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Student consortium continues to tackle public health through national data collaboration

Now mapping pandemic impacts across Canada, the IIJ continues to rack up accolades for public interest data journalism Continue Reading Student consortium continues to tackle public health through national data collaboration

When students began work on “Tainted Water”, a nationwide investigation from Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, they started by requesting Côte Saint-Luc’s action plan for the mitigation of lead in drinking water. According to Michael Wrobel, the consortium’s research co-ordinator, the municipality denied the request, saying that releasing this information could hamper public safety and security. 

Another reason the request was denied, said Wrobel, was because the action plan included recommendations made to the city by an outside engineering consultant. As a result, the team decided to file more access to information requests. This time, they were looking for correspondence between the city and the engineering firm that manages its water distribution system. In fact, they were seeking access to more than a decade of communications. After the second series of information requests were filed, the city deemed them “abusive.” 

“They said that given that they’re a small municipality, the city clerk’s office doesn’t have the resources to be pulling all of these correspondences and preparing them for disclosure,” Wrobel explained.

This doesn’t mean that Wrobel and the team gave up. Instead, they submitted more requests and refiled some of their previous ones. When these were also denied, they decided to ask for the city’s annual reports on the quality of drinking water, which the city did not have even though they are required to. This prompted the Quebec Environment Ministry to step in and send a warning to the city of Côte Saint-Luc for failing to produce these reports.     

The “Tainted Water” collaboration included more than 120 reporters from Global News, the Associated Press, National Observer, Toronto Star, Le Devoir, Regina Leader-Post, Star Calgary, Star Halifax, Star Edmonton, Star Vancouver, the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University, Carleton University, Humber College, MacEwan University, Mount Royal University, Ryerson University, University of British Columbia, University of King’s College and University of Regina. 

These reporters and student journalists spent a year investigating how safe tap water is in cities across Canada. The group conducted research, including collecting 358 water samples that were sent to labs for analysis, eventually concluding that lead is a serious issue in tap water in many communities throughout the country. They also looked at how different Canadian municipalities test for and respond to contaminants in drinking water by filing over 700 access-to-information requests at all levels of government. 

All involved have racked up acknowledgements for what followed, with the IIJ team garnering an RTNDA Award, Canadian Association of Journalists award for data journalism for their serial reporting and Côte Saint-Luc receiving an honourable mention by the CAJ in its annual Code of Silence Awards. The team is a finalist for the Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. 

And since, the consortium has launched an additional national collaborative enterprise – Project Pandemic — a data mapping initiative providing tools to newsrooms across Canada to report on the novel coronavirus’s impact on residents across the country.

Besides responses from city officials, the “Tainted Water” project has also received feedback from local reporters and readers. 

“What I did notice is a lot of media outlets followed our stories,” said Pauline Dakin, faculty supervisor at University of King’s College in Halifax. “In fact, [CBC’s] The World at Six, did a matching piece the day we launched.” 

Patti Sonntag, series producer for “Tainted Water” and director at the Institute for Investigative Journalism, said that local reporters are showing interest in getting involved in the project and continuing the work they’ve started. 

“We got a lot of emails asking, ‘How can our news organization take part?’ from small news organizations,” Sonntag said. “So this is very clearly a big appetite out there for the database and expertise that we’ve assembled.”

“It’s fair to say that this took everything we had,” Sonntag said. Since the project examined tap water in cities across Canada, Sonntag says that it wouldn’t have been possible had they not collaborated with so many journalism schools and news organizations. 

“Ontario, on the surface, would have looked like everything was going according to plan,” Sonntag said. “If we hadn’t had the Saskatchewan and Alberta pieces, we wouldn’t have had the very high levels that were found in Saskatoon and Regina and Moose Jaw for context.”

To keep a project of this scale and with this many reporters organized, consistency was the key.

“We operate by an ongoing check-in and consensus,” she said. “It was because we gradually arrived at a plan together about how we were going to carry out the project over months that we were able to decide that lead was the thing we were going to focus on.”

Their plan seems to be working because, despite the challenges this team came across, their investigative work has already had some major impact. In Côte Saint-Luc, the city released six years of water test results from 238 homes after the “Tainted Water” project came out. These results revealed that more than 60 per cent of the homes had lead levels exceeding Health Canada’s recommendation in their water. The city also promised a $50 rebate on water filters and said that they would begin testing 3,200 homes in 2020. 

The work the team did in Côte Saint-Luc demonstrates how collaborative reporting can fill local news gaps.

“The media in Montreal largely doesn’t work in detail or focus or emphasize or put this city under the microscope,” said Mike De Souza, a Global News producer who has been collaborating with the consortium since he was managing editor at National Observer. “So I think it was pretty interesting in this case that when we came out a few weeks ago with a piece that was interpreted to be critical by the mayor, the mayor was so taken aback.”

De Souza says that the action the city is now taking in response to the “Tainted Water” report indicates that their “reporting in Montreal, covering a small community that didn’t really have any media coverage, there was an impact. 

“That probably speaks for itself in terms of a small local government not expecting this at all and then reacting,” he said. 

So what’s next for the team? 

According to Sonntag, they are hoping to empower local reporters who have reached out.

“When we get to real local news, so far our reporting has often pointed to trends that local news reporters could explore further,” she said.