Symposium hosts discussion on safety for journalism students

By Lauren Crociati

(Jessica Picard/Collegian)
(Jessica Picard/Collegian)

The parents of James Foley, a journalist who was killed by the Islamic State group in 2014, visited the University of Massachusetts on Tuesday to lead a discussion on safety within the journalistic field. John and Diane Foley, accompanied by journalist Charles Sennott, led the event.

Students were invited to attend the discussion, which focused on the truth about journalists’ safety and how it can improve in the future. The Foleys frequently commented on precautions that could have been taken to prevent their son’s murder. The students were given some background on Foley and his life, but the event was used as a way to warn students of the risks and dangers of working in the field, and focused largely on discussing steps that can be taken in order to create a safer working environment.

Diane Foley opened the discussion with a statement that familiarized audience members with her son’s sense of passion and morality.

“Jim loved journalism. It was his second career and it took him a while to find journalism. He was first a teacher, and he was always a teacher. That’s why he would be very happy with us using his experience as a journalist to help keep you safer,” she said.

Sennott, the co-founder of GlobalPost, a news organization that Foley wrote for at the time of his death, used his time to discuss alternatives to taking a story that requires a journalist to be on the field in a warzone.

“Don’t start in the Middle East covering conflict,” said Sennott. He urged students to first gain experience in the field rather than catapulting into a dangerous situation simply because it seems like an enormous opportunity.

Sennott noted the current transformation of journalism from print to digital. He explained that at one point in his career, he was given the opportunity to physically sit down and speak with terrorist groups. Sennott made known that this is no longer possible because groups can now use the internet to convey their motives and have become unwelcoming of reporters who wish to seek them individually.

“When I was reporting in the Middle East 20 years ago, I wore a press badge and I could go talk to Hezbollah,” explained Sennott. “I could go and meet with what the U.S. still considers a terrorist organization, and I could talk with them because they needed to get their message out.”

If Foley were reporting at an earlier time, Sennott felt that the incident may not have occurred.

John Foley later delineated his and his wife’s goals for the future of journalism. They participate in the A Culture of Safety Alliance, also known as the ACOS Alliance, which encourages news organizations to provide safety for the journalists that they employ. The ACOS Alliance continuously advocates for the protection of journalists, which requires extensive training for each reporter.

“One of our efforts is to start a safety course,” said John Foley.

Ian Munnelly, a junior English and journalism major, felt a sense of comfort after sitting in on the discussion.

“It’s amazing, especially for me, to hear that I’m not entering into something that is the same as it always was. I am entering into something that is on the precipice of change. It can become whatever the world needs it to become as long as we choose to make it there,” said Munnelly, adding that the discussion left him feeling secure in his choice to enter the field.

This event was one of seven in “The Task of Witnessing: A Symposium in Honor of James W. Foley,” hosted by the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute in collaboration with the journalism department and the MFA program.

Lauren Crociati can be reached at [email protected].