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UBC’s investigative journalism students win accolades

Graduate program plans to launch an investigative centre.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | JUL 25 2012

At a time when the media industry is experiencing a major contraction as it struggles to regain its financial moorings, the University of British Columbia’s international reporting class is garnering accolades for investigative projects that few national media outlets could afford to produce.

Its latest effort is an eight-minute documentary entitled “Dying for Land,” produced in collaboration with the New York Times, that investigates the escalating and sometimes violent conflict over land claims between Brazil’s Guarani Indians and the country’s farmers in the southern Mato Grosso do Sul region. Students spent eight months working on the project, including two weeks in Brazil, where they interviewed ranchers and farmers faced with the prospect of losing their land, as well as members of the Guarani, including relatives of a murdered Guarani chief. Their investigation with the Times correspondent turned up other murders.

The documentary (and related article) is the second part of a New York Times series on land conflicts in Brazil. Since the stories ran in early June, Brazilian authorities have reportedly arrested 18 people in connection with the Guarani chief’s murder.

Another group of UBC students produced a video, “Damming the Amazon,” which examines the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon Basin and its effects on the region’s Xikrin Indians. (Both videos reside on the New York Times website.)

The two-part project is the fourth undertaken by students in UBC’s international reporting program. Earlier efforts include a documentary exposing the effects of dumping electronic waste, largely generated by North Americans, on developing countries; the project, which aired on PBS FRONTLINE/World, garnered two Emmy nominations and won the 2010 Emmy award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism by a News Magazine. A multimedia project about shrimp production in Asia was produced in conjunction with the Globe and Mail and a documentary on the effects of the global morphine shortages was done in partnership with Al-Jazeera.

Graduate program attracts international students

UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism admits about 30 students a year and 10 are selected for the international reporting class. Each year the class undertakes a major investigative project on an under-reported global issue. The ideas are often generated by the students themselves and have taken them to Ghana, Thailand, India and other far-flung places to report their stories.

The international program was what attracted Arkansas-native Sam Eifling to UBC. “If you are a journalist of my generation, I think the romance and possibility that this industry used to hold now looks much fainter,” said the 31-year-old. “To come to a place where they are investing in doing these kinds of stories and getting them into good platforms, that was an incentive,” he said.

The school has even bigger plans in the works. Next year it hopes to launch a Global Reporting Centre, a philanthropically supported centre that will undertake investigative reporting projects on global issues by working journalists. UBC’s international reporting students would work alongside the pros. This funding model has worked well in the U.S. for organizations like ProPublica, a non-profit, independent news organization that funds investigative news, noted Peter Klein, director of UBC’s journalism school and a former producer at CBS News 60 Minutes. “There’s very little of that being done on a global scale,” he said. “That’s where we want to be.” The school will soon launch a fundraising campaign to pay for the centre, he said.

The international reporting class, also funded with donor support, is co-taught by Mr. Klein and David Rummel, former senior producer of the New York Times video unit.

Journalism schools have come under fire recently for ignoring the seismic changes affecting the industry and for continuing to accept large numbers of students to fill a shrinking job pool.

But Calyn Shaw, a recent graduate of the international reporting class, doesn’t regret his decision to pursue a journalism career. “I think UBC has done a very [good] job of thinking through what those changes are and what students need to know now going into a newsroom or freelancing,” said Mr. Shaw, who has landed a job at CBC in Vancouver. “They are constantly engaging in conversations about how to prepare the students better for that changing environment.”

Mr. Eifling, who also holds an undergraduate journalism degree from Northwestern University in Illinois, said his experience couldn’t have been more different this time round. “We need to prepare people for social media and for platform-neutral news gathering,” he said. “You can’t say ‘I’m a magazine writer.’ It’s okay to write for a magazine but you also have to be able to tweet and shoot photos and video and edit it. UBC definitely focuses on that multiplatform approach.”

The school is about to survey its graduates to find out where they are working. Anecdotal reports suggest many of them have found jobs in traditional media outlets while others have cobbled together successful careers doing freelance work and securing grants to support personal projects, Mr. Klein said. “What we’re seeing is that students are really reinventing the industry on their own terms and reinventing what it means to be a journalist.”

None of his students, he noted, are star-struck by the prospect of working with media giants like the Times. He recalled how one class chose to walk away from a project with the newspaper rather than change focus as the editors had requested, something that would have been unimaginable to him at their age.

“As the industry has changed so dramatically and the whole definition of journalism and its financial underpinnings seem to be crumbling, it’s been really interesting to see the media landscape through their eyes,” he said.

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