Currently viewing the tag: "investigative journalism"

January 26, 2018

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Anton Koschany, executive producer of CTV’s W5, discussed his experiences as an investigative journalist and shared his advice on storytelling with Ryerson journalism students. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

The technology available to journalists is constantly evolving, but the need for strong storytelling remains central to quality journalism, says the executive producer of CTV’s flagship investigative show W5.

Anton Koschany, W5’s executive producer since 2009, drew on a long career in television journalism in his October 2017 remarks to Ryerson journalism students. With 40 years of experience as an investigative journalist, he has worked in black and white film, edited the morning film reel for the CTV station in Vancouver and worked with colour negative tape when he was a producer for the Fifth Estate on CBC.

“It isn’t what you use to shoot,” Koschany told students. “Teach yourself the technology because that’s our form of communication. You can use the best technology in the world but if you don’t have the story to tell … there is nothing you can do to salvage what you’re trying to do with your stories. They may look pretty but they may not interest anybody.”

During the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre-sponsored session “Tales from the Investigative Trenches,” Koschany showed journalism students two separate clips from stories produced five decades apart to illustrate how stories have been told differently over the years.

The one clip documented a reenactment of the University of Texas Tower mass shooting in August 1966 by Charles Whitman. The Sep. 11, 1966 story, the first ever produced by W5, was recorded in Toronto city hall as a way to make it relevant to Canadians.

The second clip was produced by the W5 team following the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. In that case, the journalists told the story from the perspective of a Las Vegas bartender who comforted a dying Canadian.

While the first clip was recorded with one camera in black and white film and the second clip with multiple HD cameras, Koschany said both approaches told stories in a way that was relevant to their audience.

“You can tell a story in so many different ways,” he observed. “In one case, we’re proactive, we challenge people, we try and do a test to see what would happen and if this was possible in [Canada]. In the other (second) one, we take you into the emotional heart of the story.”

‘Don’t be afraid to let stories play out’

Koschany said capturing human emotion is important in the production of long-form journalism and documentaries. By way of example, he pointed to a W5 story about the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. It documented what happened when a woman revisited the home where she was abused during her youth.

The traditional approach to producing this story would be to record shots of the house and the subjects, conduct an interview and record voiceovers, Koschany said. But it doesn’t help the audience to truly see and understand the emotions involved.

Focusing on the reaction of the woman revisiting her past, on the other hand, brought home to the audience the emotional trauma experienced by children at the home: “It’s a great device in long-form journalism to take someone back to the scene of the crime,” Koschany said. “They confront memories, you take them back and you make it relevant.

“Don’t be afraid to let stories play out,” he added. “The [subjects] are in their souls at that point and it’s visceral and everyone watching that can feel that.”

Koschany said that despite its impact and importance, the long-form journalism landscape is daunting.

“It’s tough. It’s very tough,” he said. “It’s largely because of the pressures of social media and declining audiences … The entry points to long-form often was through local newsrooms. There are some jobs there but those have been shrinking.”

During a question-and-answer session, one first-year journalism student asked for advice on how to succeed in this competitive industry and Koschany returned to his original theme:

“I would suggest to you as you move forward in your careers, it’s not the technology, it’s the story” that matters, he said.

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Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the work and wealth reporter at the Toronto Star, spoke recently at Ryerson University about her experience working undercover with a temp agency. (Amanda Pope)

Undercover work by journalists is justified only if there’s a compelling public interest and no other way to get the story, says the Toronto Star reporter who recently posed as a temporary worker at a large industrial bakery.

Sara Mojtehedzadeh, who covers labour, precarious work and poverty issues for the Star, said it was difficult to get temp workers at Fiera Foods to talk about their experiences on the record so, to get the story, she went undercover in May 2017 as a temp worker in the Toronto factory.

“As journalists we have an ethical obligation to be completely transparent about who we are, to be upfront about what we’re doing and what we’re reporting on,” said Mojtehedzadeh, who co-authored the final story with Brendan Kennedy.  “So it really does take something super- compelling for us to override that obligation. What we try and look at is ‘Is this story representative of the big systemic problem that it’s worth the resources that it’s going to take to investigate?’”

She said the Star had been investigating temp agencies– labour brokers who hire temporary workers but take a portion of the employee’s wage to make a profit – since May 2016. The use of temp agencies, she said, cuts costs and limits employee labour rights and companies’ liability for accidents on the job.

