Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun/CC BY 2.0.

What to do when the pressure is on

Journalists can face intimidation from sources, police and government. Here’s how to push back. Continue Reading What to do when the pressure is on

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.

By Katie Ingram

A person’s title of journalist can come into question when they are pressured to kill a story by internal or external sources.

“If you allow them to have the final word, the question is, ‘Are you a journalist anymore?,’” said Paul Watson, referencing his 2015 investigative story into the finding of the Franklin Expedition’s HMS Erebus. “My answer to that is no, you then become just an employee; you are just a cog in the machine.”

At the time, Watson was working for the Toronto Star on a piece that looked at who was and who should be credited for the Erebus’s finding. Watson claims that the Star’s editors disputed his findings and refused to publish the story, prompting him to resign.

The decision to pursue a contentious topic in journalism can be met with resistance from outside parties and editors alike, but it’s pressure that journalists need to keep pushing against.

BuzzFeed later published the piece, but Watson said there were conflicts between himself and his former employer, which included possible legal action. A spokesperson for the Toronto Star told the National Post at the time that they do not suppress stories and John Cruickshank, then the Star’s publisher, said in a newsroom memo that it was an “extremely odd idea. There is no truth whatever to the suggestion.”

To Watson, such job hazards are minor, having faced threats of violence and death when reporting from conflict zones.

But he recognizes that being sued or similar actions can amount to more for other journalists. He said reporters must ask themselves how essential the story is to themselves and the public when in this kind of situation.

For Watson, the HMS Erebus was that important.“That one was easy for me; the choice was clear,” he said.

In the last 10 years, Canada has seen many instances of intimidation of the press, including press credentials being removed, journalists being arrested, police surveillance and private investigation of journalists and their sources.

Like Watson, the choice to continue with a story was clear to Mike De Souza of the National Observer when working on a piece for the Observer’s Secrets of Government series. After learning that De Souza knew about a joke, told during a meeting, about tasering environmental protestors, the National Energy Board hired a private investigator to figure out who had leaked the information.

De Souza has faced intimidation. A government organization using taxpayer dollars on a private investigation was “new level” for him, but he said, it’s also a reason for journalists to be vigilant.

“It can be motivating, but it’s something that can also effect my approach to reporting and news gathering,” he said. “(You need to) keep investigating, but be cautious.”

De Souza said intimidation often involves more than the journalist and their media outlet, so there needs to be reassurance that reporters won’t let themselves be intimidated.

“When a whistleblower comes to you just be aware they’ve probably gone through the channels in their organization and have no other option,” said De Souza. “You have to take into account the human element of every story – including the person they might be denouncing.” He adds that journalists and journalism organizations need to be aware of how to handle these situations when they arise, even if they’ve never faced them before.

“I’ve done training as well for different security matters, which I think all journalists should be aware of as they (security matters) might be more common than we think, “ said De Souza who has taken a hostile environment training course for journalists. It covered a variety of topics, ranging from how to cover protests to what to do in a kidnapping situation.

He said there are certain things that journalists in these and other situations should know in order to protect their sources and to “protect the integrity of what they are looking into.”

No matter how important a story is, though, Watson admits it might not get told. In 2006, he wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times about USB drives being sold near a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, some of which unknowingly contained security documents. While a story was published on the incident, it wasn’t what he wanted.

“There were several things on those drives that I pressed for a longer term investigation into, “ said Watson, noting that illegally possessing classified information is a crime in the U.S.

“In the end the story was that USB drives were being sold outside bases in Afghanistan which was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as what was on the drives themselves.”

Still, it’s important for journalists to tell the stories that need to be told. Watson goes back to his question about what makes a journalist. He adds that those looking to fight for a cause need to make sure it’s worth it and something the public should know.

“As a general rule, choose your battles,” said Watson. “Don’t take something small and fight for it on the basis of principle because you’ll find soon that the system doesn’t back you up.”

Editor’s note, July 6, 2017, 9:20 pm: This story has been updated to better clarify what kind of intimidation Mike De Souza has faced while doing his work.

Katie Ingram is a  freelance journalist, copy editor, author, journalism tutor and the Production Manager at the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association. Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia her freelance work has been featured in, among others, Halifax Magazine, The Week, Atlantic Business and Atlantic Books Today.