Whenever I conduct seminars in enterprise reporting, I provide examples of what I call the “journalism of reminder.” It’s a simple but often ignored aspect of journalism. It reminds the reader or viewer or listener of key historical facts about a story, but it does so at a time when that context is crucial. For instance, when the US was threatening to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, in part because he used chemical weapons on his own people, it was important for journalists to remember that the US government knew about such practices two decades earlier, when Iraq was a strong ally. Similarly, whenever a politician announces a new policy or initiative, it’s important to remember what that same politician said about the issue in the past.
I was thinking about the journalism of reminder when I read Toxic Legacy, an impressive investigation by journalism students at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Toxic Legacy: The Story of Boat Harbour is an investigative project by journalism students at King’s College in Halifax. It describes the history of a pulp mill in Nova Scotia and the toxic mess that it created for residents nearby.
“A six-week investigation by journalism students at the University of
King’s College reveals for the first time the negotiations to close the
lagoon that treats millions of litres of wastewater from the mill every
day. The Pictou Landing First Nation, backed by the province’s Mi’kmaq
chiefs, has bluntly told the province it wants the Boat Harbour lagoon,
located right beside the reserve, shut down and the waste put somewhere
else,” the project reports.
While the students have conducted numerous interviews and document searches to describe the situation at Boat Harbour today, what I find impressive is the attention paid to digging into the archives of the project as it unfolded four decades earlier. They looked into the personal papers of the premiers of the day, town and county records, and meeting minutes of the Nova Scotia Water Authority. Archives are often overlooked as a source of leads and information for investigative reporters. Most city editors or news directors would look skeptically at a reporter who would suggest a trip to the archives might be a good investment of time in today’s daily deadline-driven news world. But sometimes the payoff is significant, particularly when it comes to the journalism of reminder.
“Minutes of the water authority show officials knew the waste flow from the new mill would be acutely toxic,” the report says. And the ultimate plan they devised to mitigate the damages created a toxic legacy. The historical research shows exactly who knew what when, and how the decisions were made.[node:ad]
A team-based approach is often a good way to chase all aspects of a story in a short period of time. I am sure the students involved in this project learned a great deal about investigative methodology during the course of their work. Knowing where to look to establish accurate context for a story is a vital skill for any investigative reporter. Fred Vallance-Jones was managing editor and faculty advisor of the project, which is presented in an attractively-designed website.