Charles Sennott’s remarks to the James Foley Freedom Awards on accepting the World Press Freedom Award.

I am truly honored and humbled by this award. Thank you.

Thank you all for being here. I want to thank the James Foley Legacy Foundation and most of all I want to thank Diane. 

Thank you for living your faith every day, Diane. Thank you for understanding Jim’s calling as a journalist. Thank you for fighting for freelance journalists everywhere, and especially for the families of those wrongfully detained. And thanks to you and John and the whole Foley family for the foundation you’ve created to honor Jim’s legacy and the “moral courage” that defined his life. 

There are so many stories of Jim’s moral courage. The most searing perhaps was the unfathomable strength he showed in captivity in Syria where his fellow hostages described how he would boost their spirits with kindness and his own irrepressible sense of mischief and humor. Even in a prison cell, Jim could find a way to make you feel better. And he was selfless. He would sit nearest to the door of the cell so the ISIS fighters would take him first if there were to be beatings that day. …

But there were also the more subtle, daily examples of Jim’s extraordinary bearing as a person and who he was as a reporter. One I remember was his first big story for us at GlobalPost. Jim was embedded in 2010 with the 101st Airborne Division in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. His video camera was running as an armored Humvee made a slow, dangerous turn toward Asadabad. Suddenly there was incoming. Private Justin Greer was in the gunner turret and collapsed down into the vehicle. Greer was shot in the head.

Jim made a split-second decision to turn his video camera away from the wounded soldier. He focused his lens on the soldier’s helmet on the floor of the Humvee. It was a small act of human decency, a sense of caring for the ground rules, privacy considerations, and concerns for the wounded soldier’s family – all of that humanity came into play for Jim as someone with brothers and a sister in the military and parents who served others as a doctor and a nurse.

As it turned out, the camera angle provided the reveal. The bullet that they feared had entered Greer’s head was visibly wedged in the Kevlar mesh of the helmet. Jim’s camera catches two big hands of a fellow infantryman picking up the helmet. And you hear wonderfully profane joy as they realize the helmet stopped the bullet, and Greer was going to make it.

The story led the CBS News and it was prominently featured on the PBS NewsHour. It was good work, a small but very human moment of war. It was very Jim. 

Jim’s calling to bear witness to the innocent lives caught up in war has provided a true north for us at The GroundTruth Project. After Jim was gone, he stayed with us guiding me on a journey to build our organization, a nonprofit with a mission to give a new generation of journalists the opportunities, resources and safety training they need to serve as reporters in communities in under-covered corners of the world.

We officially launched in 2014, the same month that Jim was killed, and we built a small organization funding a dozen or so fellowships a year. Today we have placed more than 600 journalists in 300 local newsrooms across all 50 states as part of our Report for America service program. And we have placed about 50 more local reporters in more than 20 countries through our newer Report for the World initiative.

We are building a movement.  I would like to thank my Ground Truth team for working to make the vision a reality, and to those board members and donors who are here tonight.

Jim’s murder changed all of us, coming in a terrible year when so many close colleagues were killed in covering the unrest of the so-called Arab Spring. It compelled our tribe of international frontline journalists to change the relationship between freelancers and news organizations. Following his murder, a group of us who worked as editors with freelancers came together and forged A Culture of Safety, or ACOS, an organization that today has 150 newsrooms that’ve committed to its Journalist Safety Principles. I’m honored to have played a role in getting that off the ground. 

This award challenges all of us to keep fighting for press freedom, to try to find ways to protect journalists in the field to offer hope to a new generation who will serve in the field. And to never forget those journalists who are still being held hostage or wrongfully detained like Evan Gershkovich and Austin Tice and too many others to name. 

It is heart-wrenching to think of our colleagues in prisons in Egypt and Myanmar or those who are suffering and left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq as the foreign press corps has moved on from those datelines. I think of those reporters right now in Ukraine and Gaza facing one of the deadliest years on record with nearly 100 journalists killed in Gaza alone. 

