The ceremony marked the first time the award had been presented since the board of advisers for the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications voted Nov. 24 to rename it to the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, said Dick Stolley, a member of Medill’s board of advisers.
“The awards we have given in the past have in almost every case been for physical courage, and most certainly in Jim’s case, his bravery stands out,” Stolley (Medill ’52, ’53) told the packed audience in the McCormick Foundation Center Forum. “But there was an ethical courage, too … He felt a compulsion to report the truth.”
Foley (Medill ‘08), who was captured nearly two years ago while reporting in Syria, was killed in August by the Islamic State group.
Aikins said during his acceptance speech that he ran into one of Foley’s good friends in Baghdad last week and asked her what the slain journalist would have thought about the medal.
“She thought that he would be, of course, deeply honored because Medill is a special place for him,” Aikins said. “But at the same time he would have felt uncomfortable with the notion that this was about him rather than the stories and the people that he cared so deeply about.”
Last month, Medill announced at a memorial service for Foley that the journalist would receive the award, which has been given by the school since 2003.
Aikins received the medal for his reporting for Rolling Stone magazine on the U.S. Army’s killing of 10 villagers in Afghanistan. Medill awarded him the medal in May. However, he was unable to travel to Evanston to accept the award at the time because he was reporting in Afghanistan, said Belinda Clarke (Communication ’91, Medill ’94), Medill’s director of alumni relations and engagement.
Aikins’ reporting for Rolling Stone exposed potential war crimes perpetrated by a team of U.S. Army Special Forces in Afghanistan. Out of all the dangerous situations he faced while reporting in Afghanistan, Aikins said he is most proud of the courage he displayed in taking the risk to “go against” the U.S. government in writing his story.
He said both he and Foley were familiar with the “thrill” of reporting in war zones. But he added that the most admirable courage Foley displayed was in his reporting.
“What redeemed you from being just another boy trying to be a man in a war zone were the stories you told because they were about people desperately in need of our empathy,” he said. “It’s important to remember our importance is derivative. It’s based on the stories we tell.”