It’s been used to sway elections, spread conspiracy theories, inflame social conflicts, disseminate state propaganda, send bank customers into a frenzy and fuel fatal mob attacks. These are just a few of the damages caused by the most contentious issue in journalism today: fake news.
Just a few years ago, the term meant next to nothing. But today, Americans see fake news as a bigger problem than racism, climate change or terrorism, according to a Pew Research Center study. Nearly nine in ten Canadians are concerned about the proliferation of fake news. From Australia to Nigeria, distrust of social media sites like Facebook is now global, with a majority of internet users (86 percent) admitting to falling for fake news at least once, driving a desire for both governments and social media companies to take action.
The need for real journalism has never been greater, with governments abusing the term to pass anti-press laws, presidents sidestepping accountability by dismissing reports as “fake news”, and with authoritarian leaders weaponizing these stories to cement power.
To maintain credibility in today’s media landscape is to remain committed to the core tenets of journalism, which centre on public trust, truthfulness, fairness, integrity, independence and accountability.
The university is well-known for its world-class journalism education and its effective blend of theory and practice. Both undergraduate and graduate programmes are offered here, including some of the most innovative in the field, such as the Master of Arts in Digital Innovation in Journalism Studies and the Graduate Diploma in Visual Journalism.
In June 2018, the Institute for Investigative Journalism was launched to continue this long history of collaborative and experiential learning.
Led by Patti Sonntag, a former Managing Editor in The New York Times’ News Services division, the Institute is the first of its kind in Canada, connecting major media outlets with journalism students and faculty from across the nation.
“This is the blueprint for a new model of journalism that serves the public interest through cooperation, not competition,” says Sonntag, a Concordia alumna (BA 00).
The institute’s latest investigation into lead levels in Canada’s drinking water is the largest collaborative investigation in Canadian history.
The investigative project, called Tainted Water, is an unprecedented national collaboration between nine universities, 10 partner media companies and more than 120 reporters, editors, students and faculty members. Altogether, the cross-country consortium surveyed more than 900 homes in 32 communities from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, conducting over 200 hours of interviews and filing more than 700 access-to-information requests.
“Journalism students and reporters pooled their research in order to delve more deeply into the national scope of the issues,” Sonntag says.
“Residents across the country volunteered to carry out tests of their drinking water for lead. What we found is that Montreal, Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Prince Rupert and parts of Gatineau had lead levels comparable or higher than those of Flint, Michigan during its 2015 lead crisis.”
The reporting launched in early fall and immediately prompted city and provincial governments to take action. In Quebec, Le Devoir and Global News showed that the province’s method of flushing taps for up to five minutes before measuring lead underestimates exposure levels. The same day of the reports, premier François Legault announced that the province will now follow Health Canada’s recommendations for lead testing.
After additional articles and broadcasts revealed nearly 300,000 Montrealers could be exposed to lead, Montreal mayor Valérie Plante announced a $557 million-dollar action plan to eliminate the neurotoxin from the city’s drinking water.
This is the follow-up to 2017’s investigation series The Price of Oil. A pilot project by the Department of Journalism, it exposed the deadly risks of hydrogen sulphide leaks to workers and residents in the Canadian prairies and similar leaks of benzene in Sarnia, Ontario, and the lack of public warnings about ongoing emissions. It was a remarkable success, inspiring long-awaited policy changes and sweeping half a dozen prestigious national and international awards.
Journalism Chair David Secko says the creation of the Institute is a continuation of the Faculty of Arts and Science’s mission to provide students with the diverse skills they need to be newsroom ready and fulfil their passion for journalism.
“The Institute provides unparalleled educational experiences while serving the community by covering complex stories that have a profound effect on the public,” he says.
In an era where newsrooms are shrinking and fake news is king, the Institute is a beacon of hope for investigative journalists. With its streak of effective and successful investigations thus far, it is fast cementing Concordia’s reputation as a university where journalism students can truly meet their full potential and become the next generation of Naomi Kleins, Jane Mayers and Ronan Farrows.
Commenting on the educational outcomes of this project, André Roy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science said: “The incredible work of the Institute for Investigative Journalism is emblematic of our faculty’s commitment to experiential learning opportunities that result in real-world change.
“Our students worked tirelessly alongside experts in the community to uncover an issue with far-reaching consequences to public health. This is next-generation education in action.”