Rideau Hall, Thursday, April 14, 2005
I welcome all of you to Rideau Hall for the Michener Awards for Journalism. First given in 1970, they were instituted by Roland and Norah Michener to honour the memory of their daughter Wendy, a superb journalist who died too young. This ceremony gives the highest recognition to news organizations that offer disinterested service to the public good, and who live up to the heraldic motto of the Michener Foundation: “Veritas Ancilla Libertatis” – “Truth in the Service of Freedom”.
Its selection committee has cited six finalists for their outstanding work, and I am sure it was not an easy or simple choice. Consider this wonderful line from the Foundation’s criteria, something the jury must keep in mind: “Journalistic excellence alone is not enough.” It is not sufficient to have the facts, to find the story, to show the drama. The organizations that have been selected have done more than demonstrate teamwork, tenacity and professional skill. They have tried to meet the standard expressed by Joseph Howe in the 19th century: “The only questions I ask myself are, What is right? What is just? What is for the public good?”
When we speak of journalism and public benefit, we are talking about stories that leave something substantial behind, not simply by giving insight or evoking empathy but in actually improving the social condition. In 2004, our finalists were able to thoughtfully challenge accepted ideas and practices in a way that has produced civic engagement and change.
The Michener Foundation recognizes that this vital work takes place everywhere in Canada, and that these stories can be of national, regional or local significance. Of course, there are organizations here tonight that come from our major cities, with audiences and resources that stretch across Canada. But one of the most remarkable and valuable aspects of this Award is that its criteria also make it possible for a weekly newspaper in Newfoundland to be recognized for its contribution to the social good. Look at the list of previous winners. It includes The Manitoulin Expositor and The Elmira Independent, two Ontario weeklies, and CKNW in New Westminster, British Columbia.
So we ask ourselves, what does real journalism give to a society? It’s easy to point out examples of the media catering to embarrassingly base interests or cravenly pursuing triviality for the sake of sales, in the name of news. Such a compromise of standards can put our civic awareness to sleep. But while attending to what the public seems to want, a really responsible press will awaken us to our true situation; it will prod us into thinking; it will give us a chance to assess ourselves as citizens. As we see in the work of our finalists, journalism can create a kind of societal itch, one which it then becomes our duty to scratch.
Journalists do this by asking questions to which they do not know the answer, even if they have their hunches. Allen Abel writes, “There are three qualities essential to a journalist’s craft: curiosity, compassion, and serendipity, the ability to find what you are not seeking.” I love his mention of compassion which, no matter how devastating or difficult stories might be, is the soul of all the best ones. This compassion extends not only to victims but to the general concern for honest, hardworking people and the groups to which they belong. As for serendipity, those apparently “lucky” moments in the life of a good journalist lead to the most important parts of any story: the ones that the public didn’t realize it needed to know.
Barbara Frum once said that this is what your audience implicitly asks of you: “Just tell me something I don’t already know about something that matters to me – or should.” In a society where we often have more information than we know what to do with, we must have context. We must have understanding, and we need to be taught how to pose the right questions. By the questions that journalists ask, individuals and groups within society can learn to pay attention. Such vigilance is the price for remaining free.
I firmly believe that our society’s artists, among many other things, help the rest of us to truly see, and on a pragmatic level, so do our journalists. Your work can point out to us that there is a crack in one of our societal walls. Do we reach for the plaster? Do we need to rebuild the wall? Or do we see that we first have to dig deeply and strengthen the foundation? It’s the observations and insights of a good press that alert us to what we most need to do.
Having spent much of my life in journalism, I also deeply appreciate the wisdom of the Micheners in directing this Award to organizations. It is the backing of the entire team which makes it possible for reporters to investigate with a broad scope and real depth. The lone wolf does not hunt well. I admire and congratulate you on your work as “ensemble actors”, and I know that there is a larger journalistic community standing behind what you write and what you air. I also salute Jenny Manzer on receiving the Michener-Deacon Fellowship, which will allow her to further investigate one of the fundamental questions of health in this country.
The Michener Foundation, its committees and juries are to be commended for assessing the work of Canada’s finest journalistic organizations. Your work makes a difference to our country, and I’m pleased to honour it and you.
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Governor General of Canada
April 14, 2005