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Fight the power!

And other things we learned in Winnipeg

After a Saturday session at the Holding Power to Account conference in Winnipeg, panelists Diana Swain, Bob McKeown and Linden MacIntyre speak with conference attendees.

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After a Saturday session at the Holding Power to Account conference in Winnipeg, panelists Diana Swain, Bob McKeown and Linden MacIntyre speak with conference attendees.

Hundreds of those involved with the fourth and fifth estates grabbed hold of some prime downtown real estate in the province’s capital last weekend.

Some of the Brandon Sun's Holding Power to Account conference attendees at a reception at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last Saturday evening: Grant Hamilton, Jillian Austin, Lindsey Enns and Graeme Bruce.

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Some of the Brandon Sun's Holding Power to Account conference attendees at a reception at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last Saturday evening: Grant Hamilton, Jillian Austin, Lindsey Enns and Graeme Bruce.

Holding Power to Account: International Conference on Investigative Journalism, Democracy, and Human Rights attracted a reported 320 people from 15 countries for three days of speakers and panels, receptions and networking.

This major event was organized by the University of Winnipeg and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Its stated aims were to "bring journalists, academics and the public together from around the world to debate some of the important issues that investigative journalism can help illuminate."

Hey guess what? It did just that.

I’ve been to a number of journalism conferences since starting in this industry 30 years ago, but I can say that the event last weekend was the most comprehensive and genuinely worthy assembly I’ve experienced.

I also found it interesting that as attendees were listening to people such as CBC chief correspondent and anchor of "The National" Peter Mansbridge, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and political analyst Carl Bernstein and lead investigative reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo Miranda Patrucic, there was an underlying murmur.

In fact, when I was listening to Canadian Media Guild vice-president Lise Lareau plead to CBC journalists to let the public know how serious journalism will suffer if federal budget cuts to Mother Corp. continue, the murmur became the elephant in the room.

And that’s my take-away from the conference.

If the public — and I mean engaged citizens who care about the community as much or more than themselves — want to continue to live in a good and free land, then the mainstream, independent media must be protected.

And not just protected from libel chill or government fiddling, but it must be protected as the nature of information dissemination splinters into thousands of channels on hundreds of platforms and delivery models.

As the number of advertising options continue to grow, mainstream, independent media must be able to stand its ground as a trustworthy information source, but also be able to adapt and deliver for both readers and advertisers.

And newsroom managers such as myself need to be creative as we make our cases to maintain staffing levels. We also need to break out of traditional thinking when it comes to sourcing cash for equipment and interns to help staff with investigative projects.

As investigative journalism will hold power to account, it will also provide that unique local content that will help mainstream media outlets such as the Brandon Sun not only survive, but thrive.

The Sun sent five news-side reporter/photographers to the conference, plus myself. We were joined by a former staffer, now a Sun columnist. I asked them to tell readers what they took away from the event:

IAN HITCHEN (crime and courts reporter):

As reporters, we have a bad reputation. It’s our own fault, as famed journalist Carl Bernstein pointed out at the Holding Power to Account conference on investigative journalism.

Thanks in part to news agencies, the pursuit of truth has been cast aside in favour of promoting ideology, the need to feed the news cycle and made-up controversy.

The good news is that there are still newspeople — leaders in the field — who hold the job description of "journalist" with pride, and they say there are ways we can do better.

They’re not lofty suggestions that only the heavy-hitter reporters at large TV networks and major city dailies can deliver on.

They’re little things, such as keeping an open mind when non-traditional sources, from outside of authority, try to tell us something is wrong.

We could do more to look online for new ways to identify trends and find information.

We might evenwork with — not against — other newspapers and broadcasters to provide better coverage of events and issues.

Bernstein, CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, CBC correspondent Adrienne Arsenault and the many other speakers whose courage and hard work led to the breaking of major stories. All were inspiring.

But what was more inspiring to me was the reaction of the four Brandon Sun colleagues who attended the conference with me. They responded with enthusiasm, and new ideas, and a willingness to work with others. And in that, I find a great deal of hope for my chosen career.

GRANT HAMILTON (online coordinator):

The conference was called Holding Power to Account. It was sponsored by the CBC — the largest journalism organization in the country. It featured keynote speakers who have been familiar faces on your TV for years or decades. The crown jewel was speaker Carl Bernstein, famed for his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal. It was a bunch of big-deal journalists talking about big-deal journalism.

But you know what? Team Brandon Sun was anything but outmatched.

