Journalism that makes a difference

By Leslie Campbell, December 2012

Rob Wipond wins a Jack Webster Award.

In the past couple of editions we’ve mentioned—okay, we’ve beat the drum loudly—that Focus writer Rob Wipond was one of three finalists for three different Jack Webster Awards for excellence in British Columbia journalism. Well, on November 1 he won one. No one is more deserving of this award than Rob, whose commitment to digging for the truth is unwavering. He’s also very talented at bringing his stories to life, which makes it easier for all of us to digest some of the complex information he dishes up. (Times Colonist reporters Rob Shaw and Cindy Harnett, and CBC Radio reporters Sara Darling, Sterling Eyford, and Peter Hutchinson were the only other Island-based reporters shortlisted for the 14 awards.)

Rob has become well known as an advocate for elders and those in care homes. Through persistent Freedom of Information requests, one of his short-listed stories brought to light that no less than half of all seniors in long-term care in BC were being given antipsychotics—twice the average for the rest of Canada. Despite warnings from Health Canada that these drugs double death rates in the elderly, they are being used as a form of chemical restraint. (This story was also a finalist for both the Western and National Magazine Awards.)

Another elders-related story of Rob’s that made it to the Webster finals focused on the case of Kathleen Palamarek, illustrating, as Rob wrote, “how our outdated guardianship laws summarily declare seniors ‘incapable’ and thereby turn them into battle zones over which families, health professionals and others fight for control amidst an increasingly troubled eldercare system.” He had been following Kathleen’s story since 2006; the article appeared in our July/August 2011 edition—which gives you an idea of the deep knowledge that lies behind his investigative reporting.

But it was for another topic entirely that Rob won the Webster Award for best community reporting. “Hidden Surveillance” (Feb 2012) told us how local police and RCMP are, through cameras mounted on squad cars, building up a massive public surveillance system without proper privacy safeguards. Rob, along with researchers Christopher Parsons and Kevin McArthur, spent eight months trying to obtain various records, then combing through them and doing follow-up interviews, often receiving contradictory information about what data was being kept on law-abiding citizens through Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology. 

Their work prompted an investigation by BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, the results of which made front-page news recently. Commissioner Denham ruled that the Victoria Police Department was breaking BC’s privacy laws and must make changes to its ALPR program: “Collecting personal information for traffic enforcement and identifying stolen vehicles does not extend to retaining data on the law-abiding activities of citizens just in case it may be useful in the future.” 

While Rob and his fellow researchers were happy with Commissioner Denham’s report, they point out that there are still concerns around the overall inaccuracy of the ALPR system and whether data is still retained for too many people.

Rob’s investigative stories run counter to the direction most media are galloping these days. Newsroom cutbacks by media corporations have especially eviscerated local coverage. Reporters now tend towards a “he said/she said” form of journalism, seeking out “equal” comment from opposing sides of an issue, with little or no effort made to find where the truth really lies. Media consumers are left either scratching their heads or choosing sides based on considerations that have little to do with reality. But it’s relatively easy and cheap.

At the same time as newsrooms have been gutted (the Sun Media chain, for example, just laid off another 500 employees), there’s been a burgeoning communications/public relations industry helping private corporations and government get good press. Overworked news reporters regurgitate well-crafted press releases and interview high-priced, media-savvy communications strategists. Even if opposing voices are sought out, it’s hardly a level playing field. 

The internet, unfortunately, isn’t our salvation. It hasn’t developed a way to pay investigative journalists, particularly at the local level. ProPublica, a non-profit dedicated to investigative journalism, observes, “Very few of these [internet publishing platforms] are engaged in original reporting. In short, we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking.”

The result of such forces is double jeopardy for democracy. Citizens need to be well-informed in order to hold those in power accountable. Without media willing to invest serious resources to figure out what’s really going on in our institutions, corruption, mismanagement, waste and injustice will remain in the shadows.

Focus will continue to invest as much as possible in original, in-depth reporting on issues that matter to this community. We rely on our dedicated advertisers for most of our funding. So please support them. But subscriptions are providing the extra resources we need to fund writers like Rob Wipond to keep digging. 

Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus. She also answers the phone—which means she’s been enjoying chatting with many readers when they call to request a subscription. Rob Wipond’s stories can be found at www.focusonline.ca.