Monday, April 29, 2013

The story of returning veterans is a big one that can be hard to cover; here's some help

The return of almost 2 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a big story for rural journalists because military service members come disproportionately from rural communities, and the services they need are often more difficult to get in rural areas. The story can be hard to cover, for many reasons, but several experts and advocates provided insight and guidance for reporters at a regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists in St. Louis on April 27.

One reason returning vets can be hard to cover because they are “a hard-to-find community” and state and local agencies are slow to get data from the federal Department for Veterans Affairs, and when they get it, it may not be accurate, said Erica Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and a nurse who was on the combat staff of Gen. David Petraeus.

That’s not the biggest problem with the federal agency, said Joe Franzese, coordinator of the “Warrior to Warrior” program of the Illinois National Guard and Health and Disability Advocates. “Due to the complexity of this bureaucratic system within the VA, a lot of veterans aren’t getting the care they need,” said Franzese, a Marine vet.

The typical way for journalists to do stories about people facing challenges is to ask government or non-profit agencies that serve them, but that won’t always work with veterans, or it might take more time than usual, said Amy Terpstra, associate director of the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center.

Some veterans’ service providers see journalists as “vultures” who take advantage of vets and perpetuate bad stereotypes, so reporters have to build trust, Terpstra said. “That relationship-building is really important.”

And as journalists covering the challenges that face many returning vets, they should also cover their successes, said Steve Wahle, an Afghanistan vet and a fellow with The Mission Continues, a veterans-service organization. He said coverage of new vets tends to be about post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Read more)

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