UAF students get real world experience reporting in Iraq

In part to get students out of the workplace and into live work environments, a UAF professor is taking three journalism students into one of the most unique work settings in the world: as embedded journalists in Iraq.

For three weeks in August the students will report from Baqubah at the Forward Operation Base Warhorse. They will be embedded with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team – 1st Brigade of the 1-25th Infantry Division.

Interim department chair for the UAF journalism department Brain Patrick O’Donoghue, who will be accompanying the students, said a war zone is as valid a learning environment as any.

“This is an exciting and tremendous opportunity for these students,” O’Donoghue said.

He said it wouldn’t have happened without the support of University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, who first passed the idea by several staffers at the Sun Star, the UAF student newspaper. From there the ball began to roll.

“Because of Hamilton, this was designed and approved – and because he pushed for us, a special grant from BP Conoco Money [was allocated to the project],” O’Donoghue said.

This year, a UA Foundation Grant of $35,000 was awarded to the embedded journalist project.

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O’Donoghue said that travel cost – totaling over $10,000 – was the single biggest expenditure. Other costs included two laptops, video cameras, a digital SLR camera and health and life insurance for the reporters.

“We were at first looking at a death and dismemberment policy – which was really gruesome,” O’Donoghue said. “But then Reporters Without Borders, an insurance organization out of Canada began to offer U.S. reporters coverage – for less of the cost – including a $200,000 life insurance premium, full paralysis, job retraining, and loss of limbs.”

With the funding in place to send the students, then came the actual task of finding them.

In April, UAF journalism students received an e-mail from the department inviting them to apply for the project. Five students were then chosen, three of which would be principal candidates, and two stand-ins.

The applicants had to submit an essay explaining why they thought they would make a good candidate, character references and proof that they were of sound mind and good health. Their families were then contacted for validation.

“I’ve tried to talk to people about it – be candid with them about the shocking things they might encounter,” said O’Donoghue, who started his career working as a photojournalist in Cairo. “But talking to the families was a little like shock and awe.”

Jenny Canfield, 25, a former UAA journalism student who transferred to UAF last year was one of the three chosen. Her primary task for the project will be to file audio stories, as well as updating the media team’s blog. She said that reaction toward her going to Iraq was a mixed bag.

“Some of the people closest to me have been the least supportive because they’re worried. But the people whom I respect in the field are pulling for me,” said Canfield who is currently the news director at KNBA Radio Station in Anchorage.

“My mom’s not really excited about it, but she’s cool with it,” Canfield said. “She started getting into the whole idea of it, referring to Iraq as the Cradle of Civilization – maybe it was her way of romanticizing the situation.”

Canfield, a senior slated to graduate this fall, said she met a similar reception last year when she went to study abroad in Morocco for four months.

“But I went over there and I showed that I was alright, that I could go to a place like that and survive,” she said.

Jessica Hoffman, a journalism major in her senior year, will be working chiefly with video and photography, although all three students have been advised to be ready to file written stories daily.

She said she is primarily concerned about having to come up with stories.

“It’s a lot of pressure to do a story a day – and to acclimate to being in Iraq of course – but finding stories and coming up with stories – and the potential of dying or losing an arm or a leg. That’s kind of scary.”

Hoffman isn’t naive to the hazards of war. Her father was in the army for 20 years. He served and was injured in Vietnam.

She said that one of her advantages over the other two students is that she is well versed in military lingo and lifestyle. Her brother is currently in the Air Force and her boyfriend recently retired from the military and is now a contractor at the base.

Hoffman, 28, is currently residing in North Carolina, taking distance courses at UAF. She works as a research analysis and maintenance photographer and video documenter of military testing at Fort Bragg.

“I like to be in all the action and get the cool shots, and I like adventure,” said Hoffman. “But this is also about getting to help document an important war for our time, for future generations. And I get to experience, in a way, what my brother and friends have experienced.”

Hoffman said her friends have told her that she’s crazy for wanting to go to Iraq, but she hasn’t been confronted with social political opinions.

“Nobody I have told about this has really said anything about government funding or anti-embedding. Maybe I’m not hanging out with the right people to get that kind of opinion.”

The third winning candidate, Tom Hewitt, 26, also a senior journalism student with a second major in computer science said he has been hit with both sides.

“It’s like both sides of the fence are against it for their own reason. Some people within the journalism community think that being embedded makes me beholden to the military – that the only way to go over there and be objective is to go on your own,” Hewitt said. “But then random people who hear about me going over come up and tell me that they don’t think war is a place for journalists – that it compromises the military’s efforts.”

He said this idea stems from the Vietnam War, where journalists were blamed for America’s failure to win the war by turning public opinion against it.

“In a sense they’re right, but that’s what’s right about it: keeping the people informed,” Hewitt said. “The job of journalists is to be honest and to report the facts. If things do go wrong, it’s best to have someone over there who’s objective instead of the military just covering their butt. There’s no such thing as a good war – even the military will tell you that.”

Hewitt, the newly appointed editor in chief at the Sun Star, the UAF student paper, said his motivation to participate in the project is both professional and personal.

“This is personally important to me, because I considered joining the military before going to college,” Hewitt said. “A lot of those guys over there are the same age as me. I want to see what my life might have been like had I joined.”

The lives of the soldiers in the Stryker Brigade will be the main focus for student journalists. This is their second deployment and they are preparing to return home at the end of summer.

The troops have recently begun pulling back, relinquishing their control to Iraqi troops, and there is a possibility that the students will see no combat.

The students have been studying and preparing for all possibilities. They’ve been holding weekly conference calls with professors, war correspondents and military officers.

“Can you really make someone prepared to go into a war zone?” O’Donoghue said. “The idea of students getting out of the classroom has always been controversial. But the best way to learn is to do.”

He said the project is groundbreaking, and quite possibly the way of the future for journalists.

“News organizations cannot afford to cover the daily story that is unfolding over there any longer,” O’Donoghue said. “Everyone is talking about news organizations not having enough money and nonprofits having to work together with them. This project seems to fit this mold and I would not go over there to cover a war that is financed by the government.”