Time and time again, when we introduced ourselves as representatives of a small daily newspaper in a city of 50,000, we saw slowly-dawning respect in their eyes.

We sent four reporters to the conference, joined by our boss, and me. I’m kind of the Swiss Army Knife of the newsroom, dabbling in writing, columns, online/social media stuff, and data visualization.

Many people were there in teams of one or two. We were there as group of five.

(Aside: What DO you call a group of reporters? A gaggle? A scrum? A column?)

At any rate, my biggest takeaway from this weekend away was just how much our relatively small little newsroom continues to punch above its weight —and yet how much more we could still do.

Many of the seminars spoke about the difficulties in ensuring you have the right team in place. If reporters don’t work well together, if they don’t trust each other, if they compete more than they cooperate, things can go sour.

Team Brandon Sun has none of those problems. We play well together. Extremely well. If anything, our bleary-eyed mornings were a testament to us playing too well together.

But playing well together is only half of it — the other half is your skill at playing the game.

That’s where the examples and instruction from three solid days of seminar sessions helped a lot. Although the topics and approaches varied wildly, the common theme that came through was one of working together.

Journalists are known for being lone wolves, heavy on the ego, with a love of crusading … to mix a few metaphors. But increasingly, what’s needed in journalism today is a broader context, an explanation to go with the facts, and a lot of legwork to prepare it all for presentation.

We all came away from this conference with a renewed enthusiasm for what we do, and a fire in our bellies to do more of it, and to do it better.

I look forward to putting that into print.

JILLIAN AUSTIN (chief political reporter):

Investigative journalism is what defines a news organization. That’s what Linden MacIntyre, co-host of CBC’s "The Fifth Estate" told a crowd of journalists at the University of Winnipeg last week.

Anyone can send a camera to a house fire, but it’s the in-depth, longer-term projects that really draw people in.

Attending the Holding Power to Account journalism conference was rejuvenating for me as a reporter. Hearing from the likes of legendary journalist Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal 40 years ago; Peter Mansbridge, host of "The National"; and my personal journo heroes Bob McKeown and Linden MacIntyre was inspiring.

Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, urges journalists to go after the "best obtainable version of the truth." That view, he says, once guided most journalists and it is not our priority enough anymore. His biggest piece of advice for a young journalist is to "be a good listener." You may think you know what the story is, but sometimes you need to dig a little deeper, and follow the twists and turns. In a seminar about cross-border investigations and collaborations, it was fascinating to hear from newspaper reporter Rob Cribb, who works for the Toronto Star. He spoke about partnering with different news organizations on major projects. The Star partnered with the Miami Herald to do an undercover investigation in Cuba. The series focused on Canadians who pay for sex with child prostitutes in Cuba, as well as why children are in the industry. While this is a large-scale investigation, it got me thinking that there may be smaller-scale opportunities locally to collaborate.

MacIntyre, McKeown and investigative correspondent Diana Swain spoke about the evolution of journalism in Canada, reflecting back on when they were just starting out versus where they are now. Good investigative pieces don’t always have to be revealing war crimes, or exposing major fraud. Sometimes it’s the little things that go against the common sense that need to be revealed.

GRAEME BRUCE (politics/general assignment):

Rarely does a good piece of journalism stem from a press release.

Yes, they play an important role in our industry and the industries from whence they spawn, but the cold, calculated prose and sanitized quotes that lie within the communiqués hardly tell a full story. Often they even suppress the real story.

Real people tell the real story.

During the conference held by the CBC — to some a highfalutin drain on national coffers, and to others an essential pillar of Canadian democratic accountability. But love it or hate it, the Ceeb is owned by you and me.

We at the Brandon Sun don’t have the same luxury of serving readers who have a monetary interest in what we do. But each and every citizen of Brandon has a cultural and community interest in what we do and how we operate. You’d be hard-pressed to find another organization that opens up local conversation like the Brandon Sun, love it or hate it.

We as reporters need to engage the community more. And the community should continue to approach us with what they feel should be — but isn’t — public knowledge.

The team at "Enquête" — CBC Radio-Canada’s French-language version of CBC’s "Fifth Estate" news magazine program — described how they initially broke the story of unimaginable corruption in Quebec. The first bit of sleuthing opened a Pandora’s box containing a zig-zag of pocket lining with an incredibly compelling cast of characters: Mob bosses, biker gangs, crooked union bosses, construction giants and politicians.

And it all started with a duffle bag filled with receipts dropped off at the CBC office.

