How Investigative Journalism Informed Canadians While Shaping Perceptions and, Often, Changing History 

 How Investigative Journalism Informed Canadians While Shaping Perceptions and, Often, Changing History 

Investigative journalism is a noble profession. It takes a certain kind of person, and personality, to flourish in the industry. One has to be smart, savvy, bold, fearless, aggressive, at times sympathetic or empathetic, and willing to do what it takes to deliver the entire story, warts and all, not just headlines or media spin.

In Canada, a number of news outlets past and present have provided their audiences with a wide and diverse range of hard-hitting reports over the years that today continue to be recalled as textbook examples of how to uncover the facts and tell a compelling story. Often, these stories become more than merely one-day reports. In more cases than you might imagine, they’re thought-provoking to the point that they change policy or even history.

Some will recall a 1977 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) broadcast that grabbed the entire nation’s attention. In preparing and producing the television report Connections: An Investigation into Organized Crime, investigative reporters spent more than two years investigating the extent of Mafia influence in Canada. The reporters and crews engaged in a diverse variety of investigative tactics, from hidden cameras to night-vision lenses to gather material for the program, which created an uproar in the House of Commons as well as in other governmental bodies.

This was just one of many reports that emerged from Canadian news outlets over the years that created an impact. Likewise, there have been numerous Canadian investigative journalists who worked their beats on a daily basis and delivered their stories; one who is often recalled is Eric Malling, a Swift Current, Saskatchewan native, University of Saskatchewan grad and Carleton University journalism alum whom Canadians tuned in to watch between the 1970s and late-1990s.

Like many of his peers, Eric Malling started out as a print reporter filing stories for a variety of newspapers, but he discovered his true calling as the co-host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s flagship newsmagazine show The Fifth Estate. For that show he filed numerous reports on a diverse range of topics including illegal arms deals. He once interviewed a Canadian citizen who was working as a Soviet double agent, and another time revealed that Canada’s then-Minister of Fisheries and Oceans had allowed the sale of large quantities of the StarKist tuna that were deemed unfit for consumption, following the company’s lobbying efforts.  Eventually, Eric Malling’s report led to Fraser’s resignation.

Malling was far from alone in his tenacious approach to getting and delivering the stories behind the stories. Long before he started, other Canadian media figures were creating programs that were grabbing their audience’s attention.

One name that’s often invoked is Canadian newspaper and broadcast journalist Gordon Sinclair. According to a sardonic, self-penned article in a 1949 issue of the magazine MacLean’s (the magazine asked him to interview himself), he noted that “He’s visited nearly every country on earth and traveled by all kinds of transport from rickshaw to railway, from dog team to cable car and from bum boat to luxury liner. Sinclair has twice fallen from boats in the middle of big lakes, twice been forced down in planes and once hit by a train going a mile a minute. He has three times found dead bodies.” Controversial? Yes. But he’d seen it all and delivered the stories to his audiences.

While the investigative approach to journalism has arguably always been around in some form or other, it was during the middle of the 20th century that it really began to emerge as a specialized part of the industry, leading to reporters who devoted their time to uncovering scoops and opening the door for tenacious scribes like Eric Malling and many others.

In 1963 the CBC presented a documentary directed by Douglas Leiterman entitled One More River, which told the story of racial segregation in the southern U.S. In the film, viewers see a black family being turned away at an Atlanta lunch counter, a mixed-race couple not able to go to a movie in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a black student who was heckled after being admitted to the University of Mississippi.

The film, said Leiterman at the time, “is not a tract for or against integration. It can use the power of filmed actuality to bring the viewer face to face with the problem.”

Moving into more contemporary times, newspaper columnist Christie Blatchford, who passed away earlier this year, had earned a reputation for being a “tough but fair journalist,” in the words of her friend and former colleague, Toronto Mayor John Tory. She is recalled as someone who often scooped other reporters and was unafraid of doing whatever it took to get the story. Her work included reporting on the experiences of Canadian soldiers during four trips she made to Afghanistan during 2006 and 2007, which she also later turned into the award-winning book Fifteen Days: Stories of Bravery, Friendship, Life and Death from Inside the New Canadian Army.

Being an investigative journalist requires a specific set of skills that include, but are not limited to tireless researching, bold questioning and the ability to tell a story in a way that not only engages the reader, viewer or listener, but also makes him or her think and react in some way. Over many decades, Canadian journalists have answered the call and delivered the news, and on many occasions, helped alter the course of history.

Paul Watson