Known as America's highest military distinction, the Medal of Honor is awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. Only 77 recipients are alive today, and many will visit Knoxville in September for the 2014 Medal of Honor Convention.
It's a big story for Tennessee journalists, and thanks to assistant professor of journalism and electronic media Nick Geidner, UT will provide inside coverage through the Medal of Honor Project.
The online-based initiative Geidner created and students maintain aims to "create numerous pieces of media related to the Medal of Honor and its recipients," according to medalofhonorproject.org.
"It's really an organic project that's just growing out of what the students want to do," Geidner said.
Using print, video, photo and online journalism techniques, students plan to produce a documentary on the convention, as well as a documentary on the history of the Medal of Honor in Tennessee.
Taylor Hathorn, a senior in journalism and the managing editor of the project, said the importance of preserving military history through journalism cannot be emphasized enough.
"I want to make sure that people in my generation know the importance of the medal and what these men – and one woman – did for our country and its legacy," Hathorn said.
In September, Hathorn traveled to the 2013 Medal of Honor Convention in Gettysburg, Pa., with fellow journalism and electronic media students Jake Thompson, Kyle Knell and Jackie Delpilar. Along with Geidner and the School of Journalism and Electronic Media's video specialist Mike Wiseman, the students gathered footage and interviews with recipients, detailing their journey through blogs on the project website and generating social media buzz on the project's twitter.
"I have gained a stronger understanding of what the medal is and what I can do to help preserve the integrity and honor that it holds," Hathorn said. "Even if I'm just a tiny part in that – it means a ton."
For the professors, the meaningful project is also a highly educational one. Amber Roessner, an assistant professor in journalism and electronic media who has had some students contribute to the project, said she thinks experience interviewing sources will be key for students in the workplace.
"If they're sent to go cover the next Hurricane Katrina, they can handle that with a little bit more finesse than perhaps they would otherwise," Roessner said. "At least that's what I'm hoping for."
Geidner said he also hopes to create a documentary detailing the stories of the wives of Medal of Honor recipients. He mentioned the autobiography of Col. Leo K. Thorsness, one which details his Medal of Honor mission in Vietnam and subsequent experience as a prisoner of war but includes only brief mentions of his wife.
"For people like Leo Thorsness' wife, who was sitting at home while he was in the Hanoi Hilton for six and a half years ... we don't know what that experience was like," Geidner said.
The convention takes place Sept. 9-13, but the UT students working on the Medal of Honor Project will continue gathering stories throughout the spring semester.
Geidner said the effects of reporting untold news is clear to see.
"The coolest thing," Geidner said, "is I think sometimes they've realized that what they're doing is stuff that hasn't been done."