McNamara brings her international investigative journalism skills to the classroom
Mei-Ling McNamara is a lecturer of journalism in the School of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University. She currently teaches newswriting, reporting, and literary journalism. Prior to beginning her work at Auburn, McNamara taught at the University of Colorado Boulder as an assistant professor of journalism. While there, she focused on her research interests in human rights and social justice. As someone who was always interested in the South, McNamara saw the opportunity to lecture at Auburn as a great position. She recognized the potential for new stories and the abundance of interesting work being done in the School of Communication and Journalism.
McNamara began her studies at the University of California Davis where she gained an undergraduate degree in English and spent her final year studying abroad in the United Kingdom. McNamara went on to earn two master’s degrees: one in American poetry and literature, and one in journalism. She also earned her doctorate in trans-disciplinary documentary film at The University of Edinburgh, Scotland. McNamara says her PhD route was not confined to a traditional discipline. “The PhD brought my creative research interests and practical professional skills together. It combined the practical application of documentary film with the theoretical application of trauma theory and legal structures around trafficking survivors in the UK,” McNamara explains. “I was able to pursue all these different frameworks through the academic lens, but also to create documentary journalism around real people going through this process.”
In the years before earning her master’s degree in journalism, McNamara traveled to Madagascar, Africa. For several years she worked alongside a British charity, training local journalists to produce radio programs covering crucial subject matter such as HIV and AIDS. She and her team would script dramas and work collaboratively with local Malagasy trainers and radio stations to take the stories into remote villages. The goal of this work was to provide education to anyone unaware of the health consequences associated with these illnesses. McNamara also lived in Morocco where she taught English, and in Senegal where she worked on a travel guidebook.
In 2008, McNamara returned to the UK to continue her education with a master’s degree in journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. During this time, she became very involved in both the broadcast and print journalism industries, including investigative documentary film. Since then, McNamara has worked as a reporter, producer and director for prominent news organizations, including CNN International, Al Jazeera English, and The Guardian.
Following graduation, she returned to the states to work in Washington, D.C. for a human rights organization. During her time with this organization, McNamara was able to see the effect journalism could have on society. She said, “I realized the power that a good writer could have for people, the power to hold the powerful accountable.” McNamara strives to give her readers the facts they need to create change and to right injustices happening in society. She claims, “My journalism work now is not a direct appeal to advocacy, in the sense that I am trying to change people’s minds, but instead to uncover injustices to allow for people and institutions to take meaningful action where they can.” She believes this work is uniquely important because real change needs to come from the community. It is her goal to give a voice to underprivileged individuals who lack the platforms to tell their story.
In recent years, McNamara has focused on investigative work that takes a closer look at human trafficking survivors and how they are being criminalized within the justice system. A major issue McNamara recently covered in the series with The Guardian was the exploitation and trafficking of Vietnamese citizens into the United Kingdom to be used for labor. This project was extremely important to her because, although the issue was widely acknowledged, no one was giving victims opportunities to share their stories and shed light on this crisis.
McNamara explained her interest in trafficking and exploitation by saying, “Human trafficking itself is obviously a horrible human rights violation, but it is also an indictment of society and the way we treat people before, during and after the violation has taken place.” These discoveries encouraged her to pursue further investigations surrounding the intersections between the criminal justice system and vulnerable groups, whether they be migrants or individuals in society who do not have social capital.
When she returned to the U.S, McNamara’s attention turned to the issue of trafficking within the population of incarcerated females. The women with whom she would eventually work with had been exploited and abused their whole lives and now find themselves stuck in a cycle of incarceration. McNamara was not only attempting to uncover what was going on within the prison systems, but she was also trying to make a point about how society views different demographics and the underlying reasons why this issue had not been addressed for so long.
After spending two years conducting investigative work in prisons in Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas with incarcerated men and women, she completed a number of multimedia stories alongside a 30-minute documentary for the Guardian's international platforms. The film is the most viewed in the Guardian’s history—amassing over 20 million views to date. On this project, McNamara was the reporter, producer, and director. This documentary, titled “The Trap,” can be viewed on The Guardian’s website.
McNamara is conducting her research and writing these stories for many reasons, and one is to empower younger generations to feel they are capable of making a difference. She says if her work has the power to make one student care about something and allow them to feel that they can take action that is fulfilling in itself. McNamara says, “In this time, more than ever, it’s hard for young people to feel empowered, to feel that they have the agency to address the world’s concerns. I believe it is the job of an academic to empower those students.”
When speaking about her career trajectory, McNamara explains, “Life is really not a straight line. I have tended to go where I care about things the most, or where I have felt like I need to be at the moment. I want students to know that if you want to find something that matters to you, you can do it.”
Currently, McNamara is investigating stories surrounding inequity, race, and gender within the criminal justice system in Alabama.
For any students wanting to become involved in creating change within their communities, McNamara says, “Do the things that make you get out of bed. What you care about the most. Whatever that thing is—and everyone has that thing—do that. And if that thing you care about changes, go with that change. Your life is not static, your life will contain many different interests and many different passions and many different avenues. The important thing is to listen and follow them.”