On writing Investigative Reporting in Canada

By Maxine Ruvinsky

I had wanted to write Investigative Reporting in Canada for years before I finally got the chance: a one-semester sabbatical that released me from my School of Journalism teaching duties at Thompson Rivers University (in Kamloops, B.C.). The book presents 13 case studies of investigative newspaper reports based primarily on interviews with the authoring reporters and supplemented by my own commentary. I used a simple technique, choosing stories that intrigued me and then putting the same basic questions (about how the stories originated and how they were nailed down) to the reporters who wrote them. Then, from the transcribed interviews and my own research, I tried to reconstruct the narrative of “the story behind the story,” ending each chapter with a brief commentary and advice to aspiring sleuths.

For the opportunity to complete this work, I am grateful to the universe at large (for it feels as if nothing less conspired to make it all happen). In a more down-to-earth vein, I have lots of good people to thank: those at my own university and at Oxford University Press, and of course, the journalists featured in the book, who gave so generously of their time to people its pages. These pros at the top of their game took the time to be interviewed because they too are motivated by a certain idealism. (Julian Sher put it beautifully, describing the desire to pass along his knowledge as the desire “to give back” to the journalistic community.)

The case studies, chosen from only five major newspapers (and four of these located in Ontario) carve but a splinter-narrow swath through the territory of investigative reporting being done in this country. The book is further limited in scope: it doesn’t consider investigative reporting in broadcast or online media; it doesn’t address political reporting or the business aspects of investigative journalism; and finally, it makes no attempt to assess the overall state of art. It does, however, underscore the point that investigative work can be and is done at smaller papers (to that end, I briefly reference throughout the text investigative work done at much smaller outlets).

Idealism drove me to it. I wrote the book primarily to inspire and instruct journalism students (in that order), and to show them that one needn’t look south of the border for examples of first-rate investigative reporting. But I had another, larger motive, too. I wanted to try to counteract the idea—among journalism students and the Canadian public at large—that the media per se constitute a monolith that serves only to support a status quo and reflect dominant values and motifs back to a still-reading public.

Looking back, I see that my motivation is all of a piece (my doctoral dissertation on the underground press of the 1960s also plumbed the same large questions addressed or implicit in Investigative Reporting in Canada), that it is deeply rooted in an abiding compulsion to defend the conviction that positive social and political change are still possible and that good journalism is still a crucial part of maintaining and protecting democracy. Margaret Atwood wrote somewhere that people without hope don’t write novels; I’ll borrow from that Canadian icon to add that neither do they write investigative reports.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light. Writing the book was also:

• Harrowing (It turns out that a tome on investigative reporting requires a lot of investigating—not to mention nearly endless updating);
• Fortifying (It’s made a massive difference in how I teach and strengthened my resolve to incorporate what I’ve learned into my courses);
• Synergistic (For instance, interviewing David McKie led to his coming to TRU to deliver a weekend workshop in computer-assisted reporting).

But most of all, it was gratifying: it forced me to re-examine my own underlying assumptions and ultimately vindicated my beliefs about the value of the work.

The book defines investigative journalism as an in-depth, sub-genre of the reporter’s craft that, meant to expose patterns of wrongdoing and so provoke remedial action, often involves scouring documents, cultivating sources, and withstanding pressure (from within and outside the newsroom) to abandon the project.

The text proceeds in three major sections. “Part One: Tracking the Truth: The Literature of Exposure” presents eight case studies of the classic ‘crusading’ variety, including environmental stories and those that address emerging issues and the public discourse and cultural politics surrounding them. “Part Two: Documenting the Truth: Computer-Assisted Reporting” presents five case studies that exemplify the use of computer-assisted reporting to advance the techniques of investigative work; they show how CAR, especially in concert with successful access-to-information requests, can amplify investigative efforts and put important public-interest issues on the metaphorical map. The final “Part Three: Talking Investigative Journalism” considers investigative journalism per se (whether broadcast or print) and features interviews with four prominent Canadian journalists—two from the CBC (Cecil Rosner and David McKie) and two independents (Elaine Dewar and Julian Sher). This last section ends with a final chapter that underlines the common elements of all investigative reporting, regardless of the medium or the size of the sponsoring media outlet.

Chapter 1: The Case of the Disappearing Women (Vancouver Sun, 2001)
In December, Robert William Pickton was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder in connection with the disappearance of dozens of women from Vancouver’s red light district. While the legal story of Canada’s worst case of serial killing continues to unfold (the Crown is appealing the convictions), there might never have been a court case if not for the early efforts of a single police-beat reporter who refused to give up. Lindsay Kines was later joined on the story by colleagues Kim Bolan and Lori Culbert.

Chapter 2: Reinventing Our Wheels (Ottawa Citizen/Vancouver Sun, 2001)
For this series, long-time investigative reporter and author Paul McKay tackled the cultural icon of the car, showing how long the current environmental crisis has been in the making and how central auto emissions have been to the problem. But Mckay didn’t stop there, characteristically going beyond a thorough detailing of the problem to offer solutions by reporting on the new technologies and new thinking that can lead Canadians out of the environmental wilderness and on to more environmentally sustainable paths.

Chapter 3: Death Wish (Globe and Mail, 2001)
To research this series, Alanna Mitchell travelled to four of the planet’s environmental hot spots, braving all manner of exotic danger to show her readers the extent of the damage humans have done the Earth. In the process, she introduced readers to the theory of a sixth extinction (one that could put an end to human rule of the planet as quickly as a previous extinction ended the reign of the dinosaurs). Posing a profound question (Do humans have a death wish?), the series drew unprecedented response from the public.