Her investigation, she said, was sparked by the release of U.S. data that showed people who are hired through temp agencies are significantly more likely to get injured on the job than permanently hired workers: “I wanted to see if the same thing was happening here in Ontario.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the decision to go undercover was made after temp worker Amina Diaby, 23, died on the job at Fiera Foods in September 2016. For months, Mojtehedzadeh said she tried but could not find out much about what had happened beyond information that Diaby’s hijab had gotten stuck in a machine.

“We felt that the person who paid the highest price for these practices was being forgotten. So we passionately felt that her story should have a platform,” she said.

Mojtehedzadeh said that, two weeks after applying for work with the Magnus Services temp agency, she was contacted and told to show up for a job the next day at Fiera Foods, an industrial bakery that makes pastries for Costco, Tim Horton’s, Metro, Walmart and Loblaw.

“There was no screening, no attempt to establish whether or not I had experience working in a factory or industrial environment,” she said. “I received about five minutes of safety training. I was told to not put my hands near the machines and if I didn’t feel safe or comfortable doing something, then they said to go home and wait for the temp agency to call me again.”

Mojtehedzadeh said the workplace felt dangerous. There were ovens operating 24/7, she said, yet workers were not informed of any fire-exit locations or where to find fire extinguishers.

“You would have your supervisors who were breathing down your neck and shouting at you for the entire shift,” she said. “You’re standing there doing a repetitive motion at a fast pace all day, which is physically demanding. Most of the women struggled to keep up with the work that was demanded of us.”

Workers only received one unpaid 30-minute break and during their shifts they did not feel they could ask to use the bathroom or speak up about inequality, Mojtehedzadeh said.

Mojtehedzadeh’s story also documented how the temp workers sent to Fiera Foods were paid minimum wage in cash with no deductions or pay stubs. By law, employers must pay employees on the worksite or at a convenient location for the worker, but Mojtehedzadeh said she was instructed to pick up her pay from a payday lender called GTA Employment, which was a 35-minute bus ride from the factory.

“I had one colleague who went to pick up her pay and literally as she left, she was robbed and lost all of her wages for the past two weeks,” Mojtehedzadeh said. “When we confronted the owners [of the temp agency], they said that this is a common practice across the city and it was normal.”

Mojtehedzadeh said that before the story was published on Sept. 8, the Star confronted Fiera officials about the health and safety violations she had documented. The newspaper then received a 10-page letter from the company’s lawyer outlining its perspective on the laws the Star had violated by sending a journalist undercover.

In mid-September, Fiera pleaded guilty to Ministry of Labour charges related to Diaby’s death. The company also announced it was hiring independent auditors to review its human resources and health and safety procedures and to audit its use of temp agencies.  Meanwhile, new legislation winding its way through the Ontario legislature would require companies to offer wage parity to temporary workers doing similar work to permanent staff, a change the government argues will reduce one of the key financial incentives for contracting out.

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Peter Raymont, producer of “All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone,” during a Q-and-A after a screening of the film at Ryerson University on March 23, 2017. (Jasmine Bala)

Journalists shouldn’t worry about being branded activists because they are in fact “activists for truth,” says Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Raymont.

The need for hard-hitting investigative journalism is greater now than ever, Raymont said following a March 23 screening of his new documentary on investigative journalism.

“It’s the best of times and the worst of times at the same time,” he observed after the screening at Ryerson University. “One thing that the election of Donald Trump has done is lit a fire under journalists and filmmakers and all sorts of people on the left and on the progressive side of things.”

Nowadays, Raymont added, people are generally also more willing to speak to journalists and filmmakers: “There is more of that openness to speak out, speak truth to power [and] put yourself on the line, which is really helpful [and] really useful in democracy and truth-seeking.”

Raymont’s documentary, All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone, premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been screened worldwide, including in the United States, France, Greece and Belgium. The documentary “has been invited to more film festivals than any film I’ve ever had anything to do with,” Raymont said, including Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, his Emmy Award-winning documentary.

All Governments Lie features independent journalists such as Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi. Greenwald and Scahill are co-founding editors of The Intercept, an online investigative publication dedicated to holding institutions accountable. The Intercept encourages whistleblowers to share their information and was founded after Greenwald’s work at the Guardian, where he was the lead reporter on the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden. His reporting was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2014. Following in famous investigative journalist I.F. Stone’s footsteps, these American journalists expose government deception and provide alternatives to mainstream, corporate news outlets.

