Kathy Gannon is from a small Canadian mining town where, she recalls, the moose sometimes outnumbered the people. It was in this small town that she first began her career as a reporter, writing about school board meetings, traffic courts and local events.
“I couldn’t have been happier than if I’d won the lottery,” Gannon said on Friday morning, as she accepted the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism award. “I had the best job in the world. My big goal was to cover the town hall.”
Gannon’s career would take her far from that small mining town. At the age of 61, after spending close to three decades in Afghanistan, she was almost killed while reporting for the Associated Press during the country’s presidential elections in April 2014.
Gannon was shot six times, and her fellow AP photographer and friend Anja Niedringhaus died on the scene.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Gannon said. “There was a 40 minute drive to the hospital, my hand was severed and there was a lot of blood.”
More than a year later, Gannon is committed to eventually returning to Afghanistan and continuing her work as AP’s regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In her acceptance speech, Gannon emphasized the role of journalists and reporters, across all mediums, to tell the stories of the people they speak to and who are affected by wars and policies far beyond their reach.
“Our job is to inform. It comes with a price,” she said in her speech. “That price isn’t about only about facing danger, it’s also about choosing to dig deeper, ask the tough questions, researching and understanding our subject. It is about refusing to be intimidated and having the courage to step away from the good versus evil precipice that has impacted how stories and conflicts are covered.”
Gannon was accepting the award for the courage shown in her work, but she noted that it is often journalists’ families who must also show strength and courage in the face of danger.
Addressing Foley’s mother, Diane, and father, John, who were in attendance, she applauded their courage for coping with his death and continuing his legacy through their initiatives at the James Foley Legacy Foundation. The foundation advocates for the protection of freelance writers in conflict zones, and for Americans who are held hostage or kidnapped abroad. The foundation also focuses on improving youth education in the United States.
When the U.S. announced last week that they had targeted and possibly killed “Jihadi John,” the militant who was responsible for Foley’s death, Diane and John Foley chose to focus on continuing the good work that their son had done while he was alive. Gannon herself was wearing a bright yellow “Run for Jim” t-shirt from the Foley Foundation’s inaugural 5k which took place last month.
Gannon spoke about her efforts to distance herself from the American military while reporting from Kabul. She recalled that when she and her colleague wanted to embed with an all Afghan unit in the army, the soldiers were surprised.
“After two weeks, we told stories of an under-trained, poorly equipped army that was ill-prepared to take on their country’s security on their own.”
That narrative would have been lost had she decided to embed with an American unit.
“While [the Afghans] were honest about their shortcomings, the US trainers and government officials dismissed the complaints as Afghan griping,” Gannon said. “We did the story at a time when the US and coalition narrative was about the money being invested and the goal of getting 350,000 Afghan boots on the ground and the success of getting there.”
The inexperience that led to the Afghanis losing their lives, she said, was being passed off as their own incompetence instead of as a result of the inadequate resources available to them.
Gannon reiterated that governments and politicians try to control the narratives surrounding sensitive issues. “The conversation about the why of their incompetence is murky, with important questions about the quality of their training not being asked,” she said.
In a Q&A following her speech, she addressed the topic again by giving the example of the Syrian refugee crises. “Suddenly the refugee story was lost to, ‘Who’s stronger, Obama or Putin?’ Who cares?” Gannon said.
“That was a narrative started among the politicians, the candidates in the election. And as reporters, instead of saying, here’s what the story is, important questions that should have been asked ages ago, we weren’t asking because of the narrative that was established and began in the world’s capitals instead of the countries and the issues and people in those places.”
Students in the audience asked Gannon for advice on reporting internationally after graduation, and she was blunt in saying that she didn’t think new graduates should go overseas.
“You have to be a good reporter, it doesn’t matter if you’re here or in Afghanistan or Iraq,” she said. “Going overseas, what makes you think you’re qualified? In a way it’s a little bit insulting to the people of Iraq because their stories are complicated and it’s a difficult story to get at. You do respect for people by showing them that you’re going in as an experienced person.”
For Gannon personally, that meant getting to know her own country, Canada, before going abroad. “I didn’t feel qualified to write about anyone else’s country when I hadn’t invested the time to know my own,” she said.
Gannon said she wants to go back to Afghanistan, to the very city where she was attacked for two reasons-first to thank the doctor who saved her life, and second becuase there are still important stories she wants to tell from the region.
“We are chroniclers of history and how well we do that job is reflected in the accuracy of history,” she said. “And as a student of history, I am not so sure that Jim [Foley] would be impressed with how well we’ve been doing our job.”