October 13, 2011

By NAKITA SINGH HANS

STAFF REPORTER

Journalism schools and media organizations can both benefit from joint reporting projects that highlight important issues, according to one of Canada’s leading investigative reporters.

“This kind of partnership between news organizations and journalism schools is a natural fit at a time of shrinking newsroom resources,” says Toronto Star reporter Robert Cribb, who teaches an investigative journalism class in Ryerson University. “Journalism schools offer an army of hard working young reporters anxious to practice real world journalism. With proper oversight, that energy and talent can produce important journalism worthy of a prominent place in mainstream media.”

Last month the Star ran a front page story on high school students who are paying cash for credits at private schools in Ontario that in some cases are making it easy to get the high marks necessary for university acceptance. The three-part investigation was a result of a collaboration between the Star and six students who were in Cribb’s investigative reporting class at Ryerson during the winter term.

Cribb, who has taught at Ryerson for almost 10 years, said he reorganized the class structure this year by dividing students into four groups. Three-quarters of the way through the course, senior editors from the Star came into the classroom to hear each group pitch a story. The investigation into how students can pay for private-school courses that almost guarantee higher grades for university admittance caught the editors’ attention.

“In university you have students who are anxious to do this type of work and very interested in getting their work published. There is a real opportunity to bring news organizations and journalism schools together and that really doesn’t happen in Canada to a great extent,” said Cribb. “This is a story that came right out of the classroom and drew the attention of editors. One of the goals was to bridge the gap and bring the two worlds together and I think one of the great successes of this story was it did just that.”

The issue of private schools granting high grades to students is one that Cribb says is well known among young people. It is not a topic, however, which had been extensively reported before.

“It was covered before but in a very superficial way in a sort of ‘he said’, ‘she said’ way, with no real hard evidence and no clear answers to the questions. It was more of an issue of debate. While I was aware that these things existed, I didn’t have anywhere near the personal connection to the issue that the students do.”

Cribb has reported on serious food safety problems in restaurants, illegal slaughterhouses, fraudulent telemarketing boiler rooms and dangerous doctors. He said that this story is one which is well suited for investigation by young journalists because they are connected to the issue and know people who attended private school.

“They have an advantage over someone like me. They have a lot of contacts because they know people who went there and also they are younger so they are able to approach an 18-year-old and talk about this issue in a less threatening way than say if I was to do it and my colleagues in Toronto Star.”

The investigation revealed a growing problem in Ontario with private schools that issue credits and make it easy to obtain high grades. The story described situations where  professors would leave the room during exams allowing students to cheat, and cases where high marks were awarded regardless of whether the students understood the material they were being taught.

“I was just stunned to see some of the findings, especially the fact that the ministry had little oversight over this mass sector of the education system. The scope of the problem reached well beyond my expectations,”Cribb said.

Students approached the story strategically, filing information requests and targeting the schools that they suspected had problems. The investigation involved combing through documentary evidence and conducting numerous interviews.

“I would say it was a fairly standard process and it went the way these things tend to go. We had a very good strategic plan, who to talk to first and who not to talk first. We set up a sequence of interviews because you can blow the whole investigation if you get that sequence wrong. We planned it very carefully I think,” Cribb said. “The students executed tremendously. They put their heart and soul into it. They worked really hard and it really showed. Every time we had a meeting or discussion in class there was a great new piece of information, a document that showed what really went on.”

Alex Bosanac, one of the six students who worked on the investigation, said she benefited from the project in many ways.

“When I was in class it started off as a group project and we did not know going into it that it would be published. It was a great chance for us to get our hands dirty and learn investigative journalism techniques and we learnt how to do deep research,” said Bosanac, who is in her fourth year at Ryerson. “I learned how to attack a story. I know where to start looking and I know where it’s supposed to end up. I know now how to store all my findings and keep it organized and work in a team… Rob’s assistance proved to be invaluable to us. It was nice to get acquainted with an investigative reporter working for one of the biggest newspapers.”

When students completed their semester, the Star continued to work on the story and students continued to be involved in the investigation.

“From the finished student product it still took a lot of work. There was a lot of independent research that had to be done at the paper for legal reasons and for accountability reasons but we were able to take that further and a young reporter at the Star went undercover which I think added a lot to it and then we essentially took it to a place where it was a major Toronto Star front page investigation,” Cribb said.

“It was a great marriage and my hope is that it is the start of many. The goal should always be that if we are going to do something as large as an investigation in a class, there should always be the intent of getting it published somewhere. Not every story works out and that’s true in the real world as well as in university classes but for the ones that do, we actually get great discoveries of new information.”

Shaheer Choudhury, another of the students involved in the investigation, said he learned more from the experience than from any other class at Ryerson.

“The research project was just a way to sharpen the new skills we had learned. They taught us everything from how to make guarded people open up to you, to how to deal with government officials.”

Undergraduate students Mariana Ionova, Marta Iwanek, 2011 graduate Carys Mills and visiting student from Scotland, Liam McGowan, also contributed to the investigation.

“The dedication that these students put into it resulted in a major investigation that resulted in incredible public reaction and it has become part of the debate on the campaign trail, which is a remarkable achievement,” Cribb said.

Share →