Journalism can seem like a difficult field to break into as a veteran, but it’s also one that matches up well with the skills required to succeed in the military.
Military Veterans in Journalism announced its list of the 2020 top veterans in journalism on Jan. 1, and those recognized represent a wide variety of military and journalistic specialties.
From communications to special operations, photojournalism to documentary series, these veterans demonstrate the value of military experience in journalism.
“Veterans have a unique perspective on how the community and government interface,” said John Seward, a spokesman for MVJ’s awards and outreach. “There aren’t a ton of industries where the paycheck that you’re getting is directly supported by the people that you’re doing it for.”
If veterans can find ways to overcome knowledge gaps about how newsrooms operate and build a strong portfolio, their determination and unique perspectives can make them invaluable assets, Seward said.
Knowledge gaps and difficult hiring processes are exactly the types of obstacles MVJ hopes to help veterans overcome by providing fellowships, educational events, and virtual newsroom tours.
Military Times spoke with award recipient Sara Sneath about her experience transitioning into journalism from the military.
“It always bothered me in the military that you really can’t ask a lot of questions,” Sneath said. “… journalism felt like a natural thing, because then I could ask anyone anything I want to.”
Sneath enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school as an aviation electrician and extended her five-year contract by five months to serve as an embassy security guard. Following the Marine Corps, she studied journalism at the University of Kansas, where she became interested in the environment.
After reporting for newspapers in Texas and New Orleans, Sneath went freelance, finding and pitching her own stories to relevant outlets.
“I think it’s a great path if you have a body of work built up,” Sneath said about freelancing, warning that it can be difficult to pitch stories without evidence of previous successes.
Her experience with the “hurry-up-and-wait” of the military was fitting preparation for badgering sources and dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles journalists encounter.
“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” Sneath said. “Don’t expect people to answer your calls the first time… leave room for multiple times to contact them.”
But Sneath wouldn’t have been named one of the top veterans in journalism if she didn’t enjoy a challenge. Her work has brought her trudging through swamps and knocking on door after door. She’s even found ways to be paid for writing about her 100-mile bike rides.
The story that earned her spot on MVJ’s list required hours of reading through and hand-copying public records under the supervision of a U.S. marshal and extensive data analysis without the support of an outlet behind her.
Her No. 1 tip for aspiring veteran journalists? Don’t be discouraged. Focus on the step ahead, whether it’s applying for a good school, writing the next story, or getting an internship.
The GI Bill and organizations like MVJ are there to assist.
“It’s so hard to get into journalism. A lot of people in there grew up with more money and doing the free internships,” she said. “That’s why I’m so happy to see [MVJ] exist.”
The 2020 Top Veterans in Journalism
• Kelly Kennedy – A freelance journalist and combat veteran, Kennedy has authored books, embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and been published by the New York Times. The story that won her a spot on the list explored conversations about military infertility.
• Tawnell Hobbs – Hobbs, a senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal and former Air Force operations resource management specialist, was recognized for her work investigating the effects of pandemic shutdowns on already disadvantaged students in Mississippi’s Jackson Public Schools District.
• Kaj Larsen – Known for his work with Vice News and CNN and reporting on enhanced interrogation techniques, this former Navy SEAL was awarded for his role as creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “The Business of Drugs.”
• Chris Jones – After serving as a Marine infantryman in Afghanistan, Jones’s freelance photojournalism appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today. As a member of Report for America, Jones now covers white supremacy and disinformation in Appalachia, including his winning piece on election threats in West Virginia.
• Tony Mobley – Mobley is a Navy veteran whose photojournalism has taken a focus on protests and documentary images. He has also covered concerts and events, with work featured in Vogue and Buzzfeed.
• JP Lawrence – As a reporter for Stars and Stripes, Lawrence covered the continued threat from ISIS as the group made efforts to recruit members of the Taliban. Lawrence is an Army veteran and has reported for numerous outlets including the Associated Press and Vice.
• Kevin Sullivan – Episode 35 of Sullivan’s Twenty One Gun Podcast featured Iraqi spy Hamody Jasim, who the podcast describes as “one of America’s greatest weapons in fighting the war against Al Qaeda and ISIS.” Sullivan served as an Air Force C-130 navigator from 2003-2007.
• Andrew Dyer – Reporting for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Dyer was recognized for an investigation into racism and conspiracy theories in a Facebook group of more than 20,000 members organized to defend their county against Black Lives Matter protests. Dyer is a ten-year Navy veteran.
• Sara Sneath – After separating from the Marine Corps, Sneath became an environmental journalist, covering stories in Texas and Louisiana. Her award-winning piece investigated the risks posed to communities by chemical plants after the many storms that battered the state this year.
• Stephanie Ramos – Ramos is a press affairs officer in the Army Reserve and a news anchor for ABC News. She was recognized for her reporting on surging coronavirus cases in Wisconsin.
Military Times managing editor Howard Altman participated in determining top veteran journalists for the Military Veterans in Journalism.
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.