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Public Editor Public editor: A banner year for investigative journalism

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

It has been a banner year for investigative journalism in Canada. Witness the recent spate of awards for work that uncovers malfeasance or shines a light on deeply ingrained societal prejudices and problems.

This is an area where the established media excel – if only because it takes time, often months of investigation, and a real commitment to get beyond the daily news.

Last Friday, the Michener Award for public-service journalism went to an investigation by Enquête, the weekly TV newsmagazine on Radio-Canada, into sexual abuse of indigenous women by provincial police in Val d'Or, Que.

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As with most great investigative work, the story started small, as a probe into the disappearance of Sindy Ruperthouse, one of Canada's many missing and murdered indigenous women.

But as the reporters started talking to her friends, they found quite a different problem. The women told of physical and sexual abuse by police, with allegations that ranged from having been paid for sex to being beaten and dropped outside town in the middle of winter.

The Quebec government appointed an independent observer, ordered a police investigation, and promised millions of dollars to help indigenous women. In all, eight officers were taken off active duty.

"For the first time, these vulnerable and marginalized women overcame fear of retribution, and spoke out," the Michener Awards Foundation says on its website.

In accepting the award, according to a Globe reporter at Rideau Hall when Governor-General David Johnston presented it, Enquête reporter Josée Dupuis noted that the women in Val d'Or said that they used to walk with their heads down, but now proudly keep their chins up.

The winner wasn't alone in being honoured for work involving missing and murdered indigenous women. The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and the CBC were Michener finalists as well for their "extensive and continuing coverage … [which] has provided a forum for a national conversation," the foundation noted.

This year, the National Newspaper Awards also honoured a team from The Toronto Star along with Globe and Mail reporter Kathryn Blaze Baum for their work on missing and murdered women. (Disclosure: I am chair of the newspaper-awards board, but we don't decide the winners.)

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Both Star writer Tanya Talaga and Ms. Baum thanked the victims' families and indigenous leaders for their trust and openness as the outlets pursued their investigative work.

This tough and often tedious job of sifting through documents, making hundreds of telephone calls and deciphering vast quantities of data brings attention to serious problems in our country.

NNAs also went to investigative work in business (The Globe and Mail), sports (Postmedia) and arts (The Globe and Mail) – categories in which, in the past, feature stories, columns or profiles might have won.

But it's not always big organizations that invest in long investigations that may go nowhere. The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal spent a year pressing to obtain access-to-information records from a recalcitrant province; those records ultimately showed repeated failures in daycare inspections on everything from not ensuring cleanliness to not conducting mandatory background checks on employees.

The Telegraph-Journal was both a Michener finalist and National Newspaper Award winner for the series that resulted.

At a time of industry upheaval, it is inspiring to hear the award-winners' passion for their work and its impact. At the NNA gala in Edmonton, Globe writer Renata D'Aliesio spoke of her eight-month effort (with no help from the military, in confirming her tally) to show the high number of suicides among members of the Canadian Forces who'd served in Afghanistan.

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She chronicled the desperate stories of those who died, in a series that has had a profound impact on how the military moves to help soldiers, due to the public platform and to pressure from readers.

"Yesterday I sat and met with the widow of a soldier who killed himself less than a year after returning from Afghanistan. It's taken her five years to feel ready to tell her story. And this is the thing about suicide: It's something we don't talk about it. It's difficult," she told the audience.

It is stories like these that inspire journalists and readers alike. So, here is a question for you, the reader who supports this important work: When we look back on our society in the future, what will we be ashamed of?

In hindsight, we can see that attention was needed to focus on help for thalidomide victims, the military women and men suffering from post-traumatic stress, the indigenous women of Canada, and many others.

Today, what issues should go under the microscope? Continuing attention to indigenous women? More attention to indigenous communities? Other issues for the Canadian military? What about the treatment of people with disabilities or older people?

If you have a suggestion, e-mail me and I will pass it along to the newspaper's senior editors. Or, if you want to keep it confidential, The Globe's SecureDrop service provides a way to safely share information with our journalists.

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You can find it by going to: https://sec.theglobeandmail.com/securedrop/

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