The Medill Board of Advisers voted unanimously to rename the prestigious Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism in honor of alumnus James Foley. Foley was captured in Syria on Thanksgiving Day while reporting for the Global Post in 2012 and was killed by extremists on Aug. 19, 2014. The new name of the award is The James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.
Rolling Stone reporter Matthieu Aikins, who was awarded the medal in May, will speak at Medill on Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 4 p.m. Foley will also be honored at the event. Aikins will receive his award and speak about his experience reporting the “The A-Team Killings” in Afghanistan.
Aikins was selected in May by a team of faculty and Medill Board of Advisers judges for “The A-Team Killings,” his 2013 article that makes the case that a 12-man U.S. Army Special Forces team, along with an Afghan translator, committed war crimes in Wardak Province in Afghanistan. The crimes included killings, torture and kidnapping.
On Thursday, Nov. 20, at a Northwestern campus memorial for Foley, Medill alumnus and Board member Dick Stolley (BSJ52, MSJ53) announced that Foley will also receive the newly named Medal for Courage.
“James Foley’s bravery stands out,” said Richard Stolley, senior editorial advisor for Time Inc. and one of the award’s judges. “I think renaming this award in his honor will make it an even more distinguished award than it is now.”
Recipients of the award are chosen based on who best displays moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.
"Part of the reason we want to rename the medal in Jim's name is for his legacy to go on," said Professor Jack Doppelt, who taught Foley while he went through the graduate journalism program at Medill. "We can continue to remind people what somebody like Jim did for the rest of us by reporting in parts of the world that we don't go to."
Foley was born in Evanston and raised in New Hampshire. After graduating from Marquette University with a bachelor’s degree in history, he worked as a teacher and studied writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he received a master’s degree in fine arts. Foley was in his 30s when he decided to study journalism.
Doppelt said that Foley was different as a student from the beginning.
"He was older and he had a certain kind of passion to understand and appreciate people's lives before he became a journalist and came to Medill," Doppelt said, citing his time working for Teach for America and the Cook County Jail.
While in Medill’s graduate journalism program, Foley knew that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent and cover war, said Professor Ellen Shearer, co-director of the National Security Journalism Initiative and interim director of Medill’s Washington program.
“He was quiet, but his passion for foreign reporting was clear, and he worked hard at Medill to prepare himself,” Shearer wrote in a Washington Post piece following Foley’s death. “He and I talked about the risks going into dangerous areas as a freelancer, but it was clear that he was going to follow his passion.”
In 2011, Foley was captured in Libya and spent 44 days captive. Two weeks after he was released, he visited Medill to speak with students about the experience and how it changed him.
“There’s no going back from something like this,” Foley said at the 2011 event. “You can’t be at peace.”
The news of his murder in August 2014 was a shock, said Medill Dean Brad Hamm.
“Journalists face threats in many forms as they try to report difficult stories that need to be told, but the attack on Jim was barbaric,” Hamm said. “It was, in a larger sense, an attack on freedoms necessary in a civilized society and across strained cultures. Jim endures for us as a beacon reminding us of the risks implicit in shedding light where inhumanity can take hold.”
Aikins spent five months in Wardak province, interviewing dozens of victims, local officials, family members and witnesses. He also used information from confidential reports by the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Afghan government to corroborate his reporting and interviews.
Prior to Aikins’s story, allegations had remained unproven and an Army investigation went nowhere. Aikins believes investigators weren’t given adequate resources to prove the claims. After “The A-Team Killings” was publishing in November 2013, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for a thorough investigation.
The James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism is open to journalists from newspapers, television stations, online news operations, magazines and radio stations. The story subjects may be local, national or international in scope. The winner receives $5,000. Past winning stories have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and others.