The duty to investigate
How investigative journalists helped hold police accountable during a Nova Scotia tragedy
December 15, 2021, 9:00 am ASTLast Updated: December 17, 2021, 2:48 pm
April 19, 2020. Michael MacDonald was opening birthday presents in his kitchen, surrounded by family, when the phone rang, halting the sound of wrapping paper being torn.
His wife ran to pick up, thinking it was someone calling to wish him a happy birthday—it wasn’t.
The person on the other end was Graeme Hamilton, the Atlantic Bureau chief at the Canadian Press. “I knew,” MacDonald said, “something didn’t feel right.”
It was that moment when he found out about the ongoing mass killing in Portapique, N.S., and that he was being sent to cover it.
Approximately two hours later, MacDonald arrived on the scene. He was hastily taking notes and filing to his editor. As he started unravelling the story, it became clear to him that someone needed to be held accountable.
But trying to get straight answers from the RCMP about what had happened over the days and nights of April 18 and 19 was difficult because very little information was shared from the beginning.
“And at one point, the RCMP just stopped,” MacDonald says. “They stopped answering questions.”
Since the mass killing, several Nova Scotia journalists and members of the public have been searching for answers about what happened in Portapique and have been coming up empty-handed.
In July 2020, a joint public inquiry was announced. It will explore the events of the mass killing and force the RCMP to submit documents related to the investigation. The public, both regular Nova Scotians and those connected to the victims and the community, has pushed for an inquiry to get the answers they need.
And it was in no small part the work of investigative journalists that helped move forward that demand.
The push for accountability
MacDonald has worked for the Canadian Press for 30 years. He and other journalists have spent the past year and a half covering what happened in Portapique, where 22 people were killed over the span of about 13 hours.
MacDonald refers to Portapique as a “mass killing” in his pieces, opting to use the word “killing” instead of “shooting” because the RCMP has refused to release even the cause of death for all the victims. This is one example MacDonald offers to explain how hard it has been to get basic information from the police in this case.
Robert Dares, a member of the Facebook group “Nova Scotia Mass Shooting April 18-19, 2020,” had also been concerned about what he feels is a lack of transparency from the RCMP.
The page is a collection of interested people, witnesses and family members who pay very close attention and read almost everything being written about the mass killing.
“I do believe investigative journalism can hold law enforcement accountable. But it can only happen if the government and the public are paying attention,” Dares says.
He credits certain media outlets with reporting on the event better than others, particularly sensationalist tabloids. Frank Magazine and its reporter Paul Palango.
“I know that Frank gets a bum rap and sometimes it is deserved, but at least in this case they have truly investigated and brought a lot to light,” says Dares.
After initial demands from the public, a judicial review of the events was proposed, In June 2020 but the idea received backlash from the victims family members for not matching the severity of the event. Investigative journalists and members of the public wanted inquiry. A judicial review would not hold the power to subpoena documents from the RCMP, where a public inquiry does.
A pillar of democracy
Patti Sonntag founded the Investigative Institute for Journalists (IIJ) in 2014 in collaboration with Concordia University.
She launched the IIJ because she wanted to provide rigorous investigative reporting to serve underrepresented communities in Canada.
The need for more quality journalism comes partly from the fact that the number of working journalists has decreased in the past several years.
There are no statistics specifically tracking investigative journalists in Canada. But, the statistics show that the overall number of journalists has declined. In 2013, there were 13,009 working journalists in Canada and in 2017, there were 11,700, a 10 per cent decline.
Sonntag distinguishes the work of investigative reporting from that of daily news. The duty of daily news reporters is ever changing, from talking to politicians and communications professionals to interviewing everyday people or congregating for political scrums. But, she said investigative reporters have one main duty, which is to investigate. To dig deep.
The main divide, according to Sonntag, is that daily news reporters say what happened, while investigative reporters look at who may be responsible and how.
“Without that critical function, the democratic process runs off the tracks,” Sonntag says.
Sonntag argues that without investigative journalism, corruption rates are at risk of rising because when journalists stop reporting on responsibility, the public stops paying attention.
Transparency International, the global coalition against corruption, in 2012 surveyed over 1,000 public officials spanning 30 countries. Out of a list of options, public officials credited investigative journalism the most often as an effective way to enforce accountability.
Sonntag believes this applies particularly with police, who are given special powers and are entrusted with public safety.
The events of April 18-19, 2020, brought Paul Palango out of a 30-year retirement from investigative journalism.
In 1990, Palango closed his career, leaving the demanding and chaotic energy of the newsroom at the Globe and Mail.
He has since written several books about the RCMP including one about the Portapique killings, which will be released in April 2022.
He says he was compelled to return to journalism after he saw the April 2020 events unfolding. He believed that it was his duty to report on what was happening. He also felt other reporters were not doing a good job.
“I took it upon myself,” Palango says.
Palango reported on Portapique for several publications, including Maclean’s magazine, the Halifax Examiner and Frank magazine, where he published audio and transcripts of 911 calls from the night of April 18, 2020.
It was his and others’ reporting that “Nova Scotia Mass Shooting April 18-19, 2020” Facebook group member Robert Dares credits with helping hold the RCMP accountable.
In his reporting on Portapique, Palango advocated for the initial proposed judicial review to be made more stringent.
“It got us an inquiry instead of a review,” Dares says. “It has brought a lot of information to light that may have never been seen.
Corporal Chris Marshall is a public information officer with the RCMP in Halifax. His job is to provide information to members of the media so they are able to provide it to the public.
“We have a duty to be transparent,” Cpl. Marshall says.
However, many journalists don’t always see that panning out.
Robert Osborne believes the goal of all journalists should be to hold institutions such as the police accountable.
“If a cop puts a siren on and his lights are on behind you in a car, you do not have an option—you pull over to the side of the road. If they tell you to get out of your car, you get out. That is real, immediate power,” says Osborne.
Osborne is a long-time investigative reporter who lectures at Ryerson University. For Osborne, ideally, all reporting should be investigative by digging deeper, fact-checking and asking more questions.
“This is our job. At least, that should be our job,” says Osborne.
He emphasized that in his courses he doesn’t teach people to investigate anything specific but, he focuses on teaching them to be good journalists. In turn, he believes, good journalists will always investigate.
Keeping power in check
In the case of Portapique, the challenge in holding police accountable is that journalists and non-journalists say it has been hard to get real answers from the RCMP. Reporters like Palango and MacDonald, who have been working on it from the beginning, have been searching for explanations. Members of the public, who rely on journalists to hold power to account on their behalf, have also been unable to get straight answers.
Like Osborne, MacDonald believes that all journalists should be inherently investigative by listening to their gut and asking questions, especially when something doesn’t feel right.
Dares says, “It appeared from the first news conference that there was something odd about the RCMP response. It made me and others question what we were being told.”
With the public inquiry currently set to start at the end of January 2022, MacDonald believes that there will finally be accountability.
“This inquiry will give us all the answers that the public deserves to hear.”
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