Jim Foley’s legacy of journalism and public service

James Foley Libya

These days, many people don’t think of journalism as a defense of liberty, not with President Trump labeling us “the enemy of the people.” They aren’t thinking of the media as courageous in bearing witness, when they are served cat stories on BuzzFeed. And they aren’t likely to think of what we do as a public service with polls indicating that trust in the media is as low as it has ever been.

But then again most people never had a chance to meet Jim Foley.

James W. Foley was one of the most passionately committed journalists I’ve worked with through more than 30 years in this craft, and he was definitely driven by a sense of public service, and a moral courage fueled by the belief that journalism in its heart is about bearing witness and about giving a voice to the voiceless.

This Saturday, Jim will be remembered during the 2017 James W. Foley Freedom Run/Walk 5K, a charity run in his hometown in New Hampshire intended to mark his birthday and to honor his memory. The money raised through this third annual ‘Foley 5k’ will help support the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation which is dedicated to advocacy for freelance journalists and for the families of those held hostage. Please consider giving.

From that terrible moment when Jim was taken hostage while reporting in Syria on Thanksgiving Day in 2012 to the darkest day when he was executed by the so-called Islamic State in 2014, Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, and their four surviving children have consistently been a source of light. They have focused on Jim’s sense of a calling to bear witness as a journalist.

Their extraordinary faith has led them to never question Jim’s belief that what he was doing as a reporter covering a war zone mattered, that bearing witness was an act of moral courage and ultimately, public service. GroundTruth is honored to be partnering with the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation with a new fellowship in Jim’s name for freelance reporters working in the Middle East. Please check out our call for applications to the fellowship here.

Jim’s life was all about service. He went to college at Marquette University, where the message of service is woven into the teaching of the Jesuit tradition. And right out of college, he joined Teach for America and offered four years of service to students in a troubled, inner-city school where his fluency in Spanish allowed him to get close to a group of kids who, at the time of his death, shared with unbearable poignancy how they have never forgotten the lessons Jim taught them. He went to the University of Massachusetts where he entered a master’s program in writing, but spent much of his time in the Pioneer Valley at a center for unwed mothers in Holyoke which has a poverty rate that stands in stark contrast to the pleasant campuses of the five colleges that surround it.

And during his studies for a master’s degree in journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University, he once again found a path to service by volunteering in the Jumpstart program in Chicago which helped convicted felons transition back into society.

Jim’s family is centered on service, although they don’t really seem very comfortable calling it that. His father is a doctor, his mother is a nurse and three of his siblings served in the military.

“He just found meaning in helping others,” said Jim’s father.

“He wanted to be a part of something bigger,” said Jim’s younger brother, John. “He wanted to know he was doing what’s right and giving a voice to those who didn’t have one.”

And the way all of them have shouldered the grief and the loss of Jim has served as an inspiration to all of us in the tribe of journalism who knew Jim, and who miss him.

They as a family seem to be living out a shared commitment to service, by being there to continue supporting the best kind of journalism that is not opinionated or loud, that is not trite or about click bait, but that is all about being there on the ground and bearing witness to people suffering from injustice and violence.

Journalism has been struggling financially for well over a decade as Jim knew all too well. In Jim’s work for us at GlobalPost and at The GroundTruth Project, he was often struggling to get by. He was among a legion of freelancers who set out to cover the Arab Spring at a time when staff jobs, particularly on the foreign desk, are hard to find at newspapers and networks which are increasingly hollowed out by a collapsing business model.

We’ve all heard about the failures of traditional media as a business, but something we are thinking about a lot more these days is the deeper failing of journalism to remember that in the end of the day it is all about public service. In the end of the day, it’s about bearing witness not only in conflict zones in foreign countries but also right here in American cities and towns where the ravages of a fading industrial economy and failing schools and corrupt politicians are leaving huge swaths of the country fearful for their future and distrusting of a media that too often just isn’t there to listen to what they have to say.

With great inspiration from the life of Jim Foley, GroundTruth is hoping to rekindle some of that spirit of public service particularly in local news through a new initiative we are calling Report for America.

This initiative is also inspired more broadly by other national service models, including Teach for America, the Peace Corps and City Year that have effectively put out a call to service and created a movement for change. Backed by Google News Lab, the Knight Foundation, the Galloway Family Foundation and others, GroundTruth is setting up our first pilot for Report for America in rural Appalachia by supporting three, full-time reporting positions at starting salaries with benefits in news organizations that serve West Virginia and Kentucky.

The deadline for applications is November 1, so if you know someone who wants to be part of the next generation of journalists and who is inspired by Jim Foley’s life of service, please encourage them to apply and to watch out for more opportunities in other, under-covered parts of America in the coming weeks and months.

This year, GroundTruth is fielding a team of 25 participants in the Foley 5k in New Hampshire and from remote locations around the world from Boston to Istanbul. I will be running in Ireland where I’ll be on assignment with my brother, a photographer who also worked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Every step of the way, we will be thinking of Jim and, yes, when we are pulled into the comforting shadows of a pub for a velvety Guinness we will also be thinking of Jim. We think of him all the time. And we like to think that Jim would have really liked this idea of Report for America. Cheers, Jim, and happy birthday.

Charles Sennott is the founder and CEO of The GroundTruth Project and the co-founder of GlobalPost and Report for America.