Asper Fellow eyes nuance, context in knee-jerk world

Special to Western NewsFor 20 years, Hannah Sung has been a familiar voice in various roles across in Canadian media: manager, producer, reporter, VJ, host, podcaster and columnist at TVO, CBC, The Globe and Mail, Much Music and the Toronto Star. Today, she is the 11th Asper Fellowship in Media at Western.

Social media has its place in the debate. But when audiences seek answers to larger questions – Where are we? How did we get here? – veteran Canadian journalist Hannah Sung argues that podcasts offer a unique way of elevating the conversation above the noise.

“The idea of a podcast lends itself to more nuance, more context, less knee-jerk reaction,” explained Sung, who is teaching a Faculty of Information & Media Studies (FIMS) graduate course on podcasts this semester. “Social media is all about keeping things out of context and letting it spin out and live in a vacuum of no context. Podcasts, however, are engrossing in terms of your interaction.”

For 20 years, Sung has been a familiar voice in various roles in Canadian media: manager, producer, reporter, VJ, host, podcaster and columnist at TVO, CBC, The Globe and Mail, Much Music and the Toronto Star.

Today, she is the 11th Asper Fellowship in Media at Western.

Podcasting is the fastest-growing area of media in recent years. There are currently more than 750,000 podcasts with more than 30 million episodes in the iTunes catalogue – and that number was outdated by the time you read it.

In 2016, Sung and Denise Balkissoon produced and co-hosted one of the more popular Canadian podcasts. The Colour Code was a 12-part podcast about race in Canada. The pair decided to begin the show after hearing “interesting and sometimes abusive” racialized social media conversations that weren’t making their way to mainstream media.

“We felt with the nuance that was needed to do that conversation responsibly, it made sense to do it as a podcast.”

The Globe & Mail production was named among iTunes’ best podcasts of that year.

The course at Western is not so much a how-to as a why-to. It is about establishing a foundation for students to explore the possibilities of the medium.

Podcasts can shine a brighter spotlight on race, systemic discrimination, government policy, gender and climate change – all polarizing issues that demand a more in-depth format than social media or conventional stories might offer, Sung said.

One of the course’s required listening pieces is Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo, an eight-part podcast by the CBC’s Connie Walker that highlights the life, disappearance and death of a young Cree girl from Saskatchewan.

“That is the kind of context and nuance you need to get more nuance and more background. That’s, for me, really important as on-ramps to getting (the Canadian public) involved in current events and news and following news events and social change,” she said.

“The speed of change is so rapid and we need all this context, all the history we didn’t get in history class, in order to get to where we are today.”

To understand the Wet’suwet’en First Nation’s protests against a pipeline in northern British Columbia, for example, requires a grounding in the Indian Act, treaties and the difference between hereditary and elected chiefs.

She said the public demand for bite-sized news on social media is still compatible, not competing, with this demand for long-form stories. “Sometimes, people are in the mood for a small snack. Sometimes, they’re in the mood for a giant buffet. To me, it’s about having it available in the format you want, when you want it.”

Sung said Western has been warmly welcoming and it has been a pleasure to work with students who “are really thinking deeply about the elements of storytelling and journalism and how the two can be married.”

Personally and professionally, low representation of women, particularly women of colour, in the media remains a concern for her.

Sung is among a group of Canadian women – calling themselves #MediaGirlfriends – who meet regularly for peer support on social media and in-person events.

They recently resolved to provide scholarships that would boost young women and non-binary people in journalism, media, technology or communications during a pivotal point in their lives.

Their initial goal was a $3,000 scholarship. Now, though, they have crowd-sourced enough money to provide two $7,000 scholarships, one for a graduating high-school student and the other for a woman or non-binary person already enrolled in a college or university program, with careers in journalism or storytelling in mind. The application deadline for that scholarship is April 30.