From the Editor

Drescher: Three defiant voices tell courageous stories

jdrescher@newsobserver.comMay 19, 2012 

I was asked to speak Sunday to the graduates of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Here is a condensed version:

Some of you plan a career in news. Many of you do not. You might go into advertising, public relations, law, business, nonprofit work or teaching.

But regardless of what field you go into, a powerful, truthful, well-told story can move people and change the course of history. I urge you to find important stories and to tell them well.

Sometimes that takes courage. We are blessed with the First Amendment. But all over the world, people are risking their lives to tell stories. These storytellers are trying to make a difference. I’m going to tell you about three of them.

Making a difference

I want to tell you about Maryam Durani. She owns and operates a radio station in southern Afghanistan. She focuses on women’s issues. That makes her a target of the Taliban. It believes in a highly restricted role for women. Durani has survived several assassination attempts. But she continues to tell stories.

I want to tell you about Ali Ferzat. He’s a cartoonist in Syria. He’s embraced the democracy movement there. When he turned his pen on President Assad, masked men beat the cartoonist and broke both his hands. But they could not break his determination. He’s drawing again. And now he has an audience not just in Syria but across the world.

I want to tell you about Dina Meza. She’s a reporter in Honduras. She writes about corruption and human-rights issues. She’s been threatened with mutilation by the group CAM. That group often has threatened journalists since a 2009 coup overthrew the government elected by the people. Since that coup, 19 journalists have been killed in Honduras.

Durani, Ferzat, Meza – these defiant, courageous voices are changing the world with their stories.

That great drum major for freedom, Martin Luther King Jr., said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I would add that it only bends toward justice when the storytellers have the courage to speak out.

This Journalism School has prepared you to tell stories in different media. All these new tools offer danger and opportunity. No matter what form your storytelling takes, aim for the truth.

It won’t be long before the storytelling tools will evolve again. When you were freshmen, Twitter was barely alive. By the time this year’s freshmen graduate, there will be other shifts in technology.

Old-school values

The people who adapt to change but still hold on to the best values of their parents and grandparents will be the people who make the biggest difference. They also will be the people who lead the most rewarding lives.

As I grapple with change every day, I keep a note card on my desk. It reminds me of the values that are most important to me. Written on it are six core beliefs of President Harry Truman, as described by historian David McCullough. McCullough said Truman’s personal style resonated with the American people because he stood for common sense and common decency. Truman’s six core beliefs were old school. But they stand the test of time.

They were: Work hard. Do your best. Speak the truth. Assume no airs. Trust in God. Have no fear.

Technology changes, but our best values do not. If storytellers in Afghanistan, Syria and Honduras can have the courage to tell their stories, you can have the courage to tell yours.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or On Twitter @john_drescher

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