Investigative reporting: stronger south of the border?

Jeffrey DvorkinDoes the Civil War, conspiracy theories and hostility toward the elite make for better journalism? Jeffrey Dvorkin examines the shortfalls of Canada’s investigative reporting as it compares to the United States. .

(This post originally appeared on Dvorkin’s blog Now The Details)

The recent visit to Toronto by ProPublica’s Paul Stieger got me wondering why the culture of investigative reporting is so much more a part of American journalism than it is in Canada.
Actors playing investigators
So some observations:

There are huge cultural differences between US and Canadian journalism in regard to investigative reporting. There are some good examples of IR in Canada, they are few and far between compared to the US.

The main reason for that is in the US, there is a long-standing tradition of populism going back to the American Revolution. That revolution internalized the sense that the concept of “the people” as an ideal that must be preserved. Canada, also a democracy is a much more “top down” society.

At different times American populism conflicts with the elites, whether those elites are in government, on Wall Street or wherever there appears to be an “establishment”. That populism also expresses itself in fundamentalism, whether constitutional, religious, or cultural.

In that unique sense of self, known as “American Exceptionalism” – is the idea that America was founded as a different place, with different values and different expectations – the so-called “City on a Hill.” It’s a defiance frequently combined with a powerful religious impulse that was and still is based in the Puritan influence, which itself came from the class, cultural and religious divisions in England during the English Civil War 1641-1651.

That war resulted in the victory of the royalists, and the expulsion of the religious radicals (Puritans) to Holland (and eventually to South Africa), Northern Ireland and the east coast of America. In all three places, religion still exerts a powerful role in daily life (perhaps not so much in Holland any more…).

In America, that rebelliousness remains part of the culture. It is still around today as a strong inclination to self-reliance, neighborliness and a distrust of all government authority. That is in part, why the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) is still a value in the US.
Early reporters
In America, investigative reporting taps into that deep and powerful sentiment of populism. The founding of the American Republic was done in defiance of a central authority and military presence – aka, the British Crown and the British Army.

In Canada, the opposite occurred: Canada was initially a creation of two colonizing forces – the British Army and the French Army. In French Canada, authority was reinforced by the Roman Catholic Church and in English Canada by the Anglican Church. In the US, the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids government sponsorship of any religious sect.

Even the two mottos of each country suggest differences: in the US, it’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Note it doesn’t promise the attainment of happiness, just the pursuit.

In Canada, it’s “peace, order and good government.”

Those two mottos indicate a lot about why investigative reporting works more effectively in the US than in Canada. In Canada, with no similar tradition of populism, the media has been (with some notable exceptions) a lot tamer. And Canadians actually admire their elite. Americans are much more conflicted, and often hostile about their elites even as they may strive to join them.

Moreover, the fiscal support for independent investigative reporting isn’t as well developed in Canada as in the US. Canadian tax laws are changing, but they still only grudgingly allow for donations. So Canadians expect their governmental institutions to perform well. In the US, the opposite expectation is true.

Ironically, in this way, Americans are not as optimistic as Canadians about government institutions, so they tend to seek out the causes of their displeasure. This leads to a ripe environment for investigative reporting, while at the same time, encouraging oversimplification and a tendency to believe in widespread conspiracies.

Dvorkin is the Rogers Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at
Ryerson University and the executive director of the Organization of
News Ombudsmen.