Wanderings – Reporting news in a more secretive time

It is challenging to report the news, it really is. It’s an annoying part of the job, and something that fuels me. I thrive on challenges, but I find it is getting more challenging to do this job. Journalism, for me, is reporting the truth – whatever that is. There is a quote from a ‘90s sci-fi show (Babylon 5) that fits.

“Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth.”

To do the job you have to represent all sides as fairly as possible, and somewhere between them – backed up with reports and statistics, is the truth.

Getting to the truth is more difficult than it should be – especially when it comes to governments and their functions.

It is well documented that the federal Access To Information Process is broken. Inquiries from journalists regarding reports and government departments can take well beyond the 30 days to answer. Thirty days is the law: federal departments have to respond to inquiries in this time. There is an extension allowed for 30 more days if a third-party (outside of government person) is involved. That is it. Except it is not. The system is so backlogged due to a lack of resources, some inquiries to departments take years to get a response.

The provincial system is not much better. Dealing with ministries, if you get the right person, can be easy. If you deal with Crown corporations or agencies, it is extremely difficult. In many cases, people working in departments have to get their responses approved by senior department heads, or even the provincial minister’s communications people.

Covering provincial or federal court can be as frustrating. While there are some great online tools to search cases and see where things stand, nothing beats attending in person. Getting comments or information about the court system as a reporter is frustrating. Nowadays, courts are resorting to publication bans which – in my opinion – are being overused.

A publication ban is appropriate when protecting the victim of a violent crime, and naming the accused could potentially identify the victim. The same is true in the youth justice system, where you are still dealing with minors. However, publication bans now are issued to make life easier for prosecutors and/or defence attorneys. It’s annoying for journalists who are trying to do their job though.

Municipal access to information varies from municipality to municipality, the same with school boards.

It’s easy to make a Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act inquiry. Anyone can do it. Fill out the form, pay your five dollars, and wait 30 days. There are limits to what you can ask for. Employment records are understandably off limits.

Some municipalities are great at responding, providing all the information you ask for, with minimal fuss or cost. Other municipalities use the process to their advantage. Parties involved can charge for the time it takes to respond to a request. One journalist I know filed an MFIPPA with a nearby city, only to get handed a bill for over $500 in reproduction costs. That inquiry went nowhere. I have been fortunate to only have minimal expenses to deal with in any of my inquiries.

There are workarounds too. Sometimes the mere hint of filing an ATIP or FIPPA/MFIPPA inquiry will yield answers. It seems to be understood that if the questions are answered, maybe there won’t be more questions – this is more than often true.

If I have to go through the process of filling out forms, going somewhere to file a form and pay money, I am going to ask for more information than I was initially looking for. It’s like paying for a parking ticket you think is unjustified, all in unrolled nickels. If I have to work, so too shall those making me do so.

I have been asked on more than one occasion why I go through all these processes and headaches to write a story. “Go cover a hockey or soccer game instead.” Believe me, a part of me would like nothing more than to drop the pencil and just take photos 100 per cent of the time. But I can’t.

Unanswered questions bother me. More unanswered questions in more secretive times bother me more. Bureaucrats, whether it’s at the federal, provincial, municipal, or school board level, don’t want eyes looking at what they are doing. That’s not to say all are doing bad things, but they don’t want to be bothered answering questions about why something is happening.

Why is the important part. Government is funded by taxes, paid by us, to deliver services and do all the things we as individuals cannot do well or afford on our own. Accountability is essential. It’s not their money being spent. It’s not their laws being enforced. It’s our money and our laws.

As more and more journalists depart markets due to the seismic shift in the industry, there is less accountability from those who hold positions of power. Those journalists who remain have fewer resources and are thrown more roadblocks to do their jobs. Getting to the truth of matters in this more secretive time. Reporting has never been more difficult.

This column was originally published in the March 13, 2024 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.