Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports
Tools of the Trade
by Dave Yates
press releases. They tend to show that companies contradict themselves
over a period of time."
THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE: A compendium of tips, hints, suggestions,
friendly advice and a little preaching from one librarian and four journalists at the CIJ convention:
Erik Spicer, chief librarian of Parliament:
Librarians save time for journalists and help make
them look good. The
Parliamentary Library can verify the spelling of names or even search
out a document in another library. It belongs to an international
network of libraries as well as national and local networks. The
Library is open in the evenings and journalists can check things by
Don't forget the Public Archives. It is a mine of
information where all
research for royal commissions is stored. "Librarians are trained to
help people. We like to help people. If people don't ask us, we're out
Michel Nadeau, financial writer for Le Devoir:
Interest in the business community is growing by
leaps and bounds. In
the United States, the Wall
Street Journal has surpassed the New York
Daily News as
the biggest circulation newspaper. In Canada, The Globe
and Mail's Report on Business has gone through tremendous
There is more and more information on economic
matters, but is it good
information? Business people make decisions as important as
politicians. They decide how we will eat, dress and where we live. In
Quebec, the media owners have more influence on culture than Camille
Laurin, while John Bassett and Kenneth Thomson have a huge control over
English-speaking Canada's culture.
Campeau and Trizec have more influence on housing
than all the
ministers of housing. So it's necessary to know how the big
corporations make their decisions.
The media report all the increases in oil prices,
but don't push the point that one major oil company paid no taxes in
Statistics Canada can provide information on the
of companies. Other government departments, such as the Department of
Consumer and Corporate Affairs, can tell you who controls what in a
company, profits and other data.
More information on Canadian companies whose
shares trade on U.S.
markets can be had through the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission. Ask
for the 10-K form. It lists the salaries of directors and their fringe
When Bell Canada refused union demands for indexed
pensions, a check
with the 10-K form showed the directors all had indexed pensions. It
also lists the home numbers and addresses of directors so you can give
them a dingle during the evening or on weekends.
Keep press releases. They tend to show that
themselves over a period of time. Annual reports contain useful
information. Analyses for the customers of stockbrokers have heaps of
figures on companies. And don't forget to cultivate unhappy
middle management people. They provide tips.
Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos, freelance writer and
co-author of Le fait
anglais du Québec:
When going undercover (as she did for a series on
conditions of immigrant workers in Montreal), you must do a lot of
preliminary research. She talked to 50 immigrants who couldn't give
their names for fear of being fired. But she developed a good picture
of the immigrant sweatshops. Some places had rats in the toilets. At
another company, the workers had to leave by jumping out a window onto
a garage roof because the owners left early and locked the doors.
More research was done by reading legislation such
as minimum wage laws
and checking the agency delegated to enforce such laws. Unions were
checked out and discovered to be corrupt.
To get a job in a factory, Arnopoulos concocted a
story that she was
from the West, had a grade eight education and didn't speak French (to
avoid being put in a sales job).
A newspaper ad put her onto a textile company
which didn't want her
address or Social Insurance Number. She did piece work and found other
workers were only able to make 60 cents an hour while the minimum wage
at the time was $1.80 an hour.
"I was able to learn things that I couldn't get in
interviews. A lot of colour to evoke atmosphere," she says.
She worked at six different jobs chosen at random.
At one company, the
only break was seven minutes during which the 100 employees were
allowed to use the one toilet.
At another company, employees were not allowed to
flush toilet paper. It was thrown into a box.
But the ladies' room proved useful to Arnopoulos.
Sometimes she used it
for privacy to jot down conversations and things she heard on the shop
"I needed the dialogue to make the story come
alive," she says.
Lysiane Gagnon, political reporter, La Presse.
The job of the political reporter is to explain
the functioning of a
government and its bureaucracy. Many good stories are buried in the
mass of press releases and other documents which cross a reporter's
desk daily. Read it quickly, but carefully. Often enough you can get
onto the trail of a good story because of a little piece of information.
Cultivate civil servants. They can explain laws
and programs they work
on. While they are sworn to secrecy, they will talk to reporters who
develop a reputation for discretion. Bypass the flaks.
The Opposition can also be a good source of
John Sawatsky, journalist and author of Men in the Shadows.
Journalists don't have to be brilliant, but they
must be prepared to
work hard. Dedication will get the enterprising reporter original
He gave five pointers as a guide to getting a
- Make a list of people from A
to Z who might be connected
with the story you want. Contact them all. You'll get a lot of
refusals, but a few will talk and you can build up useful contacts.
Don't be too narrow in your
objectives. When he first started
working on a story about the RCMP breaking into a
Montreal left-wing press agency, he didn't
know a sergeant from a corporal. He went to the Parliamentary Library
and began reading a 60-page report by a 1969 royal commission on
"It was very boring and I was having trouble
keeping awake. But right
in the middle of a page I saw a statement that said it was inevitable
that security police violate, if not the letter of the law, then the
spirit of the law in doing their work."
- Interviews are all-important. There is no freedom of information
act, so journalists have to rely to a great extent on oral sources. The
most common mistake made by journalists is not being properly prepared,
which allows the subject to control the conversation. Prepare questions.
- Use a tape-recorder. Sometimes the
topic of conversation is
very complex and the journalist may not be able to absorb all the
information. When listening to the tape of an interview, Sawatsky
discovered the Candu nuclear reactor sale to Argentina would result in
a $100 million loss for Canada.
- Let the subject ramble. People hang
themselves by talking too much.
Published in Sources May/June 1980
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