The rewards of student life’s little detours
For Ann Dowsett Johnston, Artsci’75, studying at Queen’s was a transformative experience. Co-chairing a campus-wide arts festival and studying a history course in 1975, the year that the Watergate scandal led to the downfall of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, are two of the events the celebrated journalist identifies as helping to shape her future award-winning career.
“It’s the detours that we take during that rich four-year experience that make such an impression and help us find our way,” she reflects. “Running the Arts Festival in my third year had a huge effect on me in terms of understanding that you can make a difference. Then the Watergate scandal broke right when I was taking Geoff Smith’s History 273 course on “Conspiracy and Dissent in American History.” I’d find myself in the stacks in the library supposedly researching English or history essays, but avidly reading Harper’s and The Atlantic.”
Peter C. Newman, a long-time editor of Maclean’s, gave the young graduate her first break in journalism: a summer internship that turned into a 30-year career at the magazine.
During her time there, Ann won five National Magazine Awards and numerous other honours. Best known as the architect of the annual Maclean’s university rankings, she pioneered a system of evaluating higher education in Canada in 1992 and shaped all educational coverage at the magazine for 14 years.
It was during this time that she became intrigued by what she perceived to be an increase in drinking among young people, especially women. Keen to delve further into the issue, she successfully applied for the 2010 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. During her year of research and writing, she traveled the world to find out about drinking patterns and alcohol policy across Canada and in other countries. The result was Ann’s 14-part series for the Toronto Star investigating the growing problem of alcohol abuse among women and the harms associated with alcoholism.
“While democratically Canadian men and women are equal, we’re not equal metabolically or hormonally, and because of this women are more at risk of the health consequences of drinking,” she explains, pointing out that while alcohol sales in this country totaled $19.9 billion in 2010, direct alcohol-related costs for health care and enforcement exceeded the direct revenue in most Canadian jurisdictions.
Interestingly, an issue Ann raised in her Atkinson report was the recent increase in the feminization of alcohol advertising – from “skinny girl” cocktails to a Girls’ Night Out wine brand and wine in purse-sized packets.
“We’re upfront about the health problems with trans-fats and tanning beds, but we don’t know the details and the consequences of our most popular drug,” she says. “For me, this lack of comfort in talking about alcohol in our society made it a prime case for advocacy journalism.”
Following suit, her next investigative project is a book on girls, women, alcohol, and health. The Drinking Diaries is slated for publication later this year.