Telling the Untold Story
Every year, a small cohort of second-year journalism students enrolls in the International Reporting Program (IRP) at UBC Vancouver. Ten students a year, relatively inexperienced, young but motivated and the vanguard of what Graduate School of Journalism Director Peter Klein calls “the next generation of global journalists trained in a new paradigm, doing global journalism in a different way.”
For its latest project, China’s Generation Green, the IRP team partnered with student journalists from Shantou University in Guangdong to look at pollution through a new lens.
Consistent with IRP ethos, China’s Generation Green didn’t take the well-worn route and bewail the problems, but rather looked at the little-known emerging environmental movement in that country.
“Our class doesn’t want to produce yet more ‘doom and gloom’ Chinese environment stories,” says IRP fellow Katelyn Verstraten. “By focusing on China’s inspiring young environmental activists, we want to not only show the environmental challenges China faces, but also the potential solutions and glimmers of hope.”
The experience of reporting in China in rural and urban settings alike, immersed in the culture and capturing stories that would not otherwise be shared, students gained a lasting sense of confidence. Reflecting on China’s Generation Green, Verstraten affirms: “We had told the stories that mattered, the stories we set out to tell, the stories we believed the world needed to hear.”
The end result was a four-page spread in the Toronto Star which had an audience of more than a half million readers, along with a website that won the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists and a top honour at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
A separate feature ran on the American television program CBS Sunday Morning and what was one of the show’s highest rated broadcasts in years – proof that international news can still engage audiences. The piece became the news program’s highest rated story in 14 years, with eight million viewers.
The list of awards continued to include an Emmy, Webby Honor, Edward R. Murrow Award, Gold 2014 Canadian Online Publishing Award for Best Interactive Story and numerous other honours that serves to increase the IRP’s international recognition among ‘big’ media organizations from around the world.
Each year the IRP selects an ‘overlooked or under-reported’ story with the broadest implications for effect and reach. Next, in line with true ‘knowledge-based’ journalism, the students put in a full semester of research and form partnerships with student journalists and universities in the target countries. Only then do they go into the field, gather materials and return to Canada to create their stories.
Via well-known media partners such as The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, Toronto Star, CBC, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS Sunday Morning, the IRP output has been the catalyst for real change:
Project Pain and the politics of morphine is now an advocacy tool for palliative pain-management in the developing world; Ghana: Digital Dumping Grounds spurred US policymakers to enact stricter e-waste control; CUT: Investigating Global Logging took on widespread illegal logging in eastern Russia and southern Asia; Beneath the Boom; the Price of Progress in Brazil examined chronic land disputes and the ‘unsolved’ murder of an indigenous leader (six days after the IRP documentary went ‘live’, more than a dozen arrests were finally made).
“Our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations,” says Klein. His philosophy on making these conversations happen is simple: “You just have to go out and do it.” The journalism training in the IRP program requires students to “get on a plane and talk to the right people and discover these stories.”
Fuelled by a $1-million donation over 10 years, with two years to go, Klein hopes the IRP will become the springboard to an even larger teaching and reporting initiative: the non-profit Global Reporting Centre. Based at UBC, it would become the hub of a global collaboration of partner universities, and Klein hopes for even greater things ahead: “It will be the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”