Investigating sacred cows

Ernie Garcia
The Journal News, White Plains, NY

Going after power institutions? Be prepared for them to lash back.

That was the warning from ESPN’s Dwayne Bray and the CBC News’ Harvey Cashore. The two men joined The Boston Globe’s Marty Baron for the June 15 session on Investigating Sacred Cows for a discussion ranging from their investigations of sports stars and the Boy Scouts of Canada to the Boston’s Roman Catholic Church, as well as anecdotes about lawsuit threats, bullying and public relations campaigns designed to undermine news reporting.

“We’re basically a lot of times investigating people’s heroes,” said Bray of ESPN’s coverage of sports sex abuse and drug testing.

“Ryan Braun’s people tried to bully us,” Bray said of the Milwaukee Brewers left fielder who tested for elevated levels of testosterone in 2011 and then successfully got his 50-game suspension overturned earlier this year.

Cashore described his investigative team’s work uncovering a permissive culture at the Boy Scouts of Canada that allowed adult sexual predators to move from community to community molesting boys. Cashore also talked about a three-week national public relations campaign that included prominent Canadian journalists that the Boys Scouts launched in the middle of the CBC’s investigation.

“We saw that as a proactive campaign to mitigate the impact of our story,” said Cashore.

All three offered advice on how to sell a story to editors when going after a powerful institution.

Bray said reporters shouldn’t be afraid to pursue a story because they think that person or organization sees itself as a sacred cow. Bray also noted that going after a sacred cow is a career decision.

“Do you work for people who you think can be compromised by sacred cows?” Bray asked.

Cashore said that it’s critical that a reporter’s boss or editor be behind the project 100% so that a reporter can have a supporter when the sacred cow tries to kill the story.  Cashore said that he’s always talking to his supervisor about his projects to ensure back-up.

Baron said reporters should do some preliminary work before pitching the story to editors to make a convincing case for the story. Baron also said it’s critical to explain why the story is important, substantive and worthy of consuming significant resources.

Finally, Baron emphasized the need to explain to editors how the news organization would be humiliated if it doesn’t pursue the story and how it would hurt the organization’s reputation.