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Robert Cribb, investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, Teaches Investigative Journalism at Ryerson University and University of Toronto and chair of IRE's (Investigative Reporters and Editors) Golden Padlock committee
Rough Interview Notes
Rob: Talk about what the Golden Padlock committee
A sarcastic tongue in cheek award honoring the most secretive government agency.
Golden Padlock Worst FOIA Cooperation Award
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this is a chronic problem -- government secrecy. This is not really a journalism issue alone. This is a public issue.
We started this three years ago. We put out a call for nominations.
Rob: How many nominations did you receive?
close to 100
Rob: and what were the criteria you used to decide the winner.
requests for information that matters that were stonewalled.
cases where journalists or the public were met with roadblocks
Rob: Tell us about the winner this year.
This one was probably the toughest one we've had. In the end we picked four finalists.
We chose the Massachusetts state police-- there were extraordinary delays in responses to public records requests. Police are particularly important in public transparency and scrutiny. It took months to repy to FOI requests. Most astonishing were the fees requested-- $42,000 and $62,000 and most extraordinary $710 (for an FOI on information on crashes of police cruisers) to get the estimate of the actual fee to get copies of internal affairs reports. That's a bold move. it was a habitual pattern of intransigence.
Rob: There's a difference between a federal and state FOI request. Can you talk about that?
The spirit of all the laws are the same-- legislation written and designed to protect the public's right to know. There are exemptions, of course, that are legitimate, at the end of the day, we understand these laws to, effectively, at their heart, allow citizens and journalists to seek out information in the public interest.
Rob: Have there been responses to the award being given?
The primary purpose of the award is to engage the public and to let them know.
There have been a lot of news stories about it and people have talked about it. If any of these agencies that are winners made changes, that would be incredible, but we haven't seen any yet. There are reporters calling the Massachusets state police asking them why"
Rob: Can you talk about some of the runners-up this year.
nominations came from across the country.
Colorado judicial branch for shrouding in secrecy the states judges. The judicial branch exempted itself from public records-- so everything from budgets to internal memos have been shrouded in secrecy-- it's a half billion dollar annual budget.
Texas department of public safety--- three or four people reported they were a problem
US Department of defense for withholding information about the massacre of 12 people in Afghanistan by Robert Bales.
Rob: you're in Canada, you write for the Star. Does Canada have different rules in the US?
processes are quite similar. I also file FOIA requests in the US. It's more about the culture than the legislation. If there's a culture of siege mentality and secrecy. It's less to do with the legislation and more to do with the agency policy and the instructions from the top.
It comes down to human beings who are running these systems.
Rob: What's your connection with IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.)
board member for several years
Rob: I think IRE is an extraordinary organization. it was thrilling to learn that there was a record turnout for the conference at a time when newspapers are struggling.
A lot of people speak about journalism as a calling, and (the record turnout) speaks to that.
Rob: Talk a little about journalism being a calling.
There's always discussion about journalism-- is it a trade, a craft. I like the idea that it's a calling. Nobody goes into it for the dough. Lots of people could cross the street and go into public relations for double the salary. The reason most of us get up in the morning and think what is the most important thing I can say-- and how to do that for readers. It's very hard to speak truth to power. There are incredible power, complex systems in place to prevent that-- to lock down information and insure it doesn't become public.
Rob: How that start for you?
I was in Grad School doing an english/ music degree, headed toward an academic life, and suddenly I started writing little news stories for the school paper and the public debate-- and suddenly I was writing stuff that was engaging people and getting people to write letters and make phone calls and it was intoxicating to me" I ended up doing a masters in journalism. That was it. i was bitten. I ended up in newspapers "
Rob: So you don't just do investigative reporting--
I do a mens column...
Rob: What's an example of a recent long term investigative project
police records-- non convicted of a crime, any contact with police
When people apply for jobs, these records pop up and careers are limited or ended, they are stopped at border and told they can't enter the United States. We did a long investigation into that just recently the legislation in my province was changed.
Rob; Has that happened numerous times.
I did a big series on food safety showing terrible conditions in Toronto restaurants. Now inspections are shown in the windows so people can see them.
We got access to day care inspection records that led to new reforms and greater transparency-- in Ontario Canada.
Rob: You're teaching now at two universities-- talk about that.
It's a real rewarding part of what I do. You want to be sure it doesn't die because this is expensive work.
Rob: Talk about IRE-- Investigative Reporters and editors-- and why bloggers should consider becoming members-- the fee is $70.
it's the place I know that best serves my needs as an investigative reporter. There's incredible wisdom there-- amazing sessions at the conference, the website has a lot of data analysis and wisdom-- people at the top of their game willing to share it. if you're a member you get access to thousands of tip sheets. You find remarkable information
Rob: what did you take from the last conference?
I hosted a panel with Laura Poitras" she said that anyone who does this kind of work who isn't using encrypted email is crazy. She made a very, very great case that we don't know the extent that we are being surveilled.
Rob: Do you have that right in Canada to protect the secrecy of a source?
It's similar. If a judge asks me about a source, I have to tell him.
But that's the old dilemma. What we're talking about here with digital surveillance is giving up your source without you even knowing it. This raises the possibility that you're giving up the identity of your source without really knowing it.
Rob: What is the Canadian take on Snowden?
The debate is as varied here as it is there. Some see him as a hero. If you talk to law enforcement people, they see him as a bad thing.
Rob: Tips for aspiring investigative reporters. Tips on how to think about writing from an investigative reporter's point of view?
at some level this kind of journalism is wired into the brain. you're either predisposed to it or not. It can be intensely frustrating. it takes a long time, it's legally sensitive, the stakes are high, you're going up against powerful people"
For those who have it and really know that this is something they want to do, you have to be super curious.. a lot of people will call it cynical or skeptical. You really have to have an intense curiosity" a desire to figure out the answer to that question. Is that a knowable truth-- so that's where the techniques come in. Public records, document statement of mind, how to search court and property records, how to do interviewing in a way that's most likely to solicit answers.
It really is a lifelong
Rob: tell me about the interviewing approach.
sequence of interview.
Figure out who or what is the bullseye, then we don't start there. We start at the outside layers to figure out whether our hunches are right, " then you want to work your way inward. The goal is always to build a file. It's much less about the soundbite and what you can prove to be true.
Rob: for example, the NY Times just published the deposition on Bill Cosby.. and that sort of nailed the story for many people.
Cribb: perfect example.
Suddenly a document appears. The NY Times gets hold of this deposition and it immediately elevates the story through the roof.
Rob: That line applies to all investigative reporting.
One of the main goals of every interview, if you're doing investigative work-- it's less about what they're going to say to you than what documents they're going to bring. I always say, bring paper, whatever you've got, I want to bring paper.
There's this great scene in All the President's men-- the reporters are in the library of Congress-- they're flipping through this vast pile of catalogues, and the camera keeps pulling back.
Rob: It's grunt work. Do you do that yourself? DO you have someone else do it for you?
I do it. I'm sitting in front of three boxes of bank files right now.
When I read the Cosby deposition story I thought what an incredible moment that must have been when they held that document in their.
Rob: anything you want to wrap up with in terms of investigative journalism?
This is where we need to go. if we're going to survive and distinguish ourselves it's got to be the kind of depth and exclusivity and context from this kind of journalism. "If we're going to survive as news organizations. it's not going to be by reporting the latest press release or conference" " we have to move past anecdotes and try to figure out if there
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