Chapter 4: Asbestos, Again (Toronto Star, 2003)
Asking questions no one else had, Peter Gorrie uncovered an industry campaign to “rehabilitate” asbestos. The campaign involved referring to asbestos by a new name (“chrysotile”) and suggesting that the deadly mineral can somehow be rendered harmless (especially for export to poor countries with minimal industrial infrastructure). An important story saw print because a single reporter had the background, the smarts, and the sense of responsibility to challenge the party line.

Chapter 5: Criminalizing Dissent (Ottawa Citizen/Southam News, 2001)
Jim Bronskill and David Pugliese exposed a national RCMP campaign to track, discourage, and ultimately criminalize Canadian citizens who dare to exercise their democratic right of dissent. They reported that police agencies across the country had been co-operating for years to marginalize those individuals (including Svend Robinson) and groups (like the Raging Grannies) that disagreed openly with government policy or held and espoused alternative views.

Chapter 6: Dialling for Dollars (Toronto Star, 2002)
In classic investigative fashion, Robert Cribb and Christian Cotroneo went undercover to expose hundreds of fraudulent telemarketing companies whose unscrupulous ‘salespeople’ set up shop in Toronto and legally ripped off thousands of consumers with telephone sale scams. Posing as potential employees for the so-called “boiler rooms” and using a variety of undercover techniques, the reporters gathered they proof they needed to expose the scam artists operating openly in the city’s downtown core.

Chapter 7: Under Siege in the Ivory Tower (Globe and Mail, 2001)
When Anne McIlroy told the story of respected psychiatrist and researcher David Healy, targeted for his anti-corporate views of the hard-sell pharmaceutical industry, she did more than go to bat for a single victim of corporate malfeasance. She uncovered the larger issues of public safety in the matter of prescription drugs and that of academic freedom in an academy increasingly shorn of government funds and thus increasingly dependent for research dollars on the pharmaceutical industry itself.

Chapter 8: Blind Faith (Hamilton Spectator, 2005)
Steve Buist, Luma Muhtadie, and Joan Walters exposed the local face of a national and international issue when they investigated the relationship between medical researchers at Hamilton’s McMaster University and the giant pharmaceutical companies that fund their research. The resulting series revealed a drug approval system riddled with problems and underlined the potential for disastrous conflict-of-interest situations when drug companies fund the research and clinical trials required for drugs to be marketed in Canada.

Chapter 9: Nowhere to Go (Toronto Star, 2001)
In a groundbreaking series, Kevin Donovan explored the lives of developmentally handicapped people left stranded after the death or incapacitation of parents or other caretakers. The series unearthed widespread and extreme abuse in Ontario’s group homes and foster-care system as well as deep inequity in government funding for families who had chosen home-care for their handicapped children. It took the Star sixteen months to win a freedom-of-information battle for the right to access the necessary records.

Chapter 10: Nobody’s Children (Toronto Star, 2001)
Three reporters—Leslie Papp, Tanya Talaga, and Jim Rankin—collaborated on this series about the country’s epidemic of Canadian children (an estimated 20,000 in 2001) being raised as wards of the state. The reporters began by building their own database and analyzing where the adoption system was failing. They ended by exposing the government policies and lack of accountability that were actively preventing those wards from finding homes with the many childless Canadian couples wishing to adopt.

Chapter 11: Reservations: Recipe for Disaster (Hamilton Spectator, 2001)
Using electronic records of the city’s restaurant inspections from 1995 to 2001, supplemented by more than fifty interviews and thousands of pages of hard copy from the city’s health department, Fred Vallance-Jones uncovered dangerously dirty restaurants supported by an inadequate food-safety inspection system. A specialist in document research and computer-assisted reporting, Vallance-Jones wrote the series after an eighteen-month freedom-of-information battle for the city’s restaurant inspection data.

Chapter 12: Drive Clean Smokescreen (Hamilton Spectator, 2004)
When rumours circulated about Drive Clean, Ontario’s anti-car-pollution program, Fred Vallance-Jones determined to check them out. It took a three-year battle to wrest the evidence (over twelve million Drive Clean test results between 1999 and 2004) from the government bureaucracy that supervised the program. In the largest data investigation ever undertaken by the paper, Vallance-Jones and Spectator colleague Steve Buist crunched the numbers, did the legwork, and uncovered a system riddled with fraud.

Chapter 13: Singled Out: An Investigation into Race and Crime (Toronto Star, 2002)
Five ace reporters tackled a difficult story when they set out to ascertain the truth of decades-old allegations about institutionalized racism in the city’s police force. The team—Jim Rankin, John Duncanson, Scott Simmie, Michelle Shephard, and Jennifer Quinn—investigated charges from Toronto’s black community that police routinely discriminated against blacks and ended by documenting the discrimination. Using the police department’s own database of nearly half a million records—obtained after a two-year access-to-information battle—the reporters found ample evidence of racial profiling.

Maxine Ruvinsky is the chair of the journalism school at Thompson Rivers University in B.C. Her research interests focus broadly on print journalism, especially issues, investigative, and computer-assisted reporting, on the language and literature of the press, and on issues of media democratization, including concentrated ownership and convergence. Bibliographical information for the book Investigative Reporting in Canada is as follows: Ruvinsky, Maxine. Investigative Reporting in Canada. Oxford University Press, 2008. [365 pages, plus two appendices] [ISBN: 978-0-19-542381-5]