Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports
Getting the Story
by Abrey Myers
heard someone say all journalism is investigative. Like hell it is.
It's not investigative to rewrite press releases."
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
editor of the Star
Weekly, said 'I'll tell you how we should do the
" '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
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
Francoeur's dilemma was that he found people
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
"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
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
Since 1974, Burnham has worked for the Times' Washington
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
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
For Francoeur, a report handed down shortly before
the start of the CIJ
Convention, confirmed everything in his articles—that there
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
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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