Volume XVI | Issue 2 | Fall 2016
Leif Coorlim (center), an executive editor at CNN, interviews Italy’s Minister of Education Stefania Giannini in Rome. The Italian government will use CNN Freedom Project stories to educate the country’s 9 million students about human trafficking. Photo: CNN

Justice and opportunity

Ford Scholar tells stories of human trafficking to raise awareness, promote solutions 

Leif Coorlim says there are two clear themes in his work as an executive editor at CNN: justice and opportunity. Whether uncovering evidence of human trafficking in the southern United States or speaking before the European Parliament regarding modern-day slavery and the migrant crisis in Europe, he looks for ways to highlight injustices and change the narrative. 

Leif Coorlim

 “I don’t tell these stories just to uncover a problem, but rather to find a solution and to engage the right people to address the issue,” Coorlim says. 

Being a catalyst

Coorlim, a Ford Scholar, Class of 1997, understands the importance of one small action causing a chain reaction that can lead to something great. Prior to college, he had never left the country. Now he estimates he has traveled to more than 50 countries in pursuit of news stories. 

He credits receiving the Ford Family scholarship as the catalyst in a chain of events that led him from Gladstone, Oregon, to Brussels, Belgium, to report on the terrorist attacks for CNN. 

Coorlim enrolled at the University of Portland where a professor pointed him to an internship with a local television station, which ultimately led to a permanent job with the local FOX affiliate. 

From there, he moved to the FOX affiliate in Washington D.C., and finally to CNN, where he worked in Atlanta and now Los Angeles. 

Coorlim directed the documentary, “Innocence for Sale,” about Cambodian girls working in a brothel. A year later, he was entrusted to build the concept that would ultimately become The CNN Freedom Project. According to its website, The CNN Freedom Project seeks “to amplify the voices of the victims of modern-day slavery, highlight success stories and help unravel the tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life.” 

Through his work on The CNN Freedom Project, Coorlim has told hundreds of stories of human trafficking, from Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico, North Africa, Haiti, and many points in between, including the United States. Two recent projects in the United States include a documentary with Jada Pinkett Smith, “Children for Sale,” and a report on wounded veterans who were retrained to help find and rescue exploited children. 

Coorlim’s work has been the catalyst for many positive changes with a worldwide impact. The film with Pinkett Smith played an instrumental role in passing a law in Georgia that provides harsher penalties for traffickers and extends increased protections and supports for victims. 

Additionally, Coorlim notes “The CNN Freedom Project stories have contributed to changing laws and corporate policies, led to more than 1,000 survivors being rescued, and sparked more than $24 million in donations to anti-trafficking organizations.”

Human rights/social justice

In the future, he hopes to tell more stories that showcase human rights and social justice issues. 

“People think of it as activism journalism, but it isn’t. It’s just journalism. We tell the facts as they are on the ground. Stories are vetted. The principle of objectivity still applies. We seek out both sides just like reporters would on any other topic. But we stay on the story as long as it takes, and we’ve seen some amazing examples of what can happen as a result of that.” 


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