They are “the children of I.F. Stone – the metaphorical children who are continuing his legacy of independent journalism, aggressive journalism, journalism that really cares and tells the truth,” Raymont said.

Many news outlets in the United States, he said, are owned by huge corporations, resulting in a sort of “corporate coup d’état.”

To challenge this, he added, news outlets need to be more transparent.

“It’s important for journalists, publishers and editors to reveal who owns their newspapers and television networks and institutions,” Raymont said. “I think there’s a lot hidden about that right now. People don’t really know the owners of what they’re reading or what they’re consuming.”

One of his goals with the documentary, he added, was to make citizens more aware of who controls the news they consume so they can work together to turn the tide.

“I mean, one makes films with titles like All Governments Lie and the corporate coup d’état partly as a way of saying come on, folks, let’s get organized,” he said. “Let’s realize what’s happening. Let’s fight back against it…in whatever way we can.”

The screening was co-sponsored by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and Ryeron’s Centre for Free Expression.

Watch Peter Raymont’s full Q-and-A below:

Special to the RJRC

Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star, discusses verification and trust in the media at the George Vari Engineering and Computing Building’s Sears Atrium at Ryerson University, February 15th, 2017. (Michael Ott)

The loss of trust between the media and audiences that has characterised the Donald Trump era in the United States also played out when Rob Ford was mayor of Toronto, says the Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent Daniel Dale.

Just as many Trump supporters dismiss stories about the former real estate magnate’s lies, sexism and other potentially career-destroying behaviours, many Torontonians refused to believe the worst about their former mayor, said Dale, who covered the Ford years

Dale spoke at Ryerson University earlier in February about similarities he found in covering both former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and current US President Donald Trump for the Toronto Star and what Canadian journalists can learn from how the U.S. media covered their 2016 election.

“Here we are, the Toronto Star, biggest newspaper in the city. We reported on the mayor smoking crack,” he said during a Feb. 15 presentation organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. The newspaper had a long-standing relationship with its audience before the journalists involved saw a video of the mayor smoking crack, reported on its contents and made it clear to readers how they came to view it..

Many readers, however, were skeptical: “There was a lot of doubt that what we were saying was true,” Dale told the crowd of mostly journalism students. “There was a poll done—50 per cent of Toronto residents did not believe they were telling the truth about the crack video.

Dale has since gained acclaim in the tough American media market for his coverage of Trump’s path to the White House. “Trump Checks,” his daily fact checking series, earned him a place on Politico’s list of “Breakout Media Stars of 2016” with the moniker “the lie-tracker.” Dale was also invited to discuss his Trump fact-checking coverage on CNN. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore even tweeted his support for the Canadian journalist.

But Dale’s reporting on Trump has drawn the ire of those who refuse to believe news that reflects badly on the man who is now president of the United States.

“My email inbox is a dark place,” Dale told the audience of mainly journalism students before reading this email: “’I’m going to cancel my subscription to the Star after 20 years. Don’t believe everything you read about Trump online!’”

Dale also read a tweet from another reader: “’President Trump is going to make America great again, you may want to check out,’” referencing a conspiracy theory-filled site that openly advocates for Trump while posting false or unsupported claims.

“We in the media have problems,” said Dale. “We have a real issue with trust.”

A recent Edelman poll suggests that trust in Canadian media is on the decline. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of survey respondents who indicated they trusted “traditional media” as a source for general news and information decreased by 13 percentage points, to 58 per cent from 71 per cent. Furthermore, respondents were 3.5 times more likely to “ignore information that supports a position they do not believe in.” This echo-chamber effect can have implications for election outcomes because it means voters are inclined to only read and trust media that reinforces their pre-judgments and beliefs.

Dale said the media coverage of Trump holds some lessons for Canadian journalists. Reporting on the U.S. election campaign, he said, suffered from:

  • A sacrifice of the truth in favour of ratings.

The lack of fact-checking by many news organizations meant the pursuit of truth was sacrificed on the alter of what was trending, Dale argued.

  • Problems associated with covering candidates who know how to generate headlines.

“There is a problem with allowing one candidate to crowd out everyone else,” Dale noted.

“CNN essentially became Trump News,” he said. In addition to covering every tweet and everything Trump said in the run-up to the election, the network “handed over entire hours to broadcast his rallies unfiltered.”

