Truth in Journalism

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Patti Sonntag

New York Times editor and Literary Arts faculty for Investigative Journalism Intensive, Patti Sonntag.

This article was featured in the Fall/Winter 17/18 issue of InStudio Magazine. 


Canadian-born Patti Sonntag is a managing editor in the New York Times’ News Services division. She joins Banff Centre as faculty for the Literary Arts program, Investigative Journalism Intensive. The editor, researcher, and educator spoke with us about the role investigative reporting plays in strengthening democracy.

Why is a program like Banff Centre’s Investigative Journalism Intensive important to upholding truth in journalism?

I think this program is fulfilling a substantial need, in providing both training and the space to focus on a subject exclusively for at least a week. Banff Centre isn’t just supporting investigative journalism, but also Canadian democracy. For journalists who are interested in upping their skills, it’s the perfect time, especially as more data become available.

I’m really glad to be spending time with fellow Canadians on the news stories that matter most to them. The stories that emerge from the workshops are going to be the burning questions on the reporters’ minds. I’m interested to see what the program participants consider the most important questions, and to help them dig into that material.

What opportunities and challenges do investigative journalists experience today compared to 10 years ago?

Some investigations may take more than a year, which is a very hard thing for a newsroom to support. Journalists try to move as quickly as possible, but investigations are always a pressure point. Budgets grow tighter, and there becomes less possibility for a newsroom to do that work. Everyone has been concerned about declining finances for news organizations for a long time.

I think investigations are more important for media organizations than ever before — it’s the original stories that differentiate a brand. The work is valued; the question is how to get it done. That’s why I’m really grateful to Banff Centre for supporting this residency.

I have mentioned my own interest in news coverage for rural audiences. I try to work towards that wherever I can. 

If all a community has is a Facebook page, they deserve more and better.  

How can journalists hold themselves accountable to create balanced reporting?

Good training is one thing. But I think an awful lot of journalists do a very good job of stepping back from a story and trying to look at how it impacts a community as a whole.

What role does investigative reporting play in our society?

It’s one of the pillars of our society. People under pressure for various reasons, financial or otherwise, often make poor decisions. Without anyone watching or reporting, those patterns of behaviour slip under the radar and, in consequence, whole groups of people can get hurt — and have.

How can consumers cut through “fake news” in today’s media landscape to get to the truth?

You have to be skeptical. Getting the news from an organization that you trust is important. When there’s a wave of reaction to something on social media, it’s better to step back and ask, ‘Is this real? Is it the whole story?’

Sonntag is currently on leave from the NYT as a Michener Fellow teaching at Concordia University.