Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb on teaching investigative reporting
Cribb will spend four months in 2016 developing a national program that would have journalism schools across the country collaborating on investigative reporting.
By Chantal Braganza, Associate Editor
Last month, Toronto Star foreign affairs and investigative reporter Robert Cribb was presented with the Michener-Deacon Fellowship in journalism education during the Michener Awards Ceremony in Ottawa. The fellowship will have Cribb spending four months next year developing a national program that would have journalism schools across the country collaborating on investigations eventually published in major media outlets. We spoke with Cribb this week about his plans for the project.
J-Source: You’ve taught investigative journalism at Ryerson for a few years now. What kinds of classroom-to-publication investigations have come out of that course?
Cribb: We’ve done stuff on inspections of long-term care homes that have led to policy change. A big investigation into consent and capacity boards—this little known provincial body that mediates disputes between doctors and patients at the end of life. And we’ve got two or three in the pipeline now that will be published through the next year.
J-Source: Do students typically come to class with these story ideas for investigations?
Cribb: There’s one that was student-led: the first big one we did was a look into high school grade mills.
But more typically, they’re stories that come from me and my files. In the last two to three years, I’ve gotten an assistant reporter to do background research, do FOI requests, documents and data collection. So we get to a point where when we step into the classroom in January, we can start.
It’s pretty tough to do a full investigation in 12 weeks while teaching all the skills. So when you have stories fairly well backgrounded, with documents and data, it really moves the process along. So it’s really solid, rather than spending three-quarters of the term getting material together.
J-Source: What kinds of skills are part of the course’s curriculum?
Cribb: I teach core investigative skills. A pretty in-depth look at public records from court, to PPSA [Personal Property Security Act] records, to motor vehicle records, corporate, proprietary records. We do a lot on FOI: how to do it, how to research it, how to frame the questions, how to negotiate for records. We do an element on accessing data and analyzing it. We do a section on adversarial interviewing; not the typical profile or informational interviews, but the kind where you’re seeking the accountability of the subject of your investigation.
J-Source: What can you tell us about what the Michener-Deacon Fellowship project will look like?
Cribb: Just to be clear: the fellowship is not to do an investigation itself. It’s to develop a blueprint for a national investigative student project, which, if successful, will hopefully lead to an inaugural investigation the following year, in fall 2016.
It’s no small task; to build this thing is fairly complex. I have to bring together all the major journalism schools—from coast to coast, ideally—and figure out how to make this work in their academic structure. Which is its own thing. And figure out the mechanism of how we’ll do it: how to pick students, how many students, how to co-ordinate across time zones and how many semesters the program would take.
And then I have to solicit interest from major media; see what they’re prepared to do and prepared to invest in this.
I would also need to get money. My concept of this is that there has to be a head of this program, what I would call an executive editor, who has a desk and an office at Ryerson.
[Ryerson School of Journalism chair] Ivor Shapiro has graciously offered to provide infrastructure, to provide office space, for that. But we need someone in a position, paid, to bridge the gap between schools and media organizations to make this work. That’s a position for which there needs to be income.
What I’ve learned form doing this for a while is that there’s a lot of back-end work in this that has to be done. I’ve worked mainly with the Star in the past [in publishing student investigations], and that takes lot of liaising. How do you get all these schools on the same page? If you’re doing a story on immigration, out of the gate everyone needs education on these issues. There has to be some consistent curriculum on the topic before you even get into the journalism. That’s going to take some sort of centralized—possibly distance learning—element where we bring in all the top exerts on the issue, whether it be researchers, writers, journalists, advocates, and we listen to them and start to form the focus that will then become the guts of the research.
J-Source: During your acceptance speech at the Michener Awards last month, you mentioned seeing lines drawn between journalism schools and newsrooms as a journalism student, and later on when you started teaching. What did those divisions look like?
Cribb: When I was in j-school I noticed it was just a startling level of disinterest from media organizations of the work being done in classrooms. And maybe that was in part because work in classrooms wasn’t being done with a focus on publication. When I went to school, there was never really any pressure to think about the work you were doing to be for publication; it was academic and for grades, which of course is important, but it struck me as odd not to do it for publication.
It struck me that if you’re going to do all this work anyway, why not do a little more and push it to the next level?
I felt there weren’t strong bridges between the two historically. From the organizations’ point of view, j-schools were seen as training grounds for people who might possibly one day want to write a story for us, and I think that’s unhelpful for both.
J-Source: Where do you think investigative reporting, as a specific skill, fits into the discussion of what the future of journalism education should look like?
Cribb: I think it should really be at the centre of the discussion of where schools should be heading. News is increasingly commoditized; media organizations have no monopoly on breaking news, or the rewriting of the press release or being the first at the scrum. This is highly commoditized, accessible information that no longer distinguishes us in any way, shape or form.
What do we do about that? In terms of training journalists, my belief is that the direction to go from here is towards context, revelation and exclusivity—and that’s investigative reporting. It shouldn’t be investigative reporting only, but it’s central to that mission if you believe that the evolution from where we are to where we should be is to provide what isn’t already instantly available.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.