Dale went on to warn that something similar has happened with coverage of Kellie Leitch, who is currently running for leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party. She has, he said, made a “deliberate but skillful attempt” to crowd out her rivals and seize attention through the media.

Journalists must guard against letting one candidate dominate the coverage and instead provide equal coverage to all the leading contenders, Dale suggested.

  • Fact-checking structures that focus on the average candidate.

Until Trump arrived on the political scene, fact checking by reporters involved “candidates who may tell a couple lies a week, maybe exaggerate one thing a day,” Dale said.

“These structures are not set up to deal with an avalanche of deceit,” he observed, yet reporters would fact check Trump and then report and write on him like he was an average candidate who indulged in a few minor mistruths.

In his Trump Checks series, Dale would post daily and tweet about Trump’s falsehoods. The number of lies would stretch into 10, 20, sometimes even 30 per day. Dale recently published an article showcasing the fact that Trump has told more than 80 blatant lies since taking office only one month ago.

He noted, however, that there have been improvements in the way fact checking is done. It now often happens in real time, with journalists tweeting instantly whenever Trump lies. Many broadcast news networks like CNN also began publishing live fact checking results at the bottom of the screen while candidates were speaking.

  • Inaccurate reporting on what polls really mean.

Dale said that many media outlets suffered from a forecasting problem that led them to believe Hillary Clinton was destined to become the next president. At the root of it was ignorance – or a willingness to ignore – how polls really work.

“Hillary was three to five points ahead,” Dale said, but the media “was not making clear to people that she was within a pretty standard polling error.”

He said there was also insufficient coverage of the fact that national polls did not demonstrate how Clinton would perform in the key battleground states that she eventually lost to Trump. Journalists can avoid this, he said, by becoming more knowledgeable about how polls really work and avoiding over-reliance on them to tell the story.

Dale also offered advice to young journalists covering a political beat. Best practices, he said, require reporters to:

  1. Call out politicians when they lie. If fact checking suffers, then journalists aren’t doing their job of holding people in power accountable and they can get away with misleading the public.
  1. Pay attention to the other side, and not just the fringe extremist publications such as Breitbart and It’s important to learn about more moderate, rational viewpoints that differ from your own because it is impossible to report accurately on what is going on if you exist in an echo chamber.
  1. Recognize that documentation and evidence are paramount. People need solid proof before they will believe what a journalist is reporting. The Star, Dale said, learned this from the Ford crack video story. Journalists have to provide photos and video footage to back up their stories: “People want proof. They didn’t believe us when we said we saw the video ourselves.”
  1. Be as publicly human as possible by making clear how you go about your job and why you do what you do. Part of trust-building, he said, involves demonstrating that journalists are human and relatable people who are doing the best job they can.
  1. Avoid prognostication. Dale said it’s easy to slip from analysis into opinion, and that further entrenches distrust of the media among people who want verified facts and transparency about how the reporting was done and how the information was obtained.
  1. Become versed in policy issues. Deep knowledge will help reporters produce analysis and investigations that are essential to a well-functioning democracy.

Dale said that despite the shortcomings in the Trump coverage, a lot of important and great reporting was done over the past year.

He cited the impressive number of stories journalists uncovered about Trump by the end of the election campaign, pointing to everything from the leaked video where the candidate bragged about sexual assault, to the scandals surrounding alleged ties to Russia.

“This election was a triumph for investigative reporting,” Dale said, noting that there is “such a demand from people for investigative reporting, for smart commentary, for policy analysis.

“This is a wonderful time for journalists to do journalism.”

Watch Daniel Dale’s full lecture below:

Special to the RJRC

Moderator Christopher Waddell (Carleton University journalism professor) and panelists Edward Greenspon (Public Policy Forum president),  April Lindgren (Ryerson School of Journalism instructor) and Allan Gregg (Earnscliffe Strategy Group principal) discuss the journalism industry’s financial woes at a Canadian Journalism Foundation panel.

Although Canadians value journalism and believe it is essential to a well-functioning democracy, they don’t want to pay for it, concludes a new study that examined the state of Canadian news media.

A survey conducted as part of the Public Policy Forum (PPF) report, “The Shattered Mirror,” found that the Canadians surveyed do not make a connection between the news industry’s layoffs, closures and other financially-induced problems and what this means for the amount of news available to themselves as readers.

“They assume much like dancers will always dance, painters will always paint, journalists will always cover stories,” said Allan Gregg, principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, which conducted the poll.

