It’s not very often that a new CBC idea makes me chuckle but the good folks who are reinventing CBC News have done it to me. Now I know I have a different sense of what’s funny so humor me for a little while anyways.
Back in the late seventies and throughout the eighties big city newscasts fell in love with the idea of “investigative” journalism. Every local station had to have an “I Team.” These were the serious journalists who were going to uncover the scandals at city hall and keep state and provincial politicians on the up-and-up.
At sometimes great cost to the local broadcaster they sat around waiting for a serious scoop. More often than not they delivered stories about minor infractions to the town’s by-laws and the sleazy practices of a few local businessmen. I don’t remember a single major story coming from an “I Team.” It didn’t take long before the investigative units became a financial strain and worse, a joke. They soon disappeared from newscasts across North America, usually to the great sighs of relief of the investigative teams themselves who were tired of wild goose chases and the pressure to produce the scoop. Mostly they have been replaced by a consumer reporter who tracks down the misdeeds and rip-offs that affect the local viewers.
Now flash forward to 2009. The CBC has decided to create an investigative unit reporting to their new news hub. These “investigative” journalists are going to do what exactly? Investigate? What the heck have they been doing all along? Is it not a journalist’s job to look into a story, corroborate the facts, see if there’s more to the story? That’s the basic job of a journalist. What makes that journalist an investigator as well as a journalist? If you are a journalist and you are not investigating what exactly are you doing?
A long time ago a brilliant newsman, Don Cameron, the man who created Newsmagazine, Canada AM, and W5 to name just a few of his accomplishments, told me that any high school student could identify the who, what, when and where of a news story, it was the journalist’s job to identify the why. Why is the real question that must be answered by any good news story no matter what the medium. That’s what we call journalism…investigation.
Has the lack of an investigative team hurt the CBC up to now? How did they prove that Tasers are more dangerous than the RCMP are willing to admit without an “I Team?” How does The Fifth Estate keep churning out blockbuster stories like the rip-offs of lottery winners by store owners? How do they do it without…never mind, the answer is too obvious, they have some excellent journalists who do their jobs the way they are supposed to and voila, they break big stories that help change Canada and win awards for CBC.
So how do big stories get broken? In almost every case the scoop you see, read or hear in the media has come from a disgruntled employee or do-gooder who passes a manila envelope to a journalist, phones a television station or writes a letter to a trusted journalist or program or newspaper. In other words, they get a tip.That tip becomes the starting line in the race to a great story.
Another way to get a tip is to hear directly from a citizen who has been wronged and is looking for someone to turn to for help. All the searching in the world by a team of the best journalists will not dig up a single great story without a tip. From the tip the investigation begins.
And what’s the best way to get tips. There are two ways. The first is to be out on the street. If you meet enough people and keep your eyes and ears open you will eventually get a tip that will lead to a scoop. That’s why I always believed in giving reporters a “beat.” Crime reporters will meet lots of cops and lawyers. They will build a level of trust and eventually they will be on the receiving end of a great story. The same holds true for medical reporters, labor reporters, city hall and legislative reporters. What “beat” exactly does an investigative journalist have? Who do they talk to in order to find a story or elicit a tip?
The second way to get great scoops is to produce great stories. I’m sure many of The Fifth Estate’s stories come to them because the program has a terrific reputation for exposing wrongdoing. If you saw the tainted tuna story they did a few years back and you have a similar situation at your place of work you know you can trust these people with your story. Fifth Estate and W5 are magnets for whistle-blowers.
So why take some of your best journalists out of the day-to-day news mix and exile them to an investigative unit? Only the CBC News bosses can answer that. I will tell you now that this will not work. It never has. The “I Teamers” will soon be back where they belong, producing whatever story that comes up in the hope of stumbling across the great scoop. As Sonny Bono said, “…the beat goes on. “ And I can go on laughing at some of the strange ideas coming out of our national broadcaster.