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Thalidomide survivor Marie Harnois peels a cucumber in her home in Drummondville, Quebec, March 29, 2015. The government annnounced an annual pension payout for victims of the drug.The Globe and Mail

Anyone who doubts the ability of journalism to inspire should meet Stella McLeod.

Her mother, Kristen, recently wrote to Ingrid Peritz, a Globe reporter in Montreal, describing how the 11-year-old Grade 5 student came to choose a subject for her science project at St. Pius X, an elementary school in Regina.

"Every morning before she goes to school, she reads The Globe and, when they were choosing their topics, she was reading your articles on thalidomide."

Last November, Ms. Peritz launched a high-profile series about the victims of the infamous drug approved decades earlier for pregnant women suffering from insomnia and morning sickness. Their children, many of them born with shortened, flipper-like limbs, are now in their 50s, largely forgotten and living on stretched finances – as well as in pain.

Stella worked for months on her project, Kristen told Ms. Peritz. "She would look every day for what you had written."

After searching out the right photos and representations of how thalidomide caused the birth defects, "she wrote a beautiful report, in French and English." It included a molecular model of the drug's chemical structure, along with a pill bottle filled with Tic Tacs (coloured to match that structure).

When the time came to present her project, Kristen added, Stella "dressed up as a journalist," wearing a blazer, fake glasses and a press pass, "because it was you, she determined, who helped the victims with their push to the federal government."

The government had been asked to help with the aging victims' financial burden, and last Friday, Health Minister Rona Ambrose announced that the almost 100 survivors will receive pensions up to $100,000 a year for life.

Ms. Peritz wrote that story as well and, later the same night, stood on stage in Toronto to accept a National Newspaper Award – the series had been chosen as the special project of the year. She told the audience how inspired she was by the grace and dignity of those born with severe disabilities who had struggled so long for proper compensation.

Many of those she was talking about agree with Stella McLeod – they say that, without Ms. Peritz and The Globe series, the federal assistance likely wouldn't have happened.

Now, according to Mercedes Benegbi, head of Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, the survivors will be able to "live and age with dignity."

That power of journalism to draw attention to a societal problem and then help find a solution is something that mainstream media (and perhaps a few well-funded websites) still demonstrate best. While social media have a great ability to amplify a message, traditional news organizations are the best at creating one, with original reporting that can be showcased on their front page and home page, as well as newscasts, phone and tablet applications – and then through social media.

Once a story grabs the public's attention (and that of decision makers), it is vital that new angles be found, new sources uncovered and the issue kept alive. The audience's appetite can be insatiable – in fact, the survivors so inspired readers that many urged The Globe to keep up the pressure for a reasonable settlement.

In an e-mail to Stella, Ms. Peritz said that part of her goal in writing about the plight of thalidomide victims "was to bring the terrible events to the attention to a new generation of Canadians who were very young or not yet alive when it occurred. As a society we have to use history to learn from our mistakes and make sure they don't happen again. Projects like yours ensure that the memory of the tragedy lives on for future decision-makers.

"When I began researching my article on thalidomide last year, what struck me most among the drug's victims was their feeling that Canadians had forgotten about them. People like you are taking steps so that won't happen."

Her mother reports that young Stella was so affected that "sometimes, when she would tell people about it, she would tear up. She learned a good deal about politics and victims and fairness and unfairness."

She also won the science competition at École St. Pius X, took home the award for "historical thinking" at the regional contest, and next week goes to the provincial finals.

The Globe series also has more competitions ahead: Ms. Peritz, photographer Michelle Siu and the rest of the team responsible for it are finalists for the Michener Award for public-service journalism and the Canadian Journalism Foundation's award for excellence.

But journalism that serves the public by righting a wrong really needs no other reward.

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