Q&A: The local and national impact of journalism by incoming Ph.D. student and U.S. Army veteran Daniel Johnson
by Barbara Wiedemann
Content warning: this story mentions suicide.
Recent alumnus Daniel Johnson ’22 (M.A.), an incoming Ph.D. student at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, published a story in Slate magazine on June 8 about broken links, inoperable phone numbers and out-of-date information he found on websites related to suicide prevention and mental health resources at military bases around the country.
Last month, U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes (CT) and a bipartisan group of colleagues proposed an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) related to the types of problems Johnson identified in his story. The amendment, which passed the House vote on July 14, will change the way every military installation in the country provides mental health information to members of the armed forces.
Johnson served as an infantry officer and journalist with the United States Army in Iraq. He is a Roy H. Park Fellow at UNC Hussman and a research affiliate at Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP). He is the author of #Inherent Resolve, a book on his unit’s experience in the war against ISIS.
I spoke with Johnson after the NDAA was advanced. The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in a military family. Was serving in the U.S. Army a career path you had in mind for some time?
JOHNSON: I was born in Italy where my father, who had served in the Gulf War, was stationed at the time. He’s retired now, but I remember him taking me to air shows and military events as a kid. My older sister, her husband and I all followed him into the military, so there is a pretty big military tradition in our family at this point.
I joined the N.C. National Guard in 2010 and went on active duty in 2014, training as an infantry officer and serving in public affairs at Fort Campbell in Kentucky after graduating from Appalachian State University in 2013.
I was deployed to Iraq from May of 2016 to January 2017 with Fort Campbell, Kentucky’s 101st Airborne Division. I volunteered to serve as a journalist for my unit in Iraq, which means that I’d take video, write stories and take photographs for the Department of Defense. They’d provide that material to news agencies around the world.
When I got back to the States, I worked in public affairs at Fort Campbell and in Tennessee; and in 2018–19, as a signal officer for the Department of Defense from South Korea. My final job in the military was working in the public affairs office of the United States Army Reserve Command at Fort Bragg here in North Carolina.
Your Slate story on June 8 opens with your own experience seeking mental health care upon your return from Iraq. Can you tell us more about that?
JOHNSON: I sought help after returning from deployment in Iraq. Some research shows that many bases are dealing with suicide rates that have more to do with interpersonal relationships, discipline issues and financial problems. Other research suggests systemic pressures play a role.
In 2017, the message on base was “If you need help, seek help.” However, when they found out I had done so, my supervisors told me I was not fit to be a leader. I was a lieutenant in Iraq and would’ve been on track to become a captain, so that basically ended my career growth.
What happened next?
JOHNSON: Well, my trust in leadership was shaken. I continued my treatment. Eventually, I was medically discharged from Fort Bragg here in North Carolina.
That was a crossroads for me.
I knew I wanted to teach at the collegiate level. My mom had done so at Methodist University and loved teaching. And I knew I wanted to learn more about journalism.
At Fort Bragg, I’d met UNC Hussman alumna Gloria Holt [a 2003 graduate]. She told me about the program here at Carolina. I read “Making News: One Hundred Years of Journalism & Mass Communication at Carolina” by Tom Bowers and researched UNC Hussman online. I decided to apply to the graduate program.
I was accepted into the Research and Theory track with the support of a Roy H. Park Fellowship in 2020, and just graduated with my master’s degree this spring. I helped Assistant Professor Erin Siegal McIntyre as part of that fellowship.
I’ll continue my studies as a Park Fellow Ph.D. student this fall. I’ll be working as Associate Professor Deen Freelon’s research assistant.
I know you’ve been doing some writing alongside your studies. How did that come about as an adjacent interest to your work in graduate school?
JOHNSON: As a research assistant at CITAP in 2021, I’d taken an Op-Ed Writing Workshop with Matthew Perry, who now writes for CNN. He taught us how to make strong arguments and pitch our articles to the press.
As a Teaching Assistant for “MEJO 153: Writing and Reporting” and “MEJO 553: Advanced Reporting,” I got to know Assistant Professor Erin Siegal McIntyre. She helped with suggestions about where and whom to pitch as well.
I pitched lots of opinion pieces to many media outlets. It took some time to get results.
I wrote about the divide between civilians and the military in July 2021 for Slate magazine, which is when I first heard from the office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. After a January 2022 story I did on the rate of military versus civilian suicide rates for the online publication Task & Purpose, a public affairs officer from the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs reached out to the school to get in touch with me about it and check on a fact, which I shared with my editor. We talked about what I’d written, and I continued writing for Task & Purpose, which has a broad military audience. I really enjoy writing for them, because they take on serious issues and aren’t afraid to ask for accountability.
In early February 2022, I wrote a Task & Purpose piece on how Reddit is filling gaps in how the military communicates about their mental health system. It was pretty widely read and made Apple News, and I heard from the Department of Defense again. I also heard from family members of military members who’d died by suicide and helped them get answers about their children.
The fact that parents and even the Pentagon’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs would respond to what I was researching and writing made me want to keep it up.
Now, my stories have been published in The Hill, Task & Purpose and Slate. I just published a piece in Task & Purpose yesterday entitled “Why nobody wants to join the Army this year” with fellow Ph.D. student Lieutenant Colonel James Machado. James and I are currently consulting with the U.S. Army on recruiting efforts.
In late February less than 24 hours after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, your story in Slate on information warfare around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started gaining a lot of attention. You ended up being interviewed by Kyra Phillips on ABC News and quoted by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, for example. Did you expect that kind of a response?
JOHNSON: Not at all. But that had something to do with timing. Timing is something the military taught me. And timing matters in communications. Headlines, pitches, news pegs: some pitches you have to sit on, some you can get ahead of. And that happened here.
I remember watching the news and social media the night before that story came out on February 24. I contacted Slate editor Torie Bosch and pitched a story on how we were witnessing this war digitally, unlike how we learned about for example, warfare in Vietnam or Iraq or Syria. She asked for a draft the next day, and I told her I had a strange feeling it should go out that day — and finished my draft so that it could.
My parents are both longtime readers of Mr. Friedman’s work, so I was particularly proud to have my work called out in his Feb. 25 column “We Have Never Been Here Before.”
In June, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (CT) and a bipartisan group of Representatives submitted an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Here’s something she said in a debate on the House floor: “Service members across the country and in my state who seek mental health care often encounter outdated resources or a lack of information on military websites.” On July 14, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to advance the NDAA for 2023. The Hayes Amendment to review and improve digital resources on behavioral health and suicide prevention for military members was included in the final text. Seeing that kind of change being called for must have been meaningful to you.
JOHNSON: It is so good to see that policymakers are taking note and are also attempting to fix the issue—fast.
As a veteran, I will keep advocating for service members.
The military wants to recruit America’s best and brightest. It makes sense that they would want to be providing them a good quality of life and taking care of them when they need health services, including mental health services.
How will the journalism you’re doing now affect the teaching you will do as a graduate student and after you earn your Ph.D.?
JOHNSON: I think the lessons I’ve learned so far could be useful to students, things like how to make an argument that could have an effect; how to decide which outlets to pitch; details about establishing a contract for your writing. These are practical experiences for me and would help my students further their careers.
In August of last year, I didn’t know any of those things. I had tried and failed to pitch opinion pieces. But the very last person that Professor McIntyre recommended, an editor at The Hill, accepted one of my stories.
So my advice to students would be to not limit yourself to just the big media outlets like The New York Times. Other outlets and their audiences may be just as important to your story. And to keep trying!