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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports

Getting the Story

by Abrey Myers

 

"I heard someone say all journalism is investigative. Like hell it is. It's not investigative to rewrite press releases."

Walter Stewart

 

WALTER STEWART BEGAN BY saying that he was mesmerized by the conversations around the workshops, musing about people wondering whether there really is such a thing as investigative journalism.

"In fact, I heard someone from this rostrum this afternoon say that all journalism is investigative. Like hell it is. A great deal of journalism is simply reflex action. It's not investigative when 240 parliamentary reporters gather in the National Press Theatre on Wellington Street in Ottawa to write down what the prime minister said. It's not investigative to rewrite press releases. But both of those are ordinary functions of journalism. There's a lot of rewriting in journalisrn. And there's a lot of what Don Marcus, a Hamilton journalist, once said, "making kings talk like kings never had sense enough to talk."

"I had a kind of a rough definition of investigative journalism when I used to work for the old Star Weekly back in 1967. One night we were all sitting around talking about whether or not we do a story about Charlie Van Horne. Charlie Van Horne was then leader of the Conservative Party in New Brunswick and he looked as if he was going to be the next Premier of the province. So we were talking in those words and tones that you always adopt on whether you do a story, and how it would be approached and what the rationale for doing it was—all of those neat things. And John Clare, who was then the editor of the Star Weekly, said 'I'll tell you how we should do the story.'

" 'I think the son of a bitch is a crook. I think we should sic Stewart on him'. And I did the story, which resulted in the threat, not the writ, of a libel suit and I knew I was not going to write up a puff piece. I knew, instinctively, that there was a difference between some journalism and investigative journalism.

"So anybody who's working on a story now, and wants to know if it's investigative, you can find out by asking yourself a number of fairly simple questions: Do you want the story lawyered? Does your boss want the story lawyered? Did you give your right name? Did you spend six weeks gathering the material before you were ready to write the story? Did you make a copy of your notes and hide it? If your answers to those questions respectively are yes yes no, yes and yes, you're either working on an investigative story, or wasting a helluva lot of time on a piece on how to raise pansies.

"There is no definition of investigative journalism that I know of that suits everybody, but there's no legal definition of banking in this country, either. But everyone knows what it is."

After that, Stewart engaged in a lengthy but fascinating discourse on how he researched his book. First, by going to the farmers who were forced off their land, turning on the tape-recorders and letting them talk. 'There was nothing else you could do (for them)." Then to Transport Canada, tracing the raw material and trying to figure out why Mirabel was built and Pickering was attempted, after a study suggested that the best thing to do was to expand facilities at the Montreal International Airport at Dorval. He read Hansard and a royal commission report (which didn't make sense to him). Stewart quickly found that the conversation about him was frequently more interesting than the documents he was transcribing.

"The reason why I wanted to read it on the premises (the commission report) is that I had a sneaking suspicion that what did happen might happen. Every day for a number of weeks, I left my home, went up to the Transport Department on the fourth floor. I'd clock in, pick up a jumble of transcripts, sit down in a great big office, start reading the transcript and start making notes off it. I type quickly, so everybody assumed I was a bureaucrat, a clerk, a stenographer or something, and they would talk. And some of the things they would say were startling. One that took place in front of me were two consultants talking about how they could skew a report, so that the Pickering airport, which at that time had been shelved for two years, could be made to look viable again. So all I did was to sit like this, looking at the transcripts and typing what they were saying."

After four days someone who knew who he was had him moved out, but, with his cover blown, people began coming up to him asking, begging to have him listen to their stories and what they knew.

As in the other sessions, Stewart cited the method other speakers referred to, of playing off departments and officials against each other. What Stewart discovered was that federal and provincial bureaucrats got themselves into a bind. It wasn't a case of someone trying to make money; it was a case of making a wrong decision and then trying to bury it either by pretending it didn't exist or by blaming it on somebody else.

Louis-Gilles Francoeur, journalist at Le Devoir, stuck it out for two years, writing a string of difficult and complex articles on corruption in the Quebec construction industry. It began, oddly enough, with a royal commission investigating the corruption of the previous government.

Francoeur's dilemma was that he found people willing to talk, but nobody willing to give him proof. What he needed was the raw data. "Wherever there is cheese, you will find rats." The key was the construction workers' retirement fund accounting records. The $6 million retirement fund was slowly being siphoned off, with five men involved or suspected. Le Devoir lawyers helped initially to axe the story, saying that it had to be approached from a different angle. Francoeur was put in the position of working without his editor's approval, going undercover.

