In this picture William Greenland is captured in a room full of people. He is wearing a black sleeveless vest with blue flowers on either side. He is wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt and is wearing a watch on his left wrist. Greeland has his black hair tied back and is wearing black-rimmed glases.
William Greenland was one of the storytellers of the Turning Points documentary. Photo courtesy of the Global Reporting Centre.

‘Empowerment Guide’ asks us to rethink storytelling and story-taking

Using expertise from the Prison Journalism Project, the University of British Columbia’s Global Reporting Centre shows how journalists can get past extractive storytelling Continue Reading ‘Empowerment Guide’ asks us to rethink storytelling and story-taking

In 2022, Vancouver-based journalist Britney Dennison produced the documentary Turning Points, a series looking at alcohol, addiction and healing in Yellowknife. Dennison approached the project from a place of wanting to challenge the role of journalists as extractive storytellers. 

Instead of going about research and reporting in the traditional way, in which the journalist and the production team are the sole shepherds of the story, Dennison opened the door for the documentary subjects to actively participate in the storytelling process.

Dennison is also an executive editor at the Global Reporting Centre, a non-profit newsroom based at the University of British Columbia. The organization is actively working to change some problematic dynamics associated with typical journalist-source relationships.

“As journalists, we are quite often known for only showing up when we want something,” Andrea Crossan, Dennison’s executive director of the GRC, told J-Source. “I’ve worked as a daily news journalist for many years and it’s very hard in a fast-paced newsroom to be in a place where you are building relationships and building trust.” 

The GRC’s November 2023 Empowerment Guide asks journalists to reflect on their work in communities that are not their own. Crossan said she acknowledges the challenges that come with tight deadlines and budgets, but there are many ways to credit interviewees, work toward reciprocity–building more mutually beneficial relationships with covered communities– and rethink journalistic norms of consent.

“Often we’re in a place of going somewhere, reporting quickly, and then taking what we’ve got and going back to our newsrooms and just producing something that may or may not reflect the cultural values and the historical values of the people who we are meeting with,” Crossan said. “So, the idea with Turning Points was to really turn that on its head. Instead of it being this really quick production, (where you) go into a community and get what you can, it was this long project that took a number of years.”

Each of eight films in the series was co-produced with local storytellers, who were consulted throughout the production and credited as directors and writers. Storytellers were also directly involved at every stage of the project, even choosing the issues they wanted to talk about. 

Much like a more typical documentary, the subjects of the story went on camera and shared cultural, geographic and historical factors that contributed to their struggles with addiction and also spoke about the factors and people that allowed them to find a path to recovery. But, unlike typical documentaries, here participants were not just interviewed. Instead, they shared editorial control of the story line and assisted with production. They also retained control over their material in the form of copyright. Raw footage was returned to each storyteller after filming.

“This was a really different way of producing journalism,” Crossan said. “This was a project that was centered around that idea of, ‘How we could do things differently? How could we be more inclusive? How could the work we do come with more reciprocity?’”

The Empowerment Guide for journalists, editors, producers, and storytellers in general aims to inspire more people to conduct projects like Turning Points. It reminds readers, however, that it is not a typical how-to guide. Instead, it stresses that there is no checklist or step-by-step approach to empowerment reporting. 

“We don’t ever want to feel like it’s prescriptive. Everyone’s coming to this with different deadlines and different pressures on them in terms of producing journalism. So we refer to this as a buffet,” Crossan said. “You take what you need from it and leave what you don’t. No matter what kind of journalism you’re doing, hopefully there are things that will feel useful to you in terms of good practices around working in communities that are not your own.” 

Currently, Crossan said the GRC is producing a podcast series about communities impacted by massive sporting events like the Olympic Games, which is set to be released this summer. 

Learning from the Prison Journalism Project 

Crossan notes there are many other journalists already operating under “empowerment” principles under different names, like engagement reporting, community collaboration, participatory journalism and more. For example, the guide cites The Prison Journalism Project, a U.S.-based initiative taking the practices of engagement reporting one step further by equipping vulnerable populations with tools to become journalists. Most prison reporting currently comes from an outside perspective, which is why the PJP trains incarcerated writers, and then publishes their work with full credit. 

The incarcerated journalists create transparency and accountability in the penal system with informed opinions and rigorous investigations, including exposées during the height of the pandemic filling a critical coverage cap. Most of the reporters are based in the U.S. so far, but there have been a couple in Canada, too

“Ultimately, what we’re really trying to do is empower them to be able to tell their stories,” said Yukari Kane, co-founder of the Prison Journalism Project. “Last summer, we did a lot of work to hone our strategy and put a greater emphasis on the training and the tools of journalism.”

Often, the imprisoned writers and their editors communicate via regular mail. They submit their drafts  and wait for it to reach their editors, who in turn send back their comments the same way. In some cases, the writers get opportunities to hone their journalism craft through workshops, handbooks and learning modules.

“There’s more appetite than there ever has been for stories from inside communities from underrepresented communities,” said Kane. “But, realistically (the stories) have to be a certain quality, and they have to be engaging to the reader and that requires tools and techniques and experience that journalists inside don’t always have naturally.” For that reason, Kane said it’s important that their team tries to train the writers.

Some of the most valuable pieces are stories that journalists on the outside of the prison walls would never be able to tell. For example, a recent article entitled “Prison Is the Worst Place to Start Menopause” by writer Donna Hockman, explores womanhood and aging inside Virginia’s prisons. 

It goes without saying that this kind of work comes with an increased duty of care on the part of the PJP, as Kane told J-Source.

“When you’re working with people inside prisons, there is a whole different level of responsibility in terms of the duty of care, their safety, their emotional safety, their physical safety, their legal safety, and so we want to be aware and conscious of that,” Kane said.

Ultimately though, the PJP wants to change the narrative around mass incarceration and create lasting change. Because information about the prison system is currently so limited, policy makers and voters shape the lives of incarcerated people without an understanding of life in prison.

“Our goal is to create a pipeline of prison journalists,” Kane said. “I’d definitely love to see more underrepresented groups being part of the storytellers because the only way to change the narrative is to change the storytellers.”

Leah Borts-Kuperman is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Northern Ontario. Her previous reporting has also been published by TVO, CBC and The Narwhal.