appealing those costs in the name of public service.

Kevin Donovan on his favourite stories.

It’s also an imperfect process: While some documents are retrieved fairly quickly, the Star has been waiting as long as two years for others to be released. The most important thing? Keep demanding, keep calling, keep reporting. Zlomislic was given access to documents for her Agent Orange story, only to have her access revoked once the government deemed them ‘sensitive’ (she’s not sure if her initial Agent Orange story had anything to do with that, but it’s hard not to speculate). But once that first story was published, the calls started pouring in from former Hydro workers that are suffering devastating health consequences.

Diana Zlomislic on her favourite story.

The pair offer some tips to young would-be investigative reporters. “Don’t tell them you want to be a foreign or investigative reporter in your interview,” Donovan says. Go out and do those cub reporter stories — the dog show, for instance — but also work on coming up with that one great story. And make sure you follow every lead, Zlomislic says — even that phone call that you’re not sure will pan out. You’d be surprised where stories can come from.

J-Source asked Donovan if the Star‘s investigative reputation has made getting access to sources and stories more difficult. “Everybody talks,” Donovan says, and it’s the failing of the journalist if they don’t.

The Star on getting that difficult story