After the earthquake in Haiti last year, plenty of organizations rushed in to help. One of those was former U.S. president Bill Clinton's foundation, which promised to build several "hurricane-proof" shelter/school duos. However, in a recent investigation published by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting two journalists discovered promises that look good on paper don't always look great on the ground.
After the earthquake in Haiti last year, plenty of organizations rushed in to help. One of those was former U.S. president Bill Clinton's foundation, which promised to build several "hurricane-proof" shelter/school duos. However, in a recent investigation published by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting two journalists discovered promises that look good on paper don't always look great on the ground. This week, we talk to the CCIR executive director Bilbo Poynter about how the organization supported this investigation, and others. Next week: Isabel Macdonald and Isabeau Doucet on how they got the story.
J-Source: Next week, we are putting a focus on how reports got the Haiti story. Can you expand on the Centre’s role in the story?
Bilbo Poynter: I don’t recall exactly the timeline, but it wasn’t all that long ago that Isabel McDonald got in touch with the pitch. Her and Isabeau Doucet had come across the circumstance with the trailers and the questions it raised. Both had prior experience in Haiti. Isabeau is a stringer in Haiti, currently.
They basically set the stage for me and told me what the story was. It sounded exactly like the type of story we’d be interested in. Isabel and I had a couple of prior conversations and I knew of her reporting background, so I knew that she had a good sense of what was a worthy story. I said I’d be very interested to pursue this, and knew that I had some – what we would term as general research funds – that could be applied to it. We went from there.
J-Source: How much funding were you able to contribute?
BP: We only put into the story about $1,000, which is not a lot and isn’t even necessarily as much as we would typically put in. The low amount was because they were able to turn around the story fairly quickly. What we agree to do usually in a circumstance like that is to help the journalist find a home for the story, if they don’t already have one. Isabel had a prior background with The Nation Institute, so she was able to pitch to them and they committed a sum.
We also put in touch with the Montreal Gazette and we are still planning some coverage with the Gazette.
J-Source: Then in addition to helping with the funding, then, your role is also to help find a home for the story – basically exposure.
BP: Yes, and because the CCIR optioned the story from Isabel, we’ve actually been involved with the story development and the editing process, which is also typical for us. Anything that we essentially back on that stage of an investigation would be something we would have a direct hand in shaping, essentially, the end story.
J-Source: And you got fairly quick response to this story?
BP: We got response virtually the same day that it ran. I think the next day the COO for the Clinton foundation in Haiti Laura Graham, who to my understanding would not comment for the story itself, was approached by Associated Press about the story. From that point she committed to look into any — her word — ‘structural deficiencies’ in the trailers. As well, doctor Paul Farmer, who is Clinton’s special envoy to the UN in Haiti, personally committed to look into the issue of the trailers as the result of the reporting by Isabeau and Isabel.
J-Source: A reaction like that really shows what good investigative journalism can do when it comes to affecting change.
BP: It’s exactly why we exist. It really does. It does show why it’s important. It shows how it can be effective, and we were thrilled to be a part of it. And honestly I was genuinely, pleasantly surprised at such a reaction so quickly as a result of this investigation.
J-Source: You mentioned Isabel approached you about the story. Is that common practice? For journalists that aren’t as familiar for the Centre, how does that work: How can journalists get involved.
BP: It’s a mix. We also will identify stories that we want to pursue. Co we’ll do the preliminary work around that and then we will identify people that we will also know [are good] to work with, or think would be effective for a story. We’ll approach them already with the idea in place for them to work with us. But very often the journalists will approach us. Generally speaking, we’re going to be working with people that are outside of commercial media — who are freelancing — but who have clear investigative skills and we’ll already be familiar with the people approaching us with pitches.
J-Source: So how many people approach you in a year, versus how many you’re actually able to take on?
BP: Unfortunately we pass on more stories by far than we’ve every picked up. We’re only now being able to start to truly develop stories in a capacity that we’d like to and quantifying it by month, by year, I’m not sure but certainly it’s been many more stories we have to turn down.
J-Source: On the flipside: you mentioned you have two, new upcoming investigations.
BP: Well we’ve been over a great many months now we’ve been looking at the impact of Afghan heroin. We did report on that at the end of last year in the Gazette. That for us was really the first of a number of stories that have flowed from this investigation. Next week and in the weeks following we’re going to be basically rolling out further stories on that general topic. We’re going to be producing something on the 25th of July, and a week or so after that for the next story.
J-Source: You’ve also done a soft re-launch and re-brand of the site.
BP: The aim is that all of our Afghan stories — now that we were able to secure funding – will be pursued in a way that we are able to produce some short documentaries and photo essays and other multimedia in association with the investigation. We’ve been building a site to house all of our stories. At that time we took the opportunity to redesign the website so that it can have the capacity to host multimedia stories, which is our aim for every investigation that we do. We wanted the site to be more responsive to social media and it was just a better website. We consider it a soft launch: test it out, see how people like it, whether everything works and looks good. In the coming weeks we’ll launch it in a much bigger way and with that will be much more original content from the CCIR and our growing list of media partners.
J-Source: So will there be more original content going forward?
BP: Yes, yes, that’s why we exist, absolutely. As much as we’re engaged in the topic of non-profit newsgathering and investigative journalism and the need of it, our aim is to produce original investigation into public interest stories in Canada in a way that isn’t being done. Basically that’s what we aim to do. From here on in the goal is to basically have it so that people associate CCIR Investigates with original content.