Reporting on a whistleblower

The story behind a months-long Journal investigation, from our staff’s eyes

The newsroom in action.

“That red circle is a few millimeters off,” a member of Journal staff points out.

It’s Sept. 9, the morning after a gruellingly late press night. The paper copies of The Journal are  hot off the presses, stacked on wooden crates. Issue 4 is splayed out in the Features section, where a months-long investigation into a multi-year story has finally gone to print.

That staff member was right.

There’s a circle in our layout that should be a few millimetres to the left. It’s a miniscule mistake, but after months of painstaking editing and fact-checking the story’s content, the irony of our visual layout having an error isn’t lost on anyone.

“Ah, shit.”

The situation was almost laughable. We’d finally finished the biggest project the two of us had ever undertaken. The story was iron-clad, fact-checked within an inch of its life. We’d sent it through our lawyer to make sure we’d proofed ourselves, and the paper, against libel allegations. We’d spent hours upon hours researching, interviewing, redacting documents and concocting game plans to dig deeper. 

But here we were agonizing over the placement of a little red dot.

That red dot marked the Morteza Shirkhanzadeh’s academic freedom case in current day — a story that had been in The Journal’s consciousness for the past year. However, the battle between Shirkhanzadeh, an engineering professor, and the University itself had spanned over 11 years with the paper trail to prove it.

To make a very long story short, Shirkhanzadeh accused Queen’s of neglecting serious allegations of academic misconduct in engineering papers published by their faculty. Some of the papers had been retracted by academic journals but the allegations of institutional non-compliance against the University have since become dormant. 

We spent hours upon hours working to decipher the bureaucratic paper trail of accusations and rebuttals. Each exchange of dryly written letters had at least one sentence of invaluable information disguised as mundane. Knowing how much legal trouble we would be in if we misconstrued any bit of information was what kept our brains from glazing over.

As much as we can complain about having to sift through the bureaucracy, we had the benefit of working on an already “broken” story. When writing any sort of story, journalists essentially stand on the shoulders of each other as new information comes out. Any previous articles by trusted news outlets can feel like water in a desert when working on a difficult story.

In May 2015, The Journal was informed of new developments in Shirkhanzadeh’s story 

that had until then gone unreported by previous Journal staff. We published an expository story, summarizing as best we could his 10 year case along with a digital timeline chronicling each important event and as many documents we could find on Shirkhanzadeh’s website.

In researching the case in more depth — since we were reporting primarily from Shirkhanzadeh’s perspective because the University consistently refused to open up on the details of the case — we needed to be careful that our writing wasn’t accusatory or biased. After all, we were dealing with serious allegations that by their nature are difficult to confirm.

We needed to write something that would still be credible in the event that Shirkhanzadeh’s claims of institutional non-compliance against the University were never proven. In other words, we needed to be as non-biased as possible.  

Despite feeling like she knows him after reading and writing about him for months, Mikayla hasn’t ever met Shirkhanzadeh. Other editors had spoken with him over the phone several times last year, but Victoria was the one who built a relationship of trust face-to-face.

The first time out of many that Mort met with Victoria, his demeanor was a surprise. Here was a man who had fought tooth-and-nail against his employer for over a decade, and he was surprisingly soft-spoken. He fumbled to find the right words to capture his emotions, but was clear and methodical explaining the facts. 

It was for this reason that we chose to begin our story — the thousands of words it ended up becoming — with his emotions. They were a rare glimpse inside his mind, despite the many hours we’d sit across from one another over the course of three months.

The story never felt more necessary than in moments he let his guard down and revealed how lonely he was feeling. How scared he was the mounting pile of legalities he had in front of him. 

At the same time, as journalists, these moments created our biggest challenge. Maintaining our neutrality, giving the chance for the allegations to be responded to, was tough when confronted with a man in our offices just looking for answers.

An important step in any allegation against an institution is giving them ample time to respond. Carefully, we compiled a list of each allegation and sent them over to the Queen’s Communications team, who are the bridge between our paper and any administrators. If we want questions answered by anyone hired by Queen’s, we ask them for permission.

As Shirkhanzadeh’s case was a web of legalities and HR complications, we knew we were likely not going to get much more than a “no comment” response, but the step was necessary nonetheless.

What made this story different from the stories that we regularly put out in The Journal was its sheer size. We had collected enough information for a long-form — a style of narrative journalism that’s used to cover longer than usual stories.

We had 4,000 words of dense content and we needed to figure out a way to present the story in a way that wasn’t just a never-ending wall of text.

With the help of our digital manager, Valentino, we crafted the story its own site where we could break up the story into smaller section for comfortable reading. Decorated with digital elements and real documents from the case. To us, the site was perfect.

Up until the very last edit, the story terrified us. There are very few things that shake you more than noticing an error a few hours before print — a redaction missing from a letter, which could have landed us in significant legal trouble — and wondering if there’s anything else we missed. We didn’t walk home until the sun was rising  the next morning.

There was no glory the next day. In fact, it was rather mundane. Besides small doses of kudos from members of the journalism community, the months of work became just another story in the roster.  And that was just fine by us. It was out there. It was honest. In a private email that day, Shirkhanzadeh wrote to Victoria. The contents of that email will stay between The Journal and him, but the feeling it evoked was worth every minute. 

A few weeks later, Morteza Shirkhanzadeh was fired from Queen’s University. To this day, we don’t know if our story had anything to do with it. Whether him talking to us tipped the school over the edge, whether it was entirely unrelated, we’ll never know. 

We know we did our jobs, to the utmost integrity we could muster, but those questions are still tough to swallow.

At a union hearing in a downtown hotel, the University and Shirkhanzadeh were set to discuss his termination. The Journal was asked to attend by supporters of Shirkhanzadeh, but was promptly asked to leave by the University. He was unable to speak with us again after the doors closed.

We still don’t know if the skewed red dot was the end of the Shirkhanzadeh story. We don’t know if more claims of plagiarism will be found or if the University will be penalized.

Ultimately, what might be a 10 minute read for one person characterized our summer. As thankless as grueling over documents and grieving over the slight details was, the reward came from reporting the Shirkhanzadeh case as honestly as we could.

Corrections

January 20, 2017

The Journal was asked to leave Shirkhanzadeh's termination hearing by the University, not its Communications team. 

The Journal regrets the error.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.