With the rise of social media manipulating narratives and administering public opinion, investigative journalism may be facing its toughest challenges to date. Today, hard-hitting journalists may also fear having their reputations tarnished, leading some to shy away from the craft all together.
Even though they play a key role in serving society by uncovering corruption and enhancing transparency, investigative journalists often shoulder the responsibility of the entire newsroom. Afterall, it’s up to them to capture the attention of an audience by searching for stories that catch their eyes, all while also paying attention to ratings. Add to that the ever-present struggle for making deadlines, reporting accuracy and revealing the truth, and they’ve got their work cut out for them.
Investigative journalism flourishes with freedom of press, but it can also face many legal, political, and economic obstacles. It takes a certain type of individual to be an effective investigative journalist. Persistence is key. So is chasing leads. But in today’s online world, images and sound bites also matter. So does urgency, breaking news and getting scoops.
This is investigative journalism today, but if you were to rewind the tape a bit, you’d discover how hard-hitting reporters defined some of the most notable stories of our time.
In Canada, news outlets have created some of the most important and memorable examples of investigative journalism, often leading to systemic and policy changes. In the 70s and 80s, before audiences took to the internet to source their news, journalists like Douglas Leiterman, Eric Malling and Patrick Watson made significant contributions to investigative reporting, laying the foundation for journalism in the decades that followed.
A long list of prominent hard-hitting investigative stories were exposed by Canadian news channels and those reporters who were assigned to them, including one in 1977. A CBC broadcast called Connections: An Investigation into Organized Crime, was the result of more than two years of investigative research that sent shock waves around the country.
Investigative reporters set up hidden cameras, concealed microphones and night lens equipment to gather information about the extent of Mafia influence in Canada, with the program causing an uproar in the House of Commons and in legislatures across the country. The CBC, which had commissioned and funded the series, continued to report on the issues in follow-up reports over the next few years.
Another notable report happened in the 1990s on a program called Sealed in Silence. Canadians were first introduced to the mysterious story that became known as the Airbus affair. It focused attention on the rumours and allegations surrounding the 1988 sale of 34 Airbus jets to Air Canada.
Between the 1970s and late-1990s, Eric Malling was the journalist many Canadians made an appointment to watch each day. He reported some truly defining Canadian stories.
Eric Malling’s Path to Investingative Reporter
Born on September 4, 1946, in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Eric Malling was destined to become a reporter. Following his graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from the University of Saskatchewan, he headed to Carleton University to study journalism.
Like many of his era, he started out as a print reporter writing for the Regina Leader-Post, The Toronto Star and The Washington Post. Later, as co-host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s flagship newsmagazine show The Fifth Estate, it was his face seen on the television screen keeping viewers informed about the events of the week. When Malling was on the story, no episode was typical, and you looked forward to learning the facts from him.
Eric Malling passed away in 1998. But before his untimely passing, he left his mark on investigative journalism with a few significant stories that are still being talked about in newsrooms.
In the early 1970s, Malling worked as a reporter for the Toronto Star, breaking news from Toronto and Ottawa. One story that stood out the most was on the invocation of the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis in 1970. The piece caught the attention of journalist Ron Haggart who would later go on to help form The Fifth Estate.
In 1978, while reporting for The Fifth Estate, he and producer Bill Cran were putting together an hour-long documentary about the illegal exportation of artillery shells from Canada to South Africa during apartheid. During the course of producing the show, Malling approached a representative of Gerald Bull, a Canadian engineer and arms smuggler who was developing long-range artillery, with shipping documents that very nearly implicated Bull. Malling was an inquisitive interviewer, but he also knew how to pull together a narrative for the audience using words and pictures.
In 1982, Malling reported on a story from Canadian history that involved a Soviet double agent, James Morrison, who was charged in the early 1980s with selling secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1950s. At the time, he had disclosed the identity of a Canadian double agent – who was code-named “Gideon” – to the Soviet Union. In his The Fifth Estate interview with Morrison, who was donned in a disguise of a black wig and mustache, Malling asked him point blank, “Are you a traitor?” Whether Morrison wanted to describe himself that way or not, following the broadcast, he was arrested, put on trial, and convicted.
Eric Malling’s report for The Fifth Estate on how government-owned Canadair lost $2 billion spawned two Parliamentary committees.
Who could ever forget “Tunagate”? Eric Malling’s report in 1985 which uncovered that John Fraser, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, overruled his own health inspectors and allowed the sale of large quantities of StarKist tuna that were deemed unfit for consumption — after he was lobbied by the tuna factory. Malling’s report ultimately led to John Fraser’s resignation.
In 1990, Malling moved to CTV to host W5, which during this period was known as W5 with Eric Malling. It is interesting to note that his documentary on how government-owned Canadair lost $2 billion spawned two Parliamentary committees. In the early 1990s, his reporting on the fiscal crises in New Zealand and Saskatchewan spurred a national debate about government debt. More than 1.7 million viewers regularly tuned-in to watch the weekly newsmagazine.
During his tenure as an investigative journalist, Eric Malling was never afraid to challenge his interviewees. One of the most-often-told stories about Malling involves an interview he conducted with flamboyant sports announcer Don Cherry, who expressed some highly negative personal opinions about foreign hockey players. Malling called Cherry out on camera and told him candidly what he thought about his comments.
Malling, with his fearlessness to ruffle feathers and intuition for grabbing headlines, had always been a reformer at his core; someone who wanted to change the world for the better, and expose the truth through his work. Unlike spot news reporting of everyday events, he spent countless hours and a great deal of effort uncovering unjust or illegal activities, usually perpetrated by people in power. His talent earned him seven ACTRA/Gemini Awards – the most by any single person at the time of his passing, and three Gordon Sinclair awards for excellence in broadcast journalism. He twice received the highest award for investigative reporting from the Centre of Investigative Journalism.
Over the years and despite the dramatic changes and obstacles that have been bestowed upon newsrooms, you’d be hard pressed to find an investigative reporter who is not willing to go the extra mile to uncover a story; so in that sense, the craft has not changed. These men and women have made an amazing contribution to society, protecting democracy and uncovering corruption.
As technology and the process of researching and delivering news has in some ways provided more convenience to modern day reporters, in many ways it’s also a more complicated media landscape. There’s little doubt, however, that if Eric Malling was working today he’d still be setting standards for his colleagues and competitors in the world of investigative journalism.
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