The College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published an apology statement for its handling of the Global Eyewitness program in years past after multiple alumni raised concerns.
Global Eyewitness, a journalism project focused on sending CoJMC students around the world to tell international stories, regularly submits stories to the Hearst Journalism Awards, the highest prize in college journalism. Global Eyewitness has won those awards in previous years, including first place in 2017-18.
But, according to CoJMC Dean Shari Veil’s statement, alumni raised concerns about the program’s “western bias” and exploitation of the suffering of others, including victims of war, poverty and domestic violence. They reportedly expressed concerns about the safety of students on these trips and about the toll the trips might take on student’s mental health.
Alumni also raised concerns about the pressure of the program, which expected them to capture material for award-winning pieces in just three weeks.
“When students expressed concerns to faculty and college leadership about safety and mental distress from the experience, they felt unsupported,” the statement reads. “When they returned from the trips, no trauma-informed aftercare was provided to help them deal with the mental distress, and concerns raised with college and university administrators were often left unaddressed.”
Eight alumni were involved in the original call in November 2020 to Veil with their concerns, Veil said. Most of that group joined the task force and will continue to develop changes for the class moving forward.
While the statement recognized the value of the opportunities afforded to students by the program, it also recognized “lasting negative effects” for alumni, including guilt from the experiences and anger at the college.
“On behalf of the UNL CoJMC, I apologize to our Global Eyewitness alums,” Veil said in the statement. “We should have done better. We will do better.”
Efforts to improve the class have been ongoing for nearly a year, Veil said in an email, and several changes will be implemented for this year.
Students will now be better prepared for the experience, the statement reads, with training in how to report on different cultural backgrounds ethically. Mental health professionals will also be made available to students following the trip.
Bruce Thorson, a multimedia journalism professor who has helped to teach the class for years, is listed on a board to help make improvements to the course. Chris Graves, assistant professor of journalism, and Shoun Hill, a visiting professor of photojournalism, will teach the class and lead the next trip, planned for Kenya in May.
UNL professors have prior contacts with journalists in Kenya, Veil said in an email, which is part of why the nation was chosen for this year’s trip.
“I’m incredibly proud of our alumni for coming forward.” Veil said in an email. “They pushed us to look at the program holistically. We’re not just changing the content of a single course and how we engage in education abroad, we’re changing the curriculum for every student in our college. I am grateful for the time and energy our alums dedicated to making this change happen.”