On September 25th, the Fall 2017 Jeanne Sauvé Forum Series on Social Connectedness and International Development continued with an event entitled, The Power of Traditional and New Media to Unite and Divide.
The Sauvé Series, created by Professor Kim Samuel in collaboration with the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation, explores the root causes of social isolation, along with strategies for building social connectedness through international policy and program development. It began last fall with weekly discussions at the historic Jeanne Sauvé House in Montreal covering a variety of topics, from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The Series is also closely linked with Professor Samuel’s fourth-year seminar course on social connectedness at McGill University, the first of its kind.
The September 25th event focused on how stories and information in today’s fast-paced media environment affect our ability to connect with others. Convened were internationally renowned and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, senior correspondents with the Washington Post; and Caro Loutfi, Executive Director of the youth empowerment organization, Apathy is Boring.
Moderator Kim Samuel opened the evening by reciting a powerful quote by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen: “No democracy with a free press has ever endured a famine.” However, she cautioned that despite the ocean of information available today instantly at our fingertips, the media is “seemingly more and more censured and the accuracy of our news more and more uncertain.”
Even in this rapidly changing landscape, Professor Samuel offered a hopeful message: “Media, even if we love to hate certain aspects — including sensationalism, paparazzi and tabloids — is, I am certain, an essential defense against bad government. Moreover it’s a critical element to building societies where we all have a voice and we all have hope for a better future.”
In his remarks, Kevin Sullivan reminded the audience that, while President Trump has created a hostile environment for journalists like himself, their mission remains unchanged: to be fair, to be accurate, and to hold people accountable. “We are not at war; we are at work,” he said. At the same time, he expressed concern about the worsening trend of people only spending time with those they agree with, and only consuming news that reinforces their point of view.
Mary Jordan drew attention to the fact that only 10 years ago smartphones didn’t exist. This rapid period of transformation in terms of media and news consumption, she argued, has created vulnerabilities that “evil geniuses” are exploiting for undemocratic ends. For example, she referenced the fake news story about the Pope endorsing then candidate Donald Trump, which she argued was a well-crafted and well-planted fake.
Following Ms. Jordan, Caro Loutfi talked about what it really takes to activate people upon learning new information through traditional and new media sources. She explained that her organization has identified an important distinction between shifting attitudes and changing behaviour. Through their work, they have concluded that technology only goes so far and that face-to-face contact is most effective.
During open discussion, the panelists were asked about the importance of storytelling in building understanding between people. Ms. Jordan answered that relatable, personal stories are critical not only in terms of relaying information, but also in the ongoing effort to cut through the noise. “People want to know everything but can’t,” she explained. This is why, for example, she and her colleagues chose to cover the story of growing economic inequality in America through the lens of something ordinary people understand well — dental care.
One audience member noted that the journalists on the panel had often written about victims, but had they ever written about bullies? Mr. Sullivan recalled previously interviewing a number of gang members in a prison in El Salvador. One man told him that someday he’d like to get a job, but feared his appearance and history made that impossible. Mr. Sullivan appreciated the humanity in this response.
Shifting gears, another audience member asked the panelists for their views on the evolution of late night comedy and its impact on how people get their news. Ms. Jordan responded by praising Jon Oliver, who, she explained, is actually conducting legitimate and effective investigative journalism. She believes he is adding huge value. Ms. Loutfi argued that the more accessible information is, the better — be it through comedy or other sources.
The panelists were also asked about the media’s tendency to cover the next big crisis while often overlooking good news stories. As Ms. Jordan put it, “We write about all the planes that crash and none of them that land.” However, she said there have been important efforts to tell the stories of ordinary people who too often are forgotten.
Towards the end of the evening, each panelist offered concluding thoughts. Mr. Sullivan said that journalists always try to present stories in a way that can make a difference. Ms. Loutfi mentioned that “democracy’s a really long game” and that her organization strives to encourage sustained action despite how hard it is. Ms. Jordan stated that she believes “there’s a growing pent-up need for unity” in the United States and other countries around the world.
The next Sauvé Series event will look at how youth are leading social change in Canada in its 150th year and consider lessons for the future. Speaking at the event will be Kluane Adamek (Our Voices: Yukon First Nations Emerging Leaders), Jennifer Corriero (Co-Founder and Executive Director, TakingITGlobal), and Sabrina Sassi (Researcher and Activist, 2015-2017 Sauvé Fellow). To register for this and future Sauvé Series events, please visitsocialconnectedness.org/sauve.