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Monthly Archives: September 2012

I’ve tossed out a phrase to my journalism students that I wanted to act as a mission statement this semester: “Tell and SHOW.”

I know you know how to tell. I’ve seen your stories, columns and editorials from the Times. I’ve seen some descriptive prose and some telling quotes. For those of you coming from university, you’re here because when you were there, you assembled words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, no doubt supported by the appropriate sources, that allowed you to get passing grades (or not).

So you can write.

But can you get the elements that back that writing up? Not just cited sources from some book or a website, but the real thing. The data and documents that no-one can dispute, no one can rebuff no matter how hard they try.

The term “investigative reporter” is a throw-back to a time when there were reporters who did nothing but lengthy probes into wrongdoing. The most famous is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. It made Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein household names, and both men famous. The movie ‘All the President’s Men’, based on their 1974 book, inspired a generation of young people around the world (including yours truly) to join newspapers with the aim of bringing down corrupt politicians.

The movie is as much instructive as it is entertaining, and still drives home the point that good reporting is still often a face-to-face, voice-to-voice endeavor, even in this era of instant communication. It demonstrates that any worthwhile probe needs to be a deliberate and thorough process involving careful steps.

And that should be the case with every story, even profiles and features.

Every pitch accepted and every story pursued, should be an exercise in critical thought and consideration. Even the act of asking a source how to spell their name is an act of investigative reporting because it forces you to question your own assumption about how that name is spelled. Hopefully, that is now a habit for you, because failing to do so — failing to spell that person’s name properly — is the most incredible of a process that needs to be, well, credible.

That habit, which will develop into an automatic technique with time, is the same one you should develop and use when pursuing the facts behind any probe, big or small. Over time, you will develop a “gut instinct” that can’t be taught by any teacher, just experienced. So now, while you’re in college, is the time to begin that habit of questioning, of wondering why, and then looking for the answers.

SMART REPORTING

The only factors that limit you are time and space, because very detailed investigations will consume both. And time and space is something that only a very few number of journalists working in Canada today have.

There’s good reason for that. The vast majority of the stories you will ever do, don’t require the extensive process that Woodward and Bernstein undertook in their Watergate investigation. Yet every one, as I said above, demands the habit of critical thought, and then a commitment to obtaining and documenting the truth.

And so I prefer the term “smart reporting”, which is less sexy admittedly than “investigative”, but it’s more accurate, especially today where you need to use the low and high tech tools available to you.

First, let’s dispel some myths about smart reporting.

The first one: the smaller the shop, the less opportunity the journalist has to embark on investigations.

Bullshit.

I’ve been lucky and privileged to be a judge for many community newspaper competitions over a number of years, and I’ve come to see that executing the best journalism isn’t always a matter of resources, time and space, but of energy, passion and dedication.

What I mean by that is that rarely, if ever, does a project of societal importance get completed without extraordinary efforts by the journalist involved. In other words, don’t let work hours stand in the way of great journalism.

Have you ever done something that required you to go beyond your ordinary comfort zone to complete? You did it for one of two reasons, or both (1) You really really really really wanted to complete it because something inside of you drove you to get it done (that’s called passion) and (2) Something or someone depended on you getting it done.

If so, then you begin to understand that some things require you to go beyond the ordinary to, in the words of American comedian Larry the Cable Guy, “get ‘er done.”

That’s done when small-market journalists pitch then execute long-term probes into important stories. Many have won Canadian journalism awards for their work. With reporting staffs of just two or three, these papers courageously pursued stories in the community’s interest.

In class, we’ll look at some examples from a recent competition that I judged in the Best Investigative Stories category of the 2011 Ontario Community Newspapers Association newspaper competitions. Read them and you’ll begin to marvel, like I did, at the depth and passion with which these unsung heroes of our business completed their work.

THERE IS A FUTURE FOR BIG STORIES

“Despite all the hand-wringing of a few years ago, it turns out that people do read long form on the web, on tablets and readers, and even on their phone. They love charts and graphs and animation and explainers. They want to know your sources and even look at primary documents. And they want it all tied up with voice and style. There’s no better time to be an investigative journalist.”