Six Ryerson journalism students contributed to the research and reporting of a three-part  series published recently in the Toronto Star which detailed troubling practices in some Ontario high schools. The first story, by Robert Cribb, documented how some Ontario high school students are getting into university with inflated grades purchased from some privately run, for profit schools.  The second story, was a first-hand account by a reporter, Jennifer Yang,  who posed as a summer student at a school alleged to be handing out credits and grades for a fee. The third story provided comments from students who admitted benefitting from what was essentially a black market for high school grades.

Marta Iwanek. one of the Ryerson students who helped with the series, and her teammates reflect on how the story developed, what they learned from pursuing it, and offer advice to other students interested in investigative reporting. 

By Carys Mills, Mariana Ionova, Alexandra Bosanac, Liam McGowan, Shaheer Choudhury and Marta Iwanek

The idea for our story came from a series of articles in Canadian newspapers in 2009. They covered the Ministry of Education's introduction of the "P" notation, which helped flag individual grades from private schools taken by public school students. The stories had anecdotal information about "credit mills" but there was no follow up and no probe into what was happening behind the scenes, at the ministry, or the schools that had essentially handed out credits and inflated grades to paying students.

The investigation began with extensive Freedom of Information requests made by the Eyeopener, Ryerson's independent weekly newspaper, for inspection reports for the university's top private feeder schools. A story was written based on that information and anecdotes from a high school student taking a private credit hoping to boost her average to get into Ryerson.

At the beginning of 2011 the story surfaced again in an investigative reporting class at Ryerson. The student who originally worked on the story pitched it to the class and five others began investigating. A few months into the course, editors from the Toronto Star were asked to come to listen to pitches from different investigations underway in the class and, later the Star’s editors had a follow-up meeting with our group members. Over the summer, available group members continued to work on the story by re-interviewing sources, fact-checking and helping with the structure of the final piece. They also contributed in the Star's process of choosing a school for a reporter to attend undercover.  

Some things we learned along the way:

ACCESS TO INFORMATION

We found out first-hand that requesting information under freedom of information laws is a long and time-consuming process. After we completed our preliminary research and established which documents we needed that were only accessible through FOI requests (i.e. school inspection reports), we sent our requests.  Although they were well in advance of our deadline, we received some documents the night before our first draft was due.

We called the information co-ordinator responsible for handling our requests every few days to check on their status until we received confirmation that they were in the mail. We learned that persistence is key. Some of the retrieval fees were very high, but we cut costs by modifying our requests, ie, asking for whatever documents were free. We did a few corporate searches, which cost $150.

TEAMWORK

Working in a group allowed us to widen our scope of research, but on a detail-heavy research project, it also created its share of challenges. We learned to always be in communication and to alert group members early to any roadblocks. We realized how vital it was to leave enough time resolve any issues so that we did not throw off the team's progress. Our advice to others working on investigative projects: Realize the importance of your role on the team and monitor your contribution. If you feel like you’re slacking, bring it up with your group. Most importantly, be calm, patient, rational and always give your team members the benefit of the doubt. Support each other.

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OFF THE RECORD INTERVIEW/ BACKGROUND

Some people with useful information weren't willing to talk to us on the record. While this was initially frustrating, we learned that interviews on background were helpful in their own ways. Asking the right questions on background steered us in the right direction, helped us figure out the system, confirmed some hypotheses and focused our investigation. Ultimately, we wouldn’t have made some of our best FOI or interview requests without background conversations.

WHEN SOURCES DON'T WANT TO TALK

Dealing with such a controversial topic meant talking to people who did not want to be associated with the story. There were people who wouldn't return our calls and emails, even though we made clear it was important for them to talk in the story. In some cases, their names were to be used in the story and we had to balance responsible communication and realizing when this had been fully exercised. Sometimes after emails and calls were exhausted, one group member showed up at the location and was able to get an interview this way. Another time a group member was asked to leave the premises and declined an interview with the owner after trying to talk to students at the school as well. It took patience, keeping calm always, diligent record-keeping of all attempts and persistence. It also took acceptance of the fact that sometimes interviews will just not happen, despite your best effort to get them.  

BEING CLASSIFIED AS STUDENT REPORTERS

Knowing how to identify ourselves was also a challenge. Explaining that we were both a Ryerson journalism students and working on a story for possible publication resulted in different reactions from different sources. Some were more likely to talk to us because of the fact that part of our status was students, while others were more reluctant to return our calls because we didn't have the name of a publication behind us. When it became more apparent that the Toronto Star was going to pick up our story, we called all sources to be mentioned in the article to keep them informed.

WRITING PROCESS WITH MASS INFORMATION

When we sat down to begin writing our initial draft for our investigative class it was after four months of investigation and included the work of six reporters. It was not an easy task. Deciding on structure, quotes and which scenes to use, while trying to get last-minute interviews and dealing with a sudden flood of FOI requests that came in on the day before the class's story deadline was stressful, causing a few near sleepless nights. There were many different pieces to the story. Working on a story for so long it was easy to get caught up in the intricate details. We had to take a step back and understand the big picture of the story as well to try to convey a clear story to the readers.