When investigative journalism turns into breaking news

Long-form investigative journalism faces the problem frequently: An investigation encourages one of the players in the story to go public, forcing the media outlet to break some or all of its story before the scheduled rollout date.

It happened with the CBC earlier this year, when a long-term investigation by the fifth estate on the Vancouver Olympics had to be rushed to air when elements of the story were leaked to competitors. And more recently, it occurred when the Aboriginal People’s Television Network investigated the affairs of Bruce Carson, a former aide to the prime minister.

The network was looking into the alleged lobbying efforts of Carson. Following APTN’s questions to the prime minister’s office, Harper’s staff sent letters to the RCMP, the ethics commissioner and the lobbying commissioner asking them all to investigate the allegations.

The story has produced some lurid details, with photos of Carson shown alongside those of his girlfriend, a former escort who may stand to profit from his lobbying efforts. It is alleged that promises of privileged access were made in relation to a water filtration project on first nations communities.

The PMO’s actions meant APTN had to scramble to release a version of its story immediately. More details have since emerged, and APTN promises the full details in the coming week.

The possibility of an unscheduled release of details relating to an investigation is troublesome for investigative journalists. It means months of digging can be scooped by competitors in a matter of minutes, or spun by the targets of the investigation.

As a result, journalists often strategize carefully about the best timing to use to approach different players in an investigation. More than once, for instance, Health Canada has deliberately foiled journalistic investigations by changing its regulations or releasing information upon hearing that a news outlet is looking into a specific matter under its purview.

All this leads to the question: when should the target of an investigation, or a key player, be approached for a comment?

There is no precise answer, as everything depends on the specific circumstances of the story. Responsible journalism demands that all affected parties be given the opportunity to respond to allegations. And there are elements of proportionality to consider. A six-month investigation by journalists who deman a response from a party in less than 24 hours may be problematic.

But some public relations agencies and advisors can manipulate the situation. Sometimes, without ever refusing an interview, they constantly delay and obstruct the process, all the while trying to gather more information and figure out how to maneuver. Other times they demand specific questions in advance, a request that many news organizations will not honour. It’s also not uncommon for detailed written statements to be delivered to the news organization within hours of publication or broadcast, throwing the journalists into a panic over how best to incorporate the comments at the last moment.

The best practice is for journalists to be fully prepared to publish their findings as soon as they approach key players for comments. In today’s world, a single Tweet can start the ball rolling on a media frenzy. As APTN discovered, a good story can and should trigger immediate action, even if the action comes before the story itself is released.