Journalism in Conflict Zones

November 27 2009

AU co-pilots course with Department of National Defence, Wainwright, Alberta

Military personnel are highly trained to react in intense situations. What about journalists - specifically war correspondents - who are also right there in the thick of the action, but whose training in a controlled classroom environment is focused on "who, what, when, where and why"? Athabasca University is helping to expand that training.

In May 2009, AU, in conjunction with the Department of National Defence, premiered Communication Studies 451: Journalism in Conflict Zones. The six-month course features a practicum of on-site field experience held at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright.

Capt. Tom St.Denis, exercise media operations officer, says the CMTC has had a program for journalism students since it became operational in May 2006. Students were recruited from post-secondary institutions across Canada that offered journalism courses. At the time, the CMTC offered work experience as opposed to any formal arrangement such as a recognized practicum or internship. In an effort to economize the recruitment process, the CMTC approached Athabasca University.

St.Denis says that as an open university that spans the nation, "AU was seen as a single portal through which to recruit. AU students include many working journalists seeking to upgrade their professional knowledge, and it was these more mature and experienced individuals that CMTC wanted to attract to the program."

Dr. Evelyn Ellerman, coordinator of AU's communication studies program, was impressed by the intent and design of the CMTC program. "The longer we discussed (it), the more I became convinced that we could develop a project course for students that would incorporate the field experience at Wainwright and provide a much-needed set of skills and knowledge for those of our students who wanted to develop a specialization in war correspondence. This field experience was a natural fit for a set of project courses that already exist within the communication studies program."

"There are currently no other opportunities in Canada for journalists or journalism students to acquire first-hand knowledge of the military and of working conditions in conflict zones," she says.

After all the talking was done, agreements were signed, course outlines finalized, and the 10 students in this first cohort were on board, CMNS 451 began. It was in the nuts and bolts, involving three weeks of simulated war games in typical Afghan villages provided at CFB Wainwright, that the work for the students and their mentors got underway.

Overall, students and mentors were extremely positive about the first practicum, and Ellerman says many asked if they could return. Even before the first course began, students were clamouring for a second offering, which was added in August, and even more are interested in the third, which will take place in January 2010 at a California army base.

In addition to positive comments by the AU participants, military personnel commented they had noticed a "quantum" improvement in the quality of the interviews and broadcasts produced by the AU cohort.

Visit the photo gallery to see students and faculty in action.