Grantee Military Veterans in Journalism Works to Increase Trust in Media

A steady, years-long, and fairly targeted campaign aimed at maligning the work of a free press, both within the United States and internationally, has yielded consequences. We have seen a significant deterioration of factually held societal common ground and, indeed, the very notion of representative democracy has been imperiled. But non-profit organization Military Veterans in Journalism, an HFPA grantee, is working to push back against some of the darker realities of these erosions, while also helping to place former service members in a variety of jobs within the media industry.

“This military-civilian divide, and the growing trend of those who have served in the military not trusting the news media, is a dangerous thing,” said Military Veterans in Journalism (or MVJ) co-founder Russell Midori in a recent phone conversation with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. “Some of that is exaggerated and not entirely true — that there’s a huge (or disproportionate) percentage of veterans who don’t trust the media, compared to the average population — but certainly veterans are an underreported segment of the news media. And in just the same way that groups like NABJ (the National Association of Black Journalists) and the Asian-American Journalism Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists saw representation as a key to accessing these pockets of resistance, I think that veterans are sort of the same thing. That’s why we look at veteran hiring as a diversity issue.”


While around seven percent of Americans have served in the armed forces in some capacity, only about two percent of media workers are military veterans, according to recent U.S. Census data. MVJ sees its mission and work as essentially win-win, increasing representation and helping to reinforce democracy. “The military, after small businesses, is still the most trusted institution in America,” said Midori. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, but the fact that veterans at some point stuck up their right hand and agreed to defend democracy at any price, including their life, they’ve in a lot of ways won the respect of people. Veterans have a special place. That needs to be nurtured because they have the potential to help to change some of these perceptions about the media.”

For Midori, who during his enlistment held the rank of sergeant and served as the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge of the Parris Island Public Affairs Office in South Carolina, his work is part of a calling that stretches back to childhood. “I’m sort of a rare member of our community in that I loved journalism first,” he said. “There are very tall walls in journalism. First of all, I was really poor. I didn’t have a lot of options as far as going to school. And I was a middling student when I was a kid. The Marine Corps was a way to go to college and also do a job that is journalism-adjacent. It helped me to develop my skills so that I’d be more useful. But I always wanted to be a journalist. When I was a kid I wanted to be shortstop for the Yankees or a journalist — those were the two best jobs I could imagine.”

If journalism was rooted in his imagination, the original seed of the idea for Military Veterans in Journalism, which was officially founded in May 2019, was planted in Midori’s own experiences, navigating some of those aforementioned barriers to professional entry. “When we started we weren’t trying to fix journalism, let’s put it that way. When we started MVJ it was to help veterans, and it was very natural,” said Midori. “I had gotten a really great job and was working all these great assignments for CBS News: Iraq, Korea, some conflict work, some general international storytelling. It was a really great job. Some of the people who I served with saw the work, and word got out: ‘Oh wow, Russell is this big journalist.’ Not that I was really that big, but people would reach out to me and try to get advice.”

Many of Midori’s friends and peers were transitioning out of the military and trying to figure out their next career steps. “So this happened informally for many years,” he continued, “and the truth was that I couldn’t help them very much for the most part, because the way I way got into journalism pretty much was that I took my credit card and traveled around the world and shot a bunch of stories. Nobody asked me to do so, and occasionally I would get paid for it, right? And also I occasionally (won) some really big awards that were able to elevate my career. But this was certainly not a replicable model or anything I would advise anyone to do.”

While his work as an international field producer wasn’t always directly applicable to every occupational query he received, Midori did meet a lot of other media professionals via personal networking and social events. It began with “me introducing journalists to veterans, and finding that the veterans I introduced people to made an impression on these journalists too,” said Midori. “They enjoyed working with them. They found that they were very professional, worldly, and educated people who were different than the stereotypical veterans they’d imagined. It started as a way to help veterans and, as it grew, we saw this period of decline of trust in news, and institutions in general. These things coinciding showed us that journalism needs veterans more than veterans need journalism. I mean, it’s great if 11 of your 15 interns have an Ivy League master’s degree. Surely they’re very intelligent people but that contributes to this perception of the media being elitist and out-of-touch. It’s damaging to their reputation — whereas veterans continue to enjoy a very strong reputation.”

To formalize its mission, MVJ has undertaken a broad array of measures. The organization holds online seminars and other career-enhancing events for professionals seeking to expand their skills portfolios. For those entering the field of journalism they have a variety of jobs programs, fellowships, and internships — including several where MVJ pays half of a fellow’s salary for six months so that news organizations grappling with budget cuts are incentivized to hire them.

“We’ve found ways to make those walls (and barriers to entry) a little bit shorter,” said self-described photojournalist at heart Midori, whose flexible schedule working for New York City’s WPIX allows him to devote more time to MVJ. “NPR (National Public Radio), for instance, has one of the most competitive internship programs in the country, where 25,000 people are fighting for 25 spots. One of those spots will always be a veteran now, because of MVJ,” he said. “That’s an example of how we softened the market and made it a bit easier for veterans to get in this field — instead of becoming a firefighter or a cop or some other job where their skills are, maybe, a little bit more appreciated.”

“But we’re not just all about trying to throw a bunch of veterans into the news media,” Midori continued. “We also have a very deep respect for what journalism is and think it is our obligation to train these veterans — to make sure that they understand the importance of the fourth estate, that they understand how to operate within it. We want to make sure that, when they hit these newsrooms, they’re rock stars and they know what they’re doing. As a result, we’ve really invested in training programs as well. Part of that is our mentorship program, which is our oldest, longest-running and most important program where we pair veterans with seasoned news reporters.”

Many mentees then go on to be hired to full-time positions, Midori notes. “Jake Tapper has a veteran on his staff who we put there,” he said. “Some of Jake Tapper’s reporting (on Ukraine) has been the most informed of anybody — he’s had veterans trained on U.S. policy to counter Russian aggression. His reporting has been very well-informed. It’s providing better service to CNN’s audience and reflective of how a veteran on staff can improve perspective.”

Whether or not they actively deploy, military service members typically travel more than those in many other fields. This lends itself to the misperception that veterans can contribute most meaningfully only to journalistic reporting intersecting with domestic military issues or international affairs. Midori indicates that’s not the case.

“We’re partnered with INN, the Institute for Non-Profit News, which has a real intention to help restore local news and is finding different models to do it,” said Midori. “There’s been a systematic decimation of local news in the United States. A lot of it is because of vulture capitalists who gut these newsrooms. That’s one of the things that contributes to the decline of trust in institutions because local news is humdrum. Like, here’s what happened at city hall today. But that stuff is important. There are fewer and fewer people each year covering local issues and explaining how the government can and does work for you — explaining to people why wearing a mask is a good thing for society, forced social cooperation, right? Journalism has two roles. One of them is to give voice to new and revolutionary ideas. Another is to encourage social cooperation, for people to work together off of (shared) information that allows them to be better-functioning citizens. Local news is critical to that. We’ve been expanding our reach with local news and partnering with various local and state news providers.”

Given what MVJ, which counts CNN among its other contributors, has already accomplished in three short years, there’s good reason to share in some of its optimism for the future. “Journalism is a field where you can serve your country — we look at it as a service to America and the world,” said Midori. “The instinct that our members have to serve is [real]. It may not be that you’re going to make a boatload of money, but you’re going to make a difference.”