Jon Stewart, Bob Woodward to discuss military and veterans issues at UChicago event

Harris Public Policy white paper inspires April 6 symposium with War Horse News

A daylong symposium on April 6 at the University of Chicago will examine military and veterans issues and will feature veterans activist and TV host Jon Stewart, award-winning journalist Bob Woodward and more.

The event springs from a white paper written by David Chrisinger, executive director of the Writing Workshop at the Harris School of Public Policy, and two students, Ellie Vorhaben, MPP’22, and Graham Harwood, Class of 2023. Chrisinger and the students analyzed the results of a survey of Americans with connections to the U.S. military, which resulted in the white paper that has attracted attention from the national security establishment.

The War Horse Symposium will be hosted by Harris Public Policy and The War Horse News, an award-winning non-profit newsroom, and will be held at the Logan Center for the Arts. It will explore themes from the white paper, including how military “news deserts” threaten national security, what it will take to bridge the troubling military-civilian divide and the potential for good that lies at the intersection of solutions-based journalism and public policy.

The event, which includes keynotes, fireside chats, panel discussions and student-only sessions, also will feature U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Captain Florent Groberg, veteran and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michéle Flournoy.

The white paper, titled “Engagement, Not Enragement: Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide and Bolstering National Security by Holding the Powerful to Account with More Rigorous, Solutions-Focused Journalism,” analyzes the findings of a 150-question War Horse reader survey that explored views of the coverage of military-related topics, what effect that coverage has, what readers appreciate and what they don’t like.

The white paper also explores how, as the number of journalists with direct military connections decline, there are fewer reporters covering these stories who have an interest in or understanding of the military. 

“The findings of the survey were incredibly interesting, and you really began to understand how strongly people felt about a wide range of veterans- and military-related issues, particularly those that stem from insufficient media coverage,” Vorhaben said.

More than half of the survey respondents said they have no or very little trust in the current media landscape to accurately cover the issues affecting military servicemembers, veterans and their families. Sixty-five percent of respondents said that the media have widened the military-civilian divide, and 9% of respondents said the media ignore military families and veterans.

“At its worst, the lack of coverage is leading to an increased civ-mil divide that is dangerous when transitioning service members don’t feel like they fit in and civilians don’t know how to connect/hire/support them,” one of the survey responses read. 

Another survey participant said: “Biased reporting often increases stereotypes of the veteran as a villain, victim or hero.”

The symposium will seek to explore the human impact of military service with a wide range of people. 

“The participation of senior leaders from the DOD and VA alongside such influential journalists underscores the critical role that military reporting has on our national security and the health of our democracy,” said Thomas Brennan, executive director of The War Horse. “I hope this event—and the white paper itself—helps to shed light on how issues that may seem limited to veterans and military families in truth have major implications for all Americans.”

The effort began when Chrisinger, who also directs writing seminars at The War Horse, decided to use the findings of the survey to write a story for the newsroom’s audience. As part of a fellowship for the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Brennan had surveyed War Horse readers and media about military and veterans. About 400 people responded, including high-ranking officials, military public affairs officers, journalists and executive directors of national nonprofits.

To get started, Vorhaben and Harwood reviewed the extensive data set from that survey and began to identify potential themes and stories. Then, Chrisinger and the two students built outlines and discovered “interesting, almost cheeky, paradoxical findings of what people say they want and then what they get mad about,” Chrisinger said.

Most readers who completed the survey said the most crucial role that newsrooms can play is to hold the powerful to account for malfeasance and misconduct. This desire for accountability can seem incongruent, however, with some of their responses to open-ended questions calling for more positive stories about the military and those affiliated with it, the white paper notes.

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