By Don Fraser
Mainstream professional journalism has taken a beating, as it faces the steady dwindling of its ranks, and a political reality that has conflated “fake media” with stories political partisans simply don’t like. It’s relevancy — and very survival — has never been so challenged.
In this environment, Standard reporter Grant LaFleche and his team at The Standard proved recently why good journalism matters in an ongoing investigative series called All The Chair’s Men. LaFleche spoke to a full house of 60+ attendees at Henry of Pelham Winery on January 10. He joined Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English for the latest session of What’s the Big Idea salon series co-hosted by Henry of Pelham and Armstrong Strategy Group. ASG’s president John Armstrong moderated a talk which focused on the use of anonymous sources and the fluid mechanics of handling an involved investigation.
LaFleche noted that the investigation environment also faces organizations like the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and Niagara Region which have large communications teams who can produce spin-messages to the extent they never could before.
English pointed out that the core rule for any investigative journalist she works with is “how do you know what you know” and both journalists emphasized that the principle of “facts matter” is paramount. To that end, the Standard used an encrypted confidential e-mail line that “proved to be a goldmine,” LaFleche said. Information from confidential sources had to be confirmed independently multiple times to ensure accuracy. The identity of any confidential source must also be known and confirmed by the supervising editor, for bona fides. This process was key to the investigation of the Niagara Region’s senior-management practices on the hiring of the CEO, and other matters flowing over to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
Social media has become another force swirling around this process, allowing every partisan individual the opportunity to go after the press — sometimes through outright deception.
Media organizations like Fox News have also changed everything, with English agreeing in general, “we need to take steps to label what’s news and what’s opinion.”
Fairness also demands that a reporter makes every effort to get a response from the person being written about. Overall, good stories beget other stories unexpectedly, LaFleche observed. Sometimes, it’s like “working on a jigsaw puzzle but youdon’t know what the picture is supposed to look like.” In investigations like this, “we’re trying to get the closest version of the truth possible,” LaFleche noted. “We agonize over these choices.”
The end result can be best-practices journalism that’s highly impactful — in the case of Niagara, All The Chair’s Men may have affected election results that saw many of the controversial Niagara Region politicians fail to win back their seats.
News deserts — communities where local news coverage is non-existent — was also discussed. A major issue with these deserts is that they provide an opportunity for biased or opinionated partisan information sources to replace credible ones.
It was acknowledged no news source can possibly be completely objective, but it can aim to be fair to the facts and not spin them. Toronto Star, for instance, acknowledges it is a progressive newspaper in its coverage, while aiming to be as impartial and accurate as possible.
Ultimately, the survival of your local newspaper, and its investigative power, depends on subscriptions, LaFleche concluded. It takes resources and money to produce serious, vetted and careful work. “Read and subscribe to newspapers,” LaFleche urged.“We only survive through the people who are reading us.”