Foley Foundation creates safety modules for journalism professors to help students covering pandemic, protests

Four years after creating safety modules for journalism graduate students, Thomas Durkin, education program director at the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, realized many undergraduates were out reporting in situations that required awareness and decided to take action.

“We would talk to students. I remember being at the University of Michigan and a student told me about how he arrived at a shooting and didn’t know what protocols to use, what to ask,” said Durkin, who was James Foley’s best friend and now also an English professor at Marquette University, where they both attended. James Foley, was an American freelance reporter who was killed by ISIS in 2014 and for whom the Foley Foundation is named for.

“We asked ourselves, why are we waiting until graduate school to teach journalists about safety? These undergrads are working as journalists,” Durkin said. “So, to not have them prepared in particular at places like Marquette where it’s inner-city. Students are out there working as journalists and they are being taught how to interview people but they aren’t being taught how to do a risk assessment.”

The Foley Foundation collaborated with the Marquette University Diederich College of Communication to create 12 safety modules for undergraduate journalism professors to work into their classes. (Photo by Bob Chiarito)

Indeed, many undergrads freelance for professional publications and many work for student publications that have been covering the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests and chaos that was kicked off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25.

Durkin and his colleagues at the Foley Foundation collaborated with the Marquette University Diederich College of Communication to create 12 modules for undergraduate journalism professors to work into their classes. Several focus on broad topics that apply to most scenarios, such as making a risk assessment, digital security, and self-care. Others are more specific, such as creating a culture of safety in a newsroom, covering foreign conflicts, covering natural disasters and weather-related events and a new module recently created, the 13th, on covering the COVID-19 pandemic.

The modules, which are largely a collection of news stories and other resources, are free for universities to use and are meant to be integrated in already established classes, not their own class, which is largely what separates the undergraduate modules from the graduate modules that have been around since 2016.

“What’s really hard at the undergraduate level at any school is trying to introduce new courses,” Durkin said. “One of our concerns was for undergraduates to show professors and instructors that they don’t have to change their course. They can add this to it. They don’t have to do anything in a linear fashion. There are 13 different modules. You can pick what works for your course. The student may end up doing some similar stuff in other courses but in our minds that just reinforces it. As an English major you don’t say I already read this book in another course, I don’t need it.”

One professor who has already implemented the modules is Bill Gentile, an American University Professor and former foreign correspondent who spent several years reporting from Mexico and Nicaragua. For Gentile, who created and teaches a class called Foreign Correspondent for undergraduates and graduate students, the Foley Foundation modules supplement what he’s already been teaching and are nice because they focus on more issues than the ones faced by reporters going overseas.

“It isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s become a real necessity because you have these young people going to cover places like Minneapolis and they need this training. It’s not just for foreign correspondents,” Gentile said.

“What the Foley Foundation has done by creating these modules, there’s a summary to it. It’s basically articles,” Durkin said. “I summarized the articles and provided discussion questions. For each module there’s probably 5-10 resources. I don’t expect a professor to use 5-10. You can read the summaries and use the discussion questions, or you can use the articles and skip the discussion questions. I’m just trying to make it as easy as possible. We’ve done the research for them.”

Durkin said the undergraduate modules, first introduced at James Foley’s alma mater Marquette in the fall of 2019, is now available for any school that wants to implement it, for no cost. They are contained online in a PDF that can be easily tweaked, as a lot of the topics change and need to be updated.

“We don’t feel like it’s proprietary,” Durkin said. “The reason we did it is that we want people to be safe. All we want from them is the ability to list them on our website because a lot of this is momentum. If you’re a journalism school, you do not want to be left behind… My plan is to go through it and update it each year. Things change fast so things can get outdated,” Durkin said.

He also said that he’s heard from employers who have told him that college students with safety training are more attractive candidates when it comes to hiring reporters.

“We were at Columbia University with ACOS for an event and representatives from media companies were there and they told us if they were looking to hire someone and knew a candidate who had safety training, they would be more hirable because it makes it easier to on-board them,” Durkin said.

“We wouldn’t hire someone only on that basis but it’s definitely an added plus,” Hervé Rouach, Chief Editor, North America for Agence France-Presse said. “I’ve never thought about it but it’s very useful. People need to be properly trained, properly equipped, so it’s something positive.”

Shamus Toomey, editor in chief and co-founder of Block Club Chicago, a news organization that focuses on neighborhood news and has done many stories about the COVID-19 pandemic and protests and unrest following the death of George Floyd, said it’s nice to know young reporters are getting training rather than having to pick up tips as they go along.

“There are a lot of journalism skills that don’t get taught in the classroom. Reporters often have to learn them on the job by watching others or picking the brains of veteran reporters. It’s great to hear such important skills will be taught by this program. I know it’s something that would catch my eye from a job applicant,” Toomey said.

Moni Basu, a former CNN correspondent who spent a lot of time reporting from Iraq and currently teaches journalism at the University of Florida said fending for herself is exactly how she learned and is not what she advises young reporters to do.

“I never had any training and know that is not the right way to do it,” Basu said. She added that she’s implemented the modules into a class on crisis reporting that she developed called “Reporting from Ground Zero.”

“The James Foley Foundation materials are absolutely essential,” Basu said.

One thing that professors like Basu and Gentile who have implemented it into their classes already seem to like is that it doesn’t force them to stop what they are teaching to focus solely on safety. Rather, they can choose what they feel applies and use it in their class, often as only a conversation starter.

“You could pull pieces very easily and that’s what I’ve done,” said Lauren Walsh, a New York University faculty member who runs the school’s photojournalism program.

“I think it’s absolutely integral that all journalism students start thinking about it,” Walsh said, adding that because they haven’t been working long, they haven’t developed bad habits that need to be addressed, another reason why it makes sense to teach undergrads. So far, she said her students have enjoyed the addition of the modules.

“I present it with the language of journalistic safety but also that it’s an essential piece of journalism. The students have been great with it…Contrary to what one might think, they were really on board with setting up protocols. I met no resistance and they are students so there’s no need to change bad habits,” Walsh said. “They aren’t fighting against what they’ve been doing for the last ten years, which is another reason to start implementing at a younger level…I think it should be in all journalism schools.”

To download the safety modules from the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, click here.

Bob Chiarito is a Chicago-based freelancer who has written for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently covering the coronavirus pandemic for The New York Times, Block Club Chicago and Agence France-Presse.

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