Her storytelling draws from two worlds

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Christina MacGillivray in Madhubani, India, near the border with Nepal, with a crowd from the nearby village behind her.

Christina Lee MacGillivray interned at IRW while working on a master’s degree in journalism at NYU. She recently talked with managing editor Lynne Perri about her work in human rights and how her storytelling skills have grown.

How has your international work in human rights influenced your journalism? Or how have your journalism skills enhanced your human-rights work? 

Part of my work in international human rights was to seek out individuals in different countries to share their stories of migration. For example, this could be in commercial fishing areas outside Bangkok, with nonprofits in Kuala Lumpur or migrant shelters in Europe. These stories ranged from hopeful to extremely violent.

This skill set overlaps with producing a documentary: finding interesting people, asking them questions and producing the interview. But my training in human rights made me acutely aware of showing individuals as full people — who experience friendship, love, hope, struggle and failure like anyone else – and not reducing them to trauma or the worst incident in their lives. Every story has unique editorial demands, but this training has informed my approach to journalism, particularly in showing empathy toward people who are migrants, refugees and others who have experienced trauma. 

Journalism has enhanced my work in human rights by sharpening my storytelling and inspiring me to pitch much larger-scale projects.

Do you find yourself wishing every story could be told as a podcast?

Yes! But not every story should be a podcast. Serialized podcasts work well for character-driven stories told in chronological order. If I produced “Protect Water or Advance Green Energy” as a podcast series, I would likely find one character to follow, develop and dramatize for each section and minimize the more abstract sections. But the debate between the economic trade offs and the environment would make a great episode of Planet Money

One thing I love about creating podcast series — especially if you have an issue that could be considered dry — is the ability to inject spoken tone and enthusiasm into the story. For example, I co-executive produce a podcast series investigating why women have been plummeting out of the workforce in India at an alarming rate. The series is called Women in Labour.

At face value, the topic of “female labor-force participation rates” might cause an audience to fall asleep because it sounds endlessly dry. But I co-host the podcast with one of India’s top comedians, Aditi Mittal. Her humor and zeal breathe tremendous life into the program. 

Not only have we kept an audience intrigued but we also have produced 30 episodes and have grown that audience. to several hundred thousand listeners — not bad for a seemingly dry topic.

How did your time at IRW shape your reporting? How has this impacted your current projects?

My time at IRW provided me with two unique opportunities. First, the chance to report a thoroughly researched, long-form investigative story: “Protect water or advance green energy.” The luxury of time provided us the ability to showcase a full overview of the story, which I think was missing in previous reporting on the Minnesota mines and serves an important public-interest purpose. Second, it gave me access to incredible editors who were excellent guides during the duration of reporting, writing and editing.

What are one or two takeaways from your graduate work at NYU?

Fact-check like your life depends on it (someone else’s actually might) and strictly adhere  to best ethical practices.

What are you currently working on? 

I have three podcast projects in production. We are releasing Women in Labour season two across all major podcast platforms. 

I also host the United Nations Human Rights Office’s first podcast series, where I get to interview creative professionals — from chefs, artists, musicians and authors to activists — who use their work to engage with immigration and human rights. Guests include mural artist Saype; Define American’s founder Jose Antonio Vargas, Indigineous climate change and migration activist Niria Alicia; Alien Nation editor Sofija Stefanovic and many more. 

The third project is a series produced with New York University’s American Journalism Online program, which follows a crime that took place more than 30 years ago. We have most of the reporting completed for this scripted series and are looking forward to the next steps in production.