By Stanley Tromp, IRE member and independent journalist
If anyone thinks that investigative reporting is a sunset profession, this idea was obliterated for me after I attended the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ superlative conference in San Francisco in late June. There, some of the toughest and sharpest investigative reporters in the United States shared their skills, which reporters usually keep hidden, with remarkable generosity at more than 100 panels and workshops.
The speakers taught 1,600 delegates from around the world new ways to investigate the courts, organized crime, government surveillance, health care, college sports, immigration, whistleblowers, clean energy, religion, gambling, Hollywood, the oceans, memorabilia fraud, and more. As a Canadian, I noted that while most of the topics were universal, a few such as covering the death penalty and rampant handguns were distinct to America.
IRE, founded in 1975, now has 5,000 members, several hundred of them foreign, and many of these Canadians. It was the model for what became the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), and has long been a source of inspiration and empowerment abroad, even before I attended the first joint IRE-CAJ workshop — called Crossing the 49th — in Vancouver in 2002. Because there was then nothing like it in Canada, I bought the IRE Handbook in 1991 and have since read hundreds of the group’s 4,000 how-to advice tipsheets — and this year began listening to online audio of the panels — with very useful results.
At the yearly IRE Awards luncheon, executive director Mark Horvit, who had just returned from teaching journalism in Nigeria, noted that 500 story entries had been received that year. It refutes the myth that investigative reporting has been irreversibly fading since the Golden Age of the 1970s.
I cannot sum up in such a short space the variety, power, and insights of the 2014 presentations, some of which left one unsettled and humbled. It’s also sometimes good to see one’s own work in the widest possible context. For instance, Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism noted how reporters in that region fight to get the truth out despite jailings and killings. All this makes our journalistic obstacles here – such as flawed FOI laws, newsroom cutbacks, arrogant PR flaks who outnumber reporters by four-to-one - seem picayune indeed.
But what impressed me most was a panel on small town newspapers, with heroic reporters risking their lives in the deep south to expose incredibly grotesque corruption.
“You might want to carry a gun, y’all,” began Kathy Cruz of the Hood Country News (Texas), not in jest. Panelist Tim Crews of The Sacramento Valley Mirror, who exposed how a 2007 “suicide” was actually a homicide, said he indeed keeps a shotgun on his porch.
Samantha Swindler recalled her days as editor of the Corbin Times-Tribune in Whitley County, Kentucky, population 35,000, birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. She had hired 20-year-old Adam Sulfridge for his first assignment, which eventually led to them revealing that the local drug-addicted sheriff had been stealing and selling guns and narcotics. (He’s now serving 15 years in federal prison and 15 of his associates also were convicted.) Both journalists faced death threats and carried guns, and federal agents told Sulfridge the sheriff had plotted to kill him.
As my trip came to an end I regretted leaving our southern neighbors who have a far stronger tradition of aggressive reporting and open government. American reporters would never accept many of the constraints that Canadians quietly do, and they push back hard against those working to hide or spin embarrassing truths in their conflict-charged, often-hazardous trade.
While the panelists taught practical skills, perhaps more importantly they conveyed a vantage point from which to see the Canadian scene anew, a robust spirit to hopefully apply here. Both the reporters’ drive to produce investigative reporting and the public’s appetite to read it are inextinguishable, even if readers sometimes forget that it cannot be produced for free. (Perhaps the new funding model lies in foundations.) At times with deep funding cuts it may look like the challenges that such reporters face today are insurmountable, but these heroic speakers prove that indeed where there’s a will there’s a way, and that the key question should be not, “Can we afford to have investigative reporting?” but rather, “Can we afford not to?”
Stanley Tromp is the FOI caucus coordinator for the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), and has been writing investigative news for many publications for 20 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.