Boots on the Ground: Published!

It’s not available on DVD or anything, but the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and the University of Calgary have decided that my documentary was up to snuff.

It’s now officially published on their website.

I also wrote an article to accompany it that focuses on the coursework, while the documentary is more about the “hands on” portion of the course. (Edit: It appeared on their website until recently. 13/9/2011)

Putting their Boots on the Ground

July 5, 2011 — “It controls the public opinion back home,” a Calgary soldier told me of the Canadian news media. “So [journalists] need to have a basic knowledge in order to effectively report what they are seeing.”

During his tours of duty in Afghanistan, he saw his share of journalists lacking a basic understanding of the Canadian Forces’ rank structure, terminology, mission, culture and more. However, referring to the young journalists before him, he concluded that such experiences may soon be a thing of the past.

This past May, 12 journalism students and recent graduates were sponsored by the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies to attend a ten-day course at the University of Calgary. For over 10 years, the Canadian Military Journalism Course has given attendees an introduction to the skills and rigours involved in the nuanced field of military journalism.

A cornerstone of the program was making it possible for the students to meet Canadian Forces members, test their attitudes on the media and learn about military culture. Students met active and reserve units at Calgary’s Mewata Armoury and a nearby base. A Forces public relations officer also spoke to the class about where to look for information, navigating “operational security” – military guidelines limiting the release of sensitive information – and highlighted a good journalist’s constant need to be skeptical of official sources.

A message repeated during the course was to dig past official releases to ensure an accurate story. As always, whether through Freedom of Information requests or finding a commissioned officer to corroborate a rumour, it ultimately rests on the journalist to get the facts straight.

Beyond showing how basic journalism skills can be applied to the military, the course encouraged debate about the ethical dilemmas military journalists may face. For example, maintaining a journalist’s neutral method is inevitably complicated when a journalist lives, eats and sleeps with the Forces members he or she is reporting on.

These issues do not stop overseas, either. In Canada, journalists must deal with families, businesses and organizations involved with the Forces. A father of a fallen soldier told his story of dealing with aggressive Canadian media, and called upon the students to help break the cycle of turning families such as his into symbols of grief. Both he and several soldiers agreed that the best angle to take on a military story is similar to that of a human interest piece.

Still, lectures, course materials and visits pale in comparison to what experience can teach. Adam Day, a journalist and attendee of the first CMJC classes, is now a veteran military reporter of Bosnia and Afghanistan. He encouraged the students to keep their eyes and ears open for rumours, and heads on a swivel. Once again, basics come into play: never assume a certain angle on a story before getting the facts, take notes on everything and understand that one errant story can ruin a soldier’s career.

Thankfully, unlike Day, the 12 of us young journalists didn’t have to drive into a conflict zone to get a taste of the military journalist experience. When the introductory coursework came to an end, a bus was waiting to take us to CFB Edmonton, where we would indeed be living, eating and sleeping with the Canadian Forces.

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