The story slowly emerged through conversations with people — people clearly afraid of the possible repercussions. Months of conversations and thousands of documents has led to a years-long public inquiry into the corruption tightly woven into the fabric of La Belle Province. Carl Bernstein, a grandfather of modern reporting, said the Washington Post published 200 articles about the Watergate Scandal without a single named source, not only a testament to Bernstein’s judgment of character, but also the incredible power of whistleblowers.

This isn’t a call to help me or the Brandon Sun run out and topple the government, that’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here to tell the truth. We’re not cops. We’re not judges.

The best stories involve manilla envelopes (both literal and figurative) and real people willing to tell us the truth. It’s up to us reporters to make judgement calls, and it’s up to citizens to help us out. Point us in the right direction because we can’t report in a vacuum.

All brown envelopes can be sent to the Brandon Sun c/o Graeme Bruce.

LINDSEY ENNS (education reporter):

An impactful message David McLeod had for a room full of journalists in Winnipeg last weekend was to accept the responsibility that comes along with telling peoples stories.

"You could be a reporter and actually be killing people," McLeod, general manager of Native Communications Incorporated, said referring to the high number of suicides that plague First Nations communities due to the negative coverage of Aboriginal Peoples in mainstream media.

So how do we as the media improve? Independent researcher James Butler suggests it’s all about changing conversations and perspectives.

"Their views are different but no less important than ours," Butler explained adding "Canadians don’t know enough" about Aboriginal Peoples, the fastest growing population in Canada.

Butler, along with McLeod, and Kimberly Stinson, a Journalism for Human Rights mentor, led an inspiring panel discussion during the conference about the coverage of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

Reporting in First Nations communities, Stinson said, is about building trust and relationships, which takes time. It’s important journalists invest in people, their culture and communities before sharing their stories, Stinson said.

While the multiple seminars we attended over the weekend were all worthwhile, this one especially stood out as both equally educational and informative. Being a journalist has allowed me to visit various First Nations communities in both Manitoba and Ontario where I’ve met people gracious enough to welcome me into their homes and tell me their stories. These experiences have taught me more about the important role they play in both Canada’s history and future. It’s a large portion of our population that I hope other journalists will continue to have a vested interest in and give an unbiased and fair voice to, no matter what their background is.

I look forward to bringing these and many more stories to our readers.

DIANE NELSON (Sun columnist and Assiniboine Community College media instructor):

Best. Conference. Ever.

And I’ve been to plenty, believe me.

But it’s not every day one gets to see and hear luminaries like Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein fame), CBC National News anchor Peter Mansbridge, and stellar CBC staffers Linden MacIntyre, Bob McKeown, Adrienne Arsenault and Diana Swain. Add in compelling topics such as hidden cameras, sessions on the future of journalism, as well as teaching journalism, and this was one compelling, informative, inspiring weekend.

My favourite moment occurred when Bernstein became emotional while talking about the support he and Woodward received from Post publisher Katharine Graham.

His Watergate notes were being demanded by authorities and he was threatened with jail. Graham said, "We’ll tell them the notes are mine and if anybody goes to jail, it’ll be me."

The Holding Power to Account conference underlined the importance of ethical reporting for the greater good, something that may seem contradictory to those outside the professional.

Bernstein said it was up to us as journalists "to obtain the best possible version of the truth." And that’s what most of us try to do every day we’re on the job. While the media is maligned in many quarters, we are the eyes and ears of, and watchdogs for, the public.

Great journalism, investigative and otherwise, is still being practiced by those of us who really love and respect our craft and realize its importance to the rest of society. At the same time, a lack of financial support is threatening our ability to do our jobs properly and "obtain the best possible version of the truth."

I was buoyed to be surrounded by many colleagues who share my passion for journalism and for journalistic integrity. Yet at the same time, I’m disheartened by the increasing prevalence of people with negative views who don’t care about news or balance — they merely want to see and hear their opinions reflected in the media, and they’ll dismiss anything and everything that contradicts their beliefs.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 20, 2014

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Hundreds of those involved with the fourth and fifth estates grabbed hold of some prime downtown real estate in the province’s capital last weekend.

Holding Power to Account: International Conference on Investigative Journalism, Democracy, and Human Rights attracted a reported 320 people from 15 countries for three days of speakers and panels, receptions and networking.

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Hundreds of those involved with the fourth and fifth estates grabbed hold of some prime downtown real estate in the province’s capital last weekend.

Holding Power to Account: International Conference on Investigative Journalism, Democracy, and Human Rights attracted a reported 320 people from 15 countries for three days of speakers and panels, receptions and networking.

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