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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports

Tools of the Trade

by Dave Yates


"Keep press releases. They tend to show that companies contradict themselves over a period of time."

Richard Cleroux


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 phone.

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 of jobs."

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 growth.

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 1978.

Statistics Canada can provide information on the biggest shareholders 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 benefits.

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 companies contradict 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 the working 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 floor.

"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 information.

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 information.

He gave five pointers as a guide to getting a story:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 security.

    "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."

  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Let the subject ramble. People hang themselves by talking too much.


Published in Sources May/June 1980


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