“They make no linkage whatsoever to the absence of revenue to news gathering organizations with the inability to pay journalists.”

A 2016 Reuter’s poll cited in the PPF report showed that only nine per cent of those surveyed in Canada pay for online news.

Gregg was joined by April Lindgren, academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and Ed Greenspon, president of the Public Policy Forum, at the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Jan. 28 talk: “The Changing Ways Canadians Get Their News.” The panel discussion followed the release earlier in the day of the forum’s report and its policy recommendations.

The survey of 1,500 Canadians, conducted this past fall between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2,  found that 70 per cent of respondents think that news has a major role to play in democracy and 60 per cent think that journalists play a major role.

When they were asked to assess the consequences of the decline of news organizations, 73 per cent of people surveyed said having less investigative reporting would be a serious problem and 69 per cent said having less coverage of local news would be a serious consequence of news media decline. Having no one around to keep politicians honest or hold powerful interests accountable were considered serious problems by 68 per cent of respondents.

Gregg said the survey results also suggest Canadians hold journalists in high regard –so much so that they balk at the possibility of the government intervening to bail out the news business. Only 25 per cent of those surveyed said they believe government should help struggling news businesses. Respondents said that journalists’ ability to act as watchdogs on power would be compromised by government involvement in the news industry.

“It is the very thing they value most about news – its role in democracy, especially holding the powerful to account – that forms the objection to government doing anything to get the industry out of the dilemma it obviously faces,” said Gregg.

Forty-four per cent of survey resonsdents said they agreed they would be concerned about journalist’s ability to cover governments if said governments financially supported the news business. Another 24 per cent indicated that they strongly agreed.

Although the poll data make it clear that Canadians feel inundated with news, most said they had little to no information about the industry’s economic challenges.

“Fewer than half – which is kind of ironic – have heard, read or seen anything about news organizations facing business and financial difficulties,” said Gregg. “(It) is not part of the public consciousness.”

He pointed to possible explanations for the disconnect between the importance Canadians place on journalism in democracy and their lack of awareness of the news industry’s financial woes: “They haven’t really come to grips – they haven’t started thinking about the demise of newsgathering organizations – what it means to me as an informed citizen,” he suggested. “Or they simply reject the premise that declining news gathering organizations would result in the decline of availability of news.”

Lindgren, who leads the Local News Research Project, has been investigating what she calls “local news poverty” in Canadian communities. Her research, she says, suggests that local news is available unevenly across the country and is increasingly at risk. Data from The Local News Map, which she created with the University of British Columbia’s Jon Corbett, shows 171 local news outlets have closed in 131 communities across the country. The list of closures documented on the crowd-sourced map includes 120 community newspapers.

Another study by the Local News Research Project examined the output of local news outlets in eight Canadian communities and found major differences in how much reporting they did on the local race for MP during the 2015 federal election.

“Where you live is a big factor in the availability of local news,” Lindgren said, noting that her research shows digital-first outlets do not seem to be filling the gap left by the loss of more traditional news producers.

Greenspon said the challenge in writing the PPF report was “how do you design something that supports journalism without the government gaining undue leverage?”

Some of the report’s 12 recommendations, he said, are “no-brainer(s),” including changes to Canada’s charitable status laws. Current rules that limit the resources a charity can devote to advocacy before having its status revoked have historically limited charitable funding of journalism initiatives in Canada.

The report says the “chilling” provisions related to charitable giving reflect “priorities and mores of 19th century England” and removing them could foster the sort of robust not-for-profit, charitable foundation-funded accountability journalism has seen in places like the U.S and Germany.

The “Shattered Mirror” report also recommended the creation of a Future of Democracy and Journalism Fund, to first be financed through an initial investment from the federal government, and then ultimately funded through the taxation of digital advertisers based outside of Canada. The money would be allocated to digital innovation initiatives outlined in the report and the fund would be overseen by an independent board.

The report also recommended:

  • providing additional funds to CBC online to eliminate ad sales.
  • supporting Indigenous news organizations and training journalists to increase the amount of reliable Indigenous journalism.
  • creating an institute for the study of journalism and democracy.
  • establishing legal advisory services for small, young and university news outlets to pursue accountability journalism “without fear of reprisal.”
  • overhauling the Copyright Act’s fair-dealing clauses to enable content creators to retain stronger intellectual property rights to their work.

Audio of the CJF panel is available in full.