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Holding Power to Account

Categories: Business, Canada, Community, Journalism, Politics

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Peter Mansbridge (left), CBC's chief correspondent and anchor of The National, and Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and author

By Cecil Rosner
Managing editor, CBC Manitoba and author of "Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada"

More than 320 people from 15 countries packed into a conference on investigative journalism in Winnipeg and heard a consistent message: holding powerful interests to account is essential to democracy and the preservation of human rights.

Investigative conference.jpgThe conference was organized by the University of Winnipeg and the CBC, but it drew speakers from many media outlets across Canada and around the world. Journalism teachers were also in attendance, along with dozens of students and members of the public.

The opening tone was set by Peter Mansbridge, CBC's chief correspondent and anchor of The National, who said that even in tough economic times, news organizations must continue to invest in serious reporting and investigative journalism.

"One of the pillars of freedom and openness is a free and open media," Mansbridge said. "A media that doesn't accept, but that pushes." He said investigative work is "a cornerstone of our society and it's vital to the strength of our democracy."

From the investigations editor of the Botswana Guardian to the U.S. reporter who first broke key details of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the speakers regaled delegates with techniques, strategies and the inherent risks involved in holding powerful governments and corporations to account.

Legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein reinforced the message by criticizing what he called the "idiot culture" that mass media can sometimes promote, and calling for reporters to take their missions seriously.

Bernstein also had words of praise for the CBC, calling it a "remarkable institution" that is committed to quality work.

 Adrienne Arsenault, correspondent, CBC News: The National with Michael Hudson, Senior Editor, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

"Would that we had such a reportorial institution in the States committed to the kind of work that you do," he said.

In the last few years, the CBC has reinvested in enterprise and investigative teams across the country. In addition to network shows such as Marketplace and the fifth estate, there are more than two dozen regional journalists who are specifically assigned to ferreting out information in every part of the country. They have produced numerous exposes and investigations in their communities.

There are also joint investigations we conduct with our talented colleagues at Radio-Canada, especially at the program EnquĂȘte, which has broken many of the most important Canadian investigative stories over the years.

As a publicly-funded institution, the corporation sees this as part of its mandate and a key way to differentiate its newsgathering process from the competition.

In his speech, Mansbridge paid tribute to top-notch investigative work being done by some other Canadian media outlets as well. He mentioned the scrutiny of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford by the Toronto Star, Postmedia's coverage of the robocalls issue and the persistent digging by CTV on the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright story.

The Globe and Mail, La Presse and other media outlets are also devoting resources to investigative work, and the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald were awarded the Hillman Prize earlier this year for their investigation of the circumstances surrounding children who have died in care.

Investigative journalism therefore remains a priority for many journalists and some news organizations. But as history has shown, the genre ebbs and flows in relation to economic realities. The difficult financial conditions faced by most media organizations today have already curtailed some investigative work, and threaten to go further.

This theme was also explored at the conference, with different speakers noting that cutbacks at various news organizations had affected the ability of outlets to do investigative work. Some sessions explored alternative methods of financing investigative reporting, while others focused on collaborations as a tool to ensuring maximum efficiency.

 Delegates Natalia Sedletska (Ukraine), Maria Paula Brito (Peru), Paula O'Malley (Germany), Andrea Arzaba (Mexico), Cecil Rosner, conference organizer.

There is no denying that economic pressures pose a threat to the current state of investigative journalism in Canada. But they also pose a challenge. Media outlets that don't take up the challenge will ultimately be short-changing their audiences by refusing to dig deeper to find the truth beneath the surface of unfolding events.

Whatever choices different institutions make in the coming years, the practitioners of investigative journalism also have a choice. By improving their knowledge and techniques, by enhancing their skill levels, they will be equipped to hold powerful interests to account whether working in a mainstream organization, for an alternative media outlet or as freelancers.

At the CBC, we understand that citizens demand a public broadcaster that doesn't pull punches and isn't afraid to ask tough questions of anyone. We intend to continue our commitment to investigative journalism on our airwaves and online, and by facilitating public discussion of all the important issues facing our audiences today.

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