Michener Awards at Rideau Hall: Centennial Journalism students there 2010

by Samantha Butler

On May 27th, my classmates Saede Raege, Meegan Scanlon and myself attended the annual Michener Awards for meritious journalism at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, which, prior to receiving my invitation, I’d never heard of.

My ignorance, I’m ashamed to say, was definitely a prevalent theme of the evening. While I did some homework before heading to Ottawa, looking up the nominees and trying to find out about their stories, I couldn’t help but feeling like we’d fallen through a rabbit hole when we pulled up the driveway to Rideau Hall.

The Governor General’s house in Ottawa is the first address on a long, winding tree-fenced road of embassies and federal residences. There was a hot sun burning through our gowns and eyelids as we posed on the front steps. We pulled up just after 5:30 and didn’t linger too long outside. The place was buzzing with staff, ushering us in to the hall find seats.

I eyeballed about 70 -100 guests as we waited for things to start. There was an air of tension to the greeting chatter around us; most of the people there were with a team of nominees and probably quite anxious for things to get rolling.

Things started pretty quickly, and the ceremony lasted around two hours.

Over thirty news agencies from across the country applied for this year’s Michener Award. The National Post, the Globe, Victoria’s Times-Colonist newspaper, Radio Canada, The Montreal Gazette and CTV’s W5 made the evening’s final top six. Their work supposedly represents 2009/10’s best public service, investigative journalism.

The MC and agency editor briefly explain the stories as they were nominated. Each had blown the lid off some government oversight, and yielded positive results for the communities they served.

The Gazette’s reporter, Linda Gyulai won the award for her investigation into a $355.8 billion water contract that the city council granted in less than three minutes. Needless to say there were some “ethically questionable relations” behind the deal, which she exposed.

A CBC radio reporter Julie Ireton, also accepted a $30, 000 fellowship to investigate over the next four months “intermediaries, double-dipping and cronyism” in the public service .

Finally, Michelle Lang’s parents (she was killed on assignment in Afghanistan) came to be honoured at the ceremony, which made up a brief but hugely significant and moving part of the night.

As I say, I hadn’t heard of any of the nominated stories until I started doing homework for the event, a week earlier. They weren’t easy to find.  What’s more, when I told friends and family that I was headed to Ottawa for the event, none of them had heard of it.

So despite the obviously substantial impact that investigative journalism can have on public policy and promoting social justice, it still seems to be losing out in the competition for the popular audience.

Capturing the popular audience is always a big conversation in journalism, especially with the competition from the web these days. While the instructors and faculty at Centennial College’s journalism program are all passionate about fair, honest, rigorous reporting in journalism, our classes inevitably focused a lot on writing stories that are search-engine friendly, easy-to-digest and catchy. The importance of maintaining a blog, establishing a brand, selling ourselves against the competition were pushed heavily. And that’s good because it’s the reality of the industry these days.

But its been shown, according to Star Columnist Antonia Zerbasias, that the public’s attention gravitates towards gossip, entertainment, and tech updates rather than hard news – at least on the web. The business of news is suffering as newspaper sales, magazine subscription and TV ratings modestly decline.

So the reason it felt like falling through a rabbit hole at the Micheners was that, for once, none of that mattered.

The entire evening was focused on six, well-written thorough, balanced, and rigorously pursued stories. While they may not have had the highest ratings or the most hits (initially) they’d brought on important, positive action in their communities, and were getting royal recognition at a gala in Ottawa.

The chance to admire high-calibre journalism, and to see it so dearly valued by others, was very special for me.

After the ceremony ended, we dispersed to the garden for a booze-and-schmooze, followed by a delicious gourmet buffet, all to the tune of a live jazz band.

I talked for a long while to the editor of a niche Ottawa paper called “The Embassy” that’s read mostly by politicians, diplomats and the politically inclined in one city in all of Canada. He was passionate, relaxed, and business was great.

When we finally did get to speak with Michaelle Jean at the end of the night, her advice was to be ourselves in our reporting, and to approach people honestly. “If I go to someone to speak with them,” she said, “and I am just myself, how can they not respond to me?”

A bit of a paradox, but I think she was quite tired.

The moral of the story is, that passion we glean from our teachers about fair, honest, rigorous reporting in journalism (in between lessons about SEO) is probably worth more of our attention than anything else.

At the end of the night, when Julie Ireton bid us farewell, she said “Well it was nice meeting you guys, great that you had this chance to come. Maybe you’ll be here again in a few years.”

“Yeah, maybe like 10, 15,” Meegan joked.

“As servers,” I added.

With only six stories making the grade that night, one other thing about Canadian journalism was also clear : the bar for excellence is high.