Encouraging signs: is investigative journalism on the rise again?
The last two weeks have seen a number of high-impact investigative stories in Canada. While hard economic times usually dictate a reduction in investigative work, can we take these stories as a sign of better times ahead?
While tough times generally put
intense pressure on investigative journalism, the last two weeks have provided
evidence that solid reporting can still create significant impact across the
A number of reports probed deeply
into such diverse issues as daycare conditions, retirement homes, charitable
donations, tax evasion and international terrorism investigations. Each of the
stories did what good investigative journalism ought to do: hold institutions
that wield power to account, and employ solid research methods.
There’s another factor that is
harder to quantify and hasn’t been well-studied. Competition among media
outlets can give rise to more investigative projects, as the urge to create
impact and distinctiveness in the marketplace can lead to greater investment in
this kind of reporting.
The Globe and Mail chose the day
of its major re-design to highlight an investigative piece about a global
manhunt for three University of Manitoba students who allegedly disappeared
into al-Qaeda controlled territory in Waziristan. Despite a major effort on the
part of CSIS and the RCMP, as well as other intelligence agencies, the case was
a secret until the newspaper broke the news.
Six reporters were credited with
working on the story, and it has now spurred many others to begin asking
The same day, the Toronto Star’s
front page featured the headline: “How Can This Happen?” The newspaper sent
reporter Dale Brazao undercover to a Toronto retirement home while Moira Welsh
checked the home’s health and court records. They documented dirty conditions,
bad food and poorly trained and underpaid staff.
The CBC has also been active on the investigative
front, with a major report by Diana Swain on the Canadian connection to a list
of 80,000 secret HSBC Private Bank accounts in Switzerland. The report, a joint
project with the Globe, says more than 1,700 Canadians had accounts in the
bank, and the Canada Revenue Agency is probing possible tax evasion.
A week earlier the CBC revealed the results of an
investigation into registered charities that employ external fundraising
companies. The national picture showed that over five years, those fundraisers
had earned more than $760 million. Individual stories from across the country
revealed many examples of charities paying more than 50 per cent of their
proceeds to fundraising companies (Disclosure: I was part of the team that
reported this story).
And there were other examples. Radio-Canada showed
how easy it was to sell illegal stun guns in Canada, while a joint
CBC/Radio-Canada probe revealed that many Quebec children are being cared for
in daycares that are either illegal or don’t have the necessary permits. The
investigative program Enquete also revealed that officials at a Montreal
college turned a blind eye to allegations of sexual abuse in the 1960s and
Canadian Press continues to be one of the leading
journalistic users of the Access to Information Act, mining the legislation for
important stories. Last week Dean Beeby pried loose an internal study from
Justice Canada that showed aboriginal people and those in remote
communities are spending more time in remand than others.
There is little question that hard economic times usually translate into
less investigative reporting. The examples I have cited above are from the
country’s biggest media institutions. Smaller newspapers and media outlets are
struggling to maintain staff, and investigative reporting finds it difficult to
flourish in an atmosphere of slashed resources and bare-bones reporting.
But it is encouraging to see renewed commitments being made by some media
outlets to investigative work, both at national and regional levels. Reporters
who possess the investigative impulse, no matter where they work, should take
this as a cue to press their employers for the time and resources needed to
join the fray.