What developed was a complex, secret network of informers and helpers set up in such a way that no one person knew the whole story. "Our sources generally were people not out for revenge, but who wanted to help us.

"The key was in determining how the accounting figures were being juggled from one computer to another. Plugging up holes or gaps in theories and stories took almost a year and a half. When the articles were finally published, every line in the story had to be backed by solid proof. "One careless error would have finished us."

Francoeur learned two lessons from this story. "The first was that I had to check all the information by myself. When one exchanges information with a source, one must divulge information to obtain it." Francoeur feels he never told his sources anything of value (that would give the game away) and that he could take on or get rid of any member on his "team" that he felt he could not trust.

The second lesson was never to speak of what he was doing until he had completed his story. This was born out of past experiences when talk led to a cancellation of an investigative piece while he was in the middle of it. "When I finished, I confronted my editor with the story and the editors said 'Yes, we will'. The method I used was the only possible way to have gotten this story."

David Burnham of The New York Times believes that reporters often get sidetracked by looking for the wrong thing.

"You must ask yourself, 'What am I really looking for?' What is your goal?"

Hired by the Times to cover New York City's police and judicial system, Burnham published stories of police "cooping"—their slang for a cop sleeping on duty. After he received several death threats, a staffer told him, "Listen, kid, don't worry about the death threats that you do get."

Since 1974, Burnham has worked for the Times' Washington bureau, covering almost exclusively the nuclear industry. When he first started out, his tack was to examine the agencies themselves to see if he could under a more subtle, yet pervasive corruption than he had noted in New York City. He failed; but, in the meantime, he began to concentrate on nuclear energy, just reading all the available public documents, "just watching the donkeys go by."

A pattern developed. Burnham wondered why so many fines for violations were always being proposed and so few were being imposed. Under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, documents from the Atomic Energy Commission showed that the AEC was systematically suppressing studies which raised questions about the safety of the nuclear industry.

There are several problems inherent in the nuclear industry structure: reactor safety; the threat of nuclear proliferation; the problem of the disposal of wastes; ignorance of the effects of low-level doses of radiation on the average person; and the question of economics. Is the argument that nuclear plants need to be built because there will be an increasing demand for energy in the future a valid argument?

Burnham asked whether stories on the uranium cartel have made it into Canadian papers. "I personally feel that Gulf oil is running Canada as far as that issue is concerned." Burnham mentioned that groups such as the Friends of Earth have copies of correspondence between corporations that makes one wonder about the power of multinational corporations and where Canada fits in.

Does it pay? Like Stewart, once Burnham became known to people within the industry as the man who was doing nuclear exposes, he ended up getting more information than he really needed. He would be overwhelmed by documents. "But, beware of the poisoned Xerox (copy)."

For Francoeur, a report handed down shortly before the start of the CIJ Convention, confirmed everything in his articles—that there was a case of computer fraud within the construction industry.

Stewart made an eloquent case for investigative journalism, a rather long but interesting point:

"When I worked as a managing editor, I always tried to work with one rule: that is, I had to be sure something was going to come out of it. Somewhere there had to be a story. There's very little point in practical journalism in beginning an investigative piece on the notion that you're going to get something, but you don't know what. They do it that way on Lou Grant, I know, but we don't do that in real life. In real life you have to be sure that you're going to get a story. Even if it turns out that all the guys are good guys, there is still going to be a very good story there. Investigative reporting, in my experience of it anyway, requires a great deal of energy, but also requires a great deal of money and a certain modicum of courage. The danger in investigative journalism is the threat of a libel. Libel suits scare editors and scare publishers. Libel writs scare me, and I've had quite a few of them in my time. There is no protection against a libel suit, if an investigative reporter really believes in what he or she is doing. There comes a point when you're doing a story for the general public and you cannot accept the advice of the lawyers, which is to bury it knee-deep in marmalade and let the public figure it out for themselves. There comes a point when you have to explain what the documentation means. As soon as you do that, as the lawyers always tell you, you cross the line—in giving your own interpretation. If you don't want to cross that line, my advice is to stay the hell away from it, because if you're really and simply going to lay everything out and let people figure it out for themselves, you've only done the first part of your investigative job. I've said that investigation requires money, it requires courage. And because most of the publishers I know are cheap and craven—there isn't a lot of investigative journalism in this country. It is nice to know, that when you have finished a piece of investigative journalism, that it did something."

 

Published in Sources May/June 1980

 



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