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Aug. 1, 2017, 10:16 a.m.
Reporting & Production

After blowing the lid off of the Marines United scandal, The War Horse wants to improve journalism on veterans and trauma

“I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been a development person for a newsroom. I’m a stubborn Marine grunt with a dream.”

The first piece of writing Thomas Brennan ever had published ran in The New York Times. It was a thank-you note to a combat photojournalist who had chronicled Brennan’s wounds in Afghanistan which ultimately contributed to him medically retiring from the Marine Corps with a Purple Heart.

The next few dozen pieces, running in the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina, were what Brennan considers clichés of military reporting: quick announcements about the casualties of soldiers overseas — including one for a Marine who was killed at the same base where he served — and profiles of veterans from World War II.

“I was…chasing after dying veterans to tell their story before they were gone forever,” Brennan said. “With today’s technology, we don’t need to wait until my generation is dying to tell our stories.”

So he set out to cover the military and veterans differently. He had written for the Times’ At War blog several times since the thank-you note and started pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. Before he knew it, the next major piece he reported was an explosive exposé about a multi-thousand-member Facebook group called Marines United and the nude photos of female service members exchanged in a scandal that roiled the ranks and had the commandant of the Marine Corps testifying about it to Congress. It was published this March by Reveal by the Center for Investigative Reporting, but also by Brennan’s one-year-old journalism outlet focusing on the enterprise, longform, and investigative sides of the military stories, The War Horse.

“I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been a development person for a newsroom. I’m a stubborn Marine grunt with a dream,” said the 31-year-old Brennan.

The dream of The War Horse consists of a few tentpoles: holding the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs accountable, bridging the divide between the military and civilians, and developing a community across that divide. Brennan emphasizes collaborating with more established news organizations on coverage about veterans, war, and trauma rather than competing, following the model of other single-topic sites like The Marshall Project.

“There are some military culture sites and military news sites that specifically tailor themselves to veterans…but they’re often putting veterans in one corner and the military in another corner,” Brennan said. “Accountability journalism, longform, and enterprise packages are not their bread and butter.”

There are a number of existing news outlets in the military space, some of which focus on breaking news, innovations, and wartime events. But a new tribe of feature-based news organizations has sprung up around the needs of newer generations of veterans. We’ve profiled a few at Nieman Lab: Task & Purpose grew out of a veterans-focused job site and now focuses on issues like benefits and transitions to civilian careers, as well as original feature reporting, including coverage of veterans protesting at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. War on the Rocks publishes content on national security, military lifestyle humor, and even op-eds from John McCain, Barack Obama, and 122 Republican members of the national security community (in an open letter regarding then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s suitability for the office).

According to The War Horse’s annual report, accountability journalism on military and veterans affairs comprises less than 5 percent of all news coverage. Brennan said that The War Horse is unique as a nonprofit newsroom investigating both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs. But they are determined to tell the complete story of veterans and military affairs, both including and beyond investigations.

“Being ‘just investigations’ sends a bad message. It pits us against them — our newsroom against the DOD and the VA. We want to publish the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Brennan said. “That sends a message of fairness and integrity of our reporting.”

It’s through these good, bad, and ugly avenues that The War Horse is trying to transcend the gaps across the government, active military, veterans, civilians, and even the journalism industry. “We’re not stories ‘by veterans, for veterans,'” he added. “We have plenty of veterans writing for us, but it goes back to bridging the military–civilian divide. It’s all part of helping make the conversation start.”

The War Horse launched with $53,300 from a Kickstarter fundraiser in early 2016 and continued to grow after its first story, a multimedia package on service members killed in action, was published that June. Over the next year, they have brought in enough donations and grants that The War Horse is working with a budget of more than $500,000 for the next 18 months. Brennan said about 75 percent of their revenue comes from large-gift philanthropy, such as the Schultz Family Foundation, the John Logan Family Foundation, and the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund. The remaining 25 percent comes from individual donors, including repeat donors from the Kickstarter. Gerry Lenfest, a veteran of the Navy and the founder of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, personally donated tens of thousands of dollars and has acted as a business mentor to the team, Brennan said.

So much support has poured in over the past few weeks that it surpassed the original budget of $250,000 they had planned on for next year. As a new nonprofit, they’re taking advantage of the overwhelming support to integrate sustainability from the outset: “We want to save 5 percent of our annual fundraising to put toward an endowment fund. It may take forever, but I want to make sure the War Horse can continue on in perpetuity,” Brennan said.

Currently staffed by only three people (editor Anna Hiatt, an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University where she taught Brennan in the master’s program; David Chrisinger as the director of writing seminars; and Brennan himself), the organization has an extensive volunteer network and paid freelancers both with and without military connections. Supporting their journalists who may be covering sensitive and controversial material is a top priority. “Marines United has taught Anna and I that we need to build a newsroom infrastructure that keeps our journalists safe. That’s not cheap,” Brennan said. “If we’re going to be publishing controversial things or if there’s negative online backlash, I want to build a newsroom that can stand behind our journalists and take care of them.”

Mental health in active military and veterans is a serious issue. It’s become a pillar of the protection Brennan pledges for both his journalists and the people that they interview. As a suicide-attempt survivor diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Brennan said he has faced “ignorant” questions from journalists who didn’t understand the impact their questioning could have.

“Even as a veteran, I’m curious about whether or not a veteran has killed someone or been in combat…But in the veteran space, it seems to be okay to hone in on the most traumatic [event when] reporting on our service,” Brennan said. The War Horse has an extensive policy for reporting on trauma listed on their website, both for transparency to potential interviewees and for guidance to other journalists. “The trauma standards are put there so we can be held to a standard, so people know what they’re getting into when they talk to us.”

But it was also journalists along the way, throughout his master’s program at Columbia in 2014-15, who helped him shape The War Horse into the single-topic, concentrated effort it has now become.

“The only thing that has made The War Horse so successful is that every journalist I’ve ever met who has told me, ‘Please let me know how I can help’ — I wasn’t afraid to take them up on that offer,” Brennan said. “The willingness to help has transcended the military–civilian divide.”

Now, The War Horse is continuing its push into telling the stories of recent-generation veterans. They recently launched a series called “Veterans Adding Value” supported by the Schultz Family Foundation to explore the transitions from military to civilian life. The first three profiles, all on female veterans, are meant to signal The War Horse’s journalistic depth beyond investigations such as Marines United.

The organization also recently launched a writing seminar series to encourage veterans to tell their own stories. The War Horse and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University hosted a coalition of military reporters, veteran advocates, educators, and 15 veterans of military operations after 9/11 for a five-day writing seminar in April. More seminars are planned at the University of California, Boulder Crest Retreat, and the Carey Institute for Global Good.

Brennan said The War Horse is always looking for more volunteers, connections, and collaborations. “Our proposition is that we’re not everybody else. But at the same time we want to be complementary, not competitive,” he said. “There’s more room for failure if you try to do everything on your own.”

Editor’s note: the combat photojournalist to whom Brennan wrote the thank-you note, Finbarr O’Reilly, was a Nieman Fellow in 2013. He hosted Brennan for a talk here that same year. (Shooting Ghosts, a book co-authored by Brennan and O’Reilly, comes out August 22.)

POSTED     Aug. 1, 2017, 10:16 a.m.
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