What does it take to publish investigative journalism using access to information and privacy requests?

This is a story in a series produced at the 2018 Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Toronto, and will be co-published by J-Source and CAJ.

Information acquired through Access to Information requests is an invaluable tool in a journalist’s toolkit, however, ATIPs should not be seen as a wholesale replacement for good journalism, say several Canadian investigative reporters.

That was the consensus from an ‘ATIP: A to Z’ discussion that took place earlier this summer at the Canadian Association of Journalists national conference in Toronto.

The participants on the panel were Renata D’Aliesio, deputy head of enterprise at the Globe and Mail; Kimberly Ivany, investigative journalist with the CBC’s Fifth Estate; Jesse McLean, reporter with the Toronto Star’s investigative team, and CBC investigative reporter Zach Dubinsky.

“(Investigative work) can’t just be a feature,” said D’Aliesio during the panel. “It has to reveal something to help move the dial and spur action. And to be frank, my editors were tired of … hearing me talk about wanting to do something on this because I had nothing to show them yet.”

As part of an investigation into the prevalence of suicide among Afghanistan war veterans, D’Aliesio said she filed ATIPs and asked for data concerning the number of suicides and the demographic characteristics of victims.

Several months later, however, the Canadian Forces informed her they would not be releasing any data, despite previously telling her that they would.

Instead of giving up, D’Aliesio filed another access request, this time asking for all of the communications that had been generated in response to her initial requests—something she suggests journalists should always do.

While waiting for a response, she continued building her own database of military suicides, combing through obituaries, confirming names with families, and holding out hope that she would eventually uncover data worth publishing.

Ultimately, she received about 50 pages of information. She found that the Canadian Forces had counted 48 suicides of people who were still in the military at that time. Her reporting prompted the military to release updated data on suicides, and veteran affairs promised to start tracking and releasing data on veterans.

Ivany, similarly, submitted multiple access requests for an investigation into the accounting firm KPMG’s tax scandal in the Isle of Man in 2015. As part of the process, the CBC obtained a copy of a letter sent by the Canada Revenue Agency to KPMG clients that offered wealthy clients amnesty if they agreed to comply with the CRA and keep the deal confidential.

The long time frame involved with doing investigative work and filing access requests means that reporters are often working simultaneously on several stories at once.

“I think that’s really distinctive for investigative reporting,” Ivany said. “The story doesn’t stop and start in a confined amount of time. Even though a deadline is finished, there (are) still ramifications in the reporting that you’re doing and I really think it’s worth it, especially in cases like this if you really want to make an impact with your reporting.”

Another way Canadian journalists can gather information is through foreign governments. That’s exactly what McLean did when he filed FOIA requests in the United States to uncover health and safety violations in Canadian pharmaceutical manufacturing plants.

He said he chose this course of action because he learned that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects every plant that manufactures drugs sold in the U.S. While he continued to wait for a response to his Access to Information requests by Health Canada, he received hundreds of pages of documents and inspection reports from the FDA.

“Governments share information,” McLean said. “Regulators in foreign places are interested in activities across the borders, sometimes into activities of foreign corporations that are on their soil.”

Each of the panelists agreed that the Canadian Access to Information system can be a challenging one to navigate. Often filing good requests requires creative thinking, problem solving foresight, and a doggedness to keep on top of government officials.

Moreover, each reporter recommended that colleagues request fee waivers from officials if asked to pay for information. This, they said, is often the case when filing access requests with provincial or municipal governments.

“We should just be fighting on principle that this information ought to be free,” McLean said. “Without fighting it, we’re just giving them more reason to charge us more.”