By Rhianna Jackson-Kelso
As funding and resources dwindle, the future of investigative journalism in Canada rests in the hands of student journalists, say experts in the field.
Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star, and Patti Sonntag, director of the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University, stressed in a recent talk moderated by Ryerson professor Lisa Taylor (co-hosted by the Centre for Free Expression and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre), that journalists must adapt to industry hardships by learning how to pool resources. Despite the ability of investigative journalism to uncover matters of substantial public interest, its costly nature and the lack of certainty that an investigation will culminate in a story makes it particularly vulnerable to budget cuts.
“If you’re an accountant working for a major media organization, it’s very simple … to determine which is the first thing to go,” says Cribb. “And so the state of investigative journalism in this country is dire.”
Increasingly, Canadian news organizations have been combating financial hardships by working together on investigative projects, like the recent CBC News/Toronto Star joint investigation into Ticketmaster’s secret scalper program. While inter-organization competition and protectiveness over information has historically been the norm, collaboration is becoming more common.
“Our absolutely world class university systems can form the backbone of reporting in Canada.”
“In the United States and other countries, collaboration is becoming the backbone of regional reporting in many areas,” says Sonntag, referencing the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, collaborative projects undertaken by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “The question that we have been asking is why isn’t this catching on in Canada?”
Canada, with its low population density and resulting weaker concentration of news organizations, struggles to match the collaborative efforts arising in other countries, says Sonntag. She also referenced the growing “culture of silence” in Canada, where communities underrepresented by news organizations are increasingly not having their problems aired.
But Cribb and Sonntag, who both teach journalism classes in addition to their professional work, say this has a solution: student journalism.
“Our absolutely world class university systems can form the backbone of reporting in Canada,” says Sonntag. “If [journalism schools] work together with news organizations, we can form a network that can support regional reporting and democratic processes that are so vital.”
New reporting network leads to award-winning investigation
Cribb, who teaches an investigative reporting class at the Ryerson School of Journalism, spoke about how his years working with students on investigative projects gave him the idea to found the National Student Investigative Reporting Network (NSIRN), in 2016:
“At the end of term we would have this remarkable body of work on matters of vital public importance, and then I would grade them and then we would throw them away,” he says. “It made no sense.”
NSIRN, at which Cribb and Sonntag are co-directors, takes the form of a 13-week course, where students from across Canada partner with media organizations to report on a problem of national importance. The network’s first project, “The Price of Oil,” was an award-winning collaboration between more than 50 journalists, editors, students and teachers that probed into issues surrounding government oversight of the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan and Ontario. According to NSIRN’s website, the project marked the largest journalistic collaboration ever undertaken in Canada, and Cribb and Sonntag say this is just the beginning.
“At the end of term we would have this remarkable body of work on matters of vital public importance, and then I would grade them and then we would throw them away.”
“This is a national resource, this network of universities that we have,” says Sonntag, stressing that the project is intended to incorporate participation from the public. NSIRN is forming a national editorial board which will take pitches each January from schools, media organizations and members of the public about which issues should be investigated next, says Sonntag.
While collaboration has its downsides – Cribb cites navigating the feelings and opinions of 50 passionate journalists a major learning curve, and Sonntag stresses the importance of having a team dedicated to facilitating the collaboration – Cribb and Sonntag say this model is the best way to ensure a strong, varied investigative journalism scene in Canada.
“What we don’t talk about is the human value of the work that we do,” says Cribb. “These [investigative] stories have a tremendous impact, and that can’t be lost.”