When the Ryerson Review of Journalism was initially writing its cover story on the Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal, The Globe and Mail’s publisher Phillip Crawley told the team of student writers that  “If the Ryerson Review publishes a piece about the Globe that is balanced and fair, that will be a first.” Taking it as a challenge, the students say they were acutely aware of the challenges of writing about one of Canada’s biggest journalism stories of 2012. You can read their defence of their coverage and the RRJ’s original story here on J-Source.

By Brittany Devenyi and Rhiannon Russell

“If the Ryerson Review publishes a piece about the Globe that is balanced and fair, that will be a first.” This was Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley’s email response to our team after we requested an interview with him for the Ryerson Review of Journalism story we were working on about last fall’s Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal. (He didn’t agree to be interviewed, instead referring us to public editor Sylvia Stead.)

First, that’s patently untrue. As the front-of-book section in our Summer 2013 issue states, the Globe has appeared five times on RRJ covers. If you search “Globe and Mail on our website, approximately 699 results appear. Sure, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but we felt it was an exaggeration (and an inaccuracy) to say the RRJ has never covered the Globe fairly. Check out our Spring 2010 profile of editor John Stackhouse. Or the Summer 2003 story of then-editor Ed Greenspon. Is either unfair or lacking balance? We don’t think so.

By reaching out to Crawley (as well as 40 or so others), we — Brittany Devenyi,  Rhiannon Russell and Gianluca Inglesi — were trying to be exactly what Crawley accused our magazine of not being—fair and balanced. Also, to complain that we never cover the Globe properly and then decline an interview is contradictory. If you wanted a “fair and balanced” story, wouldn’t you want to share your stance?

Challenges

When we first began to construct this piece, we knew the process wouldn’t be short of challenges. First, we had to determine how to write the feature as a team. The process was complex: five of us contacted sources, researched, contacted more sources, transcribed, did further research, until finally, we felt confident we had enough information to begin writing. Three of us split the story into sections, which we wrote separately, before combining them to ensure the piece flowed well. Draft upon draft, further information continued to surface. As difficult as it was to write as a team (naturally, every writer has his or her own voice), it’s also the main reason we completed the piece as successfully as we did. At times, we were discouraged, uttering comments like “Why is this source not getting back to me, when initially, she was happy to speak?” or “This quote is vital, and shouldn’t be cut from the piece” during the editing process. Sometimes, we felt as if we were sinking in murky waters, and were unsure of what we’d discover at the bottom—this was after all an investigative piece that not even the most seasoned journalist was willing to tackle. But we supported one another every step of the way.

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Then there was the issue of using anonymous sources, since many of those interviewed currently work for the Globe or had in the past. While this approach isn’t ideal, we strongly believe this story required it. Without these sources, the whole truth could not be told. Our team agreed that this did not jeopardize our journalistic integrity, because the benefits of exposing how working Globe employees felt outweighed the cons of not identifying them. If we did, their careers would be at risk. We were also careful to verify the facts presented by anonymous sources with others to ensure that they were not just trying to disparage the company. Overall, we felt these elements justified our decision and that we didn’t abuse the use of anonymity.


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Going head-to-head with the Globe

A preliminary source candidly reminded us that major Canadian news organizations are afraid to tackle such a story because of the industry’s inner circles—it’s unlikely journalists will work for just one news organization throughout their entire career. That said, you want to keep as many newsroom doors open as possible. J-Source and Maclean’s were first to cover the incident in Canada, followed by The Guardian. There was a definite lag before other Canadian media tentatively began covering it. News outlets were reluctant to cast judgment on an acclaimed Canadian columnist and jeopardize any future working opportunity at the Globe.

This is now a challenge we face, as soon-to-be journalism grads who aspire to work for such organizations. However, instead of becoming intimidated, we were empowered to write a story with substance, to understand why Canada’s national newspaper faltered when it came to one of the most bare-bones journalistic elements: integrity. We joked throughout the writing process that we’d never get jobs at the Globe after this piece came out. That’s probably true, at least so long as the current administration is in place, and we’re okay with that. We just hope the Globe understands why we did it—not to construct a takedown piece on all that’s wrong with the publication or to allow staff to take “anonymous potshots” at their newspaper, as the Globe’s code of conduct puts it, but rather to write a fair and honest feature that challenges news organizations to be more transparent. It was a risk, in our opinion, that was definitely worth taking.

Rhiannon Russell is editor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Summer 2013 issue. She graduates from Ryerson this spring. Brittany Devenyi is chief copyeditor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Summer 2013 issue. She has written for various publications including ELLE Canada, Canadian Living, and Maisonneuve.