Held by the Taliban’ journalist David Rohde awarded Medill Medal of Courage

Sarah Eberspacher

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David Rohde of The New York Times was awarded the Medill School of Journalism’s Medal for Courage in Journalism for his five-part article series, “Held by the Taliban.”

The Taliban kidnapped Rohde and Afghan journalist Tahir Luddin, along with an Afghan driver, on Nov. 10, 2008 in Afghanistan as they were en route to meet with a Taliban commander. After surviving seven months in captivity, Rohde and Luddin managed to escape to a Pakistani military base on June 20, 2009.

Upon his escape from the Taliban, Rohde wrote a series of articles about his experience, garnering this year’s Medal for Courage. Judges honor a journalist or team of journalists who show ethical, physical or moral courage while working on a story for an American-based media outlet.

The combination of unbelievable courage and wonderful narrative storytelling Rohde incorporated into his series set his submission apart from the other entries, said Medill Prof. Donna Leff, one of three judges for the Medal for Courage.

“He had the presence of mind once kidnapped to continue to be a reporter instead of just panicking or doing everything for survival,” she said. “When he escaped, he had a story to tell, and I think it’s a story that needs telling.”

The series reported on his time in captivity with the Taliban, but Rohde worked to create a more extensive story that would educate people about a complicated region as well, he said.

“I hope (the award) is a recognition that the series went beyond my experience and taught readers about the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “It wasn’t about just telling what happened to us; it was to use it as a window into a broader, more complicated story.”

Rohde plans to continue his career in journalism, but he will no longer be covering wars, he said.

“There was this most recent time, and I was detained in Bosnia for 10 days while covering a war there,” he said. “I’ve put enough of a burden on my wife and family already.”

While Rohde did not submit his series for consideration-his editor did-he said he was “thrilled and honored” to win. Receiving an award from Medill was special because of his connection to the school, he said.

Although he is not a Medill alumnus, Rohde attended the National High School Institute at Medill in 1984, typically referred to as the Cherub program, for precocious student journalists from across the country.

“I remember frantically whirring out stories on typewriters on deadline and being very afraid I was going to get some details wrong,” he said. “It was the first contact I had with professional journalism and I just fell in love.”

Rohde is planning to come to Evanston this fall to talk about his experiences. He is excited to return to the school that gave him his first taste of reporting, as well as the Medal for Courage, he said.”I never thought 26 years later I’d be receiving an award from a school that was so generous to me and played such a role in starting my career,” he said.

Last year the Medal for Courage was awarded to Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Joanna Connors. Medill alumna Roxana Saberi also received an honorary medal after she was charged with espionage and spent 100 days in Iran’s Evin Prison before being released.

Students in Medill should take Rohde’s story to heart, Leff said. Despite hearing from many journalists the craft is dying and is not a wise career path, articles like Rohde’s prove the opposite, Leff said.

“So often students are hearing the industry is bad and journalism is dead,” she said. “This year’s entries showed that is absolutely not true. From Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. there are people out there doing really amazing journalism.”