Behind the story: Researching a sensitive topic

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cambridge hospital
Construction at the Cambridge hospital site

Occasionally, I am able to get down and dirty in the one part of this business that truly captures my heart: A solid, challenging and relevant journalistic story.

The resulting article: Ontario contractor’s massive surety default ‘largest loss in Canadian history’ says broker, is hardly a journalistic masterpiece and it certainly isn’t the longest story I’ve ever written.

But piecing it together required plenty of careful vetting research, and cautious writing. The goal: Cover a sensitive topic., but base my writing only on verifiable facts and data, respecting confidences yet not shying from giving readers the information they need to evaluate the story’s veracity.

You’ll notice that I don’t come right out and name a specific contractor in the headline and article’s opening paragraph (or here). Normally, this would be a journalistic violation, called “burying the lede” but here I needed to be absolutely careful to state only what I can from documented and (ideally) privileged information.

“Privilege” is one way journalists can cover sensitive topics. We cannot be accused of libel when we quote from published court activities, filings and decisions as long as we are fair and accurate in our interpretations.

Accordingly, I weave my way from reporting on the Petrela Winters Associates (PWA)‘s powerful newsletter documentation, to identifying certain failed projects that indeed have gone to court, and from there, isolating the surety’s name, and accessing Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) data to verify the scale of the losses.

Along the way I researched other details including relevant associations and background stories, I certainly made efforts to reach both the surety and affected general contractor for comment, then double checked the details for accuracy. (And that double-checking proved to be important, because there indeed were some typos, mis-spellings and other errors in the original draft.)

As a rule, I avoid writing negative stories about individuals and companies, because it is not my intention to cause harm or hardship, or (more selfishly) risk expensive libel actions. Sometimes, however, the greater good requires me to delve into more sensitive topics. In this case, I had a hard and clear piece of information — a major surety broker openly saying the default is likely to be the “largest loss in Canadian history”. That remark indicates something extremely serious and important, and worthy of research and writing.

I’m sure I and the rest of the industry will watch the ripple effect of this news through the next months and years. Will the contractor named in certain court documents return to regular business after surviving the challenge?  I hope so.  In the meantime, as surety becomes increasingly important under the new Ontario Construction Act provisions, I hope this article serves a useful purpose in informing readers about how and where the bonding system truly helps protect owners, contractors, subtrades and suppliers when things fall off the rails.

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