The Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Journalism Education is awarded to Patti Sonntag for her proposal to lead a class on an investigation into resource extraction companies. The resource sector accounts for nearly 20% of Canada’s GDP, almost $500 billion. To date, extraction companies have not received much attention in the media, both because of their complexity and because the extraction sites are often remote. Ms. Sonntag will guide students in using the Corporate Mapping Project’s database and network visualization tool, which tracks the fossil fuel sector’s influence on our country’s economy and policies. She hopes this course will lay the foundation for a new data journalism certificate program at Concordia University. Ms. Sonntag is currently a managing editor in the New York Times’ News Services division and will be returning home to Montréal to take up this project.
Patti Sonntag’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Michener-Deacon fellowship for Journalism Education
Friday, June 17, 2016
First, I’d like to thank the Michener Committee for this honor. It’s the most wonderful reason to come home.
I’ve been living in New York for the past 16 years, so it may seem a bit strange that I’m going to talk about reporting in rural Canada. When I crossed the border to go to grad school, I didn’t intend to stay – it’s just how things turned out.
I was born in Quebec and grew up in Fernie, B.C., with many of my family members in a small community, Goodsoil, in northern Sask. The places where I feel most at home those where logging or mining or other resource extraction keeps the local economy going.
One of the fundamental differences between the two countries is the size of the natural resources sector, which in Canada accounts for nearly 20% of the GDP, or roughly $470 billion dollars. In the U.S., it’s proportionally much lower.
What’s been striking for me as I travel back and forth is what limited ability the public has to keep tabs on this activity. Workers stationed in remote northern areas may know little about the companies they’re working for; if they do see something worth exploring, the local papers rarely have time for investigative work.
This information gap has always been there. It’s time we address it.
Data journalism is a terrific tool for bridging this gap. In addition to all the government and corporate data available, there’s also a new tool being developed, the Corporate Mapping Project. It’s an academic slash nonprofit research project led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute, mapping out how money from the fossil fuels sector influences political decision-making.
So what I proposed to the Michener committee, with Concordia University and the Corporate Mapping Project’s support, was that we put journalism students on the case. We can empower the wonderful journalists and editors teaching at our universities to access the CMP data while leading their students on local investigations. We hope to build a network of institutions across Canada engaged in this effort.
I ran a pilot test last semester at Concordia, and you’ll see the results in The Walrus soon. For the Michener semester, we’re looking at looping in another journalism school out West.
I’d like to thank my very patient managers at The New York Times, Nancy Lee and Michael Greenspon, and the Michener committee members for their support, and I’d also like to ask that if anyone has suggestions or would like to take part, to please contact me. The Michener awards are about public service, and here, we all have an opportunity to serve the public.