Jonathan Soder, Faith Co-Editor (Courtesy Photo/The Bison)
Three news and information students – Alyssa Sperazza, senior Anna Dellinger and junior Chelsea Weeks – visited Israel over J-term as participants in the debut Passages trip specifically for journalism students.
Dr. Joy Turner, director of global mobilization, received an invitation for students to apply just days before the deadline in October of 2017. She immediately contacted Prof. Holly Easttom, adviser of The Bison, who alerted several Bison staff members to the opportunity.
“The three students that went on this trip had to apply after being nominated by OBU faculty,” Turner said.
“They then had to go through a rigorous selection process, including being able to demonstrate their abilities in writing. They joined students from universities across the US from which only 32 students were selected.”
According to passagesisrael.org, the aim of the Passages organization is to “take Christian college students with leadership potential to Israel” so they can “experience the roots of their Biblical faith.”
This particular trip, dubbed the Dateline Jerusalem Reporting Seminar, was carried out by the Philos Project and the Museum of the Bible.
“A lot of the stuff that we did was we would go to Biblical sites, like the City of David, Sea of Galilee – places like that,” Weeks said.
“But then we had a lot of lectures from Jews and Palestinians, so it was a mixture of both political and Biblical. And then, since we were a specific group in relation to journalism, we had a lot of extra lectures from newspapers in Jerusalem, news reporting, wire companies – stuff like that. So, it was kind of a seminar, but also a vacation to see all the Holy Sites.”
Integrated into the experience, between the site visits and seminars, was the challenge for each student to find a story and sources and write the story before returning home.
“That was super hard because, first off, you’re in a new country. You don’t know anybody. You have a very broad history of the conflict and the actual land,” Weeks said.
“So, for me, it was very overwhelming. But it taught me a lot about news gathering and the different ways to news gather. Because, ever since I’ve worked for The Bison, in the news it’s been check the calendar, ask a couple [of] deans what’s new in their schools, and things like that. This was completely different.”
Sperazza, who graduated in December and is now interning at the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., aims to eventually become a foreign correspondent stationed in the Middle East. For her, this exercise was an introduction to the people she hopes to engage with in her career.
“I co-wrote an article for The Federalist while in Israel and we featured a woman who lives on the border of Gaza. Her children don’t know what it’s like to live in a city where there’s not a chance of a bomb threat. That blew my mind when I realized these kids have spent more time in a bomb shelter than anywhere else,” Sperazza said.
“It was a heartbreaking and really difficult realization but I’m using it as fuel. If we can make people the focal point and not the destruction or the politics, maybe we’ll be quicker to help and call for peace.”
Dellinger hopes similarly to take her journalism career overseas, though Israel is not high on the list. However, the emphasis on international journalism in general opened her eyes to the ease with which news can be falsified.
“It impacted me quite a bit just in realizing the great amount of bias in media and how much people can misconstrue what’s actually happening,” Dellinger said.
“They kept telling us – while we were there we got to meet with several journalists, a news organization and a watchdog organization – ‘You don’t know the truth unless you’re on the ground,’ and it’s really true. A lot of news portrays Israel as a big bad wolf almost, always at war. So, a lot of times people will just read headlines and not go any further into the story. And, since the headlines are meant to sensationalize, a lot of people don’t get the full truth and don’t even necessarily care to.”
While at a Friday-evening Shabbat dinner, Weeks was directly faced with the public distrust that has been brought upon journalists because of the sensationalism Dellinger described.
“There was this one guy there named Benjy, and he was a Jew. And he challenged me with journalism,” Weeks said.
“He was like, ‘No matter what, you’re always going to be biased’ – not saying that it’s a corrupt profession, but kind of saying it. So, I had to defend journalism, and I had to defend what I’ve been studying for the past two years. It was so interesting to have to take what I’ve learned through all of my classes and apply them to this conversation. And it wasn’t just the journalism classes I’ve taken. I even had to take stuff from CIV and use them in this conversation and a lot of other things.”
Benjy didn’t stop with journalism, but also challenged Weeks about her faith.
“So, I had to defend my faith and my profession in a conversation that I wasn’t prepared for. That really made me think long and hard about journalism and my faith.”
As Dellinger indicated, even journalists recognize the corruption within their own craft. Apart from faithful Christian journalists, Dellinger says there is hope in watchdog organizations, such as HonestReporting, who actively search out and condemn biased news.
“I’m not necessarily a huge watchdog activist,” Dellinger said. “But, these organizations really hold journalists accountable, and I think that’s really important.”
For each young woman, this trip offered separate revelations. Sperazza saw the reality of journalism’s imperfections in a new light.
“It just was a reminder that the world is a big, messy place but everyone has a story worth hearing,” Sperazza said. “The trip did highlight how much journalism and media is failing in its coverage of the Middle East. It was incredibly eye-opening how things are spun and words are twisted just to sell a few more papers. While that’s discouraging, it just shows how much work there is to do.”
Dellinger experienced a moment of self-realization.
“I’ll never know all there is to know,” Dellinger said. “I didn’t think I knew much about Israel, and I didn’t. I was right. But I thought I knew some about Jewish traditions, or some about the Old Testament, but seeing it in context was incredible.”
And Weeks, despite participating mainly for career preparation, was strengthened in her faith after a trip to the Sea of Galilee.
“I truly wept. For the first time I can say I wept because I realized how tired I was of doing everything on my own. It really opened my heart. I’m not gonna say I walked away from that 100 percent healed and me and Jesus are BFFs. I wish I could, but it definitely helped me realize that I don’t have to do it alone, and that he is going to supply me with everything I need. I just have to trust him.”
As of yet, director of global mobilization Dr. Joy Turner has not heard of any plans for a similar trip during January of 2019. However, she remains hopeful that Passages will indeed conduct it again.
“International travel is important as it broadens our worldview and experiences,” Turner said. “Since this trip was specifically related to journalism, it has given our students the opportunity to apply what they are learning at OBU in an international context.”