- Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada
When historians decide to explore political, business, or social scandals, they often turn to filing cabinets full of microfilmed newspapers and magazines, looking for journalistic accounts to supplement scanty or non-existent archival documents. In his introduction to Behind the Headlines, Cecil Rosner adds his voice to those of media scholars such as Barbie Zelizer who say, quite rightly, that these same historians do not pay enough attention to context – specifically journalism as an institution and a practice in its own right – when they include press clippings among their primary sources. Part of the problem is that the historiography of the Canadian news media is still in early development, perhaps because journalism has not been taken seriously enough as an arbiter of political and social trends.
In 1967, W.H. Kesterton wrote what is generally considered to be the first survey of the field, The History of Journalism in Canada. Since then, media historians have contributed several academic and popular studies on the development of the press as a business and a cultural institution, including the impact of advertising, during specific periods, especially the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Supplementing this research are studies of particular newspapers, news agencies, magazines, and autobiographies and biographies of well-known publishers and journalists. Research into broadcasting, specifically news and current affairs, as the litmus test of political freedom, is ongoing thanks to the fact that scripts were found or enough programs were recorded, once the necessary technologies became readily available. Aside from the CBC, few media institutions or journalists have kept administrative and personal records, making their motivations and reporting strategies difficult to track.
Nevertheless, Rosner has tried to address one aspect of news practice that has not been researched before – investigative journalism in an ambitious survey that spans the decades between William Lyon Mackenzie's exposé of the Welland Canal Company's business [End Page 193] practices to more recent scandals such as Shawinigate. Given the gaps in the historical records, it is not surprising that Rosner's work is most effective when he discusses investigative reporting in newspapers and on television from the mid-twentieth century onward. His research sources are the available secondary literature, some primary documents, and interviews that he or others have conducted with the reporters concerned.
Investigative journalists, Rosner writes, have always been reformers at heart, individuals who want to change the world for the better, genuinely indignant when they discover abuses and obsessively determined to expose the truth through their own efforts. He differentiates their work from what is known in the trade as 'spot' news reporting of everyday events. Unlike news reporters working under tight deadlines, investigative journalists spend a lot of time and a great deal of effort uncovering unjust or illegal activities, usually perpetrated by people in power.
News reporters have always depended on the Enlightenment principle of press freedom and the more modern ideal of social responsibility in journalism to justify their activities, even as the crasser, more commercial aspects of the news media developed over time. The first generation of newspaper publishers in Canada were, like Mackenzie, reformers more than journalistic detectives, mostly using their newspapers as weapons to fight for responsible government and other political advances. By the turn of the twentieth century, financial considerations slowly but surely began to take precedence over party loyalties among owners, publishers, and editors in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, although their political inclinations are editorially obvious even today. Journalists have always had to persuade these same owners, publishers, and editors to allow them the time, money, and resources that in-depth investigations demand, some with more success than others. They risked their reputations, their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives in their determination to uncover corruption of all kinds.
Centred on a scholarly grasp of journalism history and written in a straightforward narrative style, Rosner's examples of investigative reporting are fascinating and informative, and certainly worth reading. The book, however, with its eighteen...