The April 6 symposium features speakers Jon Stewart and Bob Woodward.
The War Horse Symposium is set to take place on April 6.

CHICAGO – When David Chrisinger, the executive director of the Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, tasked two of his star students with analyzing the results from a survey of Americans with connections to the U.S. military, none of them expected it to result in a white paper that would attract attention from the top of the national security establishment. Nor did they imagine it would spur a day-long symposium at the University of Chicago with legendary journalists, world-class scholars, and senior government officials.

But that’s exactly what it did, much to the surprise and delight of Chrisinger, as well as Ellie Vorhaben, MPP’22, and Graham Harwood, MPP Class of 2023, his white paper co-authors.

Hosted by Harris Public Policy and The War Horse News, an award-winning non-profit newsroom, the symposium, to be held on April 6 at the Logan Center for the Arts, will explore themes from the white paper. Those themes include how military “news deserts” threaten national security, what it will take to bridge the troubling military-civilian divide, and the potential for good that lies at the intersection of solutions journalism and public policy.

The white paper, entitled “Engagement, Not Enragement: Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide and Bolstering National Security by Holding the Powerful to Account with More Rigorous, Solutions-Focused Journalism,” analyzes the findings of a 150-question War Horse reader survey that explored views of the coverage of military-related topics, what effect that coverage has, what readers appreciate, and what they don’t appreciate.

Ellie Vorhaben, MPP'22

“The findings of the survey were incredibly interesting, and you really began to understand how strongly people felt about a wide-range of veterans and military-related issues, particularly those that stem from insufficient media coverage,” said Vorhaben. 

“Studying the responses and perceptions of military media added a human element to national security. We are thrilled to have the distinguished speakers that this topic attracts and hope that the conference can further discussions on these critical issues," added Harwood.

Graham Harwood, MPP Class of 2023

With a day full of keynotes, fireside chats, panel discussions, and student-only sessions, the symposium will feature comedian and veterans advocate Jon Stewart; Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward; U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough; Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks; Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Captain Florent Groberg; and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michéle Flournoy.

“The participation of senior leaders from the DOD and VA alongside such influential journalists underscores the critical role that military reporting has on our national security and the health of our democracy,” said Thomas Brennan, executive director of The War Horse, the non-profit newsroom whose survey data supported the Harris team’s efforts. “I hope this event – and the white paper itself -- helps to shed light on how issues that may seem limited to veterans and military families in truth have major implications for all Americans.”

The effort began when Chrisinger, who also directs writing seminars at The War Horse, identified an opportunity for Vorhaben and Harwood to use the findings of the War Horse survey to write a story for the newsroom’s audience. As part of a fellowship for the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Brennan had surveyed War Horse readers and media related to military and veterans. Around 400 people responded, including high-ranking officials, military public affairs officers, journalists, and executive directors of national nonprofits.

David Chrisinger, executive director, Harris Writing Workshop

To get started, Vorhaben and Harwood reviewed the extensive data set from that survey and began to identify potential themes and stories. Then, Chrisinger and the two students locked themselves in a room, building outlines and discovering “interesting, almost cheeky, paradoxical findings of what people say they want and then what they get mad about,” Chrisinger said.

From their analysis, Chrisinger, Vorhaben, and Harwood crafted the white paper, which explores how as the number of journalists with direct military connections decline, there are fewer reporters who have an interest in or understanding of the military covering these stories. It also revealed that while trust in the military remains high, news media organizations are among the least trusted of America’s institutions.

Recognizing the importance of what the white paper revealed, Brennan began sharing it with policymakers including officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Department of Defense. Many took note, not only because it combined both analysis and narrative, but because it captured perspectives from a group of influential respondents who had never been surveyed in a group like this before. 

Next, The War Horse brainstormed how to disseminate the findings more widely, discussing possibly presenting at a conference, organizing a writing seminar, or hosting a series of discussions. Chrisinger and Brennan decided to approach former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, inspired by his advocacy on Capitol Hill on behalf of 9/11 first responders and veterans. His interest helped convince them to pursue the day-long symposium with a range of high-profile participants.

Central to the symposium is recognizing the need to not just tell a story, but to take action, as the two must complement each other to leverage change. “Harris trains students to look at things systemically and from a 30,000-foot view, but we also need people on the ground advocating,” said Chrisinger, who is well positioned to provide students like Vorhaben and Harwood the tools and frameworks to practice both. “The collaboration between Harris and The War Horse will not only support the mission of reimagining what military news can be but will also provide an important opportunity to talk about life experiences and strategies for change.”

Register for the event here.

About The War Horse

The War Horse is an award-winning nonprofit newsroom and the most trusted source for bulletproof reporting on the human impact of military service. Our team holds power to account, strengthens our democracy, and improves understanding of the true cost of military service.

About the Harris School of Public Policy

Steeped in the University of Chicago’s rich tradition of scholarship and innovation, the Harris School of Public Policy faculty and students bring an exacting, data-driven perspective to the full spectrum of policy concerns. It’s this approach to policy, rather than a particular domain, that has defined Harris since its founding in 1988, guiding us as we address today’s most complex challenges and nurture a new generation of leaders driven to make social impact.