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Journalist Kevin Donovan Dishes on Breaking the Ghomeshi Scandal

'To do it well, you need to be really, really sure that you're right.'

By David P. Ball 13 May 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

The reporter who co-wrote the scoop on fired CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi said old-fashioned legwork and lots of patience helped him and freelancer Jesse Brown break the story.

Kevin Donovan, the Toronto Star's investigations editor, is set to publish a book, Jian Ghomeshi -- Secret Life, that promises to reveal previously unpublished details on the former Q host's alleged violence against women. It will also provide details on how the reporting pair broke the story.

On Tuesday, prosecutors dropped two of seven sexual assault charges against Ghomeshi, saying there was a low chance of conviction. Ghomeshi will stand trial next year on the remaining five charges of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. His lawyer said he will plead not guilty.

Brown, who hosts the podcast Canadaland, brought the story to the Star after several women approached him with allegations that Ghomeshi was sexually and physically violent with them without consent. Donovan interviewed the women himself and launched a months-long, unsuccessful attempt to get comment from Ghomeshi, who, at the time, was one of the most popular radio hosts in North America.

"I preach constantly about going to people you're investigating very, very early," he said, recounting his repeated attempts to ask Ghomeshi to respond to the Star's investigation. When Ghomeshi refused to comment, the paper shelved the story until it could verify the allegations.

That moment finally came when Ghomeshi commented on the unpublished allegations on a Facebook post last October, effectively giving the Star the green light to publish its story, Donovan said.

"He scooped us, really," Donovan said. "We were not sure we had a story that met our standards. We were babysitting it, trying to find other ways to move it forward, but published it after he published his Facebook post."

Donovan will speak in Vancouver on Thursday evening at an event sponsored by Langara College's journalism program.

It wasn't just Brown and Donovan's hard work that advanced the investigation, however. There was some unexpected luck.

In a bizarre turn of events, after many failed attempts to obtain Ghomeshi's side, Donovan found himself assigned a seat beside the target of his investigations at a gala supper. After making small talk for several courses, he again asked Ghomeshi to comment on the sexual assault allegations. He was surprised that the celebrity radio interviewer had little understanding of how journalism works. Ghomeshi's lawyer had previously told Donovan the allegations were a non-story. That night, the radio host asked Donovan why he would continue to investigate in the face of that advice.

Surprise gala meeting

"I was at the dinner with him trying to interview him, and I found myself explaining to him how reporting goes," Donovan recalled. "I sort of assumed he knew how it works. Yet he didn't understand why I'd still be asking questions after his lawyer told me there was no story. Jian -- one of Canada's top interviewers -- didn't know how journalism works."

But his forthcoming book is not without controversy. Donovan's former investigative teammate, Brown, penned a scathing column in the Guardian newspaper alleging Donovan may inadvertently reveal the identities of Ghomeshi's accusers and should have consulted them about the interview details that could be published. Others on social media have accused Donovan of disrespecting sexual assault survivors, allegations the Star reporter insisted are "understandable" but nonetheless "unfair."

"What seems to be happening now -- and I predict this will intensify -- is some of the people I've interviewed will say, 'You don't have the right to tell our stories,' even though a lot of their stories have already been told in media," Donovan said. "I respectfully disagree with that. My promise has always been to never identify anybody -- and I know people disagree with me on this -- but I don't think journalists should be partners with anybody they're writing about. Journalists should be critical thinkers and provide stories that attempt to tell as much of the truth as is possible given the constraints of law and any promises not to identify anybody."

The self-described "player-coach" of the Star's investigative team joined in the mid-'80s when, as he puts it, there were scarcely any investigative reporters in daily newspapers. Today, that team at Canada's largest circulation daily paper has burgeoned to nine reporters and an analyst, he said.

In an era of cuts and newspaper downsizing, Donovan said other dailies haven't put the same kind of resources into investigative reporting as the Star. He wishes they did.

"If more people did investigative reporting, then other people will join in and do it," he suggested. "Although I would hate to be beaten, if the big papers in our markets did more, then my editor would come over and say, 'Donovan, get a move on!'

"The newsroom cutbacks we're seeing everywhere are to blame for it. If you're faced with declining revenue, advertising, circulation or viewership, what are you doing to do -- put more money into covering daily news or investigations? It's more likely you're going to put it into the daily news."

Another change in the media landscape is the explosion of online media, including blogs, Twitter and podcasts doing investigative-type reporting.

Case in point: U.S. gossip site Gawker first revealed that a video existed of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford apparently smoking crack. Donovan and former Star colleague Robyn Doolittle watched that video but did not publish the story until they could gather more proof about the mayor's drug use.

Era of blogs and tweets

"For sure, Gawker scooped us as far as the existence of the video," Donovan said. "But the stories we did broke other news. Our concern about being wrong outweighed our desire for a scoop. It was the same thing with Ghomeshi."

Does Donovan resent a media landscape where stories are increasingly brought to light thanks to blogs, podcasts and tweets -- without the same level of editorial rigour as traditional print media?

"I caught the tail-end of the typewriters and stuff like that [and] I used to think it had to be on newsprint," he admitted. "But I don't anymore -- I don't care where journalism is produced.

"Certainly on the Rob Ford story, things happened so quickly that with much of our investigative coverage, it happened online.... The thing with investigative reporting is that to do it well, you need to be really, really sure that you're right, that you cross your T's and dot your I's. To do that takes time and resources; that costs money. It's difficult for a small organization anywhere to do that."

As for Donovan's advice for aspiring muckrakers to be patient, it's not just about giving people time to respond. It also means building the reporting and research skills, even if it means slogging it out in the trenches of municipal council or local garden shows. Ultimately, he said, good journalism is about relationships formed over many years. One of the earliest stories about Rob Ford's battles with addiction was a Star report on how the mayor was kicked out of a military fundraiser because he was drunk.

Donovan asked to see the event's guest list, and spotted the names of sources he'd known for decades. He phoned them and they confirmed the scoop. It's what he calls "relationship journalism."

"As you go forward in your career, get to know people who will be your sources in 20 years -- get to know the lawyer who'll become a top prosecutor or the doctor who ends up running a hospital," he said.

"You can only do that in person -- I don't think you can do that on Twitter. It's way easier to get somebody to be a trusted source if they already are one."

Kevin Donovan will speak in Vancouver Thursday, May 14 at 6 p.m. at the Orpheum Annex (823 Seymour St.). Tickets are $5. More info here.  [Tyee]

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