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Medill Students Cover NATO Summit

National security class news stories picked up by Chicago Tribune and others

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May 17, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley
NATO press officer Damien Arnaud discusses key issues and logistics surrounding the NATO Summit with graduate students in Medill’s U.S. Security and Civil Liberties Reporting class. Photo by Stephen Anzaldi

CHICAGO --- On the eve of Chicago’s first NATO summit, 18 Northwestern University graduate students in Medill’s U.S. Security and Civil Liberties Reporting class are writing stories about the issues NATO ministers will debate here -- and reporting their research in real-world publications in the U.S. and Europe.

Medill Professors Timothy McNulty and William Handy broke the class into several groups on a recent night to focus on the issues confronting G-8 and NATO leaders as they meet this weekend at Camp David, Md., and in Chicago, as well as on the long-term implications of those policy questions.

Their students are publishing their stories in the National Strategy Forum Review and the Chicago Tribune, and they are preparing articles for the website European Union Institute for Security Studies as part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative.

Two news graphics reported by students from the Initiative appeared in the Chicago Tribune today (May 17), one titled "NATO: 63 years, 3 major phases" in the Nation & World section and the other, "Shifting topics: How the G-8 got this far," in the business section. 

The class, the published work and, particularly, the national security research these students are doing offer a compelling window into the practical reporting experience Medill students are getting these days -- training that few journalism programs, if any, can match.

“I think it’s a great class, and it offers real-world reporting on something huge in Chicago,” said Elizabeth Bunn, 25, of Springfield, Ill. She is working toward her master of science in journalism (MSJ) with a concentration in broadcast and business. Her issue is the economic crisis in Europe and the impact austerity programs there could have on defense capabilities.

“It’s probably my most rewarding class. We’re putting out stories that real people will see,” added Kelly Gustafson, 23, of Homer Glen, Ill. She is now in the third quarter of her MSJ program and focusing in this class on training programs for Afghan soldiers and what comes next when NATO allies start drawing down troops in 2014.

The 18 advanced graduate students have reporting beats including food security, ballistic missile defense, eurozone economics, civil disobedience and rights of the minority, energy security, smart defense initiative, Afghanistan transition and NATO 3.0. Two of the students are fully credentialed for the NATO summit being held May 20 and 21 at McCormick Place, and they will be reporting from the summit itself.

The class website, part of the National Security Journalism Initiative at Medill, launched this week, but the students already have produced stories for clients and links to client sites, plus other summit coverage and analysis written specifically for the site.

Through the initiative, started by Medill in 2009, the school is providing journalists-in-training and working journalists with the knowledge and skills necessary to report accurately, completely and with context on events and issues related to defense, security and civil liberties.

The initiative aims to expand single courses previously offered by Medill in Evanston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. -- on covering conflicts and terrorism, and the press and the Pentagon -- and to include new classes focused on national security, homeland security and civil liberties. It has been funded by grants totaling $2.3 million from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and $200,000 from the Carnegie Corporation.

According to the initiative’s mission statement, the program “will help journalists develop more effective storytelling approaches and innovative presentation and distribution techniques, with a goal of better engaging the public in these important topics. It will support original research and establish thought leadership on media and journalistic performance on these topics, always with an emphasis on the public interest.”

McNulty co-directs the initiative with Ellen Shearer, a professor of journalism and director of Medill’s Washington program, where Medill graduate students have attended for more than four decades to get firsthand reporting experience in the nation’s capital.

The initiative includes an array of different elements, including Medill’s National Security Zone website with “how to” guides, student reports and special projects, produced by Assistant Professor Scott Anderson; a variety of classes in national security and civil liberties issues; and annual conferences to raise public awareness and train reporters -- last year’s was held in Washington on the topic: “Covering the Military at Home and Abroad.”

The Washington reporting experience is a major element of the program, including a course on “Covering Conflicts, Terrorism and National Security” that provides invaluable training for journalists. Another member of the National Security Journalism Initiative team, Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach, teaches the conflicts course.

“The reason we started this initiative is that most journalists don’t have any familiarity with national security issues, the military and homeland security,” Shearer said. “It’s such a focus in the world now with America’s wars and the threat of terrorism. These are such important topics, but it’s been an area most schools and most reporters don’t get.”

“For more than a decade now, the nexus of civil liberties and national security has become of major importance to Americans,” McNulty observed. “The question is: Are civil liberties being protected enough with the increases we’ve seen in security, or is there a lack of civil liberties now?

“You need to understand how these things came about. That’s one major thing we need to concentrate on. It’s true for both young journalists in training and for working journalists in practice.” 

The Washington program has shown its power to have an impact on the public good, and for the last two years graduate student journalists, in a special three-month reporting project led by Meyer and Shearer, have done national security special reporting projects that resulted in revealing and powerful stories:

  • Hidden Surge: A three-month investigation by a team of 10 Medill student reporters found significant gaps between the health care and support for the 665,000 National Guardsmen and reservists who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and their active-duty counterparts. The project, called Hidden Surge, published Feb. 15 in The Washington Post, found that many have been hastily channeled through a post-deployment process that has been plagued with difficulties, including reliance on self-reporting to identify health problems. Read the full story at the Medill National Security Zone website.

  • Global Warning: Graduate students working on a Medill special reporting project traveled the globe, investigating the effects of climate change on national security. Among their reports was a look at how the U.S. intelligence community is studying a vast and complex array of changes being brought about by climbing temperatures -- and trying to understand how it will impact U.S. interests at home and abroad. A full website with their findings can be found at Global-Warning.org.

“I like our students to see what high-impact journalism can do,” Meyer noted. “I want them to know that journalism can have a big and a real impact.”

Students have high praise for the Washington program and the course Covering Conflicts, Terrorism and National Security. Part of that course is a stint in the country where security firm experts give them “hostile environment training” and put them through realistic practice of the things they will discover if they ever cover wars and terrorism.

Gabe Silverman, 29, from Silver Spring, Md., and Jamie Coughlin, 24, of Minnetonka, Minn., both finished their course work in 2011 at Medill for an MSJ, and both worked in India subsequently in news jobs they found through their Medill contacts and the Global Journalism Residency Program. Medill Professor Handy is the coordinator of the program.

“What really stands out in my mind was the hostile environment training,” Silverman said. “A lot of it is about situations, God willing, I’ll never be in -- how to avoid sniper fire or mortar fire, or how you manage a person with a wound or a bone sticking out of his leg.

“Particularly useful was the checkpoint simulation we had,” he added. “If you’re abroad, how do you act and how much cash do you bring on your person, or what do you present when they ask what’s in your pocket -- very practical tips. And in this instance, it was very helpful.

“We were pulled over with a friend in Goa and shaken down,” he recalled. “Directly as a result of our training, Jamie and I were able to negotiate the bribe down from $200 to $20, and the officer was like our best friend afterwards.”

The training could also be helpful covering dangerous stories about global terrorism, all too common these days.

Meyer just published a new book, “The Hunt for KSM,” focusing on the deep dysfunction that plagued the intelligence community before and since 9/11.

The book was touted by its publisher as “a gripping tale of international intrigue and a compelling portrait of one of the most evil men in history.” Meyer and co-author Terry McDermott say Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the focus of the book, “is the prototype of the modern, stateless enemy likely to haunt the United States for decades to come.” More details on the book can be found at the Medill National Security Zone website.

Chicago’s hosting of the first NATO summit ever held here provided an ideal input for the curriculum of McNulty’s and Handy’s reporting class this quarter, and the event underscores the importance of the wide-ranging scope of Medill’s National Security Initiative.

The students already produced background articles on G-8 and NATO that were published earlier this month in the National Strategy Forum Review print and online editions and provide useful research and information for anyone interested in being briefed on summit issues. The NSF Review is distributed online and in limited print to a national and international audience.
 All of the stories in the G-8 and NATO summits section were reported and written by the students.

Chicago Tribune editors have visited the class and are working with the students to convert their research into informational graphics, maps and tables to run in the newspaper and present information in a readily accessible and understandable manner.

In addition to the security issues, students are covering other aspects of the summit, including the expected protests. Kaitlyn Laabs, 25, of Redlands, Calif., plans to stay downtown and to follow the demonstrators and any civil disobedience that may occur.

“I’m not concerned about possible violence, I’m excited about covering the story,” she said.

Another student, Blake Williams, 23, from Dayton, Ohio, was focusing on cybersecurity for the class, but was truly proud of the real-world experience. “I really look at this class as an incredible resume builder,” he noted. “I’m applying for jobs now, and I’ve got the Tribune as a client, and I’ve got the National Strategy Forum as a client. That’s amazing.”