04/13/2017 04:04 EDT | Updated 04/13/2017 04:06 EDT

Quality Journalism Means Putting Feet On The Ground

Two weeks ago, I had the honour to attend the Canadian Hillman Prize ceremony for excellence in journalism. As I waited to speak, I heard the journalists themselves talk about what it took to get their award-winning stories.

In each case, it was reporters working their beats, talking to people on the ground, taking calls from readers and viewers and getting out of the newsroom to meet with people in their communities that resulted in their award-winning stories.

journalist interview

(Photo: Briana Jackson via Getty Images)

Bit by bit, they put their stories together, meeting with those affected. Seeing the places where the stories took place with their own eyes, and crafting the stories for the rest of us to read and hear. This meant months of painstaking work, time away from families and days filled with hearing heartbreaking stories from the people they met.

The Hillmans are named after U.S. labour leader Sidney Hillman, and dedicated to honouring the best in storytelling in service of the common good.

For the winning team at TVO, where Unifor represents the behind-the-camera crews, that meant telling the stories of migrant farm workers. Filmmaker Min Sook Lee and co-producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson took the top prize for Migrant Dreams.

news camera crew

(Photo: Alemphkt via Getty Images)

The team of Unifor-member reporters at the Toronto Star took a runner-up prize for exposing failures in workers compensation in Ontario and the consequences for workers at the GE plant in Peterborough. APTN also won a runner-up prize for telling the story of a wrongfully convicted Cree woman.

Without dedicated journalists going into their communities and reporting on the things they saw and the people they met, none of these important stories would have been told.

It is for this reason that the ongoing deliberations of the federal Heritage Committee on its draft report into the future of the media industry this week are so important -- not just to the media sector, but to all of us who are enriched as a society by the stories it reports.

In an era of fake news, and as the type of reporting recognized by the Hillmans is becoming increasingly difficult to do, these deliberations are vital. The Heritage Committee needs to get this right.

We need the right mix of tax policy and regulatory support to encourage growth and strength in the media industry.

The guiding principle for the committee needs to be fairness across the industry, and a level playing field. For example, existing government supports such as tax credits and production funds must be made equally available to all media providers who deliver quality Canadian content, whether through Internet, film, broadcast, newspapers or magazines.

To help ensure our incredible media outlets can survive through this time of upheaval as the ad-driven model for funding quality journalism falls apart, there needs to be some form of government support to assist those who need it.

Longer term, we need the right mix of tax policy and regulatory support to encourage growth and strength in the media industry so they can keep reflecting our communities in their stories.

A strong democracy depends on a strong media to keep voters and the public informed. But the digital revolution has undermined the very basis of this vital industry, as Google and Facebook have siphoned off advertising revenue that once funded our print and broadcast outlets -- turning ad dollars into digital dimes.

newspaper printer

(Photo: Zefart via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, streaming services such as Netflix have grabbed viewers, without being required to contribute to the same Canadian content funds that traditional broadcasters must. A simple GST on subscription fees would fix that.

This was the message when Unifor sent a team of journalists and other media workers to Ottawa earlier this year to meet with Members of Parliament and senior policy officials. They talked about how important it was that journalists are in the streets of their communities, meeting their neighbours and local leaders and able to tell the stories that communities need to hear.

This is the kind of feet-on-the-ground reporting that produced the Hillman winners -- stories that changed workers compensation in Ontario, exposed the systemic racism that oppresses Aboriginal communities and shed a light on the high human cost of cheap food.

We need to find a way to help ensure that a strong media, the stories they tell, and the changes those stories bring about, continue well into the future.

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