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Inside the world of investigative journalism with CBC's the fifth estate

It's a world that has you knocking on strangers' doors, and following tips that can lead to dead ends. Investigative journalism is tough work, so what makes someone choose this sometimes frustrating path? Co-host Gillian Findlay and producer Linda Guerriero take you inside CBC's investigative documentary program, the fifth estate.
In his first television interview since his release from an Egyptian prison, Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy speaks with Gillian Findlay of CBC's the fifth estate in Cairo, February 2015. (CBC)

It's a world that has you knocking on strangers' doors, and following tips that can lead to dead ends. Investigative journalism is tough work, so what makes someone choose this sometimes frustrating path? Co-host Gillian Findlay and producer Linda Guerriero take you inside CBC's investigative documentary program, the fifth estate.


Gillian Findlay hosts and reports for the fifth estate. In the past eight years she has hosted episodes from Haiti, Afghanistan and South Korea. Recent investigations have included questions about Canada's purchase of the F-35 fighter plane, and sexual abuse within the RCMP.
Gillian Findlay (CBC)

1/  Why investigative journalism?

Because it is important, more so now than ever. In a world that seems to have confused click-bait for content and share price for public interest, what investigative journalists try to do each day matters — to dig deep, to understand, to give voice to those without power and to hold those who have the power to account.

It can all sound a bit sophomoric and Spotlight-ish (though I am of the generation that took inspiration from All the President's Men) but it remains true that the fabric of our society is stronger when people who do this work have the time and the resources to delve beyond the headlines, ask the uncomfortable questions and publish what they learn. It's harder now but, in my opinion, it's never been more important.

2/  Think back: What story confirmed that this was the kind of journalism for you?

So many, and interestingly, so many that originated with the fifth estate. From Eric Malling's Tunagate to Linden MacIntyre's To Sell a War, from chronicling wrongful convictions to exposing corrupt institutions. We've done a lot of stories over the decades and yet each time we dive into a another one and find something new the spark is rekindled and we fall in love with our jobs all over again.

3/  How do you know a story is worth pursuing?

You don't always, at least not initially. And the truth is we spend a lot of time discarding ideas we once thought were stories that turned out not to be. It's the price of doing business. 

Sneak preview

They're the stories we can't turn away from: where lives have been upended and questions gone unanswered. Our special preview of the Secrets of the fifth estate podcast goes deep inside some of their most powerful stories.

Continue reading →

But you know in your gut when a story is good, when you see the potential. And then you just put your head down and cross your fingers that all the many things that can get in your way, don't. And that you have the talent (and the luck) to deliver on the potential you have seen.

3a/  Is there a story that 'got away'?

Too many to count: ideas you misjudged at the beginning, people who got cold feet half way through, research that just didn't pan out or — worst of all — stories you moved too slowly on that others end up beating you to.

Broadly speaking, I'd say that collectively journalists in this country have not done enough stories and investigations of and about our Indigenous citizens. That is starting to change but no one should feel good about how long it has taken.

4/  What advice do you have for people who are setting out on an investigation?

Be dogged. Be fair. Be prepared that your original beliefs about a story could prove wrong. But once you're sure your information is right don't let anyone stop you from telling the truth you know. That's why we exist. Everything else is PR.  

Making TV for the ears

Mieke Anderson, a producer of the Secrets of the fifth estate podcast, shares her tips for making TV sing on the radio.
Mieke Anderson
  • Shut your eyes — this helps you envision the audio in new and different ways. You can test if the footage stands on its own without relying on the image. And if it still makes sense.

  • What do you feel? Ask yourself, does the footage make you feel something? Does it express emotion? If not, you can just script it. Keep looking for footage with higher impact, more tension, more emotion.

  • Go deep! Sometimes great footage doesn't make it to air because it's not as visually strong … or because in TV there's less time for longer interview excerpts. Take advantage of this and go digging into the raw tape. Look for awkward moments, pregnant pauses, spontaneous outbursts that will come alive for the ear. Plus, moments caught slightly off mic/camera that were not polished enough to put on TV. You will likely be rewarded with a gem.

  • Don't be afraid to restructure — retelling a story does not mean you have to replicate it! Obviously get your facts straight, but don't be afraid to deconstruct, reassemble, flip around … get creative. And voila, you'll have a story that feels fresh and that sheds new light on the original version.

Linda Guerriero is a producer and has worked at the fifth estate for 15 years. She has won several awards for her work, including an award from the Yorkton Film Festival for A Boy Named Moses.
Linda Guerriero

1/  Why investigative journalism?

It's always hard but so important and incredibly rewarding. We are fortunate to work on a program like the fifth estate. It gives us the opportunity to do more than tell stories. I always feel that I have either contributed to society or made a contribution in a good way to someone's life with each story I have worked on. Sometimes we change laws, sometimes we change lives and sometimes we just listen to those no one else is listening to. 

2/  Think back: what story confirmed that this was the kind of journalism for you?

One of the first stories I worked on. It was about child abuse. We talked to young people who had never told their stories before to anyone and we tried to get them answers they had been seeking for a long time. I kept in contact with one young man in our story for years and I will never forget him.

3/  How do you know a story is worth pursuing?

I agree with Gillian, you don't always know initially. It requires quite a bit of research and investment in time and resources to figure that out. Most of the time your hard work pays off. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and let the story go. But if it's not there, you need to move on.

3a/  Is there a story that 'got away'?

There are actually two that got away. Both of them were about young men who died tragically. We worked on both for quite a while. We had even spent quite a bit of time with the families of the young men. It was hard to let go.

4/  What advice do you have for people who are setting out on an investigation?

Work hard, don't give up and never ever take no for an answer.

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