Advanced Reporting: Media Criticism (Spring 2017)

It’s an extraordinary yet perilous moment for the press. On his first full day as President of the United States, Donald Trump declared being at “war” with the media.

Of course, tensions inevitably rise between politicians and journalists, the government and the White House press corps. That’s how the relationship works in a functioning democracy. But Trump’s continued vilification and attempted delegitimization of the news media, on display throughout his divisive presidential run, has been unprecedented in American politics.

Trump’s media “war” ties directly into this course, which examines power and the press. In the first several weeks, we will examine journalists’ roles and responsibilities in covering elections, national security leaks, war, and the White House. From the campaign bus to the White House briefing room, reporters are expected to vet candidates and hold elected leaders accountable. And while journalists often succeed in uncovering truth and shedding light on policymakers’ decisions, they have also failed by promoting misinformation and succumbing to groupthink—and should be held accountable themselves. We’ll next look at the relationship between the media and other power centers in culture and business, including Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the multi-billion dollar sports industry.

The news media is under fire (and under the microscope) like never before. Beyond the president’s attacks, public distrust has been rising along with the spread of propaganda and disinformation, often dubbed “fake news,” across social media. And everyone from politicians and celebrities, CEO’s to football stars, are trying to bypass journalists — and potentially, scrutiny — by speaking directly to the public through social media. We’ll examine these factors now contributing to uncertainty today regarding the future of the press, an essential, albeit flawed, pillar of American democracy.

Writing:  As the Trump administration begins, students will write an 800- to 1,000-word profile of a political journalist. Students should include relevant and interesting biographical details about the journalist, while also tackling broader themes, such as the relationship between the press and the White House or the role of new technology and social media in their jobs.

Students should select a journalist who can reflect on the tumultuous 2016 election and who’ll be  covering the White House as a significant part of his or her job in 2017. Students are expected to interview the journalist in person or by phone and display a strong familiarity with their work for this first paper. Students will post their completed profiles on Medium in a class collection.

For the second half of the course, students will focus on how the media covers a specific issue, with each topic requiring approval from the professor. For instance, previous students in this course have analyzed media coverage of campus sexual assault, Black Lives Matter, the war in Afghanistan, marijuana legalization, and the business of baseball. Students should follow journalists and experts on their chosen beat on Twitter and engage on social media.

First, students will publish a 500- to 1000-word piece pegged to their chosen issue that features a news hook, engaging interview or data element that readers will ideally share through social media. This reporting can be incorporated into the final paper. Students are encouraged to post their stories on Medium.

The final, capstone paper will be a 3,000-word reported piece in which students critique how their chosen issue is covered in the media. For instance, students may assess how a single news organization or journalists has covered the issue or compare how several outlets with differing agendas have done so. The final paper must include a significant amount of original reporting, along with the student’s analysis. We will discuss expected number of sources later in the semester. The topic must be approved in advance by the professor.

Throughout the semester, students may be called to write short response pieces that will be factored into their class participation grades.

Reading: The following three books are required:

Michael Massing: Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq

David Foster Wallace: McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope

C.W. Anderson, Leonard Downie, Michael Schudson: The News Media: What Everyone Needs To Know

Most of the course reading will be magazine articles and studies available online. Additional readings may be assigned at any time to bring a current journalism controversy.

Students must come prepared to discuss the assigned reading and question guest speakers.

It’s also recommended that students subscribe to both Politico’s “Morning Media” newsletter and CNN’s “Reliable Sources” nightly newsletter to stay abreast of ongoing media issues.

Late Assignments: This is a journalism course and so meeting deadlines is key. If an assignment is due on a day of class, the deadline is 6:20 p.m., the start of class. Students should submit stories to the professor through Google Docs.

Students will drop one grade (say, A to A- or B+ to B) if an assignment is turned in late. If the assignment is turned in more than 24 hours late, the student will lose two grades. No papers will be accepted more than 48 hours after deadline.

Grading: Class participation and attendance: 35% First paper: 20% Medium post on final paper topic: 15% Final paper: 30% Grade scale: A (96-100) A- (90-95) B+ (87-89) B (85-87) B- (80-84) C+ (77-79) C (75-77) C- (70-74) D (68-69) F (67 and below)

Ethics: Plagiarism and fabrication is not tolerated and will result in failure for the course.

Attendance: Since class meets only once a week, two unexcused absences will hurt final grades. Students with four or more unexcused absences will not pass the class. Students need to present a doctor’s note describing the specific reason for missing class for an absence to even be considered excused. Given that this is a small, discussion-heavy class, attendance and participation will weigh heavily into final grades.

Laptops/ Cell Phones: Laptops may be used in class, though the professor reserves the right to ask they not be used at certain times. Please keep cell phones off during class.

Weekly Schedule:

Jan 26: Introduction and Trump’s relationship with the press

READING: Paul Farhi: “Dear readers: Please stop calling us ‘the media.’ There is no such thing.” (The Washington Post); Calderone: “A Donald Trump Presidency Presents A Grave Threat To The Press” (The Huffington Post); Margaret Sullivan: “The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it.” (The Washington Post).

Feb. 2: Campaigns

READING: Joan Didion: “Insider Baseball” (New York Review of Books); “How Young Reporters Can Help Revitalize Political Journalism In The Trump Era” (The Huffington Post).

WRITING: Bring in a list of possible profile subjects.

SCREENING: D.A. Pennebaker: The War Room;  Embeds

Feb. 9: Campaigns II

READING: David Foster Wallace: McCain’s Promise

Feb. 16: The White House

READING: Ken Auletta: “Fortress Bush” (The New Yorker); Susan Milligan: “The president and the press” (Columbia Journalism Review) [Will also discuss McCain’s Promise, given class cancelled on Feb. 9]

SPEAKER: Sopan Deb, New York Times culture reporter who covered Trump’s campaign as an embedded journalist for CBS News.

WRITING: First draft due by 6:20 p.m.

Feb. 23:  Iraq

READING: Michael Massing: Now They Tell Us (through pg. 66)

SCREENING: Bill Moyers: Buying The War

March 2: Megaleaks

READING: “Alan Rusbridger: “The Snowden Leaks and the Public” (New York Review of Books); Eric Lipton, David Sanger, Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.” (New York Times); Calderone: “The New York Times Defends Covering Hacked Democratic Emails, Even If It Helped Russia” (The Huffington Post).

SPEAKER: Jonathan Peters, University of Kansas professor, Columbia Journalism Review’s press freedom correspondent, and author of forthcoming study of the media’s coverage of the Russia hacks.

WRITING: Political profile due by email at 6 p.m. on March 2 by 6 p.m. (Please publish on Medium after the professor returns with additional comments). Also, discuss capstone paper ideas.

March 9: Wall Street

READING: Dean Starkman: “The Great Story” (Columbia Journalism Review).

SPEAKER: Max Abelson, Bloomberg News reporter and Businessweek writer.

WRITING: Discuss progress for capstone paper and short piece.

SCREENING: Page One: Inside The New York Times

SPRING RECESS (No class March 16)

March 23: The New York Times

READING: Sydney Ember: “New York Times Study Calls for Rapid Change in Newsroom” (New York Times); Anderson, Downie, Schudson: pgs 60-90.

SPEAKER: Liz Spayd, public editor of the New York Times and former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

NOTE: Meet in the lobby of the Times Building (620 Eighth Avenue) at 6:20 p.m. After meeting with Liz Spayd, we can get food nearby and discuss progress on capstone papers. File draft of Medium post to professor by start of class.

March 30: Editorial meeting

READING: Anderson, Downie, Schudson: pgs 90-119.

WRITING: File draft of short piece to professor by start of class on March 30 and bring in a hard copy for class for discussion. File final version, for grade, to professor by April 3 at 6:20 p.m. Students will each discuss short pieces and reporting plan for final paper in class.

April 6: Celebrity

READING: Anne Helen Peterson: “The Down And Dirty History Of TMZ” (BuzzFeed); Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: “Rihanna #777Tour Wrap-Up: Junkets and Journalism are Worthless: All Hail Instagram” (Spin); David Margolick: “Nick Denton, Peter Thiel, And The Plot to Murder Gawker” (Vanity Fair); Amanda Hess: “‘Missing Richard Simmons,’ the Morally Suspect Podcast” (New York Times).

RECOMMEND: First episode or “Missing Richard Simmons”: “Where’s Richard?”

WRITING: Discuss capstone project progress

April 13: Sports

READING:  Gabriel Sherman: “Gawker Ex-Editor A.J. Daulerio: The Worldwide Leader in Sextapes” (GQ); Richard Sandomir: Athletes Finding Their Voice in Derek Jeter’s Digital Venture” (New York Times); Richard Deitsch: “Would you pay for 24/7 live streaming of your favorite athlete?” (Sports Illustrated).

SPEAKER: Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated media columnist.

WRITING: Please bring a lead for your final paper, roughly 500-1000 words, to class.

April 20: Cable news

READING: Gabriel Sherman: “The Revenge of Roger’s Angels” (New York)

WRITING: 1,000-2,000 words.

April 27: Silicon Valley/Future of Media

READING: Adrienne LaFrance: “Access, Accountability Reporting and Silicon Valley” (Nieman Reports); Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix It’s Own Worst Bug?” (New York Times Magazine). Recommended reading: Anderson, Downie, Schudson: pgs 120-165.

May 4: Wrap-up

PRESENTATIONS: Each student will present on their capstone paper.

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