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Investigative reporting: building a front-page nuclear bomb

Toronto Star investigative reporter Robert Cribb is an intelligent, determined and beguiling force who styles his questioning tactics after TV…

By Megan Stewart , in Making the News: Focus on Canadian journalism , on January 16, 2009 Tags: , ,

Toronto Star investigative reporter Robert Cribb is an intelligent, determined and beguiling force who styles his questioning tactics after TV detective Columbo and succeeds in changing Canadian policy and Canadian minds.

Investigative reporting, he says, is suited to a particular kind of mind-set. Curiosity. Determination. Passion. Patience for bureaucracy. Ability to wade through the crap. And perhaps a touch of emotional imbalance.

Also, a deep respect for the daily reporter. (And never call them run-of-the-mill.)

Cribb’s investigations include stories on illegal slaughterhouses, irresponsible doctors, sleazy landlords, airline safety, sex-driven city officials, driving instructors with shameful driving infringements and government corruption. It would be nice if I could write that The Star’s investigation team is a model for more Canadian news organizations. It should be.

Cribb favours compiling a water-tight thesis and nailing down documented evidence before approaching sources with the implicating information. He will then throw down a headline that drops like a nuclear bomb on the front page. This is not the trickling stream of information embodied by the Washington Post investigation of Watergate.

He trolls for information and maintains a document state-of-mind, which he feeds by filing access to information requests. He thrashes federal and provincial agencies for their lack of transparency and inability to adhere to freedom of information and access to information laws. His home province is the worst offender, with B.C. running second, according to an annual report from the Canadian Newspaper Association.

But being denied only spurs Cribb to work harder.

When required by the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner to pay $148,000 for health inspection reports from of Toronto-area restaurants, Cribb felt he was given the middle finger. He returned the gesture by getting to work–he knew the public would benefit from knowing the facts that were being held ransom. In February, 2000, his 4,156-word expose Dirty Dining prompted the city to adopt DineSafe and program that forces restaurants to wear their sanitation on their sleeve, er, post on the front door of their venue. Cribb was asked to pay nearly $150,000 for information that is now posted on-line where all citizens can access it for free.

From Dirty Dining:

A Star investigation into restaurant inspections in Toronto’s old city region reveals an underfunded system that completes fewer than half the inspections required by the province, rarely issues fines to eateries, hasn’t shut any down in the past two years and keeps the public in the dark about about chronic offenders.

The investigation also found serious shortcomings throughout the province. Not a single health board is meeting inspection requirements set out under provincial rules.

Toronto inspection data from the past two years (1998-99), obtained for the first time by The Saturday Star, show more than 750 restaurants in the old city received at least one citation for a “critical” food safety problem – the most serious kind of infraction, which can lead to food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses.

Dozens of these restaurants show histories of food safety problems, but are still permitted to serve food to unwitting diners without penalty or public knowledge.

Unlike food outlets in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta, which are required by law to post inspection reports, Toronto restaurants are off the hook.

The Star obtained 1998 and 1999 inspection reports for 27 restaurants within the boundaries of the old city of Toronto.

They show that restaurants with counter tops stained with rodent droppings, live vermin near raw meat, unwashed hands and improperly cooked meat, almost never face penalties or public scrutiny.

In the past two years, only 11 of the old city’s 6,895 restaurants have been fined for food safety problems, according to city documents. And none has been forcibly closed down.


  • This is something that crosses your mind wherever you eat. I can tell you from my relatively limited kitchen experience….believe this. Most restaurant kitchens are dirtier than you can imagine. I’m surprised more articles haven’t been written on this subject.
    Great blog Megan.

  • After this piece appeared in the Star, there was a plague of dirty-restaurant exposes in the Canadian press. It became a bit cliche; an easy public-service, outrage-public story for a paper to serve up.

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