Accepting this award must come with an honest re-assessment of the limitations of what is sometimes called parachute journalism. We’ve been working on this for a very long time, trying to make sure that a network of freelance journalists could live in the region where they work and understand the language and its culture and bring it into their reporting.

But that idea—as important as it is—is not enough. 

We have to concede that there is a deeper crisis in journalism, a crisis of faith in what it does, a loss of trust. Around the world, places where I have reported – where many of us have rushed in to step up coverage over the years – are almost all worse off than when we started filing from there: Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Egypt, Myanmar, the list is long. 

I believe the challenge now for all of us who care about press freedom is not just to cover the story, but to help build local news ecosystems in each of these places. We have to support local reporters who serve their own local communities in their own countries if we are going to truly affect change. 

That challenge lands amid a crisis in local news that is truly global. Brazil. South Africa. and India.

They are all places where local news has evaporated and as a result, democracy has been eroded. 

This crisis is particularly stark right here in the United States. Here the crisis in local news has become a crisis for our democracy.

2.5 newspapers die every week in America. It is a collapse of an industry that threatens not only journalism but truth itself. 

Consider Youngstown, Ohio. I was there watching the last run of the printing presses at a once great newspaper called The Vindicator, and it was like being at a wake for an American newspaper. Suddenly there was no watchdog left in that city. A news desert was taking shape as it is in hundreds of communities across America.

In the Mississippi, Delta, I was there seeing how the state’s prison system was flagrantly violating inmate’s rights with a surge in deaths and there was no one there to record that disgrace. Until we placed a talented, young reporter there through Report for America and she took on the story.

On the global level, one place in the world that the crisis in local news feels most distressing is Ukraine.

As I have learned, local, independent news organizations across the Dunbas were systematically shut down and intimidated into silence by Russia and its oligarchs who wanted to replace journalism with misinformation and disinformation. As we have all learned, the Russian approach worked in many ways and paved Putin’s march to Crimea in 2014 and then to the unprovoked and full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

I will leave in three days for Ukraine to speak at the Bucha Conference, a city that was brutalized in the first phase of the war and which has been rebuilt. And I am pleased to report it has a resilient and innovative new local news organization called the Bucha City. So there are green shoots in the global news deserts. And there are small examples of hope in digital newsrooms around the world that we are supporting through Report for the World. 

As part of this work, I have gotten to know the amazing team at Ukrainska Pravda, or UP, which is one of Ukraine’s most respected daily news organizations. I’ve been in their newsroom in the dead of winter and in the darkened stairways when the power is out. And I have heard their own narrative of building a trusted news organization to serve their own country through public service journalism. They launched in April 2000 as the first digital news organization in Ukraine, and at that point one of its only independent voices focusing on the corruption and brutality of Russian-backed oligarchs infiltrating their government. Like Jim Foley, they had a moment that changed them. Their founding publisher, Georgy Gongadzy, was brutally assassinated just after their launch. The heroic team at UP continues to be inspired by his legacy through a fierce commitment to covering the war and we are proud to be supporting them through Report for the World to look specifically at the issue of ‘ecocide,’ the deliberate destruction of Ukraine’s environment by Russia which has a long and devastating history dating back to Stalin.

More than any reporting I did there on the ground, perhaps the most tangible way I was able to help UP was lugging a solar-powered generator from a warehouse in Poland to Kyiv to keep their laptops going and the heat on when the bombing knocked out the power grid. It was a practical and effective way to power change and to keep the lights on. It stands as a metaphor for what is needed now more than anything to support press freedom and that is to support the local reporters who are there risking their lives and struggling to serve their own communities.

In these challenging times, it is not just journalism that is struggling to survive.

Truth is on the line; democracy is on the line.

In a deeply divided time of war and uncertainty, when it feels like the skies are darkening, we just have to look to the northern skies and there is a star there – a constellation of journalists with moral courage who can be inspired by their Jim or their Georgy – and we just have to let those stars guide us on a path forward out of the darkness. That’s the way we keep the lights on.