In his Fall 2018 feature on the Trans Mountain pipeline battle, Ethan Lou chronicled behind-the-scenes tactics of governments and activists. Much of his information came from Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests. These documents gave him access to previously unseen government discussions, all the way up to ministerial correspondences. Here, he explains how and why he used them so heavily.
Nicholas D’Ascanio: A lot has been written on pipeline projects in Canada. What made you think there was a new story to be told about Trans Mountain?
Ethan Lou: I've been writing about oil and politics for a long time. Trans Mountain by itself isn't special, but the time at which it comes is. Environmentalism and Indigenous rights — issues that often stand against pipelines — have become more talked-about and prominent. They carry political weight equal or sometimes more than that of the jobs and economic activity associated with oil.
ND: In writing this article, you worked extensively with ATIP requests. Can you explain why?
EL: I'm a firm believer in government transparency and accountability. Much of how the government operates is unknown to the average citizen, and that should not be the case. When governments have nobody watching them, they tend to act as if there’s nobody watching.
ND: How much has Trans Mountain coverage across the country been dependent on information from these requests?
EL: Canada has seen many great stories broken through access-to-information requests by many talented journalists. But they are still too few journalists who regularly file such requests, and even fewer who regularly break stories through such requests. (Of course, we also have too few journalists in general, but that is another story.) Requests often get delayed for months and even years, seemingly for arbitrary reasons, and what you get back is often a black sea of redaction. It takes a lot of time, effort, money and patience to get anywhere.
ND: Do pipeline scoops often come out of access to information processes?
EL: A lot of the information I get comes from sources as well — whether they are people in the industry or the government or activists. I keep in touch regularly with people directly involved. Access-to-information requests are a good tool, but it should not be the journalist's only tool.
ND: How did you know where to look and which documents to request? Where did you start?
EL: There are many methods. I regularly read the access-to-information stories by other journalists. Then I look up the database of previously filed requests to see what those journalists wrote to obtain the files they used for those stories, and I request those previously released files to see what they get back. I regularly request lists of briefing notes prepared for ministers. Requests often spawn more requests. If a briefing note mentions a study to be conducted or report to be compiled, I file a request for that file. I also read up extensively on government departments to get an idea of their organizational structures, who does what and which department will have more files. I talk to government sources as well to see what's going on inside and what are the files available. I read books and attend talks on access-to-information requests. There is also a lot of trial and error.
ND: Many of these documents have hundreds of pages. What was your process in sorting through the white noise and finding the info you needed?
EL: There isn't much of a process. I just read a lot. I'm generally a fast reader, and I go through tomes in a day. Experience does help. I read government documents all the time and follow the news closely. I know very quickly whether something I read has news value. I would make a call on the spot whether that document is going in the reject or the yes pile. Otherwise, too much information just clouds the mind. I keep the bar high, so maybe there are some documents in my reject pile that have some news value and will never see the light of day; but I know everything in my yes pile is gold.
ND: How did you then knit together all those small details into a story?
EL: Probably the same way as any other journalist doing a long-form piece. I look at the information I have and consider what are the pieces that have the potential to become great scenes. Then I build those scenes out. That is challenging sometimes, given that a lot of the information comes from words so laden with bureaucrat-speak that they are barely English. But it can be done. Then I consider the story structure. I draw a lot from the media I consume, both the long-form news stories and fiction I read and the movies and TV shows I watch. Sometimes, I work the other way. I look at the story as a whole and think of what structure fits it best, and then mold the scenes to fit the structure. There are also times when I just make it up as I go. That's more enjoyable, but almost always ends up more time-consuming.
ND: Did you start your investigation already having an idea of the conclusions you would draw or did your findings surprise you?
EL: I always begin with an open mind. I never presuppose outcomes. In that sense, I guess I'm always surprised. But I also expect to be surprised. If something is expected, it isn't news.