David Rohde, Foreign Affairs Columnist, Reuters
Junger Offers Wisdom and Urges Caution at OPC Foundation Scholar Awards Luncheon
February 20, 2015
by Chad Bouchard
This year’s Overseas Press Club Foundation Scholar Awards Luncheon featured stories of inspiration and optimism -- a welcome antidote to a year of tragic news for foreign correspondents.
The keynote speaker, award-winning journalist, filmmaker and author Sebastian Junger, told the 15 OPC Foundation scholars he was impressed by award winners’ work, and encouraged the group to pursue the vocation he called "an almost sacred task.”
Eleven of this year’s scholars have fellowships around the globe with the Associated Press, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and the GroundTruth Project.
“This is a critical missing link in the career of many young people,” OPC Foundation President Bill Holstein said. “They need to get on the ground and get that first dose of professional experience; the first ratification of their talent.”
Scholars shared stories of their past projects and talked about what seeded their passion for journalism. Transforming suffering and hardship into positive work emerged as a common theme of the afternoon event.
Theo Wilson Scholarship winner Fatima Bhojani, a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who grew up in Karachi during violent upheaval, talked about her reporting on children who live under the threat of drone attacks in northwest Pakistan.
“The reason I’m so fascinated by violence and terrorism is that these are not just abstract forces that have fundamentally shaped my life,” she said. “You can either run away from it or embrace it and create something from it. I hope I can create something meaningful out of what’s been given to me.”
Yale University student Alexander Saeedy won the foundation’s first ever Fritz Beebe Fellowship, which is aimed at aspiring business journalists. The fellowship, endowed by former OPC President Larry Martz and his wife Anne, will take Saeedy to Belgium to work for Reuters, where he will bolster his pursuit of a business journalism career.
H.L. Stevenson Fellowship winner J.p. Lawrence spoke about meeting Ugandan soldiers working for U.S. contractors while he was serving with the U.S. Army National Guard in Iraq. He learned that they had not been compensated for injuries sustained during their work. His fellowship will take him to the Associated Press bureau in Uganda, where he plans to follow up with those contacts.
Roy Rowan Scholarship winner Tusha Mittal, also a journalism student at Columbia University, talked about covering brutal conflict in eastern India, and visiting massive migrant labor camps in Abu Dhabi. She plans to work with the GroundTruth Project to return and continue telling their stories.
Kyle Walker, a senior at the University of Tulsa and winner of the David R. Schweisberg Memorial Scholarship, compared journalism to noisemakers he’d seen in a festival procession during a trip to Croatia, a tradition meant to scare away malevolent forces.
“Journalism seems to be about making some noise, throwing light on things, getting people’s attention. It’s like there’s this apotropaic effect of knowledge,” he said. “We’ve got to stave off the darkness in some small way.”
During his keynote speech, Junger offered advice and words of caution as he recounted his first impulsive foray into foreign reporting during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. Ambitious but unprepared and inexperienced, he packed a bag, flew to Vienna and showed up at the Associated Press bureau, disheveled and sweating, ready to cover the war.
"You know, we're actually fine," he remember an editor telling him that day, "But maybe you would like a glass of water?"
Undeterred, Junger eventually found work covering the war in Sarejevo, and embarked on a career that included covering the war in Afghanistan.
He said part of the power of journalism is that you don’t need an advanced degree or “permission” to go report in risky areas, which “makes the profession and the world wide open to people,” but can also put early-career journalists in danger.
“One of the downsides of journalism is that it’s incredibly exciting, and you really can get sucked into the drama and the adventure and the thrill of frontline war reporting,” he said.
He warned the foundation’s scholars that covering conflict “almost inevitably” causes mental trauma, and “it’s something that you all need to take care of.”
Junger decided to stop war reporting after his friend, filmmaker Tim Hetherington, died from a shrapnel wound while covering the civil war in Libya in 2011. He felt he no longer wanted to risk causing grief and stress among family and friends.
“The situations that really disturbed me psychologically, isn’t danger to yourself, it’s the pain of others,” he said.
Hetherington died from blood loss that might have been preventable if colleagues near him had been trained to stop the bleeding. In his honor, Junger founded Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) to give free combat training and frontline medicine for experienced freelancers who cover wars.
The award winners were feted to a reception the night before at Reuters honoring them and former OPC Foundation scholars. Before and after the luncheon, they met with foreign editors from the Associated Press, BuzzFeed, New York Times and Reuters. On the day after the luncheon, the winners all attended situational awareness and risk management training provided by the Washington DC-based Global Journalist Security. The day's program, which was funded by an anonymous donor, was hosted by the AP. (Photos by Michael Dames)