A Time for Collaboration

Sandra Bartlett’s work as an investigative journalist covers diverse topics, including exposing police Taser gun flaws and global offshore money scams. Sandra has been living at Green College as Journalist in Residence during a term as Asper Visiting Professor at UBC’s School of Journalism. Previously, she worked for the Canadian  Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States for several years. She gave a talk at the College on her investigation of police use of tasers on January 31 and will deliver a final public lecture (“So You Want To Be an Investigative Reporter?”) at the School of Journalism on March 21.

We sat down with Bartlett to discuss investigative reporting, working in today’s news climate and the importance of collaborative journalism.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?

Reading. So often it’s just some little thing in the newspaper or a news story I hear and think it’s just not complete. Or think, “Why didn’t you tell me why that happened?” So a lot of times it’s hearing something that seems odd or out of place and just starting to look at it. And talking to people. People will say, “You won’t believe what happened to my niece…” and they’re not telling you a story, they’re just chatting with you. I’ve had family talking to me at Christmas and they’ve said to me, “Ok, we are just chatting.”  

I was always told by the teachers I ask too many questions. I think that’s a good thing to have as a journalist.

Over the years you have worked and collaborated with a wide variety of organizations, such as CBC, NPR and ProPublica. Given your diverse reporting experiences, how do you see journalism adapting to new media today? And what do you believe is the importance of supporting programs, such as ProPublica, especially in today’s news climate?

Well I think non-profits and collaborative projects certainly, in terms of investigative journalism, are the future. Some of the TV networks are doing investigative work, and some papers are in some ways we are having a resurgence in these. When ProPublica started in the journalism world there were conversations like, “Who is going to take a story and put it in their paper?” And I think ProPublica may have heard these thoughts and what they did was they hired some of the top investigative journalists who worked in the country. All they had was online; they had to convince someone to run it. Now what they are trying to do is collaborations. When people saw ProPublica, this non-profit organization doing investigative reporting, I think they felt somewhat shamed. If they can do it, so can we. In some ways, there is more than there was 10 years ago and I think collaboration is the future. People can’t afford all the time and money it takes to do it.

The Panama Papers, for example, I’ve lost count how many newspapers have picked it up. The Panama Papers brought together news organizations from around the world, many of the major news outlets — The Guardian and the BBC in England, Le Monde in France, and La Nación in Argentina — 400 journalists in 100 media organizations in 80 countries. Süddeutsche Zeitung got the leak and decided to share it and work with other media around the world. That would not have happened 10 years ago when ProPublica began in 2008. The media world was all about beating your competition and getting an exclusive.  Now the media understands a story has much greater impact if it’s done by many news organizations at the same time.

I really think students should think about that, think about collaboration, and I know that’s hard because you want to stand out, make a name and get a job, but it’s the future. I don’t know if it’s immediately the future of the graduate student, but it’s definitely important.

One big project you’ve worked on with the ICIJ in the past is Skin and Bone, where you covered how the business of recycling dead humans into medical implants has thrived. How did you go about uncovering that story?

It was a team of us, I was at NPR, and we saw something in the paper about an arrest of some people at funeral home suspected of taking body parts. We thought, “Why would you want dead body parts?” Initially, we thought it might have something to do with voodoo then this whole thing opened to us — there is a multi-dollar business going on in body parts. Some of it’s altruistic and some of it not so altruistic. So, we followed that thread and it lead us one place, to another place, to another. We found there was one fellow who was arrested and sent to jail for running, Michael Mastromarino. He ran a company that supplied body parts for medical use but he got greedy and impatient about getting permissions from families and he made deals with funeral homes to allow his staff to go in and take body parts, strip skin etc. without the knowledge and consent of the families, before the body was buried. He gave us information where we could find things and we followed those threads.

As a journalist when people tell me I can’t do something, and there is no reason I can’t find out about something, bells go off and I wonder what are they trying to hide?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in terms of journalistic practice? 

Never say no. Even if you’re scared it might be beneath you. Let me give you an example. National reporting in Toronto, I was asked if I would be a producer. For some, producer is a step down from national reporter. For a reporter at the CBC the two best jobs are National Reporter and Foreign Correspondent.  You do the stories and tell them in your own voice.  As a producer you work with reporters, often doing much the same work, research, interviewing, traveling but the final story telling is done by the reporter and for some people that’s not very satisfying.  That was my concern when I was asked to be the producer in the new Investigative Unit. But the prospect of doing Investigative work full time, and working with some of the smartest reporters in CBC radio (it was a radio only investigative unit at the beginning) won me over.  It was new, exciting and gave me the opportunity to test other mental muscles.  In the end I did do some reporting on projects, often because we had so much material it made sense to have another voice on the story.

When you’re a daily news reporter even if sent to tsunami and earthquake you don’t get to meet the people in a real way, whereas I have gone to so many places and gathered interviews and felt I not only learned something about the country but the people. It’s not for everyone, but that was my experience. So, I would say, don’t say no with explore your reservations and concerns, but don’t say no immediately to an offer.

Joanne Pearce, a resident at Green College, is a first-year Master of Journalism student passionate about environment, health and science reporting. Joanne completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in Arts and Science, specializing in English and Biological Sciences. She has written on topics such as machine learning, agri-food developments and obesity in pets. When visiting family in South Africa as a child, she would climb along rocky tidal pools and learn about the different creatures that resided there. Now in her spare time Joanne helps co-chair Green College’s Reading Room Committee and explores B.C.’s amazing hiking trails.