Editor’s Note: This op-ed originally ran in Neiman Reports
By Zack Baddorf
Executive Director/Founder of Military Veterans in Journalism
Since the attacks of 9/11, the United States has been in a perpetual state of fighting, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. About 7,000 American troops have been killed and at least another 50,000 wounded. One study estimates the U.S. federal price tag of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts at $5.9 trillion.
Despite more than 18 years of war, America’s newsrooms have been shockingly negligent in hiring reporters who know these conflicts and their impacts best—our veterans.
Only 1.1 percent of media workers in the U.S. are post-9/11 military veterans while about 7 percent of Americans have served in the military, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Not one major media organization in the United States lists the percentage of veterans they employ in their annual diversity reports.
It’s thus unsurprising that there is so little concerted media focus on the 1.38 million military members serving at home and in harm’s way around the world. A poll last year showed 42 percent of likely U.S. voters either believe we are not at war in Afghanistan or aren’t sure if we are. There’s also consistently shoddy reporting about everything from assault rifles to veterans.
As a military veteran, I’ve focused most of my news reporting over the past 15 years on national security and foreign policy, covering conflict in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and elsewhere. I used insider knowledge and connections in the U.S. military to provide a perspective not normally found in American news outlets reporting on war. My military experience makes me a stronger journalist.
My friend and colleague, CBS News associate producer Russell Midori, told me his professional experience gained in the Marine Corps has also deeply influenced his work in journalism. He found his military training prepared him for the chaotic nature of shooting day-of-air stories and made him an asset to CBS News teams when he embedded with Iraqi forces during the Battle of Mosul.
“Journalism requires a mission-accomplishment mindset to meet hard deadlines for detail-oriented work,” Midori told me. “Once veterans get into a media organization, our experience and training help us to fit in well.”
Midori and I are not alone in applying our military experience to our journalism.
When Marine Corps veteran Paul Szoldra was interning at Business Insider, two powerful explosions rocked the finish line of the Boston Marathon. He saw how the whole newsroom became momentarily transfixed to the smoldering chaos on TV.
“But then about a half second later, you could see everyone in the newsroom getting down in front of their desks, getting on the phones and doing their jobs as reporters,” Szoldra said.
Szoldra, a former infantryman, instantly recognized this personal detachment from a national tragedy as a soldierly virtue. Reporters call it objectivity.
“In combat, soldiers learn to detach from their emotions and ultimately protect their fellow soldiers,” said Szoldra, who now works as the editor in chief of the news website Task & Purpose. “In journalism, reporters learn to detach from their emotions and report what they see.”
Aside from deep understanding and technical knowledge of the military and veteran issues, vets bring with them objectivity, neutrality, and ability to work in crises—all valuable attributes for newsrooms.
Yet it can be a struggle for veterans to break into journalism.
I know firsthand. While in the Navy, I built up a strong portfolio of stories and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. As a newly-minted civilian, I applied for many dozens of entry-level local reporting jobs across the country yet wasn’t interviewed once. It was frustrating and discouraging.
Likewise, Midori’s biggest challenge “was just getting the job,” he said. “I applied to every TV station and news network with available positions and heard nothing back.” It was only through “a few lucky breaks” that he managed to “get over the tall walls” of journalism, he added. Despite the post-9/11 GI Bill, Midori went into debt attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Veterans are already at least four years behind their peers because of their decision to serve. They’re often so experienced that hiring managers don’t want to put them in an internship.
The media doesn’t have much incentive to pursue veterans or others with diverse backgrounds, because the hiring pipeline is full of people who can afford to work for what is often effectively poverty wages.
This isn’t a sob story. I ended up freelancing and grew my media career bit by bit. I’m extremely proud of the stories that I’ve filed over the years. After years in the civilian workforce, I now know that I could have done more to seek mentors, consider internships, and create relationships with editors that could lead to more stable employment in journalism.
Over the past few years, both Midori and I have been informally supporting young veterans looking to jump into the news business. Earlier this year, we founded the nonprofit organization Military Veterans in Journalism so that newly-separated veterans don’t have to struggle in the ways we did. We have a simple goal: get more veterans hired in America’s newsrooms. We’re creating networks and opportunities, including a mentorship program. We’re talking with newsrooms about creating fellowships and holding workshops that put vets on the right track.
Ultimately, we’re both passionate about journalism. “I wanted to be a journalist for the same reasons I wanted to be a Marine,” Midori said. “There’s adventure in this type of work and it gives you a sense of purpose.”
On Veterans Day, we at Military Veterans in Journalism call on America’s newsrooms to examine their hiring practices and work with organizations like ours to support veterans in joining the media industry.