Jonathan Katz accepts 2011 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism

Katz fans show their support for the journalism hero with lipstick.

AP reporter Jonathan Katz was honored Thursday evening with the 2011 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for his heroic efforts in communicating news of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to the rest of the world.

After an introduction by Medill’s Dean Levine and a short speech, Katz sat down with Medill’s Marcel Pacatte to talk Haiti, foreign correspondence, corruption and journalistic integrity.  As the conversation comprised an installment of Medill’s Gertrude and G.D. Crain Jr. Lecture Series, many students were in attendance, hoping for advice from a decorated pro.

Up on stage, where the lecture hall’s yellow-white lights shone brightest on the two figures sitting in leather and chrome chairs sharing a beer (provided by Pacatte), Katz related his experiences to an audience of about 100 people.

When Haiti’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, Katz was inside the large house that served him and his colleagues as a combined home and office.  Once the shaking stopped, he stumbled out in his underwear, clutching his computer, to discover a devastated city.  On top of being the first one to share news of the disaster with the outside world, he spent the next weeks and months reporting on the aftermath of the terrible earthquake and its effect on country and inhabitants.

Not only did Katz’s writing hold officials accountable for slow recovery, he exposed the terrible conditions of a United Nations camp that led to a deadly cholera outbreak.

Among his lessons learned in the field, especially during those frantic post-earthquake weeks, was to tell the widest variety of stories possible, and to report as deeply and thoroughly as possible.  Too often in journalism, Katz said, journalists approached a story with minds made up.

“I think the main thing is to go into every story not assuming that you know,” he said.  “If it’s worth actually doing a news story on, then there’s going to be something new.  If it’s new, it means you don’t know.”

In this age of pat journalism, where many stories cater to an audience that expects a predictable outcome, these words have a courageous ring.  But Katz said courage isn’t really something he thought about along the way.

“It’s an award for one of the worst experiences of my life,” he told me, “but it is an honor.”

His work was worthwhile, moreover, because of the outcome.

“It makes me happy that the work that we did got noticed, because what we were trying to do was tell the story,” he added.  “It was an opportunity to come here tonight and tell the story again.  I think that’s part of the function of these events.”

Carolyn Baer, deputy director for the Center for Global Health, echoed his words.

“I think the responsibility of an academic institution is to provide information and knowledge,” she said, adding that journalists deserve recognition for doing it every day.

Baer was instrumental in Northwestern’s – and indeed Chicago’s – medical relief efforts in Haiti.  Working with a major nongovernmental organization in Haiti as well as five other universities in Chicago, she helped organize rotating teams of physicians and nurses that volunteered their time for two-week stints in Haiti’s devastated capital, Port-au-Prince.  They also coordinated supplies for the teams to take with them, and created a depository for donations.

Over 400 people eventually volunteered, said Shannon Galvin, associate director of clinical research at the Center for Global Health.

“We were able to mobilize and pull together quickly a highly qualified and specialized team of medical personnel to provide that critical care that was necessary in a very short time period,” Baer said.  She reiterated that a university’s role was to help and inform, whether by providing doctors or awarding outstanding reporters.

Esther Kang, in Katz’s class at Medill in 2004, said the award was well-deserved and his work on Haiti excellent.

“I remember seeing his byline and feeling like the story was in good hands,” she said.

As for Katz, he seemed a bit taken aback by the whole thing, and very modest.

“I really appreciate it and I’m very humbled by